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Vaio Z lead
Vaio Z lead

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Sony VAIO Z Series (VPCZ216GX/L) review

An external GPU, speedy 128GB SSD, full HD display, backlit keyboard, and a .66-inch chassis — is the new VAIO Z as amazing as its spec sheet?

Ever since Sony introduced its VAIO Z back in 2008 it’s made one thing very clear: its premium thin and light notebook wasn’t going to be subject to a performance cap like so many others on the market. Nope, the VAIO Z has never been just any ultraportable, and it’s almost seemed as if the guys in Tokyo have been morally opposed to using anything but brand new technologies in the line — the premiere Z was one of the first laptops to be sold with an SSD and switchable graphics, and the 2010 refreshed model was packed to the brim with the latest components, including a backlit keyboard and a quad-SSD option.

The 13.1-inch VAIO Z of 2011 is no different in that regard — it’s the epitome of a groundbreaking computer. The thickness has been practically sliced in half since the previous version, and yet, it’s still powered by a fresh Core i7 processor and speedy solid state drive. Its most interesting feature, however, is undoubtedly its new high-speed port based on Intel’s Light Peak, which provides the optic tubes to connect an external GPU and Blu-ray optical drive — what Sony calls the Power Media Dock. And then, of course, there’s its matching slice battery that promises up to 14 hours of battery life as well as that full 1080p display. The spec list is no joke, but of course, neither is its plus $2,000 price. So, does the VAIO Z continue to be the must-have ultraportable? Or is it simply just an overly luxurious laptop for Sony to brag about? Hit the break for the in-depth review you’ve been waiting for.

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

The new model’s sleeker look, flared edges, and tapered bottom make up for it
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The previous Z was always portable, but boy, Sony’s upped its game here. The laptop now measures .66 inches thick, but more shocking is its weight. The 2.57-pound rig is actually lighter than most 10-inch netbooks, and that’s really the first thing anybody is going to notice about it. I got firsthand proof: one of my friends picked up the laptop and somewhat seriously asked, "What? Is this the lightest laptop ever?" Of course, that’s not totally true, but Sony does claim that it’s the lightest 13-inch standard voltage laptop out there. And a check of the chart below indicates that we can pretty much take that as gospel.

Dimensions (in.) Thickness Weight (lb.)
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 13.0 x 8.27 0.66 2.57
Sony VAIO Z (2009) 12.4 x 8.3 1.0 - 1.3 3.04
MacBook Air (13-inch) 12.8 x 8.94 0.11 - 0.68 2.9
Samsung Series 9 12.9 x 8.9 0.62 - 0.64 2.88
Toshiba Portege R705 12.44 x 8.94 0.72 - 1.01 3.2
ASUS U36Jc 12.7 x 9.1 0.76 3.5

The Z isn’t as pinch-thin as the MacBook Air or the Samsung Series 9 (at least at their thinnest points), but neither of those can claim to have the Z’s port line up. The right edge is stocked with a 3.5mm headphone jack, one USB 2.0 port, an additional USB 3.0 socket (or the Power Media Dock port, as Sony would like you to call it), a full-sized HDMI jack, and a pull-down Ethernet outlet. The left has a VGA port and the front edge two separate MagicGate and SD card slots. The Power Media Dock itself houses a slew of other ports — details on that soon.

Sony's upped its game here

But there’s more to the Z than its thin and light attributes. The entire system is covered in a smooth carbon fiber, which intrinsically gives it a very simple and minimalistic aesthetic. Like many VAIO fans, I took the removal of the classic cylindrical hinge / power button a bit hard, but after some hard thinking, I’ve decided the new model’s sleeker look, flared edges, and tapered bottom make up for it. Also, the way the screen hinge props up the keyboard when opened is very cool. Sony opted to send me the black and indigo model — which our own Nilay Patel has pointed out looks as if it was made to match the Joker in the 1989 "Batman" — however, those who prefer a more villain-free color combo have all-black and gray / black versions to choose from. Overall, I have to say the carbon fiber coating and the aluminum-core give the system a very sturdy feel, but there is some noticeable bend to the lid. According to one of the Z’s product managers, that’s actually intentional — apparently, the product designers worked with the carbon fiber to give the screen some added flexibility — but regardless, it makes the upper half of the system feel cheaper than it should. I can’t say if it will wear well over time, but it’s absolutely the sort of laptop you will want to keep protected in a neoprene sleeve of some sort. But don’t let me tell you what to do with your $2,000 investment!

