Sony VAIO PCG-TR1AP
Introduction and History
My love for the sub-notebook started back in the year 2000 when I bought my first Sony VAIO SR7K. At the time, the SR7K was an unheard of 2.98lbs and 1” thick. It was a far cry from the 8lb. monster Dell I had been using for work. Additionally, it was quick, had a great screen and was easily portable. It had the following specs:
- Pentium III 600Mhz (256kb L2 cache) with SpeedStep
- 100Mhz Bus Speed
- 10.4” XGA TFT with XBRITE
- 6MB NeoMagic MagicMedia 256XL+ AGP accelerator
- 256MB SDRAM System Memory
- 12GB Hard Disk
- Integrated 56K v90 modem
- 1 x Type II Cardbus slot (PC Card)
- 1 x iLink (Firewire 4-pin)
- 1 x USB 1.1
- 1 x Memory Stick Slot
- Jog Dial
- Extended Life battery (3.5-5.5 hours)
- 2.98lbs. weight with standard battery
- 1.2” x 10.2” x 8.2” (H x W x D)
As much as I love that machine, it did have a few shortcomings. First of all, the lack of a built-in optical disk was inconvenient as I had to carry around an external unit that needed its own power source. Secondly, the lack of built-in Ethernet was troublesome since I’m connected all the time. Lastly, the battery life was nowhere near the specifications. On average, the standard battery only lasted 1.5-2 hours. In fact, from a 100% charge cold boot, the system would only have 78% battery life left once the OS loaded.
With the arrival of Fujitsu’s groundbreaking Loox-T, a 3.4lb notebook with a built-in DVD/CD drive and true long lasting battery life, I moved on. I even ended up buying a second Fujitsu P2120, the American version of the latest Transmeta based Loox-T, which mostly eliminated any compromises I would have to make using such a small form factor.
Even with my fairly up-to-date Fujitsu P2120 (which I reviewed earlier), I began to feel like the system was starting to feel a little bit sluggish. This was especially noticeable since I was using my laptop a lot more often to do web application development and graphic design and image editing. I began to look for a possible replacement with the announcement of a new sub-notebook by Sony.
Earlier this year, Sony removed two products form their product line. These two products were the latest versions of the famed PictureBook and the last of the SR line, the SRX99. Many, including myself, were intrigued by this because it meant that Sony had something new in store.
We didn’t have to wait long as Sony announced a new sub-notebook TR1 this summer. I was immediately intrigued based on the good reports I had heard about the Centrino platform and the new Pentium M processor. With the Transmeta Crusoe CPU, one advantage was the low power consumption; however, the performance of the Crusoe TM5800-933Mhz CPU was really only equivalent to a 700Mhz Pentium III CPU for most typical applications but even worse for multimedia applications. The promise of the Pentium M processor was that not only did it have low power usage but it actually exceeded the IPC (Instructions Per Clock) of the desktop version of the Pentium 4 processor. In another words, the Pentium M is faster clock for clock than the Pentium 4 processor. In many benchmarks, the Pentium M is roughly 700-800MHz+ faster than a Pentium 4 of the same clock speed.
After a couple months of deliberation, I recently decided to get a TR1 for myself as I felt that I was already outgrowing my current Fujitsu P2120 based on the kind of work I was doing. Another option was to go with the newer Fujitsu P5000 sub-notebook which while similar, exceeded the specifications of the TR1. I spent many trips to my local Fry’s Electronics scrutinizing both systems and trying to get a feel for each. In the end, the screen was a major selling point and be honest, I simply wanted something new. I knew one of the “cons” of going Sony was that I would end up paying more for the unit compared to comparable models and have to pay more for various necessary Sony accessories. Oddly enough, the current TR1 has already been discontinued only a few months after its initial release in favor of a slightly faster model (TR2) with a few improved specs.
