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In the lap of luxury

The recent research carried out by my organisation on behalf of IFonline into the use of technology by mortgage advisers identified that as many as a third of all advisers now use laptop PCs as opposed to desktop machines.

Personally, I have long been a convert to the benefits of having a PC that can go anywhere. Admittedly you do sacrifice a little by way of performance but over the last couple of years an increasing number of laptops have gone on sale that deliver a more than adequate degree of computing power without requiring the user to go into training as a weightlifter.

One organisation probably deserves more credit than any other for driving through this change – Sony. As with so many areas of electronics, it has introduced a new range of laptop PCs that are not only beautifully designed but look so good they are almost sexy. Their emergence has forced an increasing number of other manufacturers to give more thought to their design so that most new laptops have lost the nerd image.

Over the last year, I have increasingly become a fan of the Sony Vaio laptop range. This has just been upgraded which persuaded me to buy my third Vaio laptop PC.

A year ago I reviewed the Sony X18 – a Pentium PIII-based PC with a 650MHz Speed-Step processor, a standard 128Mb RAM (upgradeable to 256Mb) and a 10Gb hard drive . It has now been superseded by the X29.

After being initially disappointed by early experiences – more due to Sony&#39s lack of customer service rather than the machine itself – over the following six months I found this to be a great workhorse, apart from the overly reflective screen.

It was, however, still a fairly hefty piece of kit to carry around, weighing in at 2.7kg – although this was a substantial improvement on the 3.5kg or so of laptop that it replaced.

This time last year the choice was really between power and weight – you just could not have both.

A couple of months after buying the X18, I also opted to buy one of the ultralight Sony N505SN machines which weighs only about 1.1kg with standard battery or about 1.5kg with the optional eight-hour battery. This really does give you enough battery life to be able to leave all the power leads behind.

Although it took me a couple of months to get around to using it, after a short while the bigger machine was relegated to sitting on the desk at my office in favour of its lighter, more portable brother.

In all honesty, with only a 400Mhz processor and a maximum upgraded memory of 128Mb (the standard is 64Mb) it was a little underpowered. And the screen, at only 10.4 inches or so, is a bit small. However, the weight saving made this bearable. With the launch of its latest range, Sony seem to have come up with a solution that allows a specification worthy of all but the highest power desktop PCs and combined with real portability.

This is delivered via an upgraded version of the Z600 machine, the HEK model. This has a PIII 800 Speed-Step, 128Mb RAM (upgradeable to 256Mb) and a 20Gb hard drive with a built-in 56k modem and ethernet connection running on Windows 2000 Professional SR-1. It weighs only 1.7kg with the standard battery (three hours live). An optional bigger battery extends this to five hours.

In addition, the machine has a Sony Memory Stick slot, Firewire i.LINK (IEEE1394) and USB port replicator connector with serial, parallel, USB and monitor connections, together with the inclusion of a wide range of video editing software.

Much of the weight saving is achieved by the USB floppy drive, CD-Rom and port replicator all hanging off as separate items to the main PC. You can choose whether or not you want to take them with you when you travel. This does, however, mean that you have a number of other smaller boxes cluttering up your desk a little.

The only obvious omission seems to be the lack of an infra-red adaptor. Also, Sony supplies a smaller than normal RJ-45 cable for the built ethernet that does not seem to fit our standard CAT 5 network wall sockets. However,a full-size network cable seems to fit the machine easily – if not quite as gracefully as the smaller item supplied.

After a couple of weeks of intensive use, this PC seems to be an ideal combination of power and weight (or lack of it). The Z600HEK certainly passes my ultimate portability test in that it will fit into the tiny magazine pocket of the smaller than economy class seat that British Airways have the front to charge a business level fare for on domestic flights. So it is easy to squ-eeze in that extra 20 minutes work either side of the food trolley arriving.

The retail price is around £2,100 plus VAT and I have just spent about £800 on upgrades (memory, battery, extended warranty additional power cord and port replicator).

Sony still does not seem to realise that it really should offer on-site warranties for serious business users. Also, it still does not ship the machine with MS Office, so budget for this if you need it.

All I need to do now is to find an excuse to increase the office IT budget sufficiently to buy one of their gorgeous 18-inch LCD monitors for my desk. These certainly look the business but at around another £2,000 may be a bit over the top.

I gather that Sony is planning to introduce its desktop PCs to the UK later this year, so hopefully it will be able to do as much for the way these look as it has for the laptops.

I will end with a tip for anyone flying regularly within the UK and Europe who has a VAT registration. If you take the opportunity to buy your laptop from any Dixons at UK airports, they charge you the VAT-free price and will (if asked) supply a VAT receipt so you can claim back the VAT element on the price you pay – a healthy saving.


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