Speeding up a sluggish Sony

Over the past year, I've read nothing but horror stories about Sony's Vaio running Windows Vista. Over the past weekend, I finally had a chance to see one of these allegedly accursed machines up close and personal, courtesy of digital media guru and blogger Jeremy Toeman. Ironically, the well-used machine I received was running Windows XP and was practically unusable. Here's what happened when I replaced it with a clean installation of Windows Vista.

Last week, Jeremy Toeman’s accursed Sony Vaio arrived here, and over the weekend I had a chance to get my hands on it for the first time. (If you missed the back story, read the first installment that I posted earlier this month.) The short version: Jeremy, a digital media expert and blogger, replaced an older Sony with a $2500 Vaio running Vista Business last spring, and the experience was so awful that he basically wrote it off and purchased a new Macbook. Like Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, Jeremy found the Vaio unacceptably slow and inscrutably buggy.

After reading a few of Jeremy’s posts, I e-mailed him and offered to take a look at the machine. This post represents some preliminary observations after two days of working with this hardware.

I couldn’t find a way to restore the original factory configuration. The machine includes a 6GB+ recovery partition, but the package I received didn’t include the recovery media, and Sony (apparently) doesn’t make it available for download. That’s probably just as well. [Update: Found the secret (press F10 at boot screen), so will be able to do this after all.] Anyway, Sony is sending me a new, boxed Vaio for evaluation this week, so I’ll be able to report on the retail experience when it arrives.

Before shipping the machine off to me, Jeremy noted that he had wiped out Vista and installed Windows XP. Ironically, the machine with XP installed was practically unusable. My first step was to do a complete backup using Windows Home Server, but as soon as the backup began, the system slowed to a crawl. After clicking the Start button, I had to wait 30 seconds for the Start menu to open. Opening Task Manager or Performance Monitor took two minutes. The CPU wasn’t particularly stressed (7% average usage) nor was disk IO or memory. I finally began killing processes, and after killing a couple of background programs the system stopped its sluggish ways and the backup completed normally.

With the backup complete, I decided to wipe the disk clean and install Vista Business from scratch, using a fresh copy with Service Pack 1 integrated into it. I downloaded more than 30 drivers, utilities, and updates for this model from Sony’s website as well. (I’ll document the entire process in a follow-up post.) The results were eye-opening.

Jeremy’s original complaint was that the Vaio took as much as five minutes to boot up. With a clean install of Vista Business and enough custom drivers to enable all installed hardware devices, the system was a rocket.  Boot time to the logon screen was 33 seconds. I was able to swipe a finger in the fingerprint reader and get to a fully responsive desktop at exactly 40 seconds. It made a wireless connection almost instantaneously and loaded web pages in Firefox with no delay. Total elapsed time from the appearance of the BIOS screen to active web browsing: 51 seconds. Every one of the programs included with Windows Vista opened quickly and ran well, with no discernible delays.

That’s pretty impressive, and exactly what I would expect from a system with this Vaio’s specs. The VGNSZ460N packs a lot of power into a sub-four-pound package, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor running at 2 GHz, 2 GB of RAM, and an Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 graphics processor driving a WXGA (1280 x 800) screen. With that hardware and a clean copy of Vista, there’s no slowdown to be noted.

Next, I loaded all of the Vaio notebook utilities (a camera capture utility, some power management drivers, a handful of network tools). With that extra work at startup, the system needed a few extra seconds, but that’s all. It now takes 45 seconds to get to the logon screen, another 5 seconds to log on using the fingerprint reader, and another 8 seconds to make a wireless connection, open Firefox, and load a web page. That’s still under a minute consistently, and I did nothing out of the ordinary to achieve those times.

My tentative conclusion? There’s nothing defective about this particular hardware, and nothing wrong with Sony’s design. After two days of use, I have noted a few interesting issues and annoyances that I’ll cover in the next post, after I get a chance to speak with the folks at Sony. And now that I have a full image backup of this system running the way it should, I’m dying to restore the original configuration so I can see why it made such a terrible impression on its owner.

Stay tuned.