Sony's Sleek Ultraportable

In early 2006, we witnessed the emergence of Ultra Mobile PCs, which are about the size of a hardcover book. Shortly after UMPCs started hitting the market, Sony introduced its Vaio UX Micro PC, a fully formed PC smaller than the average paperback (and far more interesting). At the rate things are going, we will soon see a laptop the size of a breath strip.

UMPCs are continuing to improve; read Dennis O'Reilly's December 2006 report for a look at two recent models.

Miniaturization is all well and good, but I'd like a highly portable laptop that I can actually type on, with a screen that I can actually read.

And so, continuing my research on ultraportables, I spent two weeks using one of the hottest, most desirable models: Sony's Vaio VGN-TXN15P/B (list price: $2300). I graded the notebook in each of six areas: size, screen, keyboard, features, battery life, and price. For more details on the Vaio TX series, go to Sony's Web site.

Size: Delightfully Compact

As someone who spends part of many workdays writing in a neighborhood café, I love the Vaio TX's light weight (2.8 pounds, with a standard battery) and small form factor (10.7 by 7.7 inches; 0.83 inches thick). I can carry it in your bag or backpack and hardly know it's there. And it fits comfortably on an airplane seatback tray, even with the person in front fully reclined. Grade: A+

Screen: Beautiful and Bright, a Tad Small

Remember those cornball toothpaste commercials in which one person's smile is so blindingly bright, everyone else has to wear sunglasses? Well, I don't remember them either, but after powering on the Vaio TX, I could certainly imagine them.

I was immediately struck by the notebook's super bright, glossy wide-screen display. Everything on it looks gorgeous and crisp and new. Regrettably, I placed the Vaio TX next to my Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dv1000. I used to love my notebook's glossy display. But compared to the Sony Vaio TX's bright 11.1-inch screen, my HP notebook's display has all the appeal of yellowed newsprint.

A bright, white display isn't everything, of course. Given the brightness of the screen, coupled with its native 1366-by-768 pixel resolution, the Vaio TX isn't particularly comfortable to use for long periods of time. The icons and system fonts are rendered a bit too small for my taste. You can adjust the size of system fonts and other display settings, however, as you can with any Windows XP computer, via the Display utility in the Control Panel. Also, you can zoom Web pages in Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Internet Explorer 7 by pressing Ctrl-+. Zooming helps make the text on Web pages much more legible on the Vaio TX's display. Grade: A-

Keyboard: So-So

A standard QWERTY keyboard has a lateral key pitch of 19mm and vertical key travel of 3mm to 4mm. According to Sony, the Vaio TX keyboard has a lateral key pitch of 17mm and vertical key travel of 1.7mm. The upshot is that the Vaio TX keyboard feels a bit too cramped, especially after 45 minutes or more of typing.

That said, the keys are reasonably responsive, and I've certainly used more uncomfortable keyboards in my day. Also, the touchpad is nicely sized, though the left and right input buttons sit almost on the notebook's bevel, which took some getting used to. Grade: C+

Features: Pretty Much All You'd Want

Compared to many other ultraportables, the Vaio TX excels in features. You get a built-in, dual-layer DVD/CD burner; instant-on buttons for playing DVDs and CDs without booting Windows; a fingerprint sensor for biometric security; built-in WWAN networking to connect to Sprint's Mobile Broadband EV-DO network (which requires a monthly fee after a 30-day free trial); 802.11 b/g and Bluetooth connectivity; and a handy Sony software tool for switching between wireless connections. In short, the Vaio TX is one ultraportable that doesn't require you to compromise on features. Grade: A+

Battery Life: No Worries Here

I didn't test the battery as rigorously as the folks in the PC World Test Center do. However, I can say that after 2 hours of continual use, with Wi-Fi connectivity turned on and the screen at full brightness, the Vaio TX's standard battery still had 57 percent capacity remaining. (Wireless radios and LCDs are notorious power hogs.) Sony estimates the battery will last 5 to 11 hours--though I suspect you'd get 5 to 7 hours, with wireless connectivity turned off and battery-saving features on. Grade: A-

Price: Portability Is Pricey

Like other ultraportables, Sony's notebook is expensive. With a list price of $2300 (not including discounts), the Vaio TX is no bargain, particularly when you consider its relatively basic specs: Intel Core Solo processor; 1GB of memory; and an 80GB, 4200-rpm hard drive.

In comparison, you can configure Dell's heavier and larger Inspiron E1505, a recent Best Buy and our top-ranked All-Purpose Laptop, with an Intel Core Duo 2 processor; 2GB of memory; and a 100GB, 7200-rpm hard drive for $1724 (and it was recently discounted to $1409). Grade: C

The Bottom Line

The Sony Vaio TX is truly tempting, but I tend to work for 2 to 3 hours at a time when on the go, and this ultraportable's screen and keyboard felt just a bit too small for prolonged use.

A better option may be Sony's SZ series notebooks, which weigh 4.07 pounds and have a larger screen (13.3 inches) and a keyboard with a 19.05mm key pitch and 3mm key travel.

Nonetheless, there's a lot to love in a Vaio TX. Style-conscious frequent travelers needing a lightweight, compact, and full-featured notebook for quick work sessions on the go are ideal candidates for this dazzling ultraportable.

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