The Vaio returns
After Sony sold off the Vaio brand to a private investment group in early 2014, most thought that the Vaio brand was dead as a doornail. As we found out this week, that was completely wrong.
On Wednesday, the Vaio Corporation announced its PCs would come to the United States this fall. The first, the Vaio Z Canvas, is a tablet hybrid with detachable keyboard, with a quad-core Core i7 tucked inside. But the company is tip-toeing into the U.S. market, restricting sales to Vaio’s own site as well as the Microsoft store.
Sony, for its part, has a long history with the Vaio, launching some innovative designs—some of which you may have never seen before. But over the next few pages, you will.
The PCG-705 line is where Sony's laptop family began. It's hard to imagine today, but when it was introduced in Japan on July 1, 1997, it helped kick off the PC revolution in the country, which had been stuck on dedicated word processing machines at the time. The 505 model, launched in November the same year, was an even bigger sensation for its size. PCWorld called the 505GX a "sexy subnote" and lauded what was then an unusual feature on a small PC: a keyboard large enough for touch typing.
The Vaio GT1 was certainly unique. Sold in Japan only, the machine sported a tiny 6.4-inch screen, compact keyboard -- and who could miss the camera? With a 680,000 pixel resolution, it matched digital cameras of the era and the whole machine impressed for its size and look. Its other claim to fame was a battery life of up to 17 hours, helped by the small screen and power-efficient Transmeta 600MHz Crusoe processor. The chip maker is almost forgotten these days, but for a while its processors were challenging Intel in the low-power race.
Many of the coolest Vaio PCs belonged to the U product line and the UX50, introduced in May 2006, was perhaps the coolest of the lot. The tiny machine is about the size of a paperback book but was a full Windows XP machine with 30GB hard disk and a touch screen that slid up to reveal a tiny keyboard. It cost about $1,600 when it went on sale.
Vaio Music Clip
Few remember the Vaio MusicClip, but Sony beat Apple to the digital music market by two years. Launched in November 1999, it had 64MBs of memory and played MP3, Wav and Sony's ATRAC3 audio format. An unfriendly DRM (digital rights management) system in the latter format and in-fighting between the Vaio division and Walkman divisions at Sony, both of which had digital music players on the market, contributed to Sony losing the portable audio market to Apple's iPod just a few years later.
Sony's innovation in the U101 was moving the mouse control buttons above the keyboard -- just where your thumbs would be if you were holding the computer while using it. It was the perfect laptop for using while you were lying down, or standing on the train. Today you'd just use a tablet PC, but back in March 2003, you'd use the Vaio U101.
When the Vaio Video Player launched in November 2003, everyone was anticipating a video iPod from Apple but that didn't happen until two years later. The HVP20 was cool, without a doubt, but there was a big problem: it could only be used with the GigaPocket software that was exclusive to Sony PCs. If you had the software, you could record TV shows, put them on the HVP20 and watch them on the move via its 3.5-inch screen. Sweet. If you didn't have a Vaio, you were out of luck. The 20GB internal drive could accommodate up to 31 hours of video and the device cost $455.
Sony loved the idea of a living room PC and Vaio L, pictured here from 2006, was one of its best-looking. Designed to fold away so it occupied less space in tiny Japanese apartments and look stylish at the same time, the first living room PCs from Sony were so popular in 2002 that the company had to pull the TV ads because it couldn't keep up with demand. The Vaio L was available with a 19- or 15.4-inch screen and also had a TV tuner, so if space really was a premium you wouldn't need to buy a television.
By 2007, Sony was losing ground to Apple in digital music. So with products like the Vaio WA1, Sony was trying to break out of its reliance and restriction on using Sony-only audio formats and get into the wider digital music space. The WA1 could be paired with iTunes, Windows Media Player or Sony's SonicStage software and play songs from a PC. It was also compatible with some online radio stations and cost $350.
As the excitement around PCs started to wane and people were getting excited about accessing Internet content on their TVs, Sony came out with the Vaio TP1. Unveiled at CES 2007, the computer ran Windows Vista Home Premium and was designed to look good next to a flat-screen TV. An optional digital TV tuner with 500GB hard disk added DVR functions. It wasn't a big commercial success, but it sure did look good next to a TV.