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Mini-Review of Sony Vaio SR17 Sub-Notebook
Published: 10/27/2000
(Updated 11/1 for DVD comments)
In reply to some comments in the 8PM update to yesterday's news, several readers asked for more info on the Sony SR17 as they were considering this tiny notebook, and my comments point out some important things to know before you buy. (What follows is basically a mini-review of the SR17.)

As I noted in last night's news update, a friend came over to use my Firewire CDRW drive to install software on his new Sony SR17 sub-notebook, which came with no CDrom drive. (Thankfully the SR17 has a firewire port that worked with my Sony firewire CDRW.) After several hours with it I have some definite pros and cons on this under 3lb. notebook potential buyers should be aware of. As with any purchase, especially with items like this that are typically not returnable, I highly suggest you try one in a store before buying. Most sources sell the SR17 at list price, so other than possibly saving sales tax, there's little price advantage from buying mail-order. As of the date of this article (October 2000), the original SR-17 List price was $2,499.95 but prices will surely drop over time.

Below is a photo comparing the SR17 to my trusty PB G3/250 Wallstreet (13.3" display model).

PB G3/250 13.3 display vs Sony SR17

Features and Specifications:

  • Pentium III Mobile CPU at 700MHz
    (speedstep design allows running at 550Mhz when on batttery power)
  • 128MB PC100 DRAM standard
    (uses Micro-SODimms, not std notebook SODIMMs
    see comments below on ram costs and upgrade issues)
  • 20GB hard drive
  • S3 Savage IX (w/macrovision) supports dual displays
    (LCD and external Monitor)
  • 8MB video ram (non-expandable)
  • 10.4" TFT LCD display (1024x768 resolution)
  • Builtin 56K Modem (connected at 43-46K here)
  • One Firewire (iLinK) port
    (4pin, not powered, no cable supplied)
  • One USB port
  • Sony Memorystick slot (MagicGate compatible)
  • Sony's Jog-Wheel
  • Video out port (w/supplied VGA adapter)
  • Headphone/audio out port
  • Stereo speakers
  • Yamaha audio chip
  • Builtin Microphone
  • Windows Me (SR17K comes with Win2000)
  • Large software bundle including Video capture, MP3 apps., Adobe Premiere 5.0 LE and MS Word 2000
  • Under 3lbs, very compact.
  • No Floppy or CDROM drive included (optional accessories)
  • One battery included (extras available at $299.xx list)

Initial Impressions:

Even the owner was shocked at how small the SR17 is (the previous SR5 and SR7 models are the same size, but he had not seen these before buying). We both felt that the size was the absolute minimum (screen size and keyboard) that would be usable really.

  • Keyboard: The small size keys will take some getting used to. Expect typos in every word if you're used to touch typing on a standard size notebook or desktop keyboard. (I had to look at the keyboard when typing to prevent hitting the wrong keys. With extended use this may not be a problem, but if you use a standard size keyboard often, you'll have to adjust to this each time you use the SR17.)

  • Screen: Sharp and bright (defaults to max brightness) with no stuck pixels. (At least not yet, but as with all LCDs, there's the possibility not all samples will be perfect.) At 1024x768 native resolution, 10.4" is the absolute minimum size I'd consider comfortable to read. You can set Windows to large fonts, but that won't help icons and palettes in programs. Again this is a required tradeoff for a notebook this size. Lower than native resolutions on LCDs result in distorted fonts unless you make them very large, so for non-gaming apps, you'll want to run at the native 1024x768 mode, which was very sharp. One note - lowering the brightness to the mid-point results in a much dimmer display, more than I'd want to use personally. It seems there's a big roll-off in brightness from 3/4 down.

  • Fan noise: The biggest complaint and an immediate reaction you'll have when running on AC power (fastest CPU mode - 700MHz) is how loud the fan is especially if the surface it's on is hard/highly reflective. On battery power (550MHz) the fan doesn't run as often or as high an RPM so it's less of a distraction. On AC power however (with CPU at 700Mhz), the fan runs very often and at higher RPM (often speeding up during some operations). It's almost like having a small hair dryer under the notebook.

  • Microphone: Placed in upper corner of LCD bezel (better than some notebooks that have it near the keyboard where it picks up internal noise and is almost useless). However you'll want to make sure the fan is not running to avoid background noise. Since you never know when the fan will turn on this could be an issue and you'll not want to have the CPU running at full speed during recordings as the fan is loud and is on very often in that mode.

