It’s the closest thing to a perfect ultraportable notebook that we’ve tested. And that’s because Sony has crafted a machine that’s beautiful, incredibly light, and super fast. Priced at $2,099, the 3-pound VAIO Z (VPCZ114GX/S) is not for bargain hunters. It’s for road warriors who refuse to compromise on performance or portability. Equipped with a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, dual solid state drives, and switchable Nvidia graphics, no laptop offers this much power in such a lightweight chassis. The VAIO Z doesn’t last as long on a charge as the ULV competition, but overall this ultraportable is in a class by itself.
For two grand your ultraportable had better look luxurious, and Sony delivers. The silver VAIO Z (also available in Premium Carbon Fiber for $50) is decked out in aluminum and magnesium, which gives the system a premium feel. We especially like the brushed metal deck and the circular hinges (complete with the green glowing power button on the right). The black bezel serves as a nice accent, and we appreciate that surface is matte instead of glossy.
Weighing an even 3 pounds—about 3.2 ounces heavier than most netbooks—and measuring 12.4 x 8.3 x 1.3 inches, the VAIO Z is remarkably light given its features. In fact, we barely felt it in our backpack on the way home from the office. Other design elements include four buttons above the keyboard: Assist (which launches VAIO Care software), a shortcut button, a button for launching the VAIO Media Gallery, and an eject button for the optical drive. On the left side you’ll find a switch for the notebook’s graphics system, which you can toggle between Speed, Stamina, and Auto modes.
Touchpad and Keyboard
With plenty of space between the keys and a nice bouncy feel, the keyboard on the VAIO Z is one of the best we’ve used on an ultraportable. Although the keys themselves are a bit on the small side, we typed this review on the notebook quickly and comfortably. Touch typists will appreciate the large Enter and Right Shift keys. As you would expect at this price, each key is individually backlit, making it easy for us to continue working as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel while riding on a bus. We just wish Sony would reverse the function keys like other notebook vendors, so you could raise and lower the volume or brightness without having to press the Fn key first, but that’s a minor nitpick.
The VAIO Z sports a fairly wide multitouch-enabled touchpad that allowed for smooth and quick cursor navigation. The pinch-to-zoom gesture worked well in the Pictures library, but you don’t have a lot of room vertically to stretch your fingers. Because the touch buttons are separated by a fingerprint sensor, they’re on the small side. However, they offered solid feedback and were relatively easy to find by feel after the first hour of use.
Although other notebooks we’ve tested with metal skins have been hot to the touch, the VAIO Z mostly kept its cool during our tests. After streaming a Hulu video for 15 minutes, we measured temperatures of 90 degrees and 98 degrees on the touchpad and between the G and H keys, respectively. The bottom of the system registered a mildly uncomfortable 101 degrees, but the area near the vent reached a hot 114 degrees.
Display and Audio
This is not your typical 13-inch notebook. The VAIO Z features a high-resolution 1600 x 900 LED-backlit panel that makes it feel as if you’re working on a larger monitor. Colors really popped when we were editing photos and watching DVDs, and the screen’s horizontal viewing angles are among the best we’ve seen. In other words, this ultraportable is ideal for giving deskside presentations, watching movies, and playing games (and it has the graphics chops to back it up).
The twin speakers above the keyboard produced pretty clean audio when we streamed some Death Cab for Cutie from Slacker, even if the volume wasn’t very loud. Dialog during an episode of Family Guy on Hulu was clear.
Ports and Webcam
The left side of the VAIO Z houses the power jack, Ethernet port, HDMI port, two USB 2.0 ports, an ExpressCard/34 slot, and a Kensington lock slot. You’ll find the DVD burner on the right side, along with another USB 2.0 port, and the VGA port. An SD Card slot and Memory Stick Pro slot are located on the front left side of the notebook, and the front right side has the wireless on/off switch and mic and headphone jacks.
Sony’s Motion Eye webcam delivered a clear picture when we made a Skype video call to a colleague. He noted that the colors were a bit bland but that the audio was sufficiently loud.
Thanks to the combination of a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, dual solid state drives, and discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphics, the VAIO Z is the fastest 13-inch ultraportable we’ve tested. It notched a very impressive 9,936 in PCMark Vantage, which is more than triple the category average. The only other system that comes close in this category is the Lenovo ThinkPad X201, which has a 2.53-GHz Intel Core i5 processor but a slower 7,200-rpm hard drive. (We’re in the process of finalizing our review for that system.)
Just as important, the VAIO Z feels fast. This system opened Adobe Reader 9 in under 2 seconds, and most other programs in one second. In fact, we never felt like we were waiting for Windows to catch up with what we were trying to accomplish, which is quite the feat. The VAIO Z booted into Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) faster than most notebooks, taking 50 seconds (versus 61 for other ultraportables). We also noticed that this machine was quicker when installing software than most other notebooks.
So how about those twin solid state drives, one 64GB and the other 128 GB? They’re blazing. When we conducted the LAPTOP Transfer Test, which measures how fast a 4.97GB folder is copied from one folder on the notebook’s hard drive, the VAIO Z blew away the field. Its data rate of 127 MBps is nearly six times faster than the average ultraportable.