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Keyboard and trackpad

Keyboard and trackpad

The spacing of the keys is just right, the height isn't
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LI’ve typed the brunt of this review on the VAIO Z’s chiclet keyboard, and while I wouldn’t describe it as an unpleasant experience, I did find myself missing the previous Z keyboard and my MacBook Pro’s panel. The spacing of the keys is just right, but the height isn’t. The entire panel feels shallow and the plastic keys somewhat mushy. That’s not to say it isn’t comfortable — it actually is, and I love the way the screen hinge props up the panel at a slight angle — but flat out (pun perhaps intended!), the keys aren’t as homey as others out there. Thankfully, they are backlit, yet like the previous Z, there’s no way to manually adjust the brightness. It’s strictly powered by the ambient light sensor located above the keyboard. To the left of that sensor Sony’s positioned a physical wireless on / off toggle as well as three glowing, capacitive touch shortcuts. The buttons — Assist, Web, and VAIO — are surprisingly responsive, though chances are you’ll want to change their assignments in the VAIO Control Panel as soon as possible. The Web button launches IE9, while the ASSIST opens VAIO Care and the VAIO key the Media Gallery.

You’ll notice in the photos that the 2.9 x 2.5-inch touchpad looks fairly small in comparison to the rest of the deck, but looks can deceive. It turns out that the pad is actually a decent size for navigating and the snake skin-like pattern provides a nice textured feel under a fingertip. Interestingly, the buttons are integrated into the pad itself, but are separated from one another by a rather sensitive fingerprint reader. I’d recommend swiftly disabling it to avoid the incessant security pop-ups. My biggest complaint about the pad comes with its inconsistent sensitivity — I found myself having to press fairly hard to get two-finger scrolling to work smoothly and putting more pressure on my index finger to push around the cursor. Yet, my palms would swipe at the pad while typing and send the cursor across the screen. Even after playing around with the settings for the last week, I haven’t found a tweak that suits my fairly normal mousing behavior. All in all, it’s safe to say you’ll probably want to pony up for a nice mobile mouse to match this ultraportable

Display and speakers

Display and speakers

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My love for the Z’s display is pretty much unmatched, and if you’re ever lucky enough to set your eyes on the 13.1-inch, 1920 x 1080-resolution screen you’ll understand why. The matte panel — yes, matte! — has excellent horizontal and vertical viewing angles. In fact, I was actually worried that a nosey guy sitting adjacent to me at a coffee shop could see what was up on my screen. On top of that, the display is extremely bright and vivid — colors are best described as luscious and blacks as deep. However, the crispness caused by the high ppi (or as a good friend of mine would say, pixel density) is just superb, and while you can fit more on the screen thanks to the resolution, the best part of it is really the sharpened text and images. Acknowledging that those may be a bit small for some, Sony includes a short instructional video to teach Windows 7 newbies how to enlarge fonts and icons. I, for one, kept the out-of-the-box settings and enjoyed positioning two full-size windows next to each other. (The base line configuration comes with a 1600 x 900-resolution, adding the higher option costs an extra $100.)

Remember that friend who asked if this was the world’s lightest laptop? Well, she also concluded that the Z’s speakers had to be the worst in the world. And the truth is, I actually don’t know the last time I reviewed a laptop with such terrible speakers — the sound is just unacceptably tinny, and even at max volume it’s hard to hear from five feet away. Even compared to a 10-inch Toshiba netbook, the VAIO Z emits muted and muffled sound. Of course, Sony had to be aware of the horrendous external sound since it does include a set of comfortable noise-canceling earbuds and has done some fine tuning to optimize the audio-out quality.

