Sony makes both a very fast and very lightweight ultraportable. (November 7th, 2010)
The Sony VAIO Z is designed to blur the distinction between regular ultraportables and full-size notebooks. At least in theory, it should be as fast as even some desktop replacements but still svelte enough to fit in tight spaces. The design induces sticker shock at $1,800, but we'll learn in our VAIO Z review whether that gets the best of both worlds.
Product Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $1,800 (2.4GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM, 128GB SSD)
- Extremely fast storage.
- Fast processor and graphics for the size.
- Optical drive in a 3lbs. design.
- High-res, good quality display.
- Comfortable, backlit keyboard.
- Chrome and Evernote preinstalled.
- Fragile-feeling screen.
- Trackpad too close to the edge.
- Some fluff trialware.
Hardware and design
Not every Sony notebook exudes a sense of quality, but the Z is very well designed. The laptop weighs in at just over three pounds and is about the thickness you'd expect for a 13-inch notebook. Connectivity is straightforward but in line with what you'd want from a system this size with a gigabit Ethernet port, three USB ports, audio jacks, and both HDMI and VGA outputs. What's still surprising to us is that Sony engineers achieved the weight while still including an optical drive (sadly, still tray-loading) on the right side of the computer. Our review unit shipped with a DVD-RW drive, but Sony also makes a Blu-ray burner available.
The screen on the Z series measures 13.1 inches diagonally, but it runs at a sharp 1600x900 resolution. The screen is very bright and is LED-backlit, but it's also very thin, and unfortunately far too flexible. We were able to bend the screen farther than any other laptop we've tested which leaves this unit feeling somewhat flimsy. Color accuracy on our example was relatively good, but we've heard the optional 1920x1080 display is more color-rich; consider it if you'll use this to proof photos or videos.
Sony starts the Z at a high baseline, and users have several configurations to choose from, ranging from the 2.4GHz Core i5 520M of our unit to the 2.66GHz Core i7 640M. The company also beat Apple's MacBook Air to the punch in terms of design strategy: storage is entirely handled by fast solid state drives. The Z Series can support up to 512GB (via two 256GB drives) in storage capacity and can also run on a RAID 0 stripe, which merges the two SSDs into one contiguous, even faster drive.
Graphics are also a cornerstone of the philosophy here. Where most Windows systems this size would be saddled with Intel integrated video, the VAIO Z is powered by a dedicated, mid-range NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M. Rather than just use a direct port of NVIDIA's Optimus technology, though, it uses an in-house graphics switching system. A switch allows users to change the graphics hardware settings between been maximum performance with the GT 330M ("speed") and battery life with Intel video ("stamina"). There's also an automatic mode that will switch on the fly depending on certain conditions, such as whether or not you're plugged into AC power or running a game that might need the faster graphics.
For mobile internet access the Z Series can be configured with either Sprint or Verizon mobile broadband hardware. Sony also includes software dubbed Share My Connection which allows the notebook to function as a Wi-Fi hotspot for other devices; Mac users are well familiar with this, but it's good to see on the Windows side. Other features included on the Z Series are a biometric fingerprint reader, in between the mouse buttons, and the near obligatory webcam installed just above the LCD.
The keyboard on the Z is a pleasure to type on. The raised and separated 'chiclet' layout is increasingly popular these days, but for a good reason: it's easy to reach them without accidental input, and it makes backlighting relatively easy to implement for typing in dimly light environments. The keys have a satisfying amount of travel with a faint "click" and none of the mushed feel of some keyboards.
Perhaps our biggest complaint about the physical interface would be the placement of the mouse buttons. The right and left click mouse buttons are placed so close to the edge of the laptop that it often feels like you're about to click right off of the laptop and on to the desk below it. The beveled edge of the laptop and the curved shape of the mouse keys only exacerbate this distraction, which took some real getting used to.
Performance and battery life
The entire user experience on this VAIO is very responsive, thanks in large part to the minimum 4GB of RAM (ours had 6GB) and the solid state storage system; apps virtually never have to wait for data, since it's either already cached or is waiting on a drive with near-zero lag. Windows isn't normally known for booting quickly, but it's much better here.
In regular Windows performance, we tried a subjective test: we loaded multiple high definition movie trailers, all of which played back flawlessly even during heavy multitasking with other apps. As we've been learning quickly, processor performance is only half the story. SSD storage can make a system faster in real-world conditions, even when compared to a system whose processor would make it faster on paper.
You won't notice the GT 330M's performance in these conditions most of the time, but it's when playing a game or modelling 3D that the VAIO Z truly shines. The 1600x900 screen could potentially bog down some games if you try to run them at native resolution, but typical games from Steam (such as Left 4 Dead 2) and others that aren't known to be taxing should run smoothly. No one should buy an ultraportable for the sake of gaming, and we wouldn't want to use it as a main Crysis system, but Sony's choice of graphics makes it a much better all-rounder than most.
Battery life on the Z Series is rated at six to seven hours depending on the screen brightness. Our testing would indicate that this is a fair assessment, though of course for relatively light tasks like web browsing, checking e-mail and listening to music. Watching movies, playing games or using the optional 3G modem are all likely to make the battery life much shorter, especially when the NVIDIA graphics are brought in. Still, for note taking in class or a day of business meetings, the Z should hold out.
Software as is often the case is a mixed bag with Sony. The company has backed away from its one-time practice of over-customizing the software load -- we still have less than fond memories of the Spider-Man 3 promo days -- but it's not quite a clean break, as there are some trial apps and preloaded titles that aren't immediately useful. Sony's own Media Gallery app feels somewhat superfluous, for example. We most liked the inclusion of Google Chrome and a custom copy of Evernote; both are genuinely helpful and provide a much better browsing and organizing experience than what Microsoft supplies itself.
The company still has its Fresh Start upgrade option if you want a truly clean install, but as before it's still controversial: you can only get it if you custom-order the Z and pay the $50 premium to get Windows 7 Professional installed. We know why Sony does this, as it's the inclusion of the trial apps that helps subsidize the cost of the notebook. You do also get a more advanced version of Windows in the process. Still, charging extra to avoid nuisances is annoying and an example that Mac users will often cite as a drawback of using Windows notebooks.
The Z Series is pricey, but it's one of the few systems that can be characterized as truly no-compromise. In the size and weight of an ultraportable, you're getting speed that's not only comparable to a mid-size or larger notebook but often well above it. Apple does have the advantage of lower prices on the MacBook Air the VAIO Z inevitably compares against, but paying extra here gets both a fast processor, fast storage and even an optical drive without any significant gain in weight. It's definitely thicker, but it also manages similar battery life to a 13-inch MacBook Air while still carrying a faster underlying chip.
Our only gripes with this VAIO are simply in design choices. We're concerned about the strength and long-term durability of the screen; it will probably be fine, but even the diminutive 11-inch MacBook Air's display frame is extremely rigid. The trackpad's mouse button placement is also awkward and could likely have been fixed, although it's a minor issue in a design that's very efficient.
Almost everything else about this notebook is excellent. If you're looking for an ultraportable notebook that can can compete with a desktop for performance or even serve as your only computer, provided the SSD is enough to hold your content, the VAIO Z may not only be a better choice but possibly the only choice. Those considering the MacBook Air or a Lenovo ThinkPad X200 series may have some good reasons to stay onboard, but if the budget allows, you may not have to look any further.