All things modern.
The SONY VAIO SZ series of portable laptops bridges the gap between ultra-portables and thin and light. It does this by being slightly smaller than most thin and lights but much more powerful than most ultraportables. The SZ series comes with fast core 2 duo CPUs, good graphics options, an optical drive, a great full size keyboard and a nice display. While benchmarks speak for themselves, the best feature of this laptop is more difficult to measure that is, the human interface. The machine is a (rare to find these days) logical and comfortable design, resulting in greater productivity than raw performance figures can reflect. Because you can judge performance figures yourself, my review will as always, focus on the usability of the product.
Specifications of this review machine are:
This is my fifth laptop ever and third this year. I have had a very long search for a usable laptop since my 5 year old IBM-R31, an amazing machine, started to become noticeably slow and the battery died. Because of my requirements for portability, I bought an HP NC-2400 which I reviewed previously here. While being an excellent machine usability-wise, it was not quite powerful enough for my heavy multitasking. Yes I only use office and the internet explorer but after opening 10 to 15 windows of them the machine tends to slow down.
I then purchased a HP TX-1000. While the TX-1000 was quite powerful, it was not as usable as I would have liked it. The keyboard especially caused me quite a headache. When buying the TX-1000 online I also considered an SZ laptop but decided that the price was too high and I had lingering concerns with the bright aluminium and keyboard. Two months later by chance I dropped into a furniture store and they had a SONY VAIO SZ 420 for sale. It was heavily discounted because it was the last one and it was the display unit. Once I had the opportunity to play with the laptop, the reasons for the high price was apparent and all other lingering concerns about the colour and the keyboard went away.
This laptop is for people who are looking to buy either an ultraportable or a thin and light. For people in the ultraportable market, it offers higher performance and usability than most ultraportables. For people in the thin and light market, it offers the same performance in an even thinner and lighter package. Most of all, it is for people who spend most of their day on the laptop on the go and need a machine they can use for an extended time efficiently and comfortably.
ThinkPad Z61t: Promised much but in the end was too expensive, had a 3 month delivery time and, based on my experiences with a T61, I no longer have confidence in Thinkpad build quality.
DELL B130: Offered light weight, low price. Ruled out because of bad experience with DELL build quality and product reliability.
Toshiba M7 tablet: Offered nice specs for a reasonable price. Ruled out because of weight and bad experience with Toshiba reliability.
HP NC2400: I did buy this but realised that it could not handle multitasking well, but was VERY well built and very ergonomic. This saddened me a great deal.
HP TX1000: bought this also and it is a very powerful machine but was never really happy with the usability. This also saddened me a great deal.
DELL XPS M1300: Seriously considered but again lingering bad taste about build and lastability.
The case of the SZ is a mixture of magnesium, aluminium and plastic. The materials are used logically, magnesium where strength is needed and plastic where it is not. The back of the display and the underside and the chassis is made of magnesium while the palm rest is aluminium. The keyboard surround and display surround is plastic. Construction is very solid with no creaking or flex even when lifted by a corner with the display open.
The decision to make the case from aluminium and magnesium was very well thought out. The palm-rest in particular does not bend at all when pressed because it is aluminium. When closed, the delicate internal components are well protected by strong rigid magnesium all around. Anyone who read my review on the NC 2400 will know that I don’t like the look of shiny bright laptops. However for some reason the silver on this machine didn’t ‘stand out’ or become bothersome in any way. I can hypothesise that perhaps this is because the silver brushed aluminium finish is not glossy enough to cause bothersome reflections. Whatever the reason, it was suitable enough for a complainer like me. So I won’t be painting it black.
There are two areas that give when pressed. These are the keyboard edge trim where it turns upward to cover the display hinges (the shiny silver circle) and the speaker grille. The keyboard edge trim creaks when pressed and can be pried away with a fingernail wedged in the gap. The speaker grill at the top of the keyboard also creaks when pressed and in fact has a dent on the right side probably from an over-inquisitive shopper. The display when closed also does not line up exactly with the body of the laptop when closed, being off by about half a millimetre on the right ride. Also, the gap between the plastic covering the left side hinge is large enough to see the cable running through it. I cannot say if this is a build quality problem or shopper abuse while the unit was on display.
No ripples could be produced by pressing the back of the display although it did depress a bit. Twisting also had no effect of the sort. The only way i was able to produce ripples was to press directly against the front of the LCD panel. This produced ripples with the slightest touch which lead me to believe that the display cover is protecting the LCD very well. The webcam is located at the top of the display and is very unobtrusive. Those who get irritated by the presence of the webcam will not have that experience on this laptop. The display has no latches, but keeps itself firmly closed nevertheless, I don’t know how. It was quite refreshing to not have to release a catch to open the display as I have had to do for all my previous machines.
