Sony VAIO PCG-C1VE

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Pros

  • Compact dimensions and low weight
  • built-in CCD camera
  • Memory Stick slot
  • improved software bundle
  • 2.5-hour battery life.

Cons

  • External floppy and CD-RW drives are optional rather than standard
  • modem is on a PC Card rather than built-in.

Sony's VAIO PCG-C1VE is the first notebook to use the new Transmeta Crusoe processor. Even though conventional benchmarks do not accommodate Transmeta's technologies, the early signs are that the Crusoe performs adequately and can boost battery life.

Notebook users want many of the benefits of desktop PCs, such as fast processors, high-capacity hard disks, large screens and so on. But they also require size and weight to be minimised and battery life to be maximised, which requires trade-offs to be made. In the absence of any revolutionary breakthroughs in battery technology, system designers have turned to the CPU, as the biggest single power-consuming component, in the search for more battery life.

Intel with SpeedStep and AMD with PowerNow! have led the way in power-saving technologies, both allowing the CPU's frequency and voltage -- and therefore power consumption -- to vary according to whether the system is running on mains or battery power. However, newcomer Transmeta has taken the most radical approach with its Crusoe processor.

Transmeta's solution is based around two technologies, Code Morphing and LongRun power management.

Code Morphing describes the job of a software layer that sits between programs and the Crusoe processor's compact, low-power VLIW (Very Long Instruction Word) hardware engine. The Code Morphing software translates blocks of x86 instructions into the engine's native instruction set and caches them, using the optimised code at full speed the next time it's required. The resulting low transistor count on the Crusoe chip makes for a small and power-efficient part, with the major advantage that upgrades to the Code Morphing software can be delivered independently of the hardware engine.

Transmeta's second technology, LongRun, allows the processor to adjust both its clock frequency and voltage on the fly, according to the demands made by the applications that are running. For example, the Crusoe TM5600 chip in the VAIO PCG-C1VE can dynamically vary its clock speed between 600MHz and 300MHz and its voltage between 1.6 and 1.3 volts. A System tray utility allows you to choose between two LongRun power management regimes (Performance mode and Economy mode) or set the CPU/voltage combination manually (600MHz/1.6V or 300MHz/1.3V).

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The combination of Code Morphing and LongRun technologies results in a small, inherently low-power processor that can adjust its performance and power consumption on the fly. This is tailor-made for ultraportable notebooks such as Sony's VAIO PCG-C1VE, where the design trade-offs are hardest to optimise.

The VAIO PCG-C1VE could be mistaken for any other member of the C1 ultraportable range, although closer inspection reveals the addition of a Memory Stick slot and a Crusoe sticker. The C1VE is notable for its diminutive dimensions (24.8cm wide by 15.2cm deep by 2.7cm high), 1kg weight, widescreen 8.9in. 1,024 by 480 TFT screen and built-in Motion Eye CCD camera. The camera will capture stills at VGA (640 by 480 pixel) resolution, or up to 30 minutes of 160 by 120 resolution video at 30 frames per second. There's a dedicated button that fires up Sony's Smart Capture software.

The C1VE's 600MHz TM5600 Crusoe processor is supported by 128MB of RAM (although our review sample reported only 112MB), a 12GB hard disk and an 8MB ATi 3D Rage Mobility graphics chipset. Windows Millennium Edition comes preinstalled, and Sony currently offers no other choice of operating system.

The small size of the unit leaves little room for I/O interfaces and other features, but Sony packs in as much as possible. There are USB and i.LINK (IEEE 1394) ports, an external VGA port (on the end of a short proprietary cable) and three audio/visual ports (mic/line in, headphone, TV out/line out). As well as the new Memory Stick slot, there's a single CardBus-compliant PC Card slot, which will be required for dial-up communications as there's no built-in modem on the European model. A 56Kbit/s PC Card modem is bundled with the system.

The battery is an 1,800mAh Li-ion unit with a rated life of 2.5 hours, and there's an optional extended-life battery if this isn't sufficient. Other options include USB floppy and CD-RW drives and a USB wheel mouse. The built-in navigation devices are a three-button trackpoint and Sony's PDA-style Jog Dial. The keyboard is admirably usable given the system's small size.

But what of the Crusoe's much-vaunted combination of performance and battery life? Results from the application-based Business Winstone 99 test initially seem disappointing, the C1VE's score of 9.5 being little more than half that of its 400MHz Mobile Pentium II-based predecessor, the C1XD, which scored 17.7.

Battery life is better, the BatteryMark 4.0 test reporting just under two and a half hours' life from the Crusoe-based system compared to 1 hour 25 minutes from its Intel-based stablemate.

In interpreting these results it's worth bearing in mind that the Business Winstone 99 test does not contain enough repetitive tasks to allow Code Morphing to deliver its full benefits. Furthermore, BatteryMark 4.0 is a continuous rundown test that gives power management schemes such as LongRun little scope to operate. Therefore, these test results must be regarded as underestimates of the performance and battery life you can expect under real-world conditions.

The VAIO PCG-C1VE is an appealing ultraportable notebook, whose combination of multimedia hardware and software is remarkable in so small a system. A valuable new addition to the C1VE's Sony software bundle is MovieShaker, a usable and efficient video-editing program.

As far as Transmeta's processor is concerned, we'd like to test a few more Crusoe-based systems for longer before coming to a firm conclusion about its performance. The improvement in the C1VE's battery life compared to previous C1 models is encouraging, though.

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