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Better by design

Apple did it with the iMac series, now Sony has married fine features and good looks with its VAIO notebook. Les Watson flips its lid.

Wander around any design museum and it's unlikely you'll find many computers. It seems that design isn't high on the must-have list of most manufacturers; the thinking seems to be that if most computers have the same operating system, why shouldn't they also look the same? The exception that proves the rule is Apple's iMac series, which won widespread acclaim.

But Sony has been doing its bit for high-tech good looks, too. And if the Sony VAIO notebook is anything to go by, "ugly" and "mediocre" are not words in the company's vocabulary. For this sleek, high-tech desirable has a case that looks like brushed aluminium and its clean lines and fine proportions ooze quality.

It's not just the Sony's looks that impress. Notebooks are always a compromise between ease of use and portability. With the VAIO, Sony has opted for portability. This is A5 size and, weighing in at a less than a kilo, ultra-portable. But despite its size, the machine is a genuine Windows multimedia PC that runs Windows 98. The technology on board is a Celeron processor, 6GB hard drive and 64MB of memory as standard.

The screen is bright, has good definition and at about 10cm by 20cm it is perfectly adequate for most work. Not surprisingly, the keyboard is smaller than a desktop one (it has to be) but it's still highly useable. After some minor difficulties, I soon got used to it and found it easy to use.

Not so the mouse stick. I hate these things so it's not a criticism of the Sony to say that I would have preferred a track pad. But for reasons of size a pad wouldn't fit on the VAIO, and to Sony's credit theirs was as good as mouse sticks get. Considering the greater accuracy required of it when using the more compact desktop of a smaller screen, I coped quite well - resetting its speed and with a little practice I even warmed to it. I was still relieved to return to a full-size laptop, mind.

On a more positive noe, the Sony is well-connected, having USB (Universal Serial Bus), Firewire, infrared and a PCcard slot (PCMCIA). An external floppy drive that connects through the USB slot is also supplied.

A neat tube battery fits along the back edge of the notebook. At about 90 minutes, its life doesn't seem particularly good, but when considered in relation to size it's remarkable - carrying a spare battery, the machine and also the external floppy drive is no real problem as the whole package would still weigh less than most portables. However, extended use may not be a good idea since my machine became extremely hot after an hour of use.

What about the multimedia capabilities? A neat feature is the camera built into the edge of the VAIO's lid. The Smart Capture software supplied displays the current image on the screen and, at the press of a button, will create a JPEG file or short movie of the image. It's digital photography from camera to screen without extra bits of kit, and minus the cards and cables - good for video-conferencing.

It's such a simple idea it makes you wonder why no one's done it before. Not only is the VAIO a highly portable notebook that runs all the office software you would ever want to use, it's also a digital editing studio. I couldn't help but think of all those PowerPoint presentations I'd done when I couldn't find the image I needed - with the VAIO I could've just taken it myself.

The VAIO is a great machine that exceeds most expectations. A highly portable notebook with the added benefits of digital photography and high-quality sound, the PCG-CIXN seems a good buy at around pound;1,300. By the time you read this, the C1XD model with a Pentium II processor should be available, priced around pound;1,699. A laptop worth checking out even if it is not in the Computers for Teachers scheme.

Sony VAIO PCG-C1XN notebook, Tel: 0990 4244424.


Suitability for purpose ****

Ease of use ****

Value for money ***

Styling *****

Weight *****

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