Sony had to be aware of the horrendous external sound
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Performance

Performance

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The last VAIO Z was the fastest ultraportable I’ve ever reviewed, and the new model bravely carries on the legacy. Sony, as it is typically wont to do, sent me the highest-end configuration — the $2,749.99 system packs a standard voltage 2.7GHz Core i7-2620M processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. And it’s just impossibly fast. Beyond notching an insanely high PCMarkVantage score (note: the SSD gives it a serious edge there), the combination of components provided an extremely snappy computing experience, and not once in the past few weeks has the system shown any lag while concurrently running my usual programs (including Chrome, TweetDeck, Microsoft Word, Skype, Trillian, and GIMP.) Those aforementioned Samsung solid state drives (in a RAID 0 config) also rev up the entire experience — they booted the system in a fast 29 seconds, opened a 7.2MB PDF in under three seconds, and launched programs noticeably faster than hard drive-equipped PCs. I’m not sure how much the 256GB drives added to the price of my review unit’s configuration, but a 128GB SSD will come standard with the $2,000 VAIO Z model.

PCMarkVantage 3DMarkVantage Just Cause 2
Sony VAIO Z (2011) 12079 4019 / 1984 25.96
Dell XPS 15z 7303 3804 / 1926 24.95
Samsung Series 9 6973 856 N/A

I should also note that even with all those heavy performance parts Sony has managed to keep the Z running relatively cool (though not exactly quietly). The two fans on the bottom of the machine have been designed to suck in air and then push the warm air out the vent on the left side. As such, the vent area can heat up quite a bit, though the the keyboard deck and palmrest consistently remain at room temperature. Nope, warm temperatures won’t bother you here, but the fan noise may — during heavy usage times it sounded like there was small spaceship getting ready for take off inside the center of the system. It could be considered endearing to some; I just found it annoying.

Power Media Dock

Graphics and Power Media Dock

On its own, the VAIO Z relies on Intel’s integrated HD 3000 graphics, but of course, that’s not the case when it’s got the Power Media Dock within a cord’s length. The dock is an interesting beast, and as Thomas detailed, the vertically standing unit uses Intel’s Light Peak via a USB 3.0 connector to attach to the laptop. While the technical details may be confusing, setting up the docking solution couldn’t be easier — the dock comes with its own power source as well as a USB / power cable which connects to the laptop. Plug in the joint USB / power adapter to the laptop, watch the blue LED light illuminate, and you’ve powered on the dock’s AMD Radeon HD 6650M graphics and the optical drive. You will get a notification on screen and the screen itself with flicker black for a short second. It’s definitely simple to set up, but Sony could have done a bit more to inform users that the GPU is powered on — the only way to figure out that the GPU is on is to go into AMD Catalyst Control Center. I assume most will spend a minute or two searching for a GPU-on indicator, just as I did.

Graphics Performance

Regardless of those semantics, the graphics performance is downright impressive, and from the scores below you’d have no idea that the GPU didn’t dwell inside the system itself. The Radeon 6650M graphics and 1GB of VRAM notched 4,019 on 3DMark Vantage and 1,253 on 3DMark11, besting even Dell’s NVIDIA GT525M-equipped XPS 15z. Those scores translated to some fine gaming prowess — at the native resolution and with anti-aliasing turned off, I had no problem powering through a level of Dead Center in Left 4 Dead 2 at an average of 60fps. The frame rates can speak for themselves, but there’s really no way to describe how clear those bloody zombies looked on the HD display. The set up was less nimble when it came to playing Just Cause 2 at the native resolution (it averaged 16fps), but lowering it to 1024 x 768 made for a playable experience at an average of 35fps.

Thanks to Light Peak, graphics live in an external box

The whole dock experience is an interesting one to be sure, but it’s certainly aimed at a specific sort of user. The integrated graphics took care of local / streaming 720p and 1080p playback, but when it came to wanting to edit a 1080p video or play Left 4 Dead 2 on a weekend trip, the fact that the Z’s GPU was sitting back on my desk at home became a problematic reality. The dock itself is actually very portable at 8.67 x 5.8 x 0.66 inches, but it’s a pain to lug around and the power brick is quite large. I can’t say how frequently this sort of setup will bother you, I just know that I require most of my GPU power on the go — when trying to transcode video as fast as possible from a tradeshow floor an external GPU isn’t ever going to make any sense.

