I've just sat down with Sony's shiny, immaculately-designed new ultra-netbook (ahem, sorry, 'portable PC'), the diminutive and featherweight Vaio P-series, for an hour or three on a rather pleasant train journey, so l'll give you my first impressions of the gadget that rocked CES in Vegas this year.
Does the Vaio P-series punch above its weight? Or is it all fur coat and no knickers?
For the laptop aesthete at least, the design of the 'just larger than a standard office envelope'-sized Vaio P-series has already seduced you, even before you have removed the cheeky-looking little business toy from its leather and suede pouch. Cost of said animal-skin laptop cover? £89.99 extra. Ouch!
And yes, let's get that little niggle out of the way first. Being British, we love to gripe about how the cost of, well, everything is going through the roof. And it is too. There is no getting around it. The price point of Sony's porta-PC-du-jour has been set phenomenally high.
To the average Joe in PC World, the P-series' price tag of £850 will seem nothing less than astronomical. And while that's not the target market, it's certainly going to confuse a number of Vaio fans and loyal fanboys (it's $899 in the US, when did we hit 'parity' with the dollar?). With the ongoing financial crisis, that's a firm, no-nonsense slap in the face from Sony, isn't it?
Well. No. No, it's not. If it were, then why, after a matter of minutes playing with Sony's new business toy, are we considering - actually considering - how we might justify finding £850 to buy one when they launch in the UK early in February?
This isn't a netbook
It's because, in Sony's opinion, the Vaio-P isn't a netbook. The product guys physically wince at the mere mention of the term. They see those comparisons as null and void. Netbooks are small, affordable computers than you can use to surf the web while you are out and about to 'consume' news and media. Whereas laptops, proper laptops, are computers that you can use to 'produce' stuff on - videos, music, websites, blogs, novels, 30-page PowerPoint epics and other thrilling bits and bobs.
Got it yet? Well, while we have to admit to not being entirely convinced by this particular PR line, the real clue is in our description of the device as a 'business toy'. For us, the Sony Vaio P-series does everything that we've wanted every other netbook to do. It also does it notably better than everybody else has done (to date) and then squeezes it all into something that looks like an oversized Nintendo DS. It's lighting fast, cute as a button and a joy to play with. A bit like Jodie Kidd. If she were a computer.
Hell, you could even play emulated DS games on it and really pretend that it was an oversized DS, although that would be stupid and largely pointless (Google: 'Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for PC'…)
Redefines work as fun
The P-series makes working on the train an actual joy. No need for clumsy laptops to take up the limited table space and annoy your neighbours. When you pull the mini Vaio out of your man-bag, all you receive are snatched glares of pure, bilious-green gadget-envy. Oh yes!
You didn't get that with your Eee PC and you certainly don't get it with the ubiquitous iPhone any more. Sony unashamedly goes for the 'aspirational early adopter' for good reason. Its toys are massively covetable. F*ck the expense, this is a cool new toy that everybody else wants!
In fact, on my return train journey today, when faced with the option of pulling my full-size Vaio out of my (embarrassingly pink) rucksack to watch a Blu-ray or slipping the shiny new Vaio-P series out of my (non-embarrassingly black) man-bag to tinker with, I plumped for the latter option.
Brass tacks and nipples
So let's break it down. Brass netbook tacks. First up, the keyboard. It took me around ten minutes of fiddling and miss-hits before my slightly fat fingers re-adjusted and said hello to their new QWERTY friends.
I've tried out pretty much all of the major netbooks over the last year and more than anything else it's their keyboards that stick in my memory – largely for the wrong reasons – from Asus' Eee PCs (no comment, angry-face emoticon) to Acer's Aspire Ones (meh, zip-lipped emoticon) and MSI's Wind (useable, happy face emoticon).
But the P-series' nicely spaced keypad is in a different ballpark altogether (stupid happy grinning emoticon!), unless you have fingers like Winston Churchill, in which case you simply will not want to get a netbook (oops, sorry, 'portable PC') of any size, shape or flavour.
Next up, the tracking 'nub' or 'nipple' or whatever Sony wants us to call it. It is annoying and - for me - not quite as good as a traditional trackpad. It works okay though and is in no way a deal-breaker. Plus, I'm assured by a Sony PR rep that after a few hours of use it becomes second nature.
Being a slightly ornery fellow, I immediately choose to ignore this advice and plug in a USB mouse instead as, I imagine, will any other non-masochist Vaio-P user/ show off. That said, on the train home, I worked/played happily away on the nub/nipple. Not something I've gladly done before, in public.
XMB or Linux modes
What else? The screen is small and boasts a highest resolution setting of 1600 x 768 (which, for an 8-inch wide screen is frankly unnecessary and in effect means that it's crystal clear). You can also, should you be a real Sony nut, use a XrossMediaBar instead of Windows to immediately access your instant messaging, internet browser, music, pictures and so on. Or even boot the thing up immediately into Linux mode. (No, we'd never do that either, but Sony assures us that there are those out there that like this type of gimmickry…)
More importantly, it has 'Vaio Everywhere WWAN' (high-speed 3G internet connectivity to you and me) so you can just shove your sim card into a slot underneath the battery and connect to the internet without any need for any unsightly dongles or other such flimflam.
The top-specced model Vaio-P packs in 2GB of RAM, a 128GB solid state hard drive and Windows Vista Business. All three configurations in the series come with the speedy Intel Atom Z520 Processor, and, in Sony's own words "a vibrant 8-inch Vaio black LCD display, making photos and videos sharp and vivid."
The Sony Vaio-P series launches in the UK on the 9 February, with prices ranging from £849 through to £999 (for the 'business ninja' spec). Yes, it's too much. Yes, we want one. Yes, we're trying to figure out if we can justify a trip to New York to buy 10. Yes, we're considering telling the wife it is a 'necessary business expense' and all those other little white lies we tell ourselves when we want a new toys.
And while you're at it, you are going to want to throw in the additional six-cell battery with an extra five hours' charge for £120 and a 'port extender' (£60) to hook up your Vaio-P to your Ethernet cable and monitor at work (or to your TV at home, if you want to carry on watching those iPlayer downloads you were in the middle of on the train). So all-in, if you plump for the top-end business ninja model with leather case, extra battery and port extender then you are looking at the best part of £1,270.
Still, it's all tax deductible, isn't it? Damn you Sony Electronics. Damn your eyes…