  • Hard Drive: Sony partitions the drive into two volumes, with a 10GB partition (D: drive) for use with Firewire DV capture. (A nice touch, which prevents fragmentation and lower performance from using the boot volume which has windows and apps installed.) You can use the D: drive for other file storage of course. Drive seems fairly fast and scored well in HDTach (only 3.9% CPU usage).

  • Graphics Performance: The S3 Savage IX supports dual displays (configurable with the displays control panel). Quake3 and UT were playable at 640x480, but the fill rate of the chip is under 150MP/sec and OpenGL games seem to have some image quality issues (even in 32bit mode). 16Bit had poor OpenGL image quality, similar to the ATI Rage128/Radeon cards. Direct3D looked good and UT was playable (installed the optional S3TC compressed textures, which the chip supports). 32Bit mode Quake3 look OK except for some odd texture mapping on steps for instance. Performance in Quake 3 was similar to the PB G3/500 Firewire with the Rage128 Mobility chip (I reviewed that PB here on the systems page, including game test results). The Rage128 Mobility actually has a bit higher fill rate than the Savage IX however.

    (All game tests at 640x480 mode)

      Quake3 v117 Performance:
    • 32Bit mode: 21.8 FPS Q3 "High Quality" settings (med geometric detail)
    • 16Bit mode: 33.7 FPS (same HQ mode but set to 16bit)
    • 32Bit mode, Simple items, Dynam. Lighting off, HQ sky off: 25.1 FPS

    16Bit mode had a mesh pattern most noticable at 640x480. 32Bit looked good in general except for some display/texture quirks, which is a common complaint (from what I've seen on the net ) from notebook owners with Savage graphics chips. A future update may address this, but I'd not hold my breath waiting for it.

    With some UnrealTournament.ini file editing of the Direct3D driver settings finally produced both good performance and removed the texture/image quality issues seen with S3Metal driver mode. With the FPS meter enabled, during gameplay in 32bit mode/640x480 FPS rates were usually a bit over 30 FPS during actual play. In botmaches, I didn't see it drop below the mid-upper 20's.

      Unreal Tournament Performance: (Cityintro test)
    • 32Bit mode/Med. Detail/Direct3D mode
         (FPS) Avg: 33.1, Min: 11.8, Max: 91.6

    He didn't have the wicked400 demo downloaded but promised to get it and send the results. (To see how this compares to the PB G3/500 Firewire performance, check the game page of that system review.)

  • Firewire: My Sony CRX145 (10/4/32) Firewire CDRW drive worked plug and play as did an external portable firewire hard drive (formatted for PCs). However one real negative in my opinion is the port does not supply power (unlike the PB Firewire models). Therefore you have to have an AC adapter or powered Firewire hub when using portable Firewire drives. (This is really a shame in my opinion, as it's more baggage to lug around when travelling and means you can't use drives if no AC power outlet is handy.)

  • Expensive Addons: Since no CDROM drive or even floppy is included, you'll have to buy (or already own) a Firewire or PCcard interface CDrom drive to install new software. Accessories for the SR series are not cheap - or easy to find in stock (the DVD ROM drive for instance is still not available in stock anywhere, even at Sony's online store at the moment). He's ordered the $399.xx (list) portable Sony DVD ROM (8x/24x) drive with PCcard interface. That adds DVD movie playback capability, but also adds a lot to the total cost of the system.

    DVD ROM Drive Notes: By getting a Cardbus driver update at Addonics.com and installing it without the PCMCIA controller card inserted, the SR17 was able to use a low-cost aftermarket ("H45") portable DVD ROM drive. (A 2x model on sale at Office Depot here for $199, incl. battery pack, AC adapter, Cardbus controller and PowerDVD v2.55 software). An open box model resulted in another %10 off (appx. $20) so the net price was less than half what Sony charges for their Vaio DVD/51A drive. (Granted the Sony is an 8x model.) The particular drive in the "H45" kit used a Toshia 2.4x mechanism, although another one I saw used a different brand.

    DVD movie playback with the drive had a good picture, but there was some noise on the audio that could not be eliminated (tried both wave and directsound settings, etc.). Not terribly bad, but annoying at times. Full screen DVD Movie performance at times was not as smooth as the PB G3 (depending on the amount of scene movement and audio), although picture quality was at least as good. The battery pack (4 AA's) was a plus not found on faster drives (or Sony's DVD drive) since that spares main battery life. Considering everything, I think he's very happy with the $179.xx (open box price) portable DVD drive.