Things to Consider
The original release of the TR1 in Japan was special because the unit had some forward thinking specifications. First of all, it sported built-in Bluetooth, 802.11b and 802.11a wireless abilities. To the dismay of North American buyers, the US model only had 802.11b. The lack of 802.11a was forgivable considering that 802.11g seems to be the prevailing spec with more momentum in the US. Also, most hotspots in the US are only 802.11b so this is somewhat forgivable. Additionally, Sony was an early adopter of 802.11a and only recently started to embrace 802.11g so they have a little ways to catch up.
Oddly enough, many of Sony’s other consumer electronics (PDA, Camcorders, phones) all have Bluetooth abilities and it’s very strange that they would omit this feature from this laptop. In fact, none of the US model notebooks have built-in Bluetooth. At any rate, Sony believes that Bluetooth isn’t widespread enough for them to add it and it adds cost to the product. I find this to be a weak argument and Sony can be a market leader by offering it with the systems. It would encourage more customers to buy more Bluetooth enabled Sony products.
At any rate, I knew the TR2 was coming out and I bought a TR1 anyways because I knew the North American model didn’t offer any real improvement other than being 100Mhz faster, having 10GB more hard disk space, and a slightly improved optical disk drive with slightly faster burning abilities. Other than that, there were no new features. And so, I found a last chance terrific deal on the Sony TR1AP saving close to $300 off the regular price.
The Sony PCG-TR1AP model I purchased had the following system specifications.
- Ultra Low Voltage Intel Pentium M 900Mhz (1MB L2 cache) with SpeedStep
- 400Mhz Bus Speed
- 10.6” Wide (1280x768) XGA TFT with XBRITE
- 1GB DDR SDRAM System Memory
- 30GB Hard Disk
- Intel 855GM Extreme Graphics 2 Integrated Graphics 64MB (shared)
- Internal CDR/CDRW/CD/DVD 16x10x24x8x
- Integrated Camera with 370,000 pixels (VGA 640x480)
- Integrated Wireless Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 802.11b
- Integrated 56K v.90 modem
- 1 x Type II Cardbus slot (PC Card)
- 1 x iLink (Firewire 4-pin)
- 2 x USB 2.0
- 1 x Memory Stick Pro Slot
- 1 x VGA out
- Extended Life battery (2.5-7.0 hours)
- 3.11lbs. weight with standard battery
- 1.37-1.44” x 10.6” x 7.4” (H x W x D)
There were two models sold in the US market: the PCG-TR1A and the PCG-TR1AP. On the surface, the difference between the models was simply that one model had Windows XP Home and the other had Windows XP Professional. However, in some cases, the TR1A model came with two 256MB DIMMs to make the standard 512MB of memory while the TR1AP came with a single 512MB DIMM so that an upgrade to 1GB is simple.
The screen is drop dead gorgeous. While my last two Fujitsu sub-notebooks have had phenomenal screens compared to contemporary models, the Sony TR1’s screen is simply stunning. It’s the brightest LCD screen I’ve ever seen on a notebook and it’s sharp and clear. One thing that differentiates the screen is its glossy surface which adds some reflection but seems to improve clarity. While some may be put off by it others will find that it’s not that noticeable and the benefits far outweigh the slight glare. Sony has taken great pains to eliminate typical glare issues.
The design of the TR1 is simple and clean and fun. The system is comprised of light colored plastic and magnesium alloy. It has clean lines and new sporty keyboard.
The next thing I noticed how this product was a marriage of the Sony C1 and SR series and a move to a two spindle design. The C1 and SR lines were great products but they were limiting in that they were a single spindle design only having an internal hard disk and forcing users to use an external optical disk. The TR1 two spindle design finally brings Sony up to speed with its competitors (namely Fujitsu P/Loox-T).
Lastly, to my surprise, my TR1 came equipped with a newer optical disk drive similar to the one that ships with the TR2. The official TR1 optical disk drive specs for CDR/CDRW/CD/DVD are 8x4x24x8. Querying my drive showed specifications of 16x10x24x8 which is a lot better and the same as the newer TR2. Yes!
