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

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.

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Topic: Laptops
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1 of 5 Colin Barker/ZDNet

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 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

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2 of 5 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.

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3 of 5 Colin Barker/ZDNet

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.

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4 of 5 Colin Barker/ZDNet

An e-book from the 90s which still looks smart

No system is perfect, and in that respect the Sony Vaio was no exception but it was close enough for me. It was fun too as you could play games with it but then, back in 1998 there was also Glassbook Reader, one of the first e-book systems.

That is another thing that does not look out of place today. In its day, Glassbook was a state-of-the-art e-book reader, but it still compares favourably with anything today.

In fact, when I powered up Glassbook it struck me that next to the modern competition it makes the Kindle look flimsy and, dare I say, cheap. In comparison, Glassbook makes the text look stylish.

As with the Kindle, the text can be set at any size you like from the smallest to the largest. Of course, it is so much easier to set it up using a proper keyboard rather than the stuff today which seems to be made for people with small fingers only.

And yes, the Kindle looks like what it is, a handy but cheap device. My Sony ebook has packed up now after 10 years service but that, while bulky, again looked smart. Why is "cheap" the only option these days?

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5 of 5 Colin Barker/ZDNet

The back of the unit is not short of connections but with connection unit the options doubled

Like many companies at that time, Sony was not sure which of the many emerging standards in hardware design would prevail so, the answer it came to was to try and cover them all.

Look at the slots here which, from left to right, are: DC-in, serial connection for mouse or keyboard, I/O connector, connection for monitor, infrared port on top of a docking station, printer port, an early model USB connector and a video-out connector.

If that was not enough you could buy a docking unit that would fit underneath to provide more ports. These were: a joystick connector, a connection for a microphone, another line-in connection, a line-out connection, an IEEE 1394 interface, a SCSI connector and an Ethernet connector.

Considering how compact the Sony Vaio was for its day, the connecting possibilities were enormous.

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