Walt Mossberg

Sony’s New Laptop Is Smaller and Lighter, But Its Screen Is Bigger

Slowly but surely, like desktop PCs, laptop computers are becoming boring, me-too commodity products. Most are made for brand-name computer companies by a handful of contract manufacturers in Asia, and too many of those brand-name companies merely make limited tweaks to cookie-cutter designs the contractors develop.

But a few laptop makers are still innovating regularly, both in function and style. Even though they may hire the same Asian factories to fabricate their laptops, they begin with their own unique designs. These innovators include Apple Computer, of course; but also Lenovo, the Chinese firm that now makes IBM-brand ThinkPad laptops; and Sony, long a laptop innovator, especially in the ultra-portable segment of the laptop market, where small size demands great design.

Sony's new TX650 laptop can record CDs and DVDs.
Sony’s new TX650 laptop can record CDs and DVDs.

Sony’s latest coup is a new, ultra-portable series that manages to shrink the overall size and weight of its predecessor while expanding the size of the screen and extending an already impressive battery life. And it’s one of the few laptops on the market that can connect to the Internet over a cellphone network without requiring any adapters.

I’ve been testing this new laptop, the TX650, and in general I like it. Unfortunately, it also has a few downsides, including some disappointments in its most vaunted feature: its wireless capability.

The TX650, which will be available next month for $2,300, replaces, and tops, the very nice T series that came before it. Like the T, the TX is a sleek, svelte laptop that still manages to pack in a DVD drive that can read and record DVDs and CDs. Like the T, it also has a good complement of ports and connectors and excellent battery life, which is rare in such tiny machines.

In addition, the new TX series has a wide screen that measures 11.1 inches diagonally and features a high resolution of 1,366 by 768. The T series had a 10.6-inch screen with a resolution of 1,280 by 768. The screen is very sharp, and the keyboard, while a bit cramped, is adequate.

The TX650 also beats the T series on battery life, which is saying a lot. In my harsh battery test, where I turn off all power-saving software, set the screen brightness to maximum, turn on the Wi-Fi wireless networking, and then play an endless loop of music to keep the hard disk spinning, the TX650’s battery lasted an astonishing four hours and 53 minutes. That’s nearly half an hour longer than the T lasted in the same test, and it means the TX could probably top six hours in normal use, with battery-saving features enabled.

Yet the TX is actually a bit smaller than the T series was. It has the same 10.7-inch width as its predecessor, but it is as little as 0.83 inch thick at its front edge, compared with one inch for the T series. And it’s just 7.7 inches deep, compared with 8.1 inches for the T series. It also weighs less than the T series — 2.76 pounds, down from 3.04 pounds.

Much of this size and weight reduction is a result of Sony’s use of an innovative carbon-fiber casing that allows the lid to be the thinnest I’ve ever seen. Also, the battery doesn’t protrude much from the rear.

The TX has a 60-gigabyte hard disk and a Pentium M processor running at 1.2 gigahertz. It has a decent 512 megabytes of memory, though up to 128 megabytes of that is shared with the graphics system. To Sony’s credit, the TX also includes a slot for the popular SD type of camera memory card in addition to one for Sony’s proprietary Memory Stick card.

Like some larger laptops, the TX650 has a special instant-on mode that allows you to play music or DVDs without going through the slow process of launching Windows. However, my test machine lacked the software that powers this feature, so I couldn’t test it.

The TX650 has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless networking. And like the last model of the T series, it also has built-in access to a cellphone network for wireless Internet access, something which usually requires buying and installing a plug-in card. (You have to buy a cellphone plan to use this feature.)

In my tests, I was able to get on the Internet just fine with both the Wi-Fi and cellphone features, which can’t be used simultaneously. But the wireless networking on the TX650 has some drawbacks. First, this laptop uses an external, rubber swivel antenna that can easily pop off and get lost. That’s a pain.

Second, Sony chose as its cellphone solution Cingular’s EDGE network, which gets only about 100 kilobits a second, or a bit more, at best. That’s only two to three times as fast as a home dial-up modem and nowhere near broadband speed. It’s too bad Sony didn’t opt for Verizon’s EV-DO network instead, as several of its competitors have, including Dell and Lenovo. The Verizon network is roughly seven times as fast as EDGE and is about the equivalent of a wired DSL broadband connection.

All in all, the Sony TX650 is an impressive design. But if you really expect to use a built-in cellphone mode to get online, you’d be better off picking a competitor that uses Verizon’s EV-DO.

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