We see countless laptops come and go through the seasons, but a rare few have built up something of a following. Make no mistake: the Sony VAIO Z, a skinny ultraportable brimming with cutting-edge technology and powerful innards, is that kind of gem. So when it disappeared from Sony's online store earlier this year, more than a few techies took note. After all, the Z is part of a small fraternity of notebooks that combine an impossibly lightweight design with performance worthy of a larger system. People who missed out on the last-gen Z wondered when they'd next get the chance to buy, while some lucky folks out there with thousands to burn started itching for something thinner, something lighter, something... better.
Well, it's here. The 2011 VAIO Z is, indeed, thinner, lighter, and more powerful. It also might not be the Z you were expecting. Whereas the last generation combined it all, cramming in an optical drive and switchable graphics, this year's model leaves much of that at the door -- or, at least, in an external dock that ships with the laptop. This time around, the Z has no optical drive, and packs just an integrated Intel graphics card on board. (Don't worry, it does squeeze in lots of other goodies, including standard-voltage Sandy Bridge processors and expanded solid-state storage.) If you want that Blu-ray burner or the stock AMD Radeon HD 6650M graphics card, you'll have to plug into the Power Media Dock, an external peripheral that uses Intel's Light Peak technology.
That's quite the gamble Sony is taking -- after all, the company is essentially betting that you won't need to do anything too intensive while you're on the go. On the one hand, this inventive design is sure to intrigue the Z's usual early adopter fanbase. But will it satisfy those who always liked the Z because of its no-compromise design? And then there's the issue of that $1,969 starting price, a likely stumbling block for people trying to decide between this and an equally thin, less expensive ultraportable. What's a well-heeled geek to do? Let's find out.
Look and feel
The last time we reviewed the VAIO Z, we didn't have a whole lot to say about the design -- after all, the company didn't muck around much with the Z that came before that. This time around, the Z got a facelift and a touch of liposuction -- a makeover that's left it half a pound lighter and a whole lot flatter. As we mentioned, Sony gutted the Z so that it no longer houses an optical drive or dual graphics cards. Because of that, it was able to knock the weight down to an absurdly light 2.57 pounds (1.2kg) and whittle the thickness from one inch (25.4mm) to just six tenths of an inch (15.24mm). And when we say 0.6 inches, we mean at its thinnest and thickest point. That's right, this is a pancake-flat laptop the whole way through -- a departure from the deceptive wedge shape you'll see on scads of other laptops. The result is one unbelievably light notebook -- the lightest 13-incher with a standard voltage processor, to be exact. It feels even less dense than some netbooks we've tested, and it makes Lenovo's 3.7-pound (1.7kg) ThinkPad X1, for one, seem unwieldy by comparison. And yes, for those of you who were wondering, it's also lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air, which weighs in at 2.96 pounds (1.3kg).
The Z is, of course, thicker, than either the Air or Samsung's 2.8-pound (1.3kg) Series 9. But the Z at least justifies its "heft," if you can even call it that: it houses a whole lot more I/O openings, including a headphone / mic port, an Ethernet jack, USB 2.0 and 3.0 sockets, VGA-out, and separate SD and Memory Stick slots. And that's not even counting the ones you'll find on the Power Media Dock, which we'll walk you through in just a moment.
But the cosmetic differences between this year's Z and the last-gen model don't stop at inches and pounds. Like many VAIOs of yesteryear, the last-gen model had a rounded hinge with the power button baked in, whereas this one has a sunken display that sits so low that it grazes the table when it's open. In fact, at first blush it looks like the Z's missing a hinge. The power button, meanwhile, sits on the upper-rightmost corner of the keyboard deck. (And yes, it still glows that familiar green.) When we first unboxed the Z we a bit disoriented, but the new arrangement looks slick and also serves a practical purpose -- that new dropped hinge gives the keyboard a nice, subtle tilt when the lid is open. Moving along, Sony also added a brushed metal strip to the the back edge of the lid -- an over-the-top touch for a machine that doesn't need to prove it's premium. That metal accent just doesn't jibe with Sony's typical laptop design, and screams, "I'm expensive!" Well, we knew that.
