We loved the Sony Vaio S series of notebooks and gave last year's Vaio S460 our 2005 Editor's Choice award. When we're lucky (and the folks at Sony's design center do well), a great thing gets even better; witness the Vaio SZ series of ultralight notebooks which were announced at CES 2006 and replace the S series. In true Sony style, the SZ crams more features and speed into a 4 pound super-sleek notebook than seems possible. The VGN-SZ330P/B we're reviewing here litterally has most everything you could want in a full-sized notebook, but crams it into a 13.3" ultralight. That means the new 2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2 gigs of DDR2 RAM, a 120 gig hard drive, widescreen XBRITE display, switchable Intel integrated to Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 graphics, Bluetooth, WiFi, internal Cingular EDGE card, both PCMCIA and ExpressCard slots, a web cam and biometric fingerprint security. And the notebook has high style befitting a James Bond movie. The top surface is black textured magnesium alloy on the standard SZ machines while the premium models (SZ360 and up) have carbon fiber which reduces total weight from 4.1 to 3.7 pounds and makes for an even thinner 4.5mm display. The top-of-the-line SZ381P/X has a premium carbon fiber finish that shows off the multiple layers of carbon. This is Sony's illustration of the top lid finishes and materials:
Carbon fiber (SZ360 and higher), premium carbon fiber on SZ381 and magnesium alloy on the SZ320, SZ330 and SZ340
Carbon fiber is strong, yes. It's used to make jets and it's the casing on the Sony Vaio TX series of 2.76 pound notebooks. But it does flex more than magnesium alloy, and the carbon fiber models have a thinner lid which means more flexing of the display. We tested the carbon fiber SZ360 as well and with normal pressing on the back of the display (say to tilt it using a firm grip) we didn't see any display distortions that plague some thin models including older Vaios. Inside, the top surface surrounding the keyboard has an aluminum finish which looks gorgeous and is durable. The notebook is slim with a subtle wedge shape that tapers toward the front and it's 1.5" thick at the back and 1" thin at the front (the carbon fiber is 1.3" back and 0.90 inches front).
Where everything is:
-Left side, back to front: mic, headphone jack, 4 pin FireWire port, PC card slot and Memory Stick Duo Pro slot.
-Right side, back to front: modem and Ethernet jacks under a plastic door, 2 USB 2.0 ports, an ExpressCard /34 slot and the dual layer DVD burner. The 3.25" long antenna for the Sony Ericsson EDGE card for Cingular is located on the right side hinge and swivels flat against the notebook when not in use.
-No ports on the front edge, only a cooling vent on the left.
-Rear: The Lithium Ion battery slides into the rear of the noteook and there's only a charging port and vent on the rear.
The docking station connector with sliding door than tends to open too easily is on the bottom as is the door to access the RAM.
More on Design and Ergonomics
The SZ series keyboard is one of the best we've used on a notebook, beat only by some ThinkPads (famous for having the best keyboards). The 13" noteook really hits the sweetspot, allowing for a full-sized notebook keyboard and a widescreen display compared to the 12" models that used to dominate the subnotebook scene. The keyboard is roomy, the keys have good travel and spring, and are clearly marked with white letters on a black background. I typed just as quickly on the SZ330 as I do on my Apple and PC keyboards (80wpm). Sony is prone to fanciful keyboard masking on some high end models such as the TX850 that caters more to looks than ease of use, so we're pleased with the high contrast keyboard markings.
Keyboard: 86 keys with 3mm stroke.
The trackpad is a good size and has lightly textured surface to improve finger traction. The left and right mouse buttons are well-placed for ease of use and they flank the boimetric fingerprint scanner, making for one of the most organic placements of the scanner we've seen. The embedded Sony Ericsson wireless EDGE module's antenna is mounted to the right display hinge and it swivels down parallel to the keyboard when not in use (it is not removeable). The web cam is located directly above the display as you'd expect and the Vaio has Sony's usual S1 and S2 buttons which you can configure to launch your favorite two applications. The SZ series has a Stamina- Speed switch next to the S1 and S2 buttons and you'll use this to switch between the integrated Intel 945GM graphics card the GeForce Go 7400 dedicated graphics card. This requires a reboot which is modestly annoying but the feature is so cool, we'll happily live with it (and we all know Windows isn't the best at switching drivers on the fly). The wireless switch beside the stamina slider controls all wireless radios; handy if you're on a plane and quickly need to quickly disable the EDGE, WiFi and Bluetooth radios.
Horsepower and Performance
Here's where the SZ330 really shines: it's extremely fast and well spec-d by ultralight standards. The machine runs Intel's new Core 2 Duo (the second revision of the Core Duo) with two processing cores that are relatively power-frugal and cool running. If you've used the last generation S series Vaio notebooks, you'll remember how toasty they got using the Centrino mobile processor. The SZ330 does not get hot and the fan runs seldom on battery power and it's quiet when it does run.
The 2GHz machine has a 667MHz front side bus and 4 megs of level 2 cache on Intel's 945GM chipset. Let's put it this way, under most circumstances the machine will be waiting for you. MS Office apps, web and streaming video are trivial tasks to the SZ330 and you'll need to throw some very serious graphics challenges its way to tax it. We used the machine for Dreamweaver, Photoshop (working with 20 meg RAW format files), MPEG movie encodiing/decoding and Access database work and we weren't disappointed. This is impressive stuff for a 13" ultralight. The SZ330 managed a PCMark05 overall score of 4237 thanks its combined CPU power, memory and hard drive speeds and Nvidia graphics (we tested the machine plugged in with the switch set to speed mode for our tests).
