Premium netbooks: Good value or oxymoron?

With smartphones becoming smarter and larger laptops becoming cheaper, are higher-cost netbooks worth a serious look? We look at four of them.

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Sony Vaio P Lifestyle PC

Without a doubt, the newest and hardest netbook to get is ironically also the most expensive. Sony Corp.'s $900 Vaio P attempts to raise the netbook bar by putting the emphasis on size, weight and style.

Like the buyers who are clamoring for the hard-to-find units, I wasn't able to get a Vaio P for review. But I was determined to see what all the fuss was about, so on the last snowy afternoon of the winter, I spent three hours at Manhattan's Sony Style showroom on Madison Avenue, playing with a Vaio P under the suspicious gaze of a security guard.

I looked at a unit with a 60GB hard drive, as well as models with 64GB and 128GB solid-state storage modules. After weighing, measuring, playing with and evaluating the three Vaio P devices, I was able to run benchmarks on the hard drive-equipped system.

Premium netbooks
Sony Vaio P

As much a fashion statement as a portable computer, Sony plays a name game with the Vaio P by not calling it a netbook. The company prefers to call it a "lifestyle PC." In fact, company reps get offended whenever anyone uses the "n" word to describe it.

The model I looked at weighed 1.4 lb., half the weight of many of its competitors. At 0.9 in. thick, the Vaio P is impressively slim; the 9.7-by-4.6-in. design makes it roughly the size of a stenographer's pad or a clutch handbag.

Available in four colors with a silver-flecked finish, the look of the unit is exceptional. The Vaio P seems less like a computer than a small, precious object.

The technical specs are interesting. The Vaio P comes with 2GB of RAM -- twice the level of the others -- but oddly, Sony skimped in other areas. It's economy-class all the way with a slow 1.33-GHz Atom processor (compared with 1.6-GHz) and a 60GB hard drive (versus 160GB). Models with 64GB or 128GB of solid-state flash storage cost $300 and $600 more, respectively.

The Vaio P's best feature is its high-resolution 7.9-in.-wide screen. Longer and narrower than any other netbook, the display can comfortably handle three open windows at once, and it includes a webcam.

Unfortunately, the 16.4mm keys and the touch pad were too cramped for quick and accurate typing.

As far as connections go, the Vaio P has two USB ports, a headphone jack, and both an SD and a Memory Stick Duo slot. It doesn't have a dedicated Ethernet port, but it does have an external port that accepts VGA or Ethernet with an adapter. The device also has 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and a built-in webcam/microphone, as well as Bluetooth and GPS -- two features that are either not available on other netbooks or are considered optional.

Equipped with Vista Home Basic, the Vaio P's performance (as performed on the store's display model) was disappointing, with a 79 on the Performance 6.1 benchmark, or between one-half and one-third of the ratings for the other premium netbooks. In an afternoon of near-constant use, this translated for me into sluggish response and having to wait for several seconds for the computer to respond to commands or start up programs.

The $900 price tag of the basic model I looked at is easily twice that of the other premium netbooks we looked at in this article. In this age of frugality, it's enough to make even Warren Buffett blanch.

If you feel that size, weight and style count for everything, run out right now and order a Sony Vaio P; chances are that you'll have to wait several weeks to get your hands on one. But, if value and a balance among performance, size and weight are important, keep looking. -- Brian Nadel

David Haskin is a freelance writer specializing in mobile and wireless issues. Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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