No one does elegant-chic notebooks quite like Sony, and the VAIO SZ Series is no exception. This sleek 13.3-inch platform starts at a reasonable $1,499, though our premium model, the VGN-SZ791N/X, costs $1,000 more. For that you get better-than-average performance and a host of unique features, all wrapped in a lightweight carbon-fiber casing that looks as good as it protects.
VAIO VGN-SZ791N/X Design
At 4 pounds and no thicker than 1.5 inches, the wedge-shaped VGN-SZ791N/X is definitely a head-turner. The carbon black-on-black design comes across as sophisticated, and Sony left the front edge uncluttered. On the left and right sides are the usual ports, plus a PC Card slot, ExpressCard/34 slot, and a Memory Stick card reader. A 5-in-1 adapter is included, but we wish Sony would just build in a 5-in-1 reader to begin with. There’s also no HDMI port, and we’d rather the multi-format DVD burner were a Blu-ray drive for the price. (Then again, this notebook was designed before these features were mainstream.)
13-inch Display Quality
The VGN-SZ791N/X’s 13.3-inch XBrite LED-backlit panel is bright and vibrant, and the 1280 x 800 resolution delivers sharp text and excellent color and motion reproduction, although some movie scenes lost detail in shadow areas. Still, it makes a fine DVD player for one or two people, as the battery delivered 2.5 hours of DVD playback time and viewing angles are fairly wide side to side. Unfortunately, moving even slightly above the screen causes a brightness shift that washes out the image. The stereo speakers are of good quality and offer plenty of volume.
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ791N/X Ergonomics
The full-size letter keys feature nontraditional raised pads, which feel fine and give the VGN-SZ791N/X a unique look. Oddly for Sony, it has no dedicated multimedia controls. As with some other 13-inch systems, save the MacBook Air, the touchpad is about 50 percent smaller than it should be. Sony has included the requisite fingerprint reader, Webcam, and Bluetooth 2.0. In the event of a tumble, the system parks the generous 250GB hard drive, protecting your data. You’ll also find TPM circuitry on-board, which adds encryption for business users.
Updated with a Penryn Processor
This Penryn update features an Intel Core 2 Duo T9300 running at 2.5-GHz and 4GB of RAM. Sony’s unique Stamina/Speed switch can flip the notebook between the Mobile Intel X3100 integrated graphics (for better battery life) and the discrete Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS GPU for better performance. Speed mode delivered a whopping 207 on MobileMark 2007. Its PCMark Vanatage score of 2,691 and 3DMark03 score of 4,823 were both above average, though lower than the Dell XPS M1330.
As a result, applications jump open, and the machine has multimedia muscle to spare, completing an iTunes re-encode of 11 tracks to AAC mode in a quick 4 minutes. The Nvidia GPU also delivered a more-than-respectable 58 fps on F.E.A.R. (at 800 x 600 resolution with autodetect settings). Throughput from the Intel 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi radio was on a par with other systems: 17.7 Mbps at 15 feet and 13.6 Mbps at 50 feet. The VGN-SZ791N/X also includes EV-DO Rev. A with service through Sprint, a welcome upgrade from the formerly pokey AT&T Edge radio.
VAIO VGN-SZ791N/X Battery Life
The standard battery delivered 4.5 hours of typical use in Speed mode (which uses the discrete graphics to offer the best performance) and 5.5 hours in Stamina mode (which uses the integrated graphics to extend battery life). The average for thin-and-lights is about 4.5 hours, so the extra hour is a good deal, and you don’t have to sacrifice performance when you’re plugged in. A9-cell extended battery is availablefor $249, too.
Bundled Multimedia Apps
Useful multimedia software such as the easy-to-use Click to Disc DVD creator and VAIO Movie Story are preinstalled, but for $2,499, Sony should offer more than a 60-day trial and provide Vista Ultimate instead of Vista Business.
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ791N/X Verdict
The VAIO VGN-SZ791N/X has a lot going for it. It delivers a top-of-the-line processor and plenty of RAM, a wealth of features, and great looks. The nearly $700 premium it costs over the similarly sized, similar-performing XPS M1330 makes the Dell system a better buy, but for the extra money, you get a more business oriented machine with hard drive protection and TPM circuitry.