Sitting at Starbucks gets expensive. Taking your laptop to lounge by the hotel pool, only to learn that you must stay in your room, is a pain. In short, the WiFi wireless e-mail and Internet access that seemed so wonderful just a year or two ago now gets taken for granted — and grumbled about whenever we’re out of range of a hotspot or unable to make a connection.
Sony Electronics has taken a big step toward a solution: The Vaio T350P’s dual data-transmission choices let you use e-mail or a Web browser anywhere you can use a Cingular cell phone.
To quote the acronyms next to indicator lights on its front edge, the mini-notebook can switch between WLAN — an 802.11b/g wireless local area network — and WWAN — Cingular’s EDGE wireless wide area network, a slower-than-WiFi-but-usually-faster-than-dial-up data link priced at $80 a month for unlimited use. (Infrequent users can pay $50 monthly with a 50MB ceiling.) The Vaio also swaps data with Bluetooth devices, completing a wireless hat trick.
It’s not cheap — our test unit goes for $2,200 plus wireless fees — and the EDGE network, like other cellular services, doesn’t reach every spot in the U.S., let alone the world. But the 3.1-pound T350P firmly follows Sony’s tradition of elegantly engineered status-symbol laptops. Besides, Cingular gives you a month free with a one-year contract.
Dialing for Data
Like Cingular’s wireless phones, the T350P gets its carrier access from and keeps your account info in a tiny SIM card inserted beneath its battery pack. Sony advertises that the EDGE (Enhanced Data for Global Evolution) network reaches over 13,000 U.S. cities and towns and typically manages download speeds of about 135Kbps — not bad compared to the 53Kbps maximum of a V.90 modem.
What Sony calls a SmartWi software utility lets you toggle between WLAN and WWAN access, pairing either with Bluetooth but not using both Internet pathways at once. An on-screen indicator shows EDGE signal strength on a zero-to-five scale, like the bars on your cell-phone screen.
After launching a Cingular connection, we headed to Intel’s and other online bandwidth-testing sites to see how its download speed compared to 802.11g. Suffice it to say that your mileage may vary, not just from place to place but from minute to minute: Sitting by an open window with a solid four-bar connection, data rates ranged from 94Kbps to an impressive 590Kbps, averaging around 230Kbps.
Moving to a room deep inside our office building and a flickering two-bar connection, however, our throughput took a dive — sites took minutes to load as test results fell to a snail-paced 10Kbps. By contrast, our WiFi link delivered anything from 122Kbps to 896Kbps, averaging roughly 550Kbps.
The Vaio T350P isn’t as compact and cute as the TR1A Sony dazzled us with a couple of years ago, but it’s by any measure a pleasure instead of a burden in your briefcase: The system is a sleek 8.1 by 10.7 by 1.3 inches, and the notebook and AC adapter together weigh under 4 pounds — and this is, remember, a laptop with both a hard disk and DVDÂ±RW drive, not a slimline that requires an external optical drive.
The main compromise for this small size is a keyboard with pitch or spacing of 17mm instead of your desktop’s 19mm. The requisite precise typing takes some concentration for the first few hours, but then becomes comfortable, as does the two-button touchpad in the center of the not-very-big palm rest.
Mastering the often-seen-in-laptops Fn-key shifting to toggle the cursor arrows with Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys takes some practice, but at least the Delete key is properly positioned at the top right corner instead of being stashed somewhere else. Above the keyboard are play, pause, next-track, and previous-track buttons for enjoying CDs or DVDs.
The system’s size also dictates a 10.6-inch-diagonal, wide-aspect-ratio screen, which was free of bad pixels in our test unit. The display offers Sony’s contrast-boosting Xbrite technology (a glossy black instead of grayish LCD when the computer’s turned off) and ample brightness, although as usual we only liked the top two or three of the nine backlight settings.
Its 1,280 by 768 resolution makes icons and menu text a wee bit small for our aging eyes, but its sharp contrast and rich colors keep the screen headache-free for several-hour if not all-day work sessions. Moreover, pressing the Fn and F10 keys toggles between full resolution and a rescaled if somewhat pixelated 1,024 by 600 closeup.
Speaking of several hours, the rear-mounted, rounded lithium-ion battery won us over with an honest four and a half hours’ runtime in real-world use, including some disk-intensive software installation and CD listening as well as wireless Web surfing.
If you could open up the T350P, you’d find Intel’s ultra-low-voltage Pentium M 753 — a 1.2GHz processor with 400MHz front-side bus and 2MB of Level 2 cache — as well as the 855GME chipset that provides the integrated graphics and the Pro/Wireless 2200GB WiFi adapter that completes the Centrino trio.
Sony stirs in 512MB of DDR333 memory (a model with 1GB is $300 more) as well as a 60GB, 4,200-rpm Hitachi 1.8-inch hard disk and Matsushita DVDÂ±RW drive with double-layer DVD+R support (a model with DVD-ROM/CD-RW is $250 less). The result is a notebook that can feel a touch sluggish when running on battery power with throttled-down CPU speed, but is certainly adequate for loading and running productivity applications if not demanding graphics, video, or gaming fare.
The Vaio cruised to a Futuremark PCMark04 score of 2,129 (CPU 2,343; memory 1,934; hard disk 2,117; graphics 518), though the Intel chipset’s graphics proved predictably tame in our game tests (13 frames per second in Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, only 1 of 4 game simulations successful en route to a 3DMark03 score of 90).
Despite its small size, the T350P finds room for two USB 2.0 and one FireWire (what Sony calls i.Link) ports, along with VGA, Ethernet, and modem connectors; headphone and microphone jacks with volume and mute buttons; and a Type II PC Card slot plus a slot for Sony’s Memory Stick storage modules. Along with Windows XP Professional SP2, Sony preinstalls its usual cornucopia of house-brand multimedia viewing/listening/mastering software, InterVideo WinDVD, Sonic RecordNow, Quicken 2005, Microsoft Works, and trial versions of Microsoft Office, Norton Internet Security, and InterMute SpySubtract.
At $2,200, the Vaio T350P continues both Sony’s record of world-class design and its record of pricing a few hundred bucks above the impulse-buy or must-have line. But its good-to-go weight, size, and battery life will tempt many a business traveler, while its pioneering wireless-data-network as well as wireless-Ethernet connectivity — at this writing, shared only by Sony’s new BX business-laptop line — is potentially invaluable icing on the cake.