The VAIO Z also excelled at transcoding video. It took the machine 56 seconds to convert a 114 MB MPEG-4 clip to AVI using Oxelon Media Converter, which leverages the Core i5 CPU’s four threads. That’s a little over a minute faster than the category average, but on a par with the ThinkPad X201 Tablet (58 seconds).
Graphics and Gaming
The VAIO Z has a Dynamic Hybrid Graphics System, which you can customize using a switch above the keyboard. In Speed mode the notebook will use Nvida’s GeForce GT 330M card (with 1GB of video memory), and in Stamina mode it will drop down to leverage Intel’s integrated GMA HD graphics. Or, you can choose Auto mode, which basically means that the system will turn on Stamina mode automatically when you unplug. Nvidia’s newer Optimus technology is more seamless, in that it can switch back and forth between modes based on the task at hand. (We’d love to see Sony add this technology to the VAIO Z.)
As we expected, there was a sizeable performance difference between the different modes. The ultraportable turned in a stellar score of 6,203 in 3DMark06 in Speed mode, and a still good 1,900 with the switch on Stamina. The category average is 902, and the only notebook in the same league as the VAIO Z with this size display is the HP Envy 13 (3,087 in discrete mode).
Gameplay results were good for a system this size; in World of Warcraft the VAIO Z delivered a sky-high framerate of 190 at 1024 x 768 and a still smooth 60 fps at 1600 x 900. In the more demanding Far Cry 2, the notebook notched a solid 60 fps at 1024 x 768 but a barely playable 20 fps at native resolution.
Battery Life and Wireless
Frequent fliers may be disappointed to learn that the VAIO Z might not be able to last that cross-country jaunt. Using the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi), the laptop ran for a pretty good 5 hours and 21 minutes in Stamina mode and 4 hours and 23 minutes in Speed mode. That runtime is just below the category average (5:35) but well behind the 13-inch VAIO Y (6:22), though that system has a ULV processor. And while you’ve find other ultraportables that last nearly 10 hours on a charge, like the ASUS UL30A, none of those machines can touch the VAIO Z when it comes to speed. The good news is that Sony offers a large capacity battery, a $249 option that promises up to 11 hours of endurance. (We’re guessing it’s more like 7.5 hours.)
The Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6200 connection delivered strong wireless throughput in our tests. The VAIO Z offered data rates of 44.3 Mbps and 29.4 Mbps, respectively at 15 and 50 feet away from our router. Both of these numbers are well above the category averages of 30 Mbps and 18.6 Mbps. Sony also includes Bluetooth 2.1 with stereo support. What you won’t find is integrated mobile broadband, which is the price you pay for having two SSDs. Still, we’d gladly stick a connection card in the ExpressCard or USB slot in exchange for more speed.
The VAIO Z took 1 hour and 51 minutes to reach the 80-percent mark while charging and 2 hours and 37 minutes to get to 100 percent. During that time, it used an average of 36.4 watts. Its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating of 24.6 is worse than the category average of 19.7. EPEAT gave this ultraportable a Gold rating of 21 out of 27.
Our version of the VAIO Z, the VPCZ114GX/S, is equipped with a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and two SSDs totaling 192GB of storage. The configure-to-order model at www.sonystyle.com starts at $1,899 and features the same amount of RAM but a single 128GB SSD. Upgrade options include an even zippier 2.66-GHz Intel Core i7-620M processor ($150) two 256GB SSDs ($1,000), up to 8GB of RAM ($300) and a Blu-Ray burner ($500). The large-capacity battery is $249.
Software and Support
As we mentioned above, Sony provides quick access to its own utilities using a trio of buttons above the keyboard. Assist launches VAIO Care, which is for troubleshooting, tune-ups, and accessing support. VAIO Media Gallery provides easy access to photos, videos, and music, and we like that it surfaces popular YouTube videos. In between these two buttons is a shortcut button you can customize using the VAIO Control Center utility, which makes it easy to tweak everything from power management and network settings to the display and sounds. Sony also includes VAIO Media Plus (streaming software), Microsoft Works SE 9.0, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office Small Business 2007, and a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2010.
Sony backs the VAIO Z with a one-year limited parts-and-labor warranty with 24/7 toll-free phone support (we think it should be two years at this price) and 24/7 technical support for one year. To see how Sony did in our Tech Support Showdown, click here.
Some day Apple or someone else may be able to match the VAIO Z in terms of speed or portability, but at the moment this ultraportable stands alone as the fastest 13-inch notebook on earth. Is it worth $2,099? Definitely, although we think Sony should throw in the larger battery and a longer warranty for this price. As it stands, you’ll be getting a sleek and sturdy design, two SSDs, and a turbo-charged Core i5 processor that makes quick work of any task. We also love the backlit keyboard and switchable graphics. It’s only a few months into 2010, but we feel pretty confident in saying that the VAIO Z is one of the best notebooks of the year.