Lift the lid, though, and the Z starts looking a bit more like its old self. There's the same island keyboard you know and love, and Sony hasn't ditched its commitment to physical buttons either. Above it, you'll find the tried-and-true WiFi switch, along with dedicated launch keys for VAIO Assist, VAIO Care, and a web browser of your choice. That strip above the 'board is a little less cluttered this time around, given that there's no lever for toggling between an integrated or discrete graphics card. The entire interior has a minimal look, even though there's a ridge near the palm rest that puts it on a slightly higher plane than the rest of the keyboard deck. Speaking of clean, the lid (available in black and an arresting indigo) did a good job of masking our fingerprints, even after a week of use.
Also like the last generation, the Z is constructed out of aluminum and carbon fiber, which makes the whole thing feel solid, particularly when you hold it one hand. In conversations with Sony, we asked why it didn't opt for a scratch-resistant Gorilla Glass display, as Lenovo did with the X1. While the company didn't exactly give us a straight answer, it did say that it deliberately made the display flexible so that it would better respond to travel and all-purpose manhandling. Make of that what you will -- we can see the advantage to building in some leeway, though there's no question that the screen feels less sturdy than the rest of the machine. And that's not unique to the Z either -- we have a lower-end VAIO SB in house, and its screen, too, tends to wobble, Given that we've seen the lower and higher end of what Sony has to offer, we're inclined to say we'd expect a bit more from the machine that costs north of two grand.
Keyboard and trackpad
As common as Chiclet keyboards are today, Sony was one of the first to jump on the island-style bandwagon. That means it's had a lot of time to think about what makes a great typing experience: how bouncy should the keys be? How far apart should they sit, and to what extent, if any, can people tolerate shrunken Shift buttons? All told, we'd say Sony has landed a winning formula. The keys are well spaced, fairly quiet, and have a pleasant, soft finish. Like the last-generation, this year's Z has a backlit keyboard-- a touch we'd be shocked not to find in a premium system like this.
And yet, while we made few spelling errors, the shallow keys didn't quite feel as comfy as other keyboards we've tested. The best analogy we can think of is what it's like to wear flip-flops. When you're wearing these shoes, which lack any kind of heel or arch support, you might notice your toes rolling into a claw. They push into the flip-flop, gripping the rubber to the extent that there's anything to grab. With the Z's keyboard, too, the keys are so short that there isn't much to latch onto. As we typed, we could feel ourselves bearing down on the keys with a bit more pressure than we'd normally apply. Even the MacBook Pro has slightly cushier keys -- and let's not even get started on the pillowy keyboard found on any ThinkPad. With bigger, more tactile keys like those, our hands fly over the keyboard -- they don't tense up because the buttons are simply easier to press. That said, in the grand scheme of things, the VAIO Z's keyboard is one of the sturdier and better arranged we've seen.
In yet another design switcheroo, Sony opted for a buttonless trackpad this go 'round. We'll be honest, we've had mixed experiences with seamless touchpads -- though most use the same underlying Synaptics technology, laptop manufacturers implement it differently. In Sony's case, the touch experience is mostly pleasant, at least when it comes to just moving the cursor to and fro. The touchpad, which measures nearly three inches by one and a half (76.2 x 38.1mm), has a low-friction surface, while a raised, lizard-inspired pattern makes the tactile experience. The touch buttons are ever-so slightly stiff, but the real problem is that there's a hyper sensitive fingerprint reader wedged in the center. It's all too easy to accidentally tap it with your fingers, which causes unwanted dialog boxes to appear onscreen. We suggest disabling that, unless biometric sensors are your cup of tea. Other than that, our main complaint about the touchpad is that it chokes on two-fingered scrolling. At first it'll appear to work seamlessly. You'll feel in control as you page up and down through a document. It all works perfectly until... it doesn't. Intermittently, we had vexing moments when we had to press hard with our fingers to make scrolling work, or where we moved our digits up and down and nothing happened.
