Sony VAIO Z (VPCZ133GM) Review

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Editor's Choice

Pros: Blistering performance; Sleek design ; Bright, high-resolution display; Fast boot time; Comfortable backlit keyboard; WiMax and 3G mobile broadband available

Cons: Below-average battery life; Touchpad a bit too sensitive; Still lacks Optimus auto graphics switching

Verdict: A faster Core i5 processor makes the ultimate ultraportable even better.

When we last looked at the VAIO Z, we said it was the closest thing to a perfect ultraportable notebook that we've tested. Now Sony has updated its sturdy but sexy three-pound powerhouse with an even faster Core i5 processor while keeping everything else we loved. The VAIO Z VPCZ133GM ($1,969 as configured) still has switchable Nvidia graphics, a gorgeous 1600 x 900-pixel display, a comfy backlit keyboard, and zippy dual solid state drives. Is this lightweight wonder still the king of the hill?

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Editors' Note: Portions of this review were taken from an earlier review of the VAIO Z.

Design

The silver VAIO Z (also available in black for the same price and 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 the surface is matte instead of glossy. 

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.

Weighing an even three 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.

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 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 (3.2 x 1.2 inches) 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. Our bigger issue, which we didn't encounter with the machine we tested in March, was that the cursor sometimes jumped when our left palm accidentally brushed against the touchpad.

Because the touch buttons are separated by a fingerprint sensor, they're on the small side. Because these buttons are located on the lip of the machine, which has a slight downward slope, they were somewhat difficult to press until we got used to them. However, they offered solid feedback.

Heat

Despite having a speedier processor, this version of the VAIO Z actually ran cooler than the last-generation model. After streaming a Hulu video for 15 minutes, we measured temperatures of 81, 90, and 92 degrees, respectively, on the touchpad, between the G and H keys, and on the underside of the laptop. The VPCZ114GX/S we tested in March registered temps of 90, 98, and 101 degrees in the same areas. The only part of the notebook that got noticeably warm was the area near the vent, which reached 106 degrees. However, that's still cooler than last time around (114).

Display and Audio

One of our favorite features of the VAIO Z--and one of the reasons why it's worth the premium--is its high-resolution 1600 x 900 LED display. This bright and crisp panel really makes it feel as if you're working on a larger monitor. Colors 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). We also love this high resolution for making the most of Windows 7 features like Snap for comparing two windows side by side.

The twin speakers above the VAIO Z's keyboard produced fairly clean but not very loud audio when we streamed Green Day songs from Slacker. Dialog during an episode of Glee on Fox.com 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.

Performance

The biggest upgrade for this VAIO Z is its new 2.5-GHz Core i5 processor, up from 2.4-GHz on the model we tested in the spring. Its Turbo Boost feature can scale that clock speed all the way up to 2.8 GHz on demand. When paired with 4GB of DDR3 RAM and twin 64GB solid state drives, this ultraportable notched an astronomical PCMark Vantage score of 9,475. That's nearly triple the category average, and much higher than speedsters such as the ThinkPad X201 (7,050) and Toshiba Portege R700 (6,657).

In fact, the only notebook we've tested that beats this VAIO Z on performance is its predecessor. Despite its slower CPU, the version we tested previously scored a slightly higher 9,936 in PCMark Vantage. This might have to do with a change in SSD supplier.

Does the VAIO Z feel any slower? Nope. Most applications opened in one second or less. Plus, the VAIO Z booted into Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) in just 40 seconds (versus 62 seconds for other ultraportables). We also noticed that this machine was quicker when installing software than most other notebooks.

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's twin Toshiba SSDs blew away the field. Its data rate of 108 MBps is nearly 4.5 times faster than the average ultraportable. The older Z we tested was even speedier (127 MBps), but we're certainly not complaining.

The VAIO Z also excelled at transcoding video. It took the machine 52 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 four times faster than the Z we tested previously, which shows that you'll get the most from this new processor when performing really demanding tasks.

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, and doesn't make the screen go dark while it switches between the two. (We'd love to see Sony add this technology to the VAIO Z, but it didn't make it into this refresh.)

The VAIO Z turned in a stellar score of 6,047 in 3DMark06 in Speed mode. The category average is 1,165, and the only notebook that even approaches the VAIO Z with this size display that we've tested recently was the Asus U33Jc (3,398). And that notebook weighs 1.4 pounds more.

