Linux on the Sony Vaio PCG-U101


I prefer tiny notebook computers. I can see the use of those big luggable things if you need a desktop replacement, but I've got a desktop system already. Several, actually, being a professional computer geek and all. For years, I've had and loved a VHS-tape-sized Toshiba Libretto 50CT. But sadly, it's getting too old and slow to even browse the web comfortably.

The 75Mhz Pentium processor could maybe be stretched for a little longer, but the 32MB RAM limitation is a real killer. Running Mozilla is a joke, and I couldn't get the installer of any modern Linux distro to even start up. And I tried pretty much everything, even Gentoo. (If the installation had worked at all, it would have been amusing to see how long it took to recompile everything.) Red Hat Linux 6.2 works well enough, but is starting to feel a little aged — and definitely slow.

So I've been keeping my eye out for a possible replacement. The more recent Librettos are relatively huge — the L5, for example, covers almost twice as much area as mine. Sure, it's a little thinner, but it's not going to fit in my coat pocket. I borrowed a friend's Sony PictureBook (this model: PCG-C1VN) for a few months, and though it was nice, I found myself still reaching for the Libretto instead.

However, a year or so ago, when Sony introduced a new Japan-only Vaio model, the PCG-U1, I started thinking, hmmm, that might be the way to go. It's got completely modern hardware, and it's even smaller than the Libretto — sticking to the video analogy, it's almost precisely the size of a (thick) DVD case. And the next version, the U3, looked even better. But I wasn't sure it really was a system that would last for six years as my Libretto has. Transmeta is cool in theory, but I was pretty disappointed with the performance of PictureBook. And I was a bit skeptical about the U1/U3's pointing stick — it looks inconvenient compared to the early Libretto's elegant design.

Just when I was about to give up hope for notebooks and switch to the more PDA-oriented Sharp Zaurus SL-C700, Sony announced the Vaio PCG-U101. It's got a revamped pointing device, a much bigger screen (23% more surface area), 3D graphics that should work under Linux, and a faster processor with the same core used in the new Pentium M. (And integrated 802.11b wireless LAN, but we'll see how the Linux support goes.) So, that pushed me over the edge.

I ordered the system from Dynamism, a company that specializes in importing and English-izing cool Japanese laptops. I considered sending money home with a Japanese student from the university where I work, but in the end, decided that the ease of hardware service Dynamism says they provide is worth a lot. And, since I was unsure exactly how well Linux would run, I thought it'd be nice to have an English-language OS to work from as a stepping stone, even if it is an evil one.