Overall, the system feels well designed and looks great. However, it probably won’t impress everyone because it’s not perfect in some respects. The system seems to have a little bit of flex in the lid and on the keyboard. I would be lying if I said that the TR1 is solid because it’s not. Compared to my Fujitsu P2120, it feels more delicate to touch. The magnesium alloy casing doesn’t seem as firm as it should be.
The keyboard decently sized for a device of this size. As always, people with larger hands will find the keys crowded and uncomfortable. Luckily, I have medium sized hands with relatively slender fingers so this isn’t an issue. It will take some time to get used to the keyboard layout and the oddly placed right shift key. I had to do this before with my Sony SR7K but it only took me about a day to get used to it. The keyboard flex isn’t too big of a deal for me since my last couple of notebooks have had the same flex issues. If you’re a hard typer then the flex may bother you. I touch type pretty lightly so I haven’t noticed any problems for myself.
In typical Sony fashion, there are a lot of little niceties abound that give the system and more polished feel. First of all, the PCMCIA/PC Card slot has a built-in dust cover that automatically covers the slot when you remove a Type II card. This should be a no-brainer on all notebooks but very few manufacturers implement this. Additionally, many of the other ports are covered by rubberized covers which are a nice touch.
There are nice lights illuminating various parts of the system to give you feedback on what’s active on the system. This is a nice touch that adds to the experience. Along the same lines, even the AC adapter plug lights up when plugged in. This is a definite compliment to Apple’s PowerBook laptops. It doesn’t glow or pulsate like Cupertino’s finest but it’s still nice nonetheless.
I really like the location of the speakers at the top of the screen since they are facing the user and nice height. Of course, the speakers could be better but it’s a nice and sensible location.
The system also features volume control buttons (+ and -) to easily control the sound. Located beneath the volume control buttons is the zoom button. What this does is zoom in the screen for easier reading. It actually drops the resolution down to 1024x600 and scales the screen to the full width of the screen. It’s instantaneous and works very well.
One new thing that I’ve noticed is that the TR1 also does not use a latch to stay closed. It uses a similar latch like its bigger Centrino brother, the Z1. It’s stiff when you’re trying to open it and then gets easier to open as you open it wider. It’s a nice touch and gets rid of the unsightly latch (which can break) protruding out of the top of the screen.
I did also notice that the wrist pads get a little warm after extended use. It’s not uncomfortable at but you will notice it. As a whole, it system does warm up but it’s never to any level where you would feel uncomfortable. I know there’s a fan inside cooling the CPU but you never hear it…or at least I’ve never heard it. The only sound you hear during actual usage in most cases is the hard disk which in of itself is not loud.
Connectivity and Ports
At first glance, the TR1 looks sparse in its connectivity options but it actually has a lot of options hiding around the system. The usual suspects of a RJ11 v.90 56k world modem and the RJ45 10/100Mb Ethernet port are conveniently located on the side and covered when not in use. The microphone and headphone jacks out are conveniently located on the front right side of the system for easy access.
The single PC Card slot is standard on notebooks of this size and has the aforementioned dust cover built-in. The system comes with two USB 2.0 connectors with one exposed and with the second one located next to the iLink (Firewire) port and covered as well. The system also features a full DB-15 VGA port for direct connection to an external CRT/LCD monitor. This is a great feature as I don’t have to carry around a dongle. The system also features a Memory Stick Pro slot for quick file transfer. This happens to be a nice feature for me since my main camera happens to be a Sony.
The built-in Intel 2100 wireless adapter is very good and I was surprised by how well it worked. It’s far more responsive than my Fujitsu P2120’s built-in wireless. Also, it was better than the D-Link PC Card 802.11b adapter that is also better than the P2120’s built-in antenna. This is subjective of course, but in my typical wireless environments (at home, at Starbucks, at family’s place) I can get connectivity in areas that would typically be out of range. You can also opt to turn off the wireless antenna to save battery but from what I’ve noticed it doesn’t seem to make any discernable difference (which is a good thing).