Display and sound
The 13.1-inch display on our test unit had 1920 x 1080 resolution, though the base model comes with a 1600 x 900 panel. One of the first things we noticed about the Z -- even before its impossibly light weight, perhaps -- is that if you look at the screen from the side it has an odd reddish tint. It's a shame, because the viewing angles from the sides are actually quite good. Head-on, fortunately, the display looks gorgeous, with white whites, black blacks, and no sign of that puzzling red overcast that troubled us from oblique angles. We're also happy to report that the viewing angles are equally excellent if you push the lid forward -- a real possibility if you intend to use this thing on a plane or commuter rail.
While Sony's dished up one premium display, it dropped the ball as far as sound quality goes. The twin speakers deliver pretty weak volume and, what's more, the audio is pretty tinny. Not necessarily a more metallic sound than you'd get with any old notebook but remember, this isn't any old notebook. For two grand, we'd expect some deeper bass notes and volume loud enough to entertain a guest or twenty.
Power Media Dock
Here's the part you've been waiting for -- the thing that makes the Z look so peculiar in photos. The Power Media Dock -- and, with it, a completely different set of assumptions about how you're going touse your computer. This year's Z forgoes both the optical drive and discrete graphics card, and stuffs 'em both in a external drive, dubbed the Power Media Dock. The idea, simply put, is that you'll wait until you're plugged in to play Call of Duty: Black Ops and crunch 1080p video.
The dock, which comes bundled with the Z, has an AMD Radeon HD 6650M card with 1GB of video memory, and uses Intel's Light Peak technology, the same basic standard uses to power Thunderbolt on Macs. As some of you might recall, Sony uses the USB port to implement Light Peak. So, the attached cable has an odd, two-pronged connector, which plugs into the AC port and the adjacent USB 3.0 port. Once you plug it in, you'll see the screen flicker briefly, along with an onscreen dialog box acknowledging, essentially, that you're now cooking with butter. The cool thing about that is setup, of course, is that when you're not hooked up to the dock, you can instead use that port with USB 2.0 or 3.0 devices. Meanwhile, the dock comes with a fairly large power brick, in addition to the smaller one meant to connect the laptop directly to an outlet. So, you can leave the dock plugged into the wall using its own AC adapter, and keep the littler one on you while you're out and about with the Z.
Like the laptop itself, the dock has a thin, angular shape, with that that same band of metal ringing the end. If you pretend for a minute that the dock doesn't have a disc slot or various I/O ports, you might mistake its 8.7 x 5.8 x 0.7-inch (221 x 147.3 x 17.8mm) frame for an external hard drive. If you like, you can lay it flat on your desk, though it's mean to sit horizontally in a matching metal stand -- our favorite option, particularly since the stand has such a luxurious, weighty feel to it, complete with a rubberized bottom that ensures it won't skid on your desk. When you place the dock in the stand, the ports will be exposed on one end, with the slot-loading optical drive on the other. Those ports two more USB 2.0 ports (along with one of the 3.0 persuasion), as well as a VGA socket, port replicator, and duplicate HDMI and Ethernet sockets. If you go for the base $1,969 model, the dock will play and burn DVDs, though if you've got even more cash lying around you can step up to a BD-ROM or BD-RW drive.
Performance and graphics
Like the last Z, this year's model comes with your choice of standard voltage processors. It makes sense, given that the hard sell here is that you'll be getting a machine that purportedly offers no compromises in portability or performance. This time, as you can imagine, the processor options include Sandy Bridge CPUs. Our $2,749 tester machine came stocked with a 2.7GHz Core i7-2620M CPU, 4GB of RAM, dual 128GB SSDs, and integrated Intel graphics. That combination was enough to deliver a score of 11,808 in PCMark Vantage (11,855 with the Power Media Dock) -- either way, a roughly 25 percent gain over the current MacBook Air and a 56 percent improvement over the Series 9 we tested earlier this year.
Anecdotally, even without the Power Media Dock the Z didn't miss a beat as we jumped between tabs in Chrome, wrote emails, yammered away in Gchat, downloaded two games, edited a wiki page, watched YouTube and Hulu at full-screen, and installed two PC games. And, we booted into our Windows 7 desktop in an astonishingly fast 25 seconds. Throughout our testing, though, the fans spun so noisily that someone sitting nearby in our office stopped what he was doing to express concern. They became particularly insistent while we played Call of Duty 4 (and this was even after we lowered the resolution from 1080p to 1024 x 768), though they piped down as soon as we exited the game. Additionally, that vent on the left side gets hot to the touch, though the rest of the machine, fortunately, stays cool.
