The PictureBook, a.k.a Sony VAIO PCG-C1VN

by Phil Hughes

This is our first look at an amazing little computer system, the Sony PictureBook. The look comes primarily from its travels with me in Costa Rica in December 2000.

Before getting into specifics, let me say that the basic machine is amazing. That is, you get an amazing amount of computer in a package that could not even have been imagined a few years ago.

However, it still isn't my favorite laptop; my favorite remains my five-year-old Toshiba T3600. While the T3600 is bigger and heavier, it is about as small as is practical for a serious laptop. Being primarily a vi user, the 486/50 and 16MB of RAM is sufficient for me, and the six-hour battery life is more than enough.

On its own merits, however, the PictureBook is a real winner. It measures 248 x 27 x 152 mm and weighs in at 2.2 lbs. The official name is the Sony VAIO PCG-C1VN. It has a 400MHz Crusoe processor, 128MB of RAM, a 12GB hard drive and a 1024 x 480 active matrix display.

Before getting too far past my mention of battery life, the PictureBook wins in this category. While we haven't run extensive tests yet, a good guess is three to four hours on the standard battery. A 4X battery is also available that should be good for well beyond a whole work day.

Additionally, interfaces are available for most anything, including FireWire, USB, sound, digital video and there's even a slot for Sony memory sticks. Note that no serial or parallel port is included; however, with all the other choices this is not likely to be a serious problem. Also included is a Winmodem (which isn't supported by Linux) and a Type II PCMCIA slot for anything else you may need.

If these features aren't enough, toss in a built-in camera that, under Linux, can capture JPGs or write an AVI file. The mouse is one of those little pencil eraser-like gizmos but, on the plus side, it has three buttons rather than the more standard and expected two.

Our own Khris Goldberg snapped in Costa Rica.

Snapped at Houston Airport while I was writing this review.

Is It a Real Computer?

By that, I mean, can you really treat this system as a laptop or is it more of a toy? The VAIO is no toy. The excellent screen, fast speed and huge disk make it a real computer. I see it as the perfect system for either travel to remote locations where size and weight are really important, or cases when you need a part-time system, such as making a presentation at a tradeshow.

The VAIO's speed and disk capacity make it a real computer. In fact, only one hardware item detracts from the system's overall usability--the keyboard. The size, while certainly on the small end, isn't the significant problem. In order to get the keys (specifically, the arrow keys) where they wanted them, Sony decided to make the slash key (/) substantially narrower than all of the other keys. They also made the right Shift key the width of a standard key rather than the same width as the left Shift key.

While the slash key may not be especially important to an MS-Windows user, a Linux/UNIX user can get frustrated quickly. I also found myself hitting the up arrow key when I intended to press the right Shift key.

That's it for my hardware complaints. However, I do have some hardware-created complaints and some software problems. First, the special "Fn" keys don't. These are key sequences where you press the Fn key, as a special sort of shift key, followed by another key. These sequences perform such functions as changing the display brightness, selecting external video port vs. local display and displaying battery status.

On earlier VAIO models, these sequences were handled by the BIOS, but in this system, they have been changed to software interpretations. While not an insurmountable problem, Linux support had not been added when I received this system. As this is a common "feature" of the new VAIOs, I'm sure a modified keyboard driver is in the works.

The computer comes with a USB to SVGA cable. Connect your monitor at boot time, and Linux sees and talks to it as well as the internal display. But it talks at the same resolution as the internal screen, so squares become rectangles. This problem will have to be addressed before this puppy is a good choice for connecting to overhead projectors.

The next problem was that only a modified version of Red Hat Linux was available. In an office that runs all Debian systems, this wasn't what I wanted to hear. If for no other reason, having to deal with a totally different configuration system was not what I needed. In addition, the vi command-line editing mode of bash does not work on the default version included with Red Hat--correctable but another unnecessary frustration. Hopefully, the lack of availability of other Linux distributions and the Fn key problem will be addressed before you read this review.

Finally, this system is running the 2.2.17 kernel. Rumor was the 2.4 kernel would not boot on the PictureBook with the Crusoe chip. This chip is made by Transmeta, Linus' employer, and Linus has one of these systems. He quickly traced the problem to APM. Disabling APM makes the 2.4 kernel boot fine; it is up to those working on APM to figure out what to do next.

Where Do You Get One?

This one came from Emperor Linux with Linux pre-installed. You could buy the system from traditional sources, but you would have to get Linux loaded and running yourself. Doing so is not impossible, but Lincoln at Emperor Linux has been very helpful, and I feel the support has been well worth any price difference.

The Good and the Bad

Phil Hughes is the publisher of Linux Journal and editorial director of Embedded Linux Journal.

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