How (and why) Sony designed the new VAIO P Series
Contrary to the beliefs of the rest of the PC Pro team, I didn’t spend all my time while stuck in Japan drinking sake and impersonating Elvis in debauched karaoke bars. Along with going behind the scenes to see the VAIO testing setup, I had the good fortune to hear directly from the chief project manager behind the Sony VAIO P Series – both the original and its successor – on how exactly this innovative laptop came into being.
If you’ve already read our review of the new P Series you’ll know we remain unconvinced that the sacrifices you need to make in return for its tiny size are worth it. However, we’re also reasonable people who are willing to admit that some people will adore the P Series – even the old one.
The chief project manager, Kazuya Suzuki (pictured right), the force behind the project, is one such man. He explained that the VAIO brand was already associated with small PCs, and the idea behind the original VAIO P Series was to take it one step further.
“With the first VAIO P, before we even started, we wanted to find out what kind of device we could consider. Everybody is already using a mobile phone, but to bring both mobile phone and PC into a small type of PC, we thought what is necessary? A mobile phone is missing the keyboard experience, and a high-resolution LCD for a rich-information display.”
Which led me to ask the obvious question: was Sony seriously thinking the P Series could replace the phone? “No, we weren’t thinking of replacing mobile phones,” Mr Suzuki explained patiently. “It’s more to accompany mobile phones. The key idea is to deliver an experience that a mobile phone alone can’t give you. A bigger display, a full keyboard.”
The keyboard is the key. Sony wanted to create a PC that was as small as possible while keeping as big a keyboard as possible. In fact, almost all the design decisions for the original P Series stemmed from the keyboard: how could Sony make a full PC in a machine that size?
Many people – including PC Pro – criticised Sony for making the resolution of the display so high, so it was interesting to hear the justification. “We started with 768 pixels,” said Suzuki, though an interpreter, “we wanted to make that the minimum height. So the horizontal resolution is dictated by the size of the screen.”
What’s new in the second generation P Series is the addition of sensors: the touchpad, the accelerometer, the GPS chip and the digital compass. What I found fascinating is how practical the approach was: no multi-million pound simulations here, just a man with a vision of a feature that could be used in practice.
According to Mr Suzuki, the idea of the touchpad came from watching how people use the P Series in practice. They’d hold the unit halfway along the base, with their thumbs resting on either side of the screen. Wouldn’t it make sense, he thought, if he could add a trackpoint and mouse buttons where their thumbs rested? So he did: he made a working unit by patching together a sensor and buttons – you can see an early prototype’s left- and right-click mouse buttons below.
He then took this working prototype to his colleagues, made them use it, realise he was a genius and Sony signed off on the idea. The end result can now be seen in our review. Another idea – that of a rotating screen, so people can read web pages or even eBooks vertically – was signed off with rather more ease.
Why not add a touchscreen, I asked? “With this resolution and with this OS, actually using your fingers the accuracy isn’t quite the right match. If you were to use touch on it then you’d need to use a different OS than Windows 7, with new applications.
“It’s true that there’s a cost influence on it too. A lot of technology of the future is squeezed into this device already, and if you want to add a new feature like a touchscreen then it could become thicker. Plus, in a clamshell type laptop, it’s not so ergonomic – if you touch it then it falls over.”
Next time maybe, I suggested. They laughed. “We’ll look into it.”
So that’s the core new features explained. But, having seen the bright orange P Series we reviewed, you may well be wondering exactly why Sony chose such a bold design for the new P Series.
“We wanted to appeal further to a younger audience,” explained Akari Hoshi (pictured above right). “Looking into the market there’s a very similar [laptop] design such as the glossy and the metallic finish, and the four corners are [always] a rounded shape. This design identity is very commoditised in the current PC market.”
Sony’s designers didn’t believe everyone was satisfied with such a concept, so set about rewriting the rules for the P Series. “We wanted to make a soft, easy and nice impression, so the designer picked up a towel as a design reference. It’s really soft-feeling and rough-looking [so] is very interesting.”
Ms Hoshi (who, incidentally, was utterly charming) explained this led to a “wrap” design, following the folds of a towel. “This wrapping design is really nice and fresh, and looking down both the sides there are no protrusions – nothing sticking out. It’s a very simple design. For the colour and material, matte and solid was the key concept.”
This goes against the current fashion of glossy and metallic. “The benefit for users is we can avoid the fingerprints on the LCD-side cabinet. And also the colours – we picked five colours. We chose very vitalising colours, and we think this colourisation is not eccentric but an accent for your fashion, for your life.”
According to Ms Hoshi, the colours may be new and bold for laptops but aren’t new in themselves. “You can see these colours in your kitchen, in your stationery, in fashion.”
They picked orange rather than red because they saw it as energising. “Green is for the more sporty and more young men. Pink is more pop, especially for young women, and black is for men and standard for business.”
While everyone’s going to notice the difference in the outward design, to true nerds what’s even more interesting is what Sony’s done to the P Series inside. The photo above gives some idea: the left-hand machine is the old P Series, with a larger motherboard and a little less space for the battery. On the right, you can see the motherboard’s been squeezed down and the SSD almost integrated onto it.
All this has allowed Sony to squeeze in a little more capacity: the old P Series used a 2,100mAh battery, the new one 2,500mAh. On its own that would only give a 19% boost, but as our tests show the new P Series actually survived for 5hrs 17mins compared to 3hrs 11mins. (You may see Sony claiming a battery life of over nine hours, but that’s with the high-capacity battery that doesn’t come as standard.)
So where’s the rest of the time come from? The biggest boost is due to Intel’s Pine Trail platform, which we’ve seen improve battery life of recent netbooks across the board. And, because the £799 model we tested used Parallel ATA rather than Serial ATA, Sony can dump the SATA bridge circuitry. Allegedly, that saves 25 minutes. Another nine minutes comes from more efficient software, with a further nine minutes due to new circuitry for the power and Ethernet connections.
Sony claims that this sort of innovation is still just the start. It’s reorganised the structure of its VAIO division and moved it wholesale to Nagano, which is around three hours’ drive away from Tokyo: only the designers have stayed in Japan’s capital.
By having all the engineers in one place, it’s instigated what it calls “upstream design”. Previously a product would go through a series of stages where one team – say the electric, mechanism and process technology engineers – would put together a prototype, and then it would be sent back to the marketing team for approval before going to a new team of engineers focused on the actual production process.
At that point, they may discover the machine isn’t reliable enough – and the whole process would go back to square one. Together with Sony’s new two-division strategy, it’s hoping the approach will mean more products going to market and more quickly. Time will tell.