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Nice keyboard, shame about the screen, Sony

Computers are frustrating. They are sold off the shelf like washing

machines and televisions but, in the vast majority of cases, they exhibit

nothing like the reliability or consistency expected of most consumer

durables.

Reliable manufacturers are few and far between and, all too often, those

who you thought you could rely on deliver ever-diminishing levels of

service.

This is certainly true in my experience. If anyone had asked me for a

hardware recommendation a couple of years ago (and many independent

advisers did),

I would have had no hesitation in recommending Gateway as a reliable supplier.

However, as I currently find myself still trying to get answers to letters

relating to a machine bought as long ago as December 1998, it is not

surprising that I can no longer make such recommendations.

The question I therefore decided to ask was whether Sony, with its

experience in consumer electronics, could show existing PC manufact urers

how to deliver lasting quality and service.

Sony PCs are being seen increasingly on the high streets and in PC maga

zines. I thought it might be a timely development as, for all my

frustration with Gateway, I have not been able to establish an obvious

alternative despite talking to users of other machines.

Sony&#39s Vaio range is going to be on any list where good looks are prized.

A more practical benefit, however, is the compact nature of the machines. As

I seem to spend half my life with a PC slung over my shoulder, one of the

main drivers in replacing my previous notebook was finding a ligh ter

alternative.

The Vaio range starts with full-blown PCs weighing as little as 1.2Kg for

a Pentium II processor, 400Mhz, 64Mb RAM and 6Gb hard drive.

However, as my priority was a portable capable of operating as a full

desktop rep lacement, I opted for the new PCG-X18 model. This came with an

Intel PIII 650Mhz Sidestep processor, 128Mb RAM, 18Gb hard drive and a DVD

drive as standard but still weighed in at around 2.7 kilos and had a list

price of £3,699 including VAT.

The Sidestep processor allows portables to operate at a full 650Mhz when

connec ted to the mains but redu ces this to a still very adequate 500 Mhz

while working on batteries.

On opening, the PCG-X18 has intercooler vents which lift the whole machine

to provide additional cooling to the chip as well as adjusting the typing

angle to minimise the use of the fan to cool the central processor as it is

being used. This helps give a claimed three-and-a-half hours of potential

usage on battery power.

There is also the possibility of substituting a second battery in place of

the CD/DVD drive. This holds out the previously unimaginable prospect of a

laptop that can run for nearly a full working day without mains power.

I, for one, found the possibility of being able to travel without being

burdened by a mains lead and transformer highly appealing.

Faced with a machine that had both the looks and the power of a Ferrari

among PCs, it was easy to be tempted to part with hard cash for such a

machine. I would be absolutely delighted to be able to report that the

post-sales experience lived up to all that was expected. Sadly, this was

not the case.

The truth is that, while there are some outstanding features, Sony

unfortunately has much to learn when it comes to designing and delivering

computers.

On the positive side, the keyboard is without doubt one of the most

pleasant I have ever typed on. Each key is individually sprung, giving it a

very positive feel. But the screen, which looks really impressive, is, in

fact, highly reflective, so much so as to render the machine virtually

unusable in strong sunlight. It looks great but is, sadly, wildly

impractical.

The peripherals included within the price are impressive, including a PC

card, modem and a docking station. But no copy of Microsoft Office is

included and, as this is virtually essential for a serious business PC, you

need to factor in the cost of buying the appropriate level of licence for

your Office software to get at the true cost.

A one-year return-to-base warranty can be extended to three years for

£179. In practice, this is probably less than ideal for a business user and

an option for an onsite service within 24 hours is certainly desirable

unless you are going to place a lot of faith in the build quality of the

hardware.

So far, the most frustrating part of working with a Sony PC has been the

erratic nature of its after-sales support. Peripherals and the original

equipment can be sourced via the company&#39s telesales operation. Although

based in the Netherlands, this uses a central London phone number and

achieved a delivery on time of the ordered items in two days, as promised.

So far so good but the problem came when I wanted to install the

additional 128Mb memory chip I had ordered. Despite having sought and

received expressed assurance that this upgrade could be user-installed, it

arrived with a note saying it should only be installed by an authorised

service centre or the warranty on both the memory upgrade and the PC might

be affected.

Trying to track down such a service centre proved a nightmare. I was

bounced around between no less than eight different phone numbers by staff

who gave the clear impression that they just wanted to get me off the

phone.

Finally, I was informed that the only way to have the upgrade fitted

without putting my warranty at risk was to return the unit to Holland at my

own expense. In the end, having some experience with PCs, I decided to take

the risk and install it myself.

This installation was achieved relatively quickly but it was a fairly

tricky operation and definitely not for the inexperienced user.

On balance, while I cannot help but admire some excellent features within

the system, Sony has a great deal to learn about the manufacture and

support of PCs. If you are tempted by one of Sony&#39s undoubtedly attractive

new machines, be aware that the service and functionality may not match the

good looks.

Ian McKenna is a consultant and director of The Financial Technology

Centre. He can be contacted by email at: IanMcKenna@MSN.com. Tel: 0207-359

5656. Fax: 0207-359 2858.

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