2011 Sony VAIO Z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6650M)
11,808 / 11,855
4,339 / 7,955
4:15 / 8:43
2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (2.5GHz Core i5-2520M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
3:31 / 6:57
Samsung Series 9 (1.4GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
ThinkPad X220 (2.5GHz Core i5-2520M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
ASUS U36Jc (2.53GHz M460, NVIDIA GeForce 310M)
2,048 / 3,524
Toshiba Portege R705 (2.26GHz Core i3-350M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
1,739 / 3,686
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.
So as much as some spec junkies are bound to grouse about the laptop's internal Intel graphics card, the system's well-equipped to keep up with you the vast majority of the time. It's in areas such as gaming and HD video encoding that that Radeon HD graphics card is poised to save you a headache or two. For one thing, it helped the Z's 3DMark06 soar from 4,339 to 7,955. (In 3DMark11, which requires a DirectX11-capable card, it notched P1248 at 720p resolution and X430 at 1080p.)
The graphics oomph was just as obvious when we tried playing games with the Power Media Dock and then without it. In Call of Duty 4, for instance, we managed frame rates of 28 fps at 1080p resolution and a more playable 58 fps at 1600 x 900. When we disconnected the machine, though, those rates sank to 7 fps for 1080p and 16 fps for 1600 x 900. Even when we lowered the resolution to the default 1024 x 768, we still only eked out a sluggish 16 frames per second. Likewise, Batman: Arkham Asylum ran at a snail's pace (12 fps) unplugged, but rose to a more acceptable 30 fps with the help of the dock.
It should go without saying that whether or not you'll be able to manage without the dock depends on your routine. We Engadget editors find ourselves in the somewhat abnormal situation of having to edit HD video and batch edit photos on the go -- all while writing stories, talking to each other over IM, and running an endless series of web searches, of course. So ditching the discrete graphics card while unplugged might not be ideal, although even then we'd feel confident about doing most of those things, especially the multitasking and light photo editing. At the end of the day, we'd still prefer that discrete card for Photoshopping and editing video, though something like an Elgato Turbo h.264 stick for encoding movies could be a good enough solution. Whatever your lifestyle, it's a fair question to ask yourself, given that you can't upgrade the discrete card or add more video memory. Think hard about the graphics performance we've been describing, because you can either take it or leave it.
Battery life and software
This year's Z marks the first time you can buy it with an optional $150 sheet battery, much like the one already on sale with the mid-range S series. Though it detracts from the Z's thinness, it's still easy to carry with that extra battery. On its own, the 4,000 mAh promises up to seven hours of juice -- 14, if you add the sheet battery. In our standard battery test, which involves looping a movie with WiFi on, the Z made it four hours and fifteen minutes on its own, and eight hours and forty-three minutes with the slice. On its own, the battery life is on the money -- it matches, almost minute-for-minute, what we've seen in the Series 9 and the Air, though that nearly nine-hour runtime is unheard of in this class. The closest time we've seen recently is from the Lenovo ThinkPad X220, which lasted seven hours and nineteen minutes in the same test.
Although the VAIO Z comes bundled with some software you didn't ask for, most of that is Sony's own utilities, including VAIO Care for optimizing your PC, VAIO Support for troubleshooting, as well as a networking manager. Of the usual suspects known to clog up programs lists, the only ones you'll find are Microsoft Office 2010 and the annoying-but-benign Norton Internet Security. Not bad at all.
The Z starts at $1,969.99 with a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M processor, 4GB of RAM, dual 64GB solid-state drives, a 1600 x 900 panel, and a DVD burner on the Power Media Dock. That 2.7GHz Core i7 processor in our test unit is a $250 upgrade, though if you don't want to spend quite that much you can opt for the 2.6GHz Core i5-2420M option for an additional hundred bucks. It'll also cost you $100 to boost the resolution to 1080p or upgrade to 6GB of RAM (getting the maximum 8GB will add $200 to the base cost). Other options include dual 128GB SSDs for $300, twin 512GB drives for $1,100, a mobile broadband module for $50, a Blu-ray player for $100, or a Blu-ray burner for $200. We hope you've been saving up.
