Back to the future with my 1998 Sony Vaio: dated but still classy

Back to the future with my 1998 Sony Vaio: dated but still classy

Summary: News that Sony is considering selling its PC business prompted me to dig out my first Vaio laptop - an unusual device that gave you four computers in one.

TOPICS: Laptops, Apple

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  • The dated but still stylish Sony Vaio Mark 1

    To me Sony products have always had a certain style. That emphasis on the "look" of a product came from the company's co-founder, Akio Morita who was the driving force behind design successes like Trinitron and Walkman.

    Sony and Apple have had a lot in common, so much so that according to one memoir Steve Jobs was shown a working version of a Sony Vaio running MacOS — perhaps the ideal marriage of Sony design and Apple systems experience.

    News earlier this month that Sony is in talks to offload its PC business to an investment fund for around $490m, according to reports had me searching out my old Vaio from way back in 1998. It still works fine.

    My 1998 Sony Vaio — the brand was only about a year old at this point — still remains a beautiful piece of design in 2014, although not nearly so compact looking as it seemed back then.

    Then I was looking for a laptop computer and the choice seemed to centre on a Dell, Gateway or a Toshiba. While I hesitated, I heard of a brand that was about to enter the UK market — the Sony Vaio.

    My number-one rule in buying technology products is to never, ever buy the prototype or first generation — too many bugs. The Sony Vaio was an exception because clearly its design was excellent, as was its reliability — I still have a Sony stereo unit (record deck, CD, radio, and tape) that is 30-plus years old and works fine.

    So I bought the Vaio and I was hooked straight away. It still looked great — sleek and grey with a smaller format than many other laptops of the time. Its main distinguishing feature was the manner in which Sony had dealt with the core issue — how many devices and ports could you attach to the laptop?

    To be able to work efficiently, the average executive needed as many as possible, but if you put too many devices on the system it would be too bulky.

    Some of the best brains in the industry were wrestling with this problem, and Sony's answer was ingenious.

    All pictures: Colin Barker/ZDNet

  • Typical smart keyboard with real keys

    The Sony Vaio PCG-747 — aside from having a cool name for a plane-buff like me — had a large choice of components. There were two version and I opted for the more expensive one, which from memory cost somewhere north of £1,200 — around £1,800 at today's prices.

    It came with a Pentium processor and 32MB of RAM, which seemed like a lot in 1998. It also had 4GB of main memory. It ran Windows 98 Second Edition and for communications ran a 56K modem card — which was slow but workable; this machine came out the year before the launch of wi-fi, so a modem was the only method of communication.

    While it was not a cheap by the standards of the time, the Vaio's design and expandability were plus points. It had an excellent Sony screen at a time when the company set the standard for video.

    All these years later it still looks pretty good — even if the resolution cannot compare to the screens of today.

Topics: Laptops, Apple


Colin Barker is based in London and is Senior Reporter for ZDNet. He has been writing about the IT business for some 30-plus years. He still enjoys it.

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  • Ah, Sony

    Sony (and Sony Superscope if you remember back when) used to make these great things that you actually wanted. Now they've become an over-priced-me-too company whose idea of DRM is absurdly intrusive. How the heck did this happen? The old Sony stuff I have still works fine.
    • Leading Edge of Hybrids

      Sony has still leads the market for hybrids. There are very few serious competitors to the Flip series. The top end of that series leads all others in specs. The rest of the line is very competitive.

      Granted that many Sony products are over-priced-me-too but there are still corners in the company that stand out.
  • Sony Vaio

    I owned two Sony Vaio laptops over the years. Great machines. When you buy Sony you know you're getting a sleek, well engineered device (much like buying Apple) but you're also, of course, paying a premium for that. And that's always been Sony's Achilles heel.

    Sony's big mistake, IHMO was in eschewing industry standards in favor of its own proprietary technologies. I'm hardly the first to say this. My Sony Laptop, for instance, had a slot for a memory stick at a time when pretty much only Sony cameras wrote to the format. They lost the personal music player market for much the same reason. They were far too late to embrace the MP3 format. Sony's Minidisk players were amazing at the time, but they played music in a proprietary format. Imagine how much more uptake they would have seen if you could have hooked a minidisk player up to your computer via USB, and burned MP3s directly to a rewritable minidisk. At a time when flash memory was beacoup expensive, this would have proven an attractive option to many.