PORTS, PERIPHERALS

As we learned in our deep look at Sony’s implementation of Light Peak, there are no other peripherals that take advantage of the highspeed I/O transfers, but there’s all the USB 3.0 power you could want here. The laptop itself has that aforementioned USB 3.0 / Light Peak port, but if it happens to be occupied by the dock connector, there’s an additional powder blue 3.0 port on the dock’s back edge. In addition, the vertically standing dock houses two USB 2.0 jacks as well as Ethernet, HDMI, and VGA sockets. The front of the dock houses a slot-loading Blu-ray drive.

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Battery life

Battery life

With the slice screwed on, the package ran for over ten hours
Battery Life
Sony VAIO Z 5:27 / 10:34*
Samsung Series 9 4:16
Dell XPS 15z 4:36
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With all of the Z’s powerful parts, you’d think the system’s battery life would take a beating, but it actually holds its own. On our brand new battery test, which cycles through a series of websites and high resolution images, with brightness set at 65 percent, the Z’s integrated 4000mAH battery lasted five hours and 27 minutes. That’s about forty minutes longer than Samsung’s Series 9, which lasted four hours and 16 minutes on the same test. It’s not bad for an integrated cell, but you’ve also got the option to shell out an extra $200 for Sony’s 4000mAH slice battery, which matches (and latches onto) the bottom of the system. With the slice screwed on, the package ran for ten hours and 34 minutes on that aforementioned test. That’s some impressive run time, and though not as long as the ThinkPad X201 with its extended battery, it will get you through a flight from New York to Amsterdam and then some. Whether it’s worth the extra 1.2 pounds it adds to the overall package is up to you. Oh, and for those wondering, you can charge up the slice on its own with the included pack, which latches on to the battery through a proprietary port.

Software

Software

There isn’t much in terms of raw crapware
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Sony used to be among the worst of the PC manufacturers when it came to pre-loading software, and the Z (or at least our review unit) shows a bit of improvement. Sony’s preloading a number of its own VAIO tools — including VAIO Control Center, Care, Media Gallery — but there isn’t much in terms of raw crapware. Yes, there’s Norton and its annoying pop-ups, but other than that, there’s just Skype and ArcSoft’s WebCam software. All of those extras are stored in Sony’s VAIO Gate, which is an OS X-esque pop-over dock along the top of the display. It can be easily disabled or moved to the bottom of the screen.

Video Review

Video Review

Like the original, the Z of 2011 is a masterpiece of a computer for its time. Every part of the machine (okay, save for its touchpad and speakers) is built with the newest and greatest components around — the full HD screen is one of the highest quality panels you’ll find on a laptop today, the unique implementation of Intel’s Light Peak provides beyond competent graphics, and the Core i7 CPU and Samsung RAID 0 SSD trounces every other ultraportable in performance. And of course, the fact that all of that is put into a 2.57-pound package is downright impressive.However, it’s a different time and market for this Z. Ultraportables are no longer niche laptops just for road warriors with large amounts of cash to burn. Shelves are now flooded with ultraportables — like the 13-inch MacBook Air or the Samsung Series 9 — which for under $1,500 provide just enough power for the average user. And then there are thin and light mainstream systems with more muscle, like the $999 XPS 15z and $1,300 ThinkPad X1. What I am trying to get at here is that it’s tough to recommend a laptop that’s over $2,000 (nearly three grand when spec’d like my review unit) when there are very compelling options out there for almost half the price. But hey, if you’re one of those people who has to have the latest and greatest or perhaps just inherited a large wad of cash, the Z will keep you ahead of the curve for the next couple of years. That’s certainly not something I can say about most of the laptops that land on my desk, and well, that’s evidence enough for me that Sony is at least capable of acting like Sony again.

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