When we review laptops, we typically compare them to any number of similar notebooks on the market. How many budget 15-inchers have you seen, for instance? Enough to crowd the displays at Best Buy. Thin-and-lights with 13- and 14-inch displays? Most every company wants to sell you one. But the VAIO Z is a rarer breed. If you're looking for a super lightweight laptop that promises long battery life and performance on par with a larger, heavier notebook, you'll find your options shrink to just a handful of models. Chief among them is the Samsung Series 9, which just got a refresh. This, too, has a 13-inch (1366 x 768) display, starting at $1,349 with a Core i5-2477M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD. (Just to be clear, this is the Series 9 we reviewed earlier this year, only it's since gotten a $300 price cut.) Moving up the line, there's a $1,649 version that doubles the storage to 256GB. Finally, a $2,049 configuration boosts the RAM to 6GB and steps up to a Core i7-2617M processor. To be fair, though, if you opt for this and you'll be getting an ultra-low voltage, not standard, processor, along with integrated-only graphics.
And although it's not an apples-to-apples comparison, we know a lot of shoppers are going to see this thing and compare it to the MacBook Air, which just got updated with Sandy Bridge processors. Why isn't this a completely fair comparison, you might ask? Well, aside from the fact that they're both 13-inch laptops with thin, lightweight designs, they don't have a whole lot in common. The MacBook Air has fewer features: discrete graphics aren't an option, nor is an optical drive. Its Sandy Bridge processors are ultra low voltage, as opposed to the standard-voltage kind used in the VAIO Z, while its resolution maxes out at 1440 x 900. Even the larger MacBook Airs have just two USB 2.0 ports, along with a Thunderbolt socket. And as for performance, it, too, has solid-state storage, though it starts with smaller drives. The Air offers less, but it's also cheaper, with a starting price of $1,299. Even Apple will tell you it's for everyday computing, whereas Sony has said it sees early adopters and artsy professionals snapping up the Z. And besides, those folks considering the VAIO Z have almost certainly heard of the Air, and might have already decided that they're not interested.
While we're at it, here's another imperfect comparison. The Toshiba Portege R830 is a 13.3-inch laptop with an integrated optical drive that starts at three pounds -- not to mention, a much more palatable price of $899. But although it falls into the same general class as the Z -- a light laptop with a standard-voltage processor -- its lower price means decidedly inferior specs and, possibly, more performance compromises. The base configuration comes with a Core i3-2310M processor, 4GB of RAM, a 640GB 5400RPM hard drive, and integrated graphics. At the high end, there's a $1,649 version with an i7-2620M CPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 128GB SSD -- expandable to a 512GB drive with 8GB of RAM, if you like. Even then, though, you're still not coming anywhere near the $2,749 our VAIO Z costs.
There's no question that this year's Z, like all three that came before it, is a striking, formidable sliver of machinery. Equally indisputable: $2,749 is a lot to spend on a laptop, particularly at a time when other ultraportables such as the Samsung Series 9 and MacBook Air are getting skinnier and more capable. Whether or not the Z is worth that chunk of change ultimately depends on how you define "best." If it means superior specs and benchmark scores, then we're going to have a hard time selling you on something else. Thanks to the Power Media Dock, the Z bests all of its competitors that top out at integrated graphics, offer fewer ports, and are missing an optical drive. There are no two ways about it: the Z is simply a more powerful laptop.
But not all of us swear by benchmarks, and not all of us are hardcore gamers or photography hobbyists. There are people considering this machine who have money to spend, sure, but really just want something more ambiguous: strong enough performance to handle "everyday computing," whatever that means for them. For those people, the 13-inch Air ($1,299 and up) or even the "lower-end" $1,349 Series 9 will seem just as sexy-thin -- not to mention, sufficiently powerful. These laptops also have more comfortable keyboards, and if you use them you might find yourself less troubled by fan noise. If performance and ports are what you're after, though, these ultra low voltage alternatives simply won't do, and we're guessing you're not giving them much thought anyway.