    Apple is similar to Sony in many ways. For years they disregarded industry standards like PCI, the x86 CPU architecture and developed their own Localtalk networking technology when everyone else was abandoning Tokenring for Ethernet. But somehow Apple managed to scrape by for decades, before busting out into the most successful technology company in the world over the past 10 years, long after some analysts had all but given them up for dead. Hard to say what allowed Apple to succeed while seemingly dooming Sony to slow death. Maybe it's because Apple continued to innovate, bringing out some truly revolutionary products that by necessity involved proprietary features, whereas Sony mostly just continued pumping out high-end products and pushing proprietary tech for the sake of pushing proprietary tech. I mean, think about it: the original Walkman literally changed the world. That's the great granddaddy of the iPod. But what has Sony done since that sparked a revolution? Apple has given us the GUI, Desktop Publishing, made Photoshop possible, produced an MP3 player so intuitive and unique that it completely eclipsed every competing model, and then brought out the iPhone and the iPad which themselves sparked revolutions in the way we view and interact with the digital world.

    It's sad to see Sony struggle, because I was always fond of the Sony products I owned. Maybe they'll start to churn out truly ground-breaking tech again and find a way to pull themselves back on their feet.
    • Sony's problem is Sony Music

      Since Sony bought CBS Records around 1990 (that they renamed Sony Music) they started to do stupid technological decisions.

      Easy recordable media wasn't good for them anymore, so they started doing proprietary formats and DRM features to prevent Sony Electronics devices to copy Sony Music albums and videos.

      Also, quality of their products have greatly been reduced since the late 90s.
      • Re: quality of their products....

        Gone are the days of the Sony Trinitron. They were amazing TV Sets.
  • Older Hardware....

    We all favour older machines. Although not going as far back as 1998 I still fire up my 2006 Mac Mini on occasion and it still shows class. Combined with OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard which is the most recent release it supports (which is still widely considered to be the OS X platform at its finest) the 2006 Mac Mini runs like dream.

    Sure the specs. are not up to todays standards with just 2GB RAM and a somewhat underpowered Intel Core Duo CPU but it just works. Its not the fastest and cannot perform the tasks of the 2011 iMac which I use as an OS X Developer but the 2006 Mac Mini still serves as a great second machine.

    Hats off to older Hardware and it is certain many will have their own story to tell.

    Incidentally with a little trickery OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard runs beautifully on a 2011 iMac.
  • Memories

    While we are arguably entering the most interesting\exciting\scary(?) times of computing metamorphosis (into god knows what the future brings) these old machines have a special place in my memory and heart.
    Maybe it's because these machines belonged to us and we choose them carefully and nurtured their health over the years. It's not the same now as things are transitioning out of our reach and the hardware is just a portal.

    I don't love any single piece of technology any more (I still appreciate new technology)... it's unnerving. Maybe its because the technology no longer needs me to look after it like my old win 98 and xp desktops did.
  • SONY = Proprietary = Fail

    Sony's big problem was their proprietary nature. I've owned a few Sony products over the years, and they always seem to screw up a good thing by blocking compatibility with common standards.

    Also, dollar-for-dollar, Sony products are no longer a value; they usually come in with a smaller feature-set than their competitors.
  • I own a sleek IBM punchcard system...

    It's a little cumbersome, but still an awesome system. It weighs in at just under 1100 pounds and requires tens of thousands of punch cards, but still WAY better than today's laptops.

    Before you judge, the system does everything that I need it to; it can add, subtract, multiply and divide...which is all anyone really needs.
  • Re: IBM punchcard system....

    Respect. Back to the dark ages GREAT STUFF.
  • It's a shame Sony are selling Vaio because they still make the best PCs

    My late 2012 Windows 8 Vaio is an excellent piece of kit, well built, it looks good. It easily competes with Macbooks selling for £400-500 more (I paid £640, a lot for a Windows laptop).

    The trouble is Sony aren't Apple. Apple seem to have a unique position in being able to charge a premium for their products because people they're getting something extra, they're not of course but it's the public perception.

    The genius of Apple is not to have diluted their range with cheaper models (as Sony did), which only leads to people comparing the cheap and expensive models like for like and thinking they're all rubbish.

    Premium Vaios easily compete with Macbooks, not a lot of people not that.

    p.s - My 15 year old Sony Receiver is still going strong. Sadly the surround sound compete went a few years ago but as a Stereo Receiver it's still more powerful than my needs.
  • Re: Premium Vaios easily compete with MacBooks....

    Agreed the higher range Vaios are excellent but it is the Retina MacBook Pro. that continues to set the standard.