Sony's new VAIO Z ultraportable laptop with Power Media Dock hands-on (video)

Now that we've seen Sony's new VAIO Z in its luscious press shots, it's time to face reality and lay our itchy hands on this 13-inch ultraportable laptop, along with its eccentric expansion dock that packs both a Blu-ray drive and an AMD Radeon HD 6650M graphics chip (with 1GB of video RAM). Just as we were told by our little birdie, said dock is connected to the notebook via Light Peak -- a first for Sony -- but there's a catch: Sony's only implementing the architecture and not the connector, so for the time being, this sweet high speed connection is only compatible with the docking unit and nothing else.

Anyhow, here's a quick recap: what we have here is a 1.18kg feather-light machine packing an Intel Sandy Bridge i5 (also available with an i7), 256GB SSD and 1.3 megapixel webcam, plus a matte LCD display with resolution at 1600 x 900 or an optional 1920 x 1080. Oh yes, for an extra cost, you get some sweet full HD action at just 13 inches. This upgraded display performed well in the relatively dark confines of the press event, but how it fares under direct sunlight remains to be seen. Read on for more hands-on impression.

At first glance, the VAIO Z looks very much like the legendary VAIO X, and some of its technologies are actually ported over from the latter: a single sided motherboard, and a fold out RJ-45 port design, in order to reduce the machine's thickness to a mere 16.65mm. Like the VAIO X, the flap is plastic, but it doesn't feel flimsy. The rest of the VAIO Z feels solid all around, with carbon fiber used to reinforce the screen and chassis, along with a layer of aluminum for the palm rest. The hinge is hidden behind the back of the machine, and upon opening the lid upright, the machine is lifted up slightly by a couple of feet beneath the display -- much like the hinge on the ASUS Transformer's keyboard dock. Presumably, this is for better heat dissipation.

As with most ultraportables, the VAIO Z only packs a grand total of two USB ports, and only one of them is USB 3.0-compatible. But here's a surprise: the latter port is also where Light Peak is implemented: the fiber optic cables feed data to and from the media dock, which we will touch on later. Plugging in the Power Media Dock will leave you with only one usable USB port on the laptop, but then the dock has decent connectivity in it's own right -- as you'll see below. As for the remaining sockets we have HDMI and VGA output on each side of the machine, an SD card slot plus a dedicated MemoryStick reader (yes, it's still around), as well as a lone headphone port on the right hand side.

Don't worry, we haven't forgotten the Power Media Dock. Obviously, this add-on is designed to stay at home while the VAIO Z is out and about with you road warriors. Aside from providing a Blu-ray drive and discrete graphics, the dock also adds an additional USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports, along with the ability to connect two more monitors. The VAIO Z's chief designer confirmed to us that this allows the laptop to drive up to four displays -- including the laptop's own LCD -- simultaneously! Understandably, the dock must be powered externally, but it does pass on power to the notebook for recharging.

The keyboard is pretty standard Sony stuff, and those who are into chiclet keyboards should feel right at home. To shave some thickness off the machine, the keys aren't raised as high as their predecessors, but the travel is still deep and satisfactory. Under dim lighting, the keys are equipped with a pale green backlight -- a welcoming diversion from the over-used blue and white backlighting often seen on laptops. The button-free touchpad struck us as top-notch, being responsive to the lightest of taps anywhere across its area. Smack in the middle of the touchpad you'll find a fingerprint scanner, which we couldn't test but which should be supported by Sony's feature-rich software that lets you login to specific websites (as well as the OS itself) with a swipe of a digit.

Another feature worth noting is this new VAIO Z's twin-fan design. By sharing the load of cooling between the two spinners, Sony managed to reduce both thickness and noise. The entire chassis remained cool to the touch even after running for about 30 minutes, and fan noise was minimal. Those fans are of course there to pamper the Sandy Bridge processor, which Sony wouldn't let us see in action because the software configuration was far from final. Nevertheless, we did observe an impressive boot-up time of less than 20-seconds.

As for battery life, Sony claims 6.5/7 hours of usage with the standard, non-user replaceable battery, though you can extend that to 13/14 hours with the optional slice battery pack, which screws into the base of the laptop and adds a good few millimetres in thickness and 680g in weight. That might sound a lot, but it means you're getting up to two days' use from a powerful machine that weighs less than 2kg in total, so we're not complaining.

We've yet to hear about US availability and prices for this sexy device and its beastly companion, but in Taiwan you can pick up a 1080p model plus the dock for a hefty NT$94,800 (US$3,270) in July, while the UK is already offering it sans the dock starting from £1,434 ($2,294), and a Sony UK spokesperson said that including the dock would bump the starting price up to £2000. Stay tuned for new info when we hear from Sony's US team -- just don't let your wallet see these price tags.