One of the selling points of this series from SONY is the very thin display. I did not buy the model with the carbon fibre lid and its associated 4mm thick display (not like I had a choice). My display is the cheaper fatter one and while not seeming fascinatingly thin, is thinner than any other laptop display I’ve seen. It does give the laptop an elegant look.
Front: There is nothing on the front of this laptop except a cooling air intake on the left side where the hard drive is located. This may be good or bad I’m not sure, I don’t have a problem with it. My old TX-1000 had the headphone and microphone ports on the front and they did obstruct while plugged in so maybe SONY has realised this and put nothing on the front.
Left: The left side of the machine has from front to back, the Memory Stick DUO slot, the PCMCIA slot, VGA out port, IEEE 1394 port, headphone port and mic port. That list of ports seems MUCH longer than it looks on the side of the laptop by the way. They are well placed, concealed and integrated into the laptop design. Some hot air DOES come out of the small vent above the audio ports. I must mention again that the Memory Stick slot supports DUO sticks only.
Right: The right side is the location for, from front to back, the Optical drive, the eXpress card slot (shown with card reader inserted), 2 USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet LAN and modem ports. Once again the design is very sleek and components well located. The LAN and modem ports are covered by a plastic cap as seen covering the ports of may digital cameras. These covers are a very good idea since they keep dust out and look good as well, as long as they do not get in the way. I am glad to say that the cover on this machine does NOT get in the way and thus is a successful implementation.
Back: The back of the machine is dominated by the battery. My battery is the standard battery and so does not stick out the back of the computer but is flush with it. From left to right there is the Power port, battery, air vent and lock port. I really liked the position of the power port on my 2 HP laptops at the back left side of the machine. This enabled it to be easily attached/detached and it was harder to damage being in plain sight. SONY has solved this to a certain extent by providing a right angle power connector which takes up less space on the desktop and allows it to be pushed right up against a wall without damage. It can still be strained if the laptop is tilted upward though although I can’t see why anyone would need to do this. The location of the lock slot and the main air outlet vent are perfect. There is no good reason for hot air to exit a laptop anywhere except at the back of it. As shown in the picture, the status lights can be seen even at this extreme angle.
Bottom: the bottom of the laptop has a few covers secured by screws, although only the ram slots are located under the laptop according to the user manual. I don’t know nor do I care to know what is under the other weird shaped cover, maybe after the warranty or until something breaks. The covers finish flush with the case leaving a level bottom except for the battery area. This leaves a nice flat bottom. I can see no good reason why the bottom of a laptop has to look like a lunar landscape as some others do. Yes that is a pool table and I have intentionally blocked my serial number and windows product key J
I will now volunteer to eat my words about the keyboard of this machine. This is a good case where one shouldn’t bash something until they try it. Finding the laptop at the furniture store allowed me to play with it and this compelled me to completely reverse my previous opinion about the keyboard being rubbish. At first glance the keyboard looks strange, without much space between the keys giving a flat effect. However the keys are large, have a large travel and good feedback making it extremely comfortable to use.
In use, fingers simply slide from one key to the other, allowing fast typing. I haven’t used a more comfortable keyboard since the HP NC-2400, which I found was better than the keyboard on my IBM T61. I still like the IBM layout, but again I can only guess that it is patented and can’t be copied, although some DELL machines have similar layouts.
I have read many complaints about the NUM lettering on the keys. People say that it is very dark and hard to see. I have to agree. However I am thankful for it because I do not use the NUM keys. For me therefore the colour scheme just reduces clutter.
The touchpad is located in the normal position but is a bit small. The buttons are also small but due to nice feel and feedback, they are easy to use. The fingerprint reader is located between the buttons but this does not hinder operation of the reader or the buttons. Above the keyboard is a small section with 2 user configurable buttons (S1 and S2), a ‘stamina’/’speed’ switch wireless switch and the power button. Although the two buttons (S1 and S2) are configurable, the options are very limited and this limits their effectiveness. I have never had the need to use the machine on ‘stamina’ mode although it may be useful to some people supposedly to save battery power. The wireless switch and the power button of course are used all the time. All the buttons seem well constructed to withstand regular use. To either side of the system buttons are the speakers which are not located at the extreme edges of the laptop but somewhere in the middle. As mentioned previously the grille covering the speakers seems a little creaky.
Above the system buttons are the status indicator lights which are concentrated in one place. There are located in the best place possible for easy viewing but are not too bright to be distracting even in dimly lit environments. The lights wrap around the bezel enabling them to be viewed with the display open or closed; a great implementation. Different colours enable status to be gauged at a glance. Lights are from left to right: power status, battery status, HDD activity, WLAN on and Bluetooth on. I like lots of status lights. The gap between the programs and the edge of the display is because I have my taskbar double height.
