Call it the Jan Brady Syndrome. Mainstream laptops are often the forgotten middle child; they aren't as cute and cuddly as ultraportables or thin-and-lights, nor are they as attention-grabbing as feature-packed, high-power desktop replacements. Thankfully, mainstream laptops that fly under the radar also carry low prices. The Sony VAIO N170G/T is such a system: a somewhat bulky, somewhat underpowered Intel Core Duo laptop that's among the most affordable you'll find from Sony. This fixed-configuration laptop is priced at a reasonable $1,099, but it looks as stylish as Sony's pricier models. The system performed well compared to similarly price laptops, such as the HP Compaq Presario V6000T and the Fujitsu LifeBook A6010, but not unexpectedly, it trailed pricier models with newer Core 2 Duo processors. The Sony VAIO N170G/T is a good fit if you have a limited budget, basic computing needs, and an eye for design.
Is brown the new black? Unlike the 13.3-inch VAIO C series that offers a palette of colorful options, the VAIO N170 is available in white (called the N170G/W) or a new, Zune-like shade called Wenge Brown--described by Sony as, "a creamy, coffee color made to resemble wood furniture." It's definitely a more modern take on computer design.
Inside, the minimalist Sony style brings you a silver keyboard tray, with a matching touch pad and power button, set against an eggshell-white, full-size keyboard. The keyboard's flat keys feel comfortable, but the touch pad's slippery mouse buttons could have benefited from a more tactile surface--plus, the loud click from pressing the mouse buttons is positively deafening, at least as far as mouse buttons go.
Measuring 14.4 inches wide, 10.6 inches deep, and 1.5 inches high, the Sony VAIO N170G/T sits firmly in the mainstream category of laptops: big enough to work on comfortably for long stretches but small enough for occasional commutes. The VAIO N170G/T weighs 6.7 pounds (7.7 pounds with the AC adapter), which is a bit heavier than we'd want to have in our shoulder bag for extensive traveling.
The 15.4-inch LCD offers a 1,280x800 native resolution, which is what we'd expect from a screen this size. Sony uses its Xbrite technology in the screen, which the company claims gives you deeper blacks and richer colors. More important perhaps is the antireflective coating on the screen surface, which kept the display very readable--even in our brightly lit Labs. (Most times, you're forced to choose between a glossy screen that lets colors pop in movies and photos but suffers from glare and reflections or a screen with a matte finish that dulls colors but keeps glare to a minimum.)
The system provides the standard set of connections, including three USB 2.0 ports, a mini FireWire port, headphone and mic jacks, a media card reader, an ExpressCard slot (but no PC Card slot), and a VGA output for hooking up an external monitor. Networking connections include modem and 10/100 Ethernet jacks, and integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless. We're used to quick-launch buttons on laptops, so it's almost a surprise when we don't find them, but that's largely a matter of personal choice.
With this fixed-configuration machine, you're stuck with the core components, which include a 1.6GHz Intel Core Duo T2050 CPU, 1GB of RAM, Intel 945GM graphics, a DVD burner, and a 120GB 5,400rpm hard drive. You will get a free upgrade from Windows Media Center Edition to Windows Vista Home Premium once the new operating system is released, but for that, we'd like to have 2GB of RAM--since both RAM slots are used (for two 512MB modules), adding more RAM would be an expensive proposition.
Compared to other similarly configured systems, the Sony VAIO N170G/T performed well on CNET Labs' Multitasking test, matching up to the Toshiba Satellite P105-S6024, with the same 1.6GHz Intel Core Duo T2050 CPU. Sony's higher-end VAIO C150P/B has a faster Core 2 Duo CPU, and it was 25 percent faster on the same test. Still, for casual users, the N170G/T is plenty fast for Web surfing, movie-watching, and tackling basic productivity tasks. With its integrated 945GM graphics, you won't be doing much 3D gaming with this system, but it will suffice for older or casual games. According to Intel, you'll still be able to run the Windows vista Aero interface with this GPU.
The Sony VAIO N170G/T ran for 4 hours, 6 minutes on our MobileMark battery life test. That's comparable to other midsize laptops, such as the HP HP Compaq nc8430. Additional batteries are available from Sony for $199, but there's no extended-life battery. That's not a major loss, because we're more than happy with the 4-plus hours of battery life.
Sony backs the system with an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty. The company offers several warranty extensions; a two-year plan with onsite service costs $150. The company's Web site provides a knowledge base, driver downloads and e-mail support, and the Web site makes it fairly painless to drill down to the drivers for your specific model.