One thing that’s missing is an S-video port that I’ve been used to with my previous notebooks. I rarely used it but there were a few occasions when it came in handy (i.e. direct photo slideshows for the family on the TV). Since I use that feature once or twice a year I figured I could live without it. And another thing missing was built-in Bluetooth. I have given up on the IR (infrared) ports but Bluetooth is current future. Bluetooth can be added fairly easily so I’m not too mad about that.
The built-in VGA quality camera that acts as a weak digital camera, a streaming webcam, and serves up gee-whiz factor. While even I will admit this is nothing more than a toy, it has become a lot more useful nowadays especially in the age of blogging and in the age of broadband communications. More and more of my friends have webcams and using them for video conferencing is a nice ability. The Network Capture software is adequate and fun and allows you to take still photos, movies, and can automatically upload photos to a website. The built-in camera also works pretty well with 3rd party messaging software such as Yahoo Messenger.
Lastly, the TR1 has a microphone located to the right side of the wrist area below the keyboard. I didn’t notice it at first although I did wonder what it was. It actually helps to read the manual. The microphone is located far enough away from the speakers so that there isn’t any feedback problems. I was skeptical about the microphone but it actually works pretty well when using MSN Messenger and other instant messaging apps. It also works pretty well with P2P telephony tool, Skype. The integrated camera and mic serve to make the TR1 a great portable telephony and conferencing tool or simply a fun, go anywhere chat tool.
With my Transmeta based notebooks, I always had decent performance for my needs. However, my needs changed over time and I felt I need more performance for the types of applications I was running. The Pentium M does not disappoint. I would dare say that the performance is stellar considering it is “33MHz slower” than my previous system. 900Mhz may not sound like a lot but the Pentium M gets a lot of performance out of such a low clock speed. More importantly, it does so without draining the battery. The system is simply much more responsive than my previous P2120 and the speed allows me to run some applications I wouldn’t have installed before.
The ability to install up to 1GB in a sub-notebook is huge and removes one my concerns that a small notebook can’t be used for serious work. Even though my last notebook had a whopping 512MB of memory and was by no means shabby, 1GB of memory just opens many more possibilities for me.
The graphics portion of the system is now handled by integrated graphics of the Intel 855GM chipset humorously named Intel Extreme Graphics 2. I say “humorously” because Intel has a very poor track record for graphics and I’ve been exposed to their previous endeavors (i740 and the integrated i810). To my surprise, the 855GM performs more than adequately despite being based on a UMA design which shares up to 64MB of memory from the main memory. It not only allows me to run Windows XP with all of the eye candy turned on but it also allows me to play some reasonably graphic intensive games such as Warcraft III. In addition to very competent 2D and 3D performance, the chipset plays back DVD without any hitches and very nice quality. Programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere run well on the system especially with the RAM fully loaded.
Initially, I was concerned about the 30GB essentially non-upgradeable hard disk since it was a 1.8” device and performing at a pedestrian 4200RPM compared to 5400RPM and even 7200RPM 2.5” hard disks available on the market. In addition, the drive only has a 512kb cache unlike a typical 2MB or 8MB cache found on newer 2.5” models. To my surprise, the hard disk is a relatively good performer and hasn’t been an issue.
Despite all of the speediness of the system, the battery life is exceptional. Intel has managed to balance the performance and battery life very well. Unlike previous SpeedStep attempts where the processor would simply drop from the stated speed to a much lower clock speed, the Pentium M is able to throttle the clock in much finer increments depending on how much it needs to. Apparently, the clock manages to change in 100Mhz increments based on necessity although you can force it to run at full speed if you need to.
I’ll need to spend more time with the system but the initial experience has been terrific.
After 2 hours of continuous usage including wireless web surfing, MP3 audio, streaming audio via Real Player, document creation, and e-mail composition, I still have well over 50% battery life left. This is with a screen brightness of 7 out of 8. I can only imagine how long the system will last with the extended battery. My previous laptop required the extended battery to last as long as the standard battery of the TR1. At any rate, Sony’s estimation of battery life is not as farfetched as before and actual usage actually falls within their specifications.
