Review: Sony Offers a Tiny Design Tour de Force

By Eric Grevstad | Posted August 13, 2003
Japanese schoolgirls (and not a few Japanese adults of both sexes) croon, "Kawaii!" -- "How cute!" -- and whip out their wallets for the newest Hello Kitty backpack or Thunder Bunny lunchbox. Hardened business professionals say much the same thing when they first see the Vaio PCG-TR1A.

The newest notebook from Sanrio -- sorry, from Sony Electronics -- is anything but a bulky desktop-replacement portable; it measures just 7.4 by 10.6 by 1.5 inches and weighs less than half as much as your average laptop (3.2 pounds, or 3.9 if you add the AC adapter). But it doesn't sacrifice an optical drive as many slimline or lightweight systems do -- a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive is built in, with no external module or docking base required. (If you want a floppy drive, however, it plugs into a USB port and costs $80.)

And since you're going to be watching DVD movies on the plane, the TR1A has an exceptional screen -- small (10.6 inches diagonally), but ideal for letterboxed cinema with wide-aspect-ratio 1,280 by 768 resolution, and one of the brightest and sharpest notebook displays you've ever seen. Sony calls its premier LCD technology XBrite, and it's identifiable by the screen's TV-style glossy black instead of flat gray appearance when turned off; it makes a not just noticeable but vivid, high-contrast difference in DVD or presentation viewing, although we liked only the top three of the nine brightness settings.

But wait, you say: Movie-watching is one thing, but the combination of high resolution and subnotebook size leads to eyestrain in office applications? Sony offers a clever compromise -- push a magnifying-glass button to the right of the LCD, and the display toggles between its native resolution and a slightly pixilated but quite readable 1,024 by 600, so menus and icons are easier to make out.

All right, you say, but the curse of lightweight laptops is brief battery life; who wants to watch only the first hour of Casablanca? That might be the best news of all: Though the Vaio's standard lithium-ion cell is small, it lasts longer than you'd expect -- more than twice as long as that of a larger Intel Centrino portable, the Gateway 200XL we tested last week. Sony's claim of up to seven hours is silly, but we managed just under four hours of routine work (with six- or seven-ninths brightness instead of a dim screen), or a good three hours and 10 minutes of strenuous software-installing and game-playing.

The TR1A isn't cheap at $2,200 ($2,300 with Windows XP Professional instead of Home), and its slightly downsized keyboard takes a bit of typing practice. But it's a sensational portable solution.

Just the Speed You Need

Like other Centrino systems, the Vaio combines Intel's integrated graphics and 802.11b wireless networking controllers with its Pentium M processor -- in this case, the ultra-low-voltage 900MHz Pentium M, which takes only two-thirds the power of the 1.3GHz through 1.7GHz chips we've seen in other Centrino notebooks.

Realistically, that also means two-thirds of the performance, despite the Pentium M's speed-boosting 1MB Level 2 cache -- the Sony is perfectly perky for e-mail and spreadsheet work and showed our Die Another Day DVD without a stammer, but you shouldn't expect it to blaze through image- or video-editing jobs (even if you're loony enough to do much image- or video-editing on a 10.6-inch screen).

With a BAPco SysMark 2002 benchmark score of 101 (108 in Internet Content Creation, 95 in Office Productivity) and FutureMark PCMark 2002 ratings of 2,972 (CPU), 3,230 (memory), and 336 (hard disk), the TR1A performs about like the 1.0GHz Pentium III through 1.6GHz Celeron notebooks seen at the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk some 12 to 18 months ago -- which are still, needless to say, quite acceptable tools for everyday tasks, and a lot bigger and heavier than the diminutive new Vaio.

The Saracens Are Attacking Your Village!

Similarly, the Intel 855GM integrated graphics combine crisp color with unexceptional benchmark numbers -- 93 in 3DMark03 and 35 frames per second in Quake III Arena High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode (interestingly dead-even with the scores of the same chipset in the 1.6GHz Pentium M-powered Gateway 200XL). Again, the system is intended more for PowerPoint viewing than 3D-game rail-gunning, so we don't consider this a handicap. Sony preinstalls Microsoft's Age of Empires II strategy game, and its maps, villages, and armies looked terrific, albeit arrayed across a wider-aspect-ratio screen than we're used to.

