$1,699, http://www.ita.sel.sony.com, 800/476-6972
Specifications: 13-inch "high performance addressing" passive-matrix display, 366 MHz Intel Celeron processor, 128 kb L2 cache, 32 mb memory, 2.5 mb video memory, 4.02 gb hard drive, 24x CD-ROM drive, 56-kbps modem, two Type II (or one Type III) PC Card slots.
Support: One-year warranty; 24-hour, toll-free software support for first 90 days ($19.95 per-problem charge applies afterward).
When I first unpacked the Sony Vaio F250, I was impressed with its vast 13-inch display and its vivid colors. My excitement waned as I found that I had to adjust the screen angle continuously to compensate for this "high-performance addressing" screen's fluctuating colors, contrast and brightness. Tweaking the brightness and contrast involved a combination of keys so convoluted I wondered if it was Sony's equivalent of a secret handshake.
The inclusion of a passive-matrix screen on a $1,700 machine is a real puzzle, as is Sony choosing to supply only 32 megabytes of RAM. The basic features and performance aren't so bad, but, given that the F250 was the second-most expensive laptop we looked at, it's hard to recommend this over the competition.
Ergonomically, the Vaio excels. Its tilt stand offers a comfortable angle for typing, and its longer and wider dimensions (12.8 inches by 10.5 inches) allow standard-size keys. The touchpad tracked well and, placed left of center, stayed out of the way of my typing. But it's a handful to cart around, weighing in at a little more than eight pounds including the power adapter and floppy drive (substituting a plastic fill-in for the floppy saves seven ounces).
Annoyingly, this computer made a lot of noise; its CD-ROM drive sounded like an amplified saw going back and forth, a racket the noisy fan failed to mask. The fan can be set to Quiet Mode, but tech support warned that this might result in overheating and shutdown without warning.
Battery life fell short of the 3 hours and 10 minutes the Vaio's software promised while the laptop was plugged in: During my test of Web surfing, software installation and word processing, the battery died after 1:50. Heed the machine's first warning to save your work, as subsequent warnings flash by too quickly to allow you to store anything before the machine shuts down. After restarting with AC power, it took over three hours to completely recharge the battery.
Pick up a good book to browse before calling tech support. Five calls to the toll-free line resulted in an average wait of 15 to 20 minutes. Once I gave up after waiting 45 minutes. The technicians seemed polite and anxious to help, but get the questions out of your system early: After a year, tech support costs $19.95 per incident.