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Sony's New Vaio Laptop: One for the Road


If you are an aficionado of Sony laptops, the first thing you're likely to notice about the new Vaio R505 SuperSlim Pro is the absence of purple. The magnesium case has a purplish cast and the touchpad under the keyboard is sort of mauve, but the assertive purple that has been the signature of Sony's trendy laptops is gone. And that's significant, because Sony is going corporate.

When Sony Corp. (SNE) introduced its 505-series laptops a couple of years ago, they quickly became the first successful ultralight models in the U.S. Although corporate information-technology departments wouldn't look at them, road-weary execs tired of lugging six or seven pounds of computer snapped them up, either buying them with their own money or finding a way to sneak them pass corporate purchasing.

Sony still is not ready to make the commitment to the sales, service, and support organization that it would need to go up against IBM (IBM), Dell (DELL), Compaq (CPQ), and Hewlett-Packard (HWP) in the mainstream corporate market. But it sees executives as a big area of growth and is positioning its new products to increase their business appeal.

For the mobile executive who wants maximum power and minimum bulk and weight, the R505 is appealing indeed. The $3,099 top-of-the line model comes with an 850 megahertz Pentium III processor and Windows 2000 (Windows Me is $100 less). You can save a big chunk of change--$500--by stepping down to a 750 MHz chip, and odds are the only place you'll notice the difference is in slightly better battery life. Both models have 128 MB of RAM and a 20-GB hard drive.

The newest 505 weighs just 3.75 lb., measures 11 x 9.4 in., and is merely an inch thick. A package that small and light still forces a number of compromises (for a look at some heftier options from WinBook, Hewlett-Packard, and Toshiba, see www.businessweek.com/technology/). One weakness of mini notebooks has always been the keyboards, and this model, while a big improvement over earlier Sony ultralights, just makes it to marginal acceptability. The keyboard is only slightly smaller than standard size, but the keys don't have enough travel room when pressed and the right shift key is too small.

Laptop makers face a challenge in choosing a screen: The higher the resolution, the better the graphics, but the smaller the text and icons. The Vaio's 12.1-in. display at 1,024 x 768 pixels yields very small text size, which may be especially troublesome to users over 40. This can be alleviated by fiddling with font settings in Windows and applications, but it takes some work.

As people on the road all realize, using a very small notebook means sacrificing any built-in removable storage. Sony has opted for a "slice" solution, a unit that attaches to the bottom of the laptop and contains both a floppy and a DVD ($350) or combination DVD/recordable CD-RW ($550). Slices have never been very popular, and Sony is wisely promoting theirs as a docking solution rather than as a way to travel with removable drives. If you often need a CD on the road, you're better off buying a bigger laptop with a drive built in; it will be thinner, lighter, and more convenient than the 505 with its slice.

ALL WORK? Another bugaboo of ultralights is battery life, since tiny laptops have little room for batteries but still need lots of power. Here, too, Sony has done well. The company claims a life of 3 to 4 1/2 hours on a standard battery; I got close to the lower end of that range in normal use--outstanding for an ultralight. A double-capacity battery is a $495 option.

Sony has included all of its trademark multimedia features in the new 505, including an iLink (IEEE 1394) port for downloading digital video from a camcorder, a slot that accepts MemorySticks from Sony cameras or music players, and preloaded picture and video-editing software. But I suspect these notebooks will spend most of their time at work, not play.

In the past couple of years the ultralight has matured from a cool tool for those who were willing to make big sacrifices to get minimum size and weight, to a lightweight workhorse. We road warriors are grateful. By Stephen H. Wildstrom


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