When you think of a notebook that costs more than $4,000, what comes to mind? A premium gaming rig? A multimedia dynamo desktop replacement? Sony looks to shake up your expectations of high-end systems by packing a Centrino 2 processor, recordable Blu-ray drive, an incredible 256GB of solid state storage, and mobile broadband into a sturdy and attractive ultraportable only slightly larger than a mini-notebook. Priced at a jaw-dropping $4,344, the Sony VAIO VGN-TT198UBX is the furthest thing from cheap—it’s nearly the cost of 11 Acer Aspire ones—and watching Blu-ray movies on a 11.1-inch display isn't very enticing (although you can output video to your HDTV). Nevertheless, if you want snappy performance and more than 6 hours of battery life, the TT is a tempting machine for first-class flyers.
At first glance, the 2.8-pound TT could pass for the mother of all mini-notebooks due to its compact 11.0 x 7.9 x 0.9-inch footprint that isn’t much larger than the ASUS Eee PC 1000. It sports an all-black, carbon-fiber chassis (also available in Champagne Gold and Crimson Red) that’s highlighted by metal trim and a funky neon green power indicator built into the hinge. As with other VAIO notebooks, the TT features flat, MacBook–like keys, but in this case the isolated keyboard offers just enough room for comfortable touch-typing. Situated below the keyboard is a small but serviceable touchpad, two mushy mouse buttons, and a fingerprint reader for keeping sensitive data away from prying eyes. Volumes keys are embedded into the front bezel of the machine’s base (for raising, lowering, or muting audio) as well as a user-definable shortcut key.
Despite its small size, the TT crams in numerous ports for connecting accessories and peripherals including two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI (hidden behind a pop-out panel on the left side of the system), FireWire, VGA, Ethernet, headphone, and microphone. To transfer data quickly, the TT offers an SD Card slot and 2-in-1 memory card reader that supports Sony’s MagicGate copy-protection, as well as an ExpressCard/34 slot. Our only beef is that the pop-out panel on the left side feels a bit fragile.
Screen and Webcam
Typically, you wouldn’t find a Blu-ray drive in a notebook with an 11.1-inch, 1366 x 768 display, but Sony includes one for the multimedia hounds. When we popped in the high-definition version of Iron Man into the 2X recordable drive, we were treated to crisp, colorful images courtesy of Sony’s Xbrite-DuraView technology. We were pleasantly surprised at the richness of blacks, the detailed flesh tones, and wide viewing angles. Audio was clear and loud throughout the movie, but afterwards, when we fired up The Posies’ “I Guess You’re Right,” we noticed the weak bottom end. We had no problems engaging in video chats with friends using Meebo and the integrated 1.3-megapixel Motion Eye camera that served up decent visuals in low-light situations.
Our configuration came with a 1.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 processor and 4GB of DDR3 RAM, which produced a score of 2,859 on our PCMark Vantage benchmark (which measures Vista application performance). The score is on a par with the 2,787 category average, but well behind the class-leading Lenovo ThinkPad X200, which cranked out a score of 3,601. Still, in our hands-on testing, the TT proved to be one of the best-performing Vista machines we’ve come across; menus and most applications opened very quickly.
Besides the copious amount of RAM, the TT’s snappy performance (and high price tag) can be attributed to a pair of 128GB solid state drives, which are set up in RAID 0 configuration for a grand total of 256GB of flash storage. On the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media), the SSDs copied and read files at a rate of 18.9 MBps, which is more than 5 MBps faster than the ultraportable average.
We couldn’t get the 3DMark03 and 3DMark06 graphics benchmarks up and running, but the integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD graphics card was predictably weak when it came to rendering 3D titles. It maintained a relatively smooth 37 frames per second when running F.E.A.R. in autodetect mode (640 x 480-pixel resolution), but plummeted to just 4 frames per second at native resolution (1366 x 768). World of Warcraft fared much better at native resolution; it ran at 25.6 frames per second. If you want discrete graphics, opt for the 13-inch Sony VAIO Z series.
Wireless Communication and Battery Life
The 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi card moved data at a rate of 17.6 Mbps when we placed the system 15 feet away from our access point; at 50 feet away, the system kept us surfing the Web at a 16.4-Mbps clip. Both scores were slightly above the 16.7 Mbps and 13.5 Mbps ultraportable averages. To avoid hotspot hunting, the system is available with integrated EV-DO mobile broadband through Sprint ($59.99 per month for unlimited service). On our LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi), the TT’s battery lasted a very good 6 hours and 9 minutes on a charge, though nearly 30 minutes short of the average.
Software and Warranty
The TT comes preinstalled with ArcSoft WebCam Companion, a 90-day trial of AOL Internet service, InterVideo WinDVD BD for VAIO, Microsoft Works SE 9.0 with a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, a 90-trial of Microsoft Windows Live OneCare, VAIO Media plus (multimedia streaming software), VAIO Movie Story (video creation), and VAIO MusicBox (music by mood). Sony covers the system with a one-year limited warranty and 24/7 toll-free tech support.
If you can do without the dual solid state drives and Blu-ray drive, you can pick up the VAIO TT for a far more reasonable $2,094, although you’ll have to settle for a slower 1.2-GHz processor and 2GB of RAM. If you’re shrugging off the recession, and you want to be able to brag that you own an ultraportable with Blu-ray capabilities and one of the largest SSD capacities available, the Sony VAIO VGN-TT198UBX will satisfy. It offers butter-smooth performance and lots of endurance. In general, though, we prefer the Sony VAIO Z series, because it’s only about half a pound heavier while offering discrete graphics and a larger screen and keyboard.