Gameplay results were good for a system this size; in World of Warcraft the VAIO Z delivered a sky-high framerate of 244 at 1024 x 768 and a still smooth 54 fps at 1600 x 900. In the more demanding Far Cry 2, the notebook notched a solid 55 fps at 1024 x 768 but a barely playable 20 fps at native resolution.

Battery Life

Using the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi), the VAIO Z lasted a fairly good five hours and four minutes. That runtime is below the category average of 5:33, but Sony offers a large capacity battery. That $100 option adds a pound of weight and promises up to 10.5 hours of runtime.

Wi-Fi and Mobile Broadband

The Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6250 connection delivered strong wireless throughout our tests. The VAIO Z offered data rates of 43.6 Mbps and 26.1. Mbps, respectively, at 15 and 50 feet away from our router. Both of these numbers are well above the category averages of 27.9 Mbps and 19 Mbps. Sony also includes Bluetooth 2.1 with stereo support.

The VAIO Z also offers integrated WiMax, which will allow you to connect at 4G speeds in 50 U.S. markets (and counting). Service is available from Clearwire, Sprint, Best Buy, and other providers. This ultraportable can also be equipped with Sprint and Verizon 3G mobile broadband.

Green Testing

The VAIO Z took one hour and 59 minutes to reach the 80-percent mark while charging and 3 hours and one minute to get to 100 percent. During that time, it used an average of 36.2 watts. Its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating of 21.6 is only a little bit worse than the category average of 20.4. EPEAT gave this ultraportable a Gold rating of 21 out of 27.

Configuration Options

Our version of the VAIO Z, the VPCZ133GM, is equipped with a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and two SSDs totaling 128GB of storage. Upgrade options include even zippier Core i7 processors (2.66 GHz or 3.3 GHz) two 256GB SSDs, up to 8GB of RAM, and a Blu-Ray burner. The large-capacity battery retails for $100.

Software

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) and Microsoft Office 2010 Starter Edition. If you configure this notebook online, Sony offers the Adobe bundle, which includes Premier Elements, Photoshop Elements, and Acrobat 9. We're glad that Sony includes a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security, but the occasional pop-ups reminding us to activate the service got annoying.

One feature we didn't notice last time around is VAIO Gate, a dock at the top of the screen that you can drop down to launch programs. This dock can also display RSS feeds you subscribe to in Internet explorer. Since the Windows 7 taskbar performs many of the same functions, we ultimately found VAIO Gate to be distracting, but its wavy design is certainly more attractive, and the icons are larger. Plus, you can tweak the settings so that this interface isn't always on top of the desktop.

Support

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.

Verdict

The VAIO Z hasn't changed that much since the last time we reviewed it, and we still love it. In fact, this notebook remains our favorite ultraportable. It's still the fastest 13-inch notebook out there, and it's 1.5 pounds lighter than the 13-inch Apple MacBook Pro (0.5 pounds lighter when you get the Z's large capacity battery). At $1,969, the VAIO Z costs considerably more than the $1,199 Mac, but it has twice the speed and a high-res screen. If you're on a budget, the impressively light and powerful Toshiba Portege R700 is also a good buy, which packs a Core i5 processor into a 3.2-pound notebook for just $1,299. Still, the Vaio Z's twin SSDs, Nvidia graphics, sharper 1600 x 900 display, and a more comfortable backlit keyboard make it well worth the splurge. While we wish it had Nvidia Optimus technology for automatic graphics switching, the VAIO Z remains one of the best notebooks of the year.

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Author Bio
Mark Spoonauer
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief
Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptopmag.com, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.
Mark Spoonauer, Editor-in-Chief on
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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.53-GHz Intel Core i5-460M
Operating System MS Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 8GB
Hard Drive Size 64GB + 64GB
Hard Drive Speed
Hard Drive Type Dual SSDs
Display Size 13.3
Native Resolution 1600x900
Optical Drive DVD SuperMultiDrive
Optical Drive Speed 8X
Graphics Card Nvidia GeForce GT330M/Intel HD
Video Memory 1GB
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Wi-Fi Model Intel Centrino Advanced-N 6250
Bluetooth Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
Mobile Broadband
Touchpad Size 3.2 x 1.2 inches
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Kensington Lock
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) ExpressCard/34
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
USB Ports 3
Card Slots SD/SDHC Card reader
Card Slots Memory Stick Pro
Warranty/Support 1 year limited/24-7 toll-free
Size 12.4 x 8.3 x 1.3 inches
Weight 3 pounds
Company Website www.sonystyle.com