Review: Sony Vaio VGN-P31ZK

 
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Published: February 10, 2010 11:00 PM
By Fabien Pionneau
Before getting involved with netbooks, Sony tried them out with an earlier member of the Vaio P running Windows XP.  With its unusual form factor, disappointing performance and off-putting price tag, it didn't find much favour with the public, despite being very light and introducing some exciting innovations. 

The good news is that the Vaio P is back, with Windows 7 this time, and some more powerful components.  Let's hope it can help us forget about the first time around the block.

Handling, design and build: silent and with a quality finish

This newcomer won't do anything to harm Sony's reputation: it's a genuine pocket PC and very well-designed.  The Vaio P is a beautiful object that immediately aroused our curiosity: around half the size and weight of a netbook, it has a striking red exterior case and scren bezel.  All of the parts fit together well and it definitely feels like a luxury laptop.

Sony Vaio P keyboard
No, we haven't cropped the photo: the kaboard takes up all of the space

The keyboard has chicket-style keys, with small (13.5 x 12 mm) flat keys like those on the Vaio V12.  Typing on the soft keys is a pleasant experience and they bounce back well.  The small keys won't necessarily suit people with very large fingers, though, especially because you can't rest your hands on the front of the computer: the keyboard takes up all of the available room.

A trackpoint replaces the touchpad we'd expect on a laptop, leaving only a small rubber dimple in the centre of the keyboard.  It's accurate, but it takes a little getting used to if you're more familiar with large trackpads or even a mouse.  It's a feature on a lot of professional laptops, and is familiar to many from IBM's ThinkPad range, subsequently bought by Lenovo.  The left and right click buttons are responsive and not too loud.

Sony Vaio P webcamThe webcam produces reasonable video: it's fluid, but lacks detail.  For once, overexposed areas aren't burned out and contrast is respected.

The laptop is almost entirely silent, the only noise coming from the hard drive as there's no cooling system involved.  Heat escapes naturally from the outside of the machine.  It's a shame Sony didn't include SSD storage instead, which would have made the computer entirely silent, as well as resistant to shocks and more powerful.

Because of the limited space around the edge of this netbook, there aren't many connectivity options.  There's still two USB ports and a headphone jack, as well as special proprietary link for an extension module that you can plug in and use to hook up RJ45 and VGA cables.  That's a handy pairing: when you get back to your desk, you can plug your Vaio P into an external monitor and connect it to the network.

Underneath, the only removable element is the battery, which is good news.  To get access everything else, you need to completely take it apart, which we advise against.


Sony Vaio P Sony Vaio P trackpoint
USB 2.0 and VGA/RJ45 extension device

Trackpoint

Sony Vaio P webcam Sony Vaio P
Webcam

Power, USB 2.0 and headphone jack


Processor Power: office use and Internet, if you're not in a hurry
Windows 7 index: 2.5. Details: CPU 2.6 - Memory 4.3 - Graphics 4.4 – Gaming graphics 2.5 – Main hard drive 4.4.

Unlike its netbook friends--and the Vaio P isn't really a netbook--the Sony Vaio VGN-P31ZK uses a CPU from Intel's Atom series, but this time it's from the Z range, the Z450.  Running at 1.86 GHz, it doesn't struggle next to the more traditional N series Atom processors, the N270 and N280.  It achieved an index score of 18, not far from the average of 20 achieved by machines based on the N270.  These scores are indexed against our standard, the Fujitsu-Siemens Amilo Xi 3650, at 100, which uses an Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 processor.  Although it's very clearly limited to office apps and looking at photos and videos, this little Vaio P struggles less than we feared it might.

Unfortunately, that isn't enough to meet the demands of Windows 7.  The experience is often slow and jerky, even with 2 GB of RAM.  These problems are no doubt caused by the very slow hard drive, which only turns at a speed of 4200 rpm.  Programs take too long to start up, and the computer itself takes two minutes to boot Windows to a desktop you can actually use: it's 12 seconds before you see the Windows boot screen, 53 seconds for the splash screen and then another 30 more before the desktop shows up and starts loading.  That's far too long to wait, and we really don't understand why Sony didn't improve this area by including an SSD that would fit perfectly in this sort of computer, especially when you think of the price.

You can play Full HD 1080p, Blu-ray equivalent video on this netbook.  We were surprised, but the integrated Poulsbo graphics chipset works wonders.   The load on the CPU is around 22% with hardware acceleration in use (make sure you use compatible software like Power DVD), and energy consumption is around 19 W.

3D Gaming: forget about it and make do with 2D

The graphics hardware might well be able to manage HD, but it's not ready for 3D.  You can only really use laptops with ATI or Nvidia ION graphics cards to be able to enjoy the most recent games, as long as the processor doesn't hold them back; a single core Intel Atom processor just isn't enough. 

Audio Quality: headphones highly recommended

We weren't expecting anything different from such a small device: the audio quality is comparable to a mobile phone, with treble dominating and virtually no bass.  You'll have to make to do with the relatively acceptable headphone jack.

Portability & Battery Life: very light, but it doesn't last long!

Very well integrated with the rest of the machine, the battery only managed to power the Vaio P for two hours of video playback (WiFi turned off, headphones plugged in and the screen brightness at 100 cd/m²).  That just isn't good enough for a mobile computer like this, and doesn't stand up well to comparison with the best of the netbook world like the Toshiba NB200 and its 6 hours 10 minutes or the MSI Wind U115, which remains the undisputed champion with anywhere between 7 and 9 h 52 of battery life.

The charger is very small, which is excellent.  The most incredible thing about the Vaio P is actually how light it is: at a little over 600 g, it's around half the weight of your average netbook.  It's in shape too, less than an inch thick when it's closed.  It's the perfect size to fit into a handbag.
2/5 Sony Vaio VGN-P31ZK DigitalVersus 2010-02-11 00:00:00

Pros

  • Small and light
  • Very quiet
  • Design and build
  • Attractive screen resolution
  • Reasonably comfortable to use

Cons

  • Battery life not good enough
  • Poor quality glossy screen
  • Hard drive really holds it back
  • Relatively minimal connectivity
  • Small onscreen text can be offputting

Conclusion

Even smaller than the smallest netbook, the Sony Vaio P is also very light and extremely quiet. Unfortunately, though, it doesn't have enough battery life and is far too slow. A struggling hard drive is to blame, and it should have been replaced by a much faster SSD.

OUR SCORE 2/5
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