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Sony has unveiled the first model in a new line of notebook computers, the Vaio VX series, and lifted the veil on a couple of prototypes the company is currently developing, among them a strong contender for the title of smallest Windows XP-based notebook in the world.

Few details were available about the small notebook, called Vaio-U, and Sony would not disclose specifications for the prototype model or remove it from a display case. The machine is noticeably smaller than most Windows-based notebooks currently on the market. Its size and black plastic case gave the machine more than a passing resemblance to Sony's Vaio-GT machine, a 6.4-inch LCD (liquid crystal display) equipped notebook, although the Vaio-U prototype lacked the digital still camera that makes the Vaio-GT so distinctive.

A pointing device and buttons have been built into the notebook above the keyboard so they can be easily operated when the machine is held on either side and the keyboard overlay revealed another possible clue as to a feature on the machine. In the same way that keys on the right hand side of a notebook keyboard are labelled so they can serve double duty as a number keypad, the keys on the left hand side of the machine were labelled like a telephone keypad (e.g. 2 ABC, 3 DEF, etc).

The machine is still under development and, as such, no information on the launch schedule or pricing was available.

Also on show at the Tokyo news conference was a version of Sony's already launched Vaio-C1 notebook. The machine was running Sony's GigaPocket software, an application that allows a personal computer to be used as a hard-disk video recorder. Previously available only on Sony's desktop line of machines, the company said it is now working on putting the software into notebook computers to allow people who don't have room for or don't want a desktop machine to enjoy the same function.

Alongside the prototypes, Tokyo-based Sony also unveiled a machine much closer to launch.

The Vaio VX is based on Intel's Mobile Pentium III processor running at 850MHz and packs 256M bytes of memory, a 30G-byte hard-disk drive, a 14.1-inch XGA resolution (1024 by 768 pixels) TFT (thin film transistor) LCD (liquid crystal display), and has a built-in 802.11b wireless LAN modem.

Key features of the machine include a switch on the side of the notebook to make switching the wireless LAN function on and off easy and a larger battery, which will last between 3.5 hours and 5.5 hours, according to Sony. An optional, larger battery pack will power the machine for between 7 hours and 11 hours, it said.

The Vaio VX measures 313 millimetres by 262 millimetres in width and depth and is 17.7 millimetres high at its thinnest point and 33.1 millimetres high at its thickest point. This makes putting an optical drive inside the machine difficult and Sony is supplying an external CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive, which connects via an I-Link IEEE 1394 connection, with each computer. Sony plans to put the new machine on the market in Japan on March 23 at a price around ¥250,000 ($US1940).

Plans for an overseas launch of the Vaio VX are still under consideration.

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Martyn Williams

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