The game's narrative voices sounded good, too, with no static or tinny effects unless we pushed the stereo speakers to disturb-your-coworkers volume levels; the Sony offers a bass-boost function for headphone listening.

Headphone and microphone jacks are on the subnotebook's right side, ahead of a PC Card Type II slot and modem, Ethernet, and USB 2.0 ports. A second USB 2.0 port is alongside an i.Link (Sony's name for IEEE 1394) port at the left, the latter coupled with a DC-out connector for Sony-brand drives that draw power from the computer; like the right-hand modem and Ethernet ports, these ports are hidden behind little flaps that we fear would be all too easy to tear off and lose forever. There's no room for old-fashioned parallel, serial, and PS/2 ports.

You'll also find the VGA monitor port and a Memory Stick slot at the left; the AC adapter plugs into the rear, while the Matsushita 8X DVD-ROM and 16/10/24X CD-RW combo drive is up front, which is convenient for desk work but slightly less so if you've got the machine in your lap in close quarters. The Sony's 512MB of DDR266 memory is expandable (to 1MB); the 30GB Toshiba 4,200-rpm hard disk is not.

Smile, You're on Vaio Camera

Though it's an almost-no-compromise design, the TR1A can't help squeezing its keyboard slightly to fit the small size -- after noticing the flashy sci-fi font Sony chose for the keycaps, you'll notice their pitch or spacing of 17mm versus the desktop standard of 19mm.

This isn't as tight as some other subnotebooks (we remember a 15mm Toshiba Libretto), though it's noticeable -- you find yourself typing with a bit of extra care or precision for the first hour or two before your fingers make the adjustment. After that, your biggest gripe will probably be a few extra-tiny keys, such as the right Shift and Delete (though the latter is, thankfully, at the top right corner where you expect it), and the not-uncommon-on-notebooks two-finger simulation of Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn via the cursor arrows and a Fn key.

At a Glance: Sony Vaio TR1A

Pros:

  • Half the weight and twice the battery life of many notebooks, with a remarkably sharp and bright screen
  • DVD-ROM/CD-RW on board, despite the system's small size

Cons:

  • Compact keyboard calls for precision typing
  • 900MHz processor meant for document- rather than video-editing, DVD- rather than 3D-game-playing

The Vaio's touch pad is pretty tiny, too, but helped by the ability to flick your finger along its right edge to mimic a mouse's scroll wheel. A sliding switch on the front edge turns the wireless networking adapter on and off, while the display-resolution toggle to the right of the screen is accompanied by up-and-down buttons for audio volume.

Finally, a Capture button activates a digital camera mounted above the LCD, as on earlier Vaio PictureBook portables. This so-called Motion Eye can function as a Webcam, capturing an image when it detects motion (or at other intervals from 10 seconds to 60 minutes); a video camera (though the hard disk fills up fast, with one minute's capture taking from 732K to 4MB depending on image quality); or a 640 by 480 or lower-resolution still camera, and can be rotated to point away from instead of straight at you. It takes some twiddling to adjust the focus dial, but the camera is a clever videoconferencing bonus.

As usual, Sony loads up the hard disk with plenty of high-quality software, including Adobe Premiere 6 LE and Photoshop Elements 2.0, Microsoft Works 7.0, InterVideo WinDVD, the redundant pairing of Quicken and Microsoft Money, and its house-brand camcorder-control, audio-jukebox, and image- and audio-editing programs.

Clearly, its 900MHz processor and modest graphics and hard disk make it a business traveler's rather than multimedia maven's or game junkie's PC, and grumblers can focus on its slightly cramped keyboard instead of its first-class display. But for a 3.2-pound subnotebook, the Vaio TR1A probably comes closer to desktop-replacement functionality -- and to long-haul battery life -- than you'd dare to imagine. It's been almost a year since a product broke our almost unbreakable four-star-review barrier, but we can't deny this design triumph five stars.

Adapted from Hardware Central.

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