Battery life on this machine is standard, approximately 2 hours, but that’s going up as I cycle the battery. Extended life batteries are available.
The SZ is a very light machine, being easy to carry one handed or in a backpack. Although it had no protruding battery to grip, at least not on my model, it feel secure to hold onto because of the hump on the bottom. The roughened exterior finish also helps carrying it. When open, it’s flatness and lightness, especially of the display allows it to be balanced on the lap quite easily. As mentioned previously, the silver on the palm rest and the keyboard surround does not distract. Neither does the system lights and subdued ‘VAIO’ branding on the bottom of the display.
Of particular note is the wedge shape of the laptop. It may seem not the best use of interior volume, but some may appreciate the angled keyboard that results. The distance from the top of the palm rest to the top of the table is about 15 mm. The palm rest seems to flow from the table, much like a palmrest on a desktop keyboard. This allows the wrist to maintain its neutral position during use reducing risk of suffering carpal tunnel syndrome when used for long periods. My wrist is almost perfectly straight while using this machine and it makes a BIG difference in comfort and hence productivity.
The display on the SZ is a good trade off between glossy and matte displays. While the argument rages on in laptop forums about matte vs. glossy screens, this display should satisfy everyone. It combines the best qualities of both types. The screen is obviously glossy, however the amount of light reflected is very little. If I were to aim the display at a lighted bulb, all i see is a faint purple ghost. I have at times forgotten that I had a glossy screen while using it! On the other hand, the contrast offered by the screen is amazing, light leakage is minimal and viewing angles are excellent horizontal (near 90 degrees) and great vertical (about 45 degrees).
Colour saturation is good, black is very black but whites are a bit yellow. I was a little disappointed that the NVidia control panel does not allow the user to make such basic adjustments as colour saturation, contrast and brightness. I did not observe any dead pixels. The resolution is good for a display of this size. The 13 inch display allows the user to sit back more of the time, again increasing comfort over a 12 inch display of the same resolution.
Laptop speakers are not expected to sound very good and the speakers on the SZ are typical for laptops. The sound from these speakers is shallow, but they are exceptionally clean sounding. The pre-installed Sonic Stage Mastering Studio Audio Filter offers a wide variety of audiophile level adjustments and even offers an auto set up mode found on high end receivers. The laptop plays a series of tones and the levels and timings are adjusted automatically using the built in microphone. As a result of all the high end filtering, sound from my Motorola Bluetooth HT-820 headphones is spectacular.
Heat was never an issue from this laptop, and I have always used the ‘speed’ setting using the NVidia video. Not even using it for hours on a furry mat caused it to get uncomfortably hot. As mentioned before the hot air vent is on the back where it should be so all hot air is directed away from the user and the laptop. The case of the laptops is a clever design with air intakes at strategic points around the bottom, cooling components on location. The hard drive for example has vents on the front of the laptop as well as underneath. This is good since it is located under the palm rest where a hot hard drive would pose a problem. The cooling fan is unexpectedly on the loud side, but by no means loud enough to be a problem. The optical drive produces very little noise. The hard drive however does cause the palm rest to rumble, not too much to be irritating actually, it feels sort of invigorating.
Reception on the SZ did not seem as good as on my TX-1000, consistently indicating lower signal strength than the TX in the same place at the same time. I am not sure it this has anything to do with the display case being metal instead of plastic as on the TX-1000. IBM had this problem with its metal display covers and have since reverted to plastic covers with an internal magnesium space frame for strength. Bluetooth is excellent, connecting to every device first time and never stuttering with the connection. Even my Bluetooth stereo headphones connected first time and work without a hitch although they do encounter problems with many other Bluetooth adaptors, computers and mobile phones.
Despite my earlier misgivings, the keyboard on this computer is one of its strong points. Despite the layout, which can’t seem to be helped, the feel is great. For starters it is very big, it feels much closer to full size than any other keyboard I’ve used on a laptop. Perhaps this is partially explained by the keyboard extending right to the edge of the computer instead of cramming the keys together and leavening half an inch on either side for god knows what like my HP. The second thing about the keyboard is that although it looks flat, the keys have a deep travel making them feel more massive than they look. The feedback from the keys is also very good. The keys are soft but solid, giving adequate feedback for confident typing.
I have not yet needed to contact customer support. I have already performed a system recovery to clear out whatever mess the people at the furniture store might have put on for demonstration purposes.
Calculating SuperPi to 2 million places took 1 min 05 seconds.
PCMark 05 benchmark gave a score of 4157.
HDTune results are:
Before coming across this machine at a local furniture store, I had always considered VAIOS to be the overpriced diamond-studded computers of the computer world. However having not bought it and used it for some time, I realise that while yes they are a bit more expensive than mainstream laptops, the premium price is as a result of actual good design and build quality and this just makes it worth it.