Never have I wanted a computer as much as the Sony VAIO P.
Never have I been so wrong.
Sony introduced the VAIO P at CES 2009, the height of the netbook boom, and its stunning design soared high above all competitors racing to the bottom. Look at your laptop; now imagine that the bottom half was nothing but the keyboard, and the top half was dominated by an ultrawide high-resolution screen. That’s the VAIO P. It is screamingly beautiful even today.
Tokyo Thrift is a column on The Verge where Sam Byford, news editor for Asia, trawls the second-hand market to explore the history, design, and culture of Japanese gadgets. It runs on the last Sunday of each month.
THE PROBLEM WITH THE VAIO P IS THAT IT’S A TERRIBLE LAPTOP
The model I acquired this year is the VGN-P50. It has a 1.33GHz Atom processor, an 8-inch 1600 x 768 display, 1GB of RAM, an 80GB hard drive, and ran Windows XP out of the box. It came in a lovely shade of crimson, and was released in Japan in June 2009 for 85,000 yen, or about $850. Sony called it a “pocket style PC” rather than a netbook — it’d be pretty hard to fit this in any pocket unless you were dressed for a skiing trip, but it’s certainly smaller than the vast majority of full Windows laptops you’re ever likely to see.
The problem with the VAIO P is that it’s a terrible laptop. Its screen, though technically great for the time, actually suffers for being too sharp; at native resolution everything is tiny, and if you scale up you have almost no screen space to work with. Its keyboard is about as good as an average iPad Bluetooth attachment, which is to say not at all. And its little mouse nub gallantly fails to attain anything approaching ThinkPad TrackPoint levels of precision.
Worse, the VAIO P is slow even by 2009 netbook standards. You’ll often have to wait seconds before text input is registered — I was often unsure whether my problems were caused by the pokey keyboard or plodding processor. At 626g and 19.8mm thick, the VAIO P’s extreme portability meant it could have been be forgiven some of its compromises. But the battery barely manages two hours, even in reviews of brand-new models from the time, meaning it’s hard for me to imagine the situation in which I’d want to take this along.
Verge editor-in-chief Nilay Patel held a deep yearning for the VAIO P, too, and also got around to buying one earlier this year, so I figured I should ask him if his thoughts matched mine. They did. “I wanted to love this thing so badly but nothing about this hardware is actually good,” he told me. “At least it’s bright pink.” So that’s that.
“I WANTED TO LOVE THIS THING SO BADLY BUT NOTHING ABOUT THIS HARDWARE IS ACTUALLY GOOD.”
Things improved a little when I installed Cloudready, a free program that essentially lets you turn old PCs into Chromebooks through a modified version of Chromium. But not by much. While the VAIO P performed a little better at basic web browsing, the screen was still impractical and battery life was still unworkable. And forget about YouTube.
And that’s the thing about the VAIO P — I kind of wish Sony would bring the form factor back with modern technology, because you could do a lot more justice to the concept in this age of Chromebooks and mobile devices. The screen could be more scalable, battery life wouldn’t be an issue, performance would be fine. But would it be that much better than just using a big phone in landscape mode, let alone something like an iPad mini? Gorgeous as it was and is, the VAIO P stands as testament to Sony’s predilection for wild ambition and tragic folly, and it’s a sign of just how far we’ve come.
It does look good on my shelf, though.