Sony Vaio M Atom 2.0 netbook
If you can't beat 'em...
Review The new Vaio M is the first Sony netbook to be pitched at the increasingly common £300 price point and it is also the first to use the now equally common 1024 x 600 resolution screen. This display choice suggests that – after the highly desirable but horrendously expensive P Series and the cheaper but still unpopular hi-rez W Series – Sony has decided that if it can't beat them it may as well join them.
No surprises: Sony's Vaio M netbook
To get the nuts and bolts out of the way first, internally, the Vaio M is just what you would expect from a netbook. So you get a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N450 processor with associated GMA3150 graphics core, 1GB of DDR2 SDRAM, a 250GB, 5,400rpm hard drive, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, 2.1 Bluetooth, Windows 7 Starter along with a 0.3Mp webcam and microphone.
Externally things are a bit more interesting. Stylistically, the Vaio M is a more rounded evolution of the Vaio W and looks not dissimilar to Samsung's bar-of-soap N310 . Just in case you or those about you are in any doubt to the provenance of your netbook, the smart satin finish lid not only boasts a Sony badge but also an enormous Vaio logo. This is replicated on the keyboard deck, just in case you forget between opening the lid and starting to type.
At 183 x 268 x 26.5~33mm and weighing just over 1.3kg the Vaio M is very similar to Samsung's N220  which is the Vaio M's main high-street competition. The bodywork of the M incorporates some pleasing touches such as a physical Wi-Fi switch and the Caps, Number and Scroll lock lights usually only found on grown up laptops. You also get status lights for the power supply, wireless connection and HDD which is a nice compromise between Dell – that gives you none – and Samsung, that gives you enough to mimic the flight deck of an A380 .
Unlike other netbook makers, Sony has opted to put all three USB ports side-by-side on the right edge of the machine with the 3.5mm audio jacks situated at the front. That's hardly revolutionary, but appeals to my sense of order more than the usual rather haphazard distribution of these things.
USB is neatly lined up on the right, with VGA, card reader and Ethernet on the left side
The left hand side of the chassis houses the power, VGA and Ethernet jacks along with a multi-card reader while the on/off switch is situated on the front right of the case. I'm not a fan of slider power switches but at least the design and action of the Sony switch is better than that on recent Samsung netbooks. Stereo speakers of indeterminate power output are located under a grille above the keyboard to the general benefit of sound quality. Above them sits a rather fine matt finish screen which is as crisp, bright and colourful as any I have seen.
Though its not something I have commented on directly before, Windows 7 Starter does run rather more briskly on the new Pine Trail netbooks, but if you want things to move with even more smoothly, then more Ram certainly helps. However, the Sony spec has the Vaio M down as having a maximum memory of 1GB, which is what it's supplied with.
Closed book: no Ram upgrade path that we could find easily
Naturally, a bit of tinkering was in order to see if I could customise the spec at all with a Ram upgrade. I removed all the screws on the underside of the unit but couldn't even get the case off. I can only assume it is glued, as well as screwed in place, which would make a Ram upgrade effectively impossible, even assuming the memory module isn't soldered in place.
In an effort to save a few quid, Sony has dispensed with the Vaio W's chiclet keyboard and fitted a more standard design which, while acceptable, is not up to the standards currently being set by Samsung with the likes of the N140 . The keys themselves are just a little too shallow in profile, their travel is a little too short and the base is not as solid as I have come to expect. In fact, it looks and feels very similar to the keyboard fitted to the original Acer Aspire One , which was fine on a machine released two years ago and costing £200 but the game has moved on.
The track pad combination is traditional in layout with two separate click bars, rather than the combined one-piece bar favoured by Samsung or the built-into-the-pad design that Dell prefers. Both click bars have a positive and firm action while the pleasantly rough surfaced Synaptics pad supports such basic multi-touch functions as pinch-to-zoom and horizontal and vertical scrolling. Incidentally, the images here of the Vaio M show a US pattern keyboard not the British layout of our review machine.
As standard, the Vaio M comes with a 6-cell battery rated at 3,600mAh which falls well shy of the 5,900mAh shoved up the backside of the the Samsung N220 or even the 4,400mAh unit in the Acer Aspire One 532 . Subjected to our usual netbook SD H.264 VLC video-loop test the Vaio's battery lasted for only 175 minutes. Yet, in day-to-day use, it proved easy enough to get 4 hours from a charge. Frankly, that is just not good enough when machines like the N220 can manage more than 8 hours of regular use on a charge.
No bulbous battery pack, but the reduced capacity impacts on the unplugged usage time
Before I leave matters power related, even when the processor is under a light load, the Vaio M's fan was always spinning and its not the quietest either. Obviously, it makes more noise than the Dell Mini 10  which doesn't have a fan at all, but it is also noticeably louder than the N140 and lacks the Samsung's low power silent-running option.
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
Longer bars are better
Video Loop Battery Life Test Results
Battery life in Minutes
Longer bars are better
The PCMark05 benchmark results where par for the Pine Trail course, as was the 3DMark06 score of 159 underlining the fact that price, keyboard, battery life and aesthetics are now the primary determining factors of netbook purchase for most people. What's underneath is all pretty much the same no matter what the badge on the lid says.
Easy on the eye, but not on the ear – the fan blows pretty much all the time
Sadly, Sony hasn't resisted the temptation to load the Vaio M with bloat. So you get the pointless Vaio Gate application launcher, Vaio Care, Vaio Media Plus, Vaio this, Vaio that, Vaio the other plus the usual trial guff from the likes of Microsoft, Norton and McAfee and a fair amount of other nonsense. This sort of tripe does Sony no favours - the first order of business on buying a new computer shouldn't be to spend half an hour removing stuff that you didn't ask for, don't want and don't need.
The combination of a specification at the top end of the scale with Bluetooth and 802.11n wireless included, a price on the right side of £300, an attractive design and peripheral features usually found on more grown up laptops should have made the Vaio M strong competition for the slightly more expensive Samsung N220. However, the Vaio M's failings are just too many and too glaring to overlook. As it stands Sony's first attempt at a bog standard netbook is a decent enough effort hampered by a poor keyboard, weak battery and, evidently, no option to upgrade its 1GB Ram. ®
Thanks to Laptops Direct  for the loan of the review sample.
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