  • RAM: The other caveat of the SR series notebooks is they do not use standard SODIMMs for memory, instead using a much more expensive Micro-SODIMM. 128MB upgrades list for $499.xx, and the best price seen on the net currently is about $350. But there's another caveat that's really a heart-breaker for those wanting to upgrade RAM beyond the standard 128MB. As shipped, both slots are populated with 64MB modules, which means even after spending $350 or more for a 128MB upgrade, you're effectively adding only 64MB of RAM since you have to remove one 64MB module to add the 128MB upgrade. Since Micro-SODIMMs are not often used, there's not much market to sell your 64MB module to (unless you know a SR5 owner that hasn't upgraded its RAM). Brian is torn now about getting the RAM he wanted (256MB total) since that would be at least $700 and result in him having 2 64MB micro-SODIMMs laying around. (I suggested selling them at one of the Net auction sites.

    The shocker is that with the DVD ROM drive and if he upgrades to 256MB of RAM, the total system cost begins to approach $4000.

  • Battery Life: I can't comment on a complete run-down time, but noted at full charge an estimated time of 3 hours, 50 minutes was reported. However I saw that time drop quickly in use (even with energy profile set to best battery savings). Addon batteries, like most accessories, are very expensive at appx. $300. Once his DVD ROM drive arrives, he plans to test battery life to see if it will complete a 2 hour movie. (PCcard interface/drive will consume battery power however, so I've asked him for comments on general battery life as he uses it on the road.)

  • Memory Stick: The SR17 has a Sony Memory Stick slot that supports their MagicGate (audio copy protection scheme) Sticks. (MagicGate was sort of panned in a Cnet review I read of their MemoryStick MP3 player, noting it resulted in 2 versions of audio files and makes the MagicGate sticks unusable with many MP3 files on the web, but does work with files you create from original CDs. I assume using standard Memory Sticks doesn't have this limitation.) The Memory Stick Slot is assigned drive S: in windows. There are floppy disk adapters and USB adapters for memory sticks, but the sticks are more expensive than many CompactFlash modules. (list price is $79.95 and $139.95 for the std 32MB and 64MB sticks, Magicgate sticks are about $20 more I think). He found a price of $84 for a 64MB std. Memory Stick on the web with appx. $11 shipping.

    (In a somewhat related article, I've posted a mini-review of the Sony Memory Stick Floppy Adapter including tests with my PB G3/250 and a PC PII/366 notebook for file copy performance. Also includes comments on use, software and value.)

  • Jog Wheel: Sony's unique rotary dial on the side of the notebook is handy once you get used to it, but the text is so small in the small window that pops up for it that it's not that easy to read (at least for my eyes). Once you get used to it I'm sure it could save a lot of time, but like the small keyboard, it will take some time to get comfortable with it.

I hope the above comments based on initial impressions and observations is useful to anyone considering a SR series notebook. (Brian said he wished he had this info before he bought it, he may have bought a slightly larger model.) Don't get me wrong, for its size the SR17 is very powerful and full featured, but you should be aware of the caveats and costs I've mentioned when considering if the tiny size is worth the other tradeoffs. At less than 3lbs and about the size of an original PB Duo, for those that like to travel light (and use Windows), the tradeoffs may be worth it. For its size, it offers more features than any other notebook I'm aware of.

Brian's not run any video capture apps. yet so I can't comment on that aspect of performance, but with a 700Mhz CPU and the performance of the hard drive, I'd assume it would work well for at least casual/home movie use. The small screen and keyboard would make it a less than optimal choice for some however.

I'd love to see a smaller PowerBook from Apple but would prefer it have a slightly larger screen and keyboard than the SR17, as well as powered Firewire ports. Another feature I'd love to see on an Apple notebook is a built-in camera similar to Sony's C1 Picturebook models.

I'm glad I had the chance to use the SR17, as otherwise I may not have realized what the tradeoffs are from the small size. I'm still impressed with the SR17 overall (it's a lot of power and features in a tiny/light package), but I'm not sure I could ever get used to the small keyboard since I use a PB every day. I highly suggest you try one before you buy to make sure the small keyboard, fan noise and small screen are acceptable for your needs.

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