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Review: A month with Sony's Vaio P

+ Very small and light, but still has a great keyboard
+ 1600x768 display
+ Fanless and completely silent
+ Stunning looks
+ 3G networking and GPS built-in

- You'll need to upgrade to Windows XP or Windows 7 to get the most out of it.
- 200 dpi display means text is tiny
- Expensive, and so are accessories
- Intel GMA 500 video drivers badly need updating
- Disabled SIM card slot

It is beautiful, an engineering marvel. It is fanless, silent and slim. For anyone who's ever hated carrying a briefcase—or wanted a computer that goes well with Gaultier—the Vaio P is the ne plus ultra of ultraportable computers.

For the rest, it's a $900 laptop that can barely keep up with netbooks half its price.

Sadly hobbled by Windows Vista's bloat, only those with undemanding performance requirements will enjoy it straight out of the box. Install XP or Windows 7, however, and its promise becomes more apparent.

About as small as a laptop can be while retaining a decent keyboard, the P is 9.7" x 4.7" x 0.8" and weighs just 1.4 pounds. It has a high-definition 8" LED-backlit display, 2GB of RAM, 3G internet, WiFi and GPS. The base model has a 60GB hard drive, with optional SSD upgrades. That keyboard is nearly full-size, and in the chiclet style long used by Sony and Apple, recently adopted by cheaper brands.

It has a GoBi radio, which means in principle that it can get 3G data from both Evdo and HSDPA networks. In the U.S., however, it is exclusive to Verizon. U.S. units also lack the faster processors available in Europe and Japan (you can buy imports from Dynamism) but gain integrated GPS, a feature not found abroad.

It's a nice package, for sure, but it uses a slower version of Intel's Atom chip, the Z520, which leaves it huffing and puffing to keep up with cheaper alternatives like the HP Mini.

vaiopkeyboard.jpgBattery life is also poor: you'll get a little over 2 hours on balanced settings. The long-life battery doubles that, but makes the P about a third of an inch thicker. Small type on the 200dpi display can be hard on the eyes. The track-nub is surprisingly good — there was simply no space for a trackpad — but some people find it irritating and difficult to use.

More disappointing was poor video and gaming performance, even accounting for the low specifications. This is almost certainly a software issue: Intel and Sony need to step up and provide better drivers for the P's GMA 500 video chip. While it looks gorgeous, the plastic finish is fingerprint-friendly and it doesn't feel very durable.

It's hard to talk about the Vaio P without talking about its ads. After announcing it at CES to the technology tribes, Sony turned its marketing attention to professional women, deploying a bizarre campaign centered around robot fashion mannequins who wandered Manhattan making geolocated Facebook updates.

At a party at the company's Madison Avenue flagship store, I got to observe the mannequins do their thing--stand very still, looking pretty, holding Vaio Ps out for the fashion press to nervously inspect.

It's art, and I kind of liked it, but it makes one wonder just how much it would have cost Sony to make sure OpenGL worked better.

Whoever Sony wants to sell it to, here's who I think will like it: portability junkies who find netbooks too cumbersome, but who still want a usable keyboard. If the idea of that appeals to you — and you're prepared to pay for it — go for it. If you're even slightly ambivalent, however, wait until Windows 7 is out so you can avoid the hours of tinkering that the Vaio P demands to get the most from it.

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