My DVD test consisting of repeating a DVD over and over again showed that the system went for a little over 3 hours with the brightness set at 50% (4/8). That’s pretty good considering this is the main battery and that DVDs are normally very draining on the battery. So, it’s very likely a person can watch a two hour movie and still have at least one or even two hours of battery for work.
I’m not sure if anyone will reach the max 7 hours usage unless they have the notebook closed (with LCD completely off) and are only listening to MP3s but actual usage of 3-4.5 hours is very good for a notebook of this size or any size.
Sony’s PowerPanel software takes over Windows XP’s built-in power management offering finer granularity in terms of power saving features. It works well and doesn’t get in the way. You can even tune the performance/battery settings to meet your needs if you need to. I found the default settings to be pretty good.
As a sub-notebook barely over 3lbs., this system is very portable and easy to carry. You will barely feel it in your backpack or messenger bag. My previous two systems cheated in being closer to 4lbs. since I had to carry around the extended battery for decent usage. This system allows me to do everything at 3.1lbs and that’s extremely convenient.
As I mentioned before, I feel the system is more “delicate” than previous systems I’ve had so having a good case is important. Although not officially sold in the United States, I highly recommend the Sony PCGA-CK5T semi-hard slip case which is extremely well built and secures the notebook snuggly. In addition, it also has pockets for discs or other accessories.
One thing to note is that the included AC Adapter is rather large. It’s not big overall because it’s actually quite thin. The actual measurements are 5.8” x 2.1” x 0.66” (L x W x H). Despite its size it should be easy to pack since it is thin.
Final Thoughts and Wishlist
I’m extremely pleased with this system despite it being relatively expensive though. There really was nothing wrong with my previous system however, my computing needs and habits changed and this new notebook fits me a lot better. Although there were comparable models to look at that had added future potential, I decided to go with a system that meets my current needs very well and does so with some charm and a little bit of flash.
As always, I must say that this (and pretty much any laptop on the market) is not for everyone.
This is definitely not a desktop replacement kind of laptop but it might come close for some people. This sub-notebook really suits people on the go who need performance and portability without sacrificing battery life. With the Pentium M processor and the decent integrated graphics, my applications fly and I get work done faster and with less hassle and more productivity. The stated battery life is pretty dead on depending on what you’re doing…and that’s rare.
As always, I must put in my thoughts on what future products should have or change…
- Sony needs to reinforce the body a little better with more or higher grade magnesium alloy. A little flex is understandable but I’d like the system to have a better feel.
- I would like to see a slot loading optical drive instead of the tray. That’s my own preference though.
- I’d like to see the next version have more wireless support and built-in Bluetooth for the American market. This is mostly Intel’s fault for not having 802.11g or 802.11a functionality in the Centrino platform. Sony can use 3rd party chipsets if necessary as long as it doesn’t compromise battery performance.
- The built-in graphics was more than adequate but it would be interesting to see if there will ever be a system in the sub-notebook range with something like the ATI Mobile Radeon 9600 Pro.
- A higher resolution camera with a flash capability. One or two megapixels would suffice.
- I would also like to see much larger hard disk capacities. It’s fine if they stay with the 1.8” hard disk but they will need to add 60GB and 80GB capacities in the future. Hopefully, Toshiba, the seemingly only supplier of 1.8” drives will offer larger and faster versions for Sony to use in the future.
As you can see, I don’t really have too many additions since the system is already pretty good as it is. The Sony TR1 is no desktop replacement but as a sub-notebooks go, it’s fairly full featured and extremely portable for those on the go. As one of the first generation of Intel Pentium M/Centrino platform based sub-notebooks, it’s definitely worth a look if you’re looking for portable power on the go. Alternatively, you can also check out the Fujitsu P5000 line of sub-notebooks which offer similar performance with a little more flexibility in a similar sized package.
If you’d like more information about the Sony TR notebook then visit http://www.sonystyle.com and for the most comprehensive forum on the TR series visit Sony TR World. You can also visit the Yahoo Groups for another TR related group.