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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.
From the top: battery pack, CD-ROM and a floppy disk drive
While the quality was almost a good enough reason in itself for forking out the money to buy the Vaio, it had another killer feature — a slot for add-ins.
The Vaio was not one laptop, but a four-in-one laptop. The bottom left side (looking forward) of the system carried most of the electronics and the hard disk drive as well as a power pack.
The right-hand side carried a space where you could put in a floppy disk drive, or a CD-ROM, or another spare battery pack for those long meetings or a simple spacer to make the unit lighter.
This was a neat feature since it made the system so much more flexible. On top of that, I found that if I wanted to I could pile everything into my rucksack to take on jobs when I might need to use everything.