Though ultralights rarely make passable gaming machines if you're into the latest 3D titles like F.E.A.R, Battlefield 2 and the like, the Sony SZ330 is a passable gamer using the GeForce Go 7400. If you're a hard core gamer you won't want to give up your tricked-out desktop or supersized Alienware Aurora, but it will tide you over whether you're on the road or parked on the couch. The Sony handles less demanding 3D games such as Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends, Children of the Nile and even the SIMS 2 (which is a more challenging title) with no problems. In fact, you can run RON and other RTS games just fine using the integrated Intel GMA950 GPU if you like. With the Nvidia it manages F.E.A.R. at an average of 22 fps at 1024 x 768 resolution. Though some folks critize the GeForce Go 7400 as a wimpy dedicated mobile graphics card, it does make a significant difference both to games which require a dedicated GPU and benchmarks. The SZ330 managed a PCMark05 score of 679 using the Intel GMA950 and 1979 using the Nvidia graphics card.
Above: fingerprint scanner located between the trackpad's mouse buttons. Below: the stamina - speed switches among other controls above the keyboard.
The Sony SZ330 comes maxed out with 2 gigs of PC-4200 (533MHz) DDR2 RAM. The machine has two SODIMM slots, each with a 1 gig memory module. The 120 gig SATA 5400 RPM hard drive offers very good performance and is quieter and cooler than 7200 RPM drives without much of a performance hit while clearly being faster than 4200 RPM drives and ATA interfaces.The Sony has G-Sensor shock protection which means it will park the drive's heads if it senses sudden motion that might cause data loss or disk damage.
Sony offers several SZ models ranging in memory from 1 to 2 gigs with hard drives from 120 to 160 gigs (all SATA) and has build to order options for Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs from 1.66 to 2.33GHz. Though slim, the SZ330 has an internal dual layer DVD burner that can play CDs and DVDs as well as burn them. The drive is fairly quiet.
Since this is a Sony, we have their ubiquitous Memory Stick PRO Duo slot which is handy if you own a Sony PSP or Sony camera that uses this media. Sony has relented in the past year and has offered SD card slots on certain notebooks such as the Vaio TX750, TX770 and TX850. Though the SZ doesn't have a permanent SD card reader slot, it does come with an SD / MMC card reader that fits in the ExpressCard/34 slot (given how few ExpressCards are on the market at the moment, it's good to have some use for it).
Speaking of slots, the Vaio also has a PC Card slot that's compatible with type I, II and CardBus cards. We tested it with Cingular's 3G Option GT Max Globetrotter card and it worked well and offered good throughput (yes, you can use a Cingular card that runs Cingular's Connection Manager software even if the machine has a built-in EDGE module).
Display, Sound and Camera
XBRITE displays are some of the best in the industry and have set the standard for bright, vibrant and glossy LCDs. The SZ uses LED backlighting which is brighter and whiter than the cathode tubes used to illuminate most notebook LCDs. It also uses less power and allows for a thinner display assembly, which is how Sony manages to get the premium SZ models' lids down to 4.5mm thin. The display is indeed, bright, sharp and has relatively low glare for a glossy display though it can't be completely eliminated. The machine has a 13.3" WXGA 1280 x 800 widescreen LCD that's capable of displaying millions of colors. Even with the display set to half brightness, it's plenty bright for indoor locations; though I prefer it set to 66% brightness for best colors and clarity (the default power management setting for battery power is 50%, but you can change this easily). The top of the line SZ models' displays seem a bit brighter, similar to the newest Vaio TX850 which is terrifically bright.
The show stealer in the graphics department is the dual video card arrangement: with the slide of a switch you can go from power-frugal Intel integrated graphics to the Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 dedicated GPU with 128 megs of memory and TurboCache (which means it uses dedicated video RAM and also uses system RAM if needed). The Intel GMA950 is more than adequate for business tasks, playing DVDs, light Photoshop work and gaming with non-cutting edge games and older titles. The GeForce Go 7400 makes a big difference when gaming with today's demanding titles, as mentioned earlier. Certainly if you're a gamer or work with graphics apps, the GeForce Go 7400 is a good option to have. And for those who need staying power for a long flight, the Intel integrated graphics are equally valuable, increasing runtimes from 45 minutes to an hour depending on the tasks at hand.
Like most Vaio notebooks, the SZ series has stereo speaker and a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack as well as a mic jack. Sound through the stereo speakers is good by laptop standards while sound through headphones is excellent. The SZ330 has a built-in mic for video conferencing and a front-facing web cam. We tested the camera with AIM and it worked fine, even cross-platform when video conferencing to Macs with iSight cameras. Image quality on the receiving end is adequate but not as good as iSight.
You've got it all here: WiFi 802.11 a/b/g, Bluetooth 2.0, wired 10/100 Ethernet, 56k v.92 dialup modem and Cingular EDGE wide area networking. We only wish that it had HSDPA for 3G on Cingular but there are still no Sony Ericsson HSDPA embedded modules and Cingular's 3G coverage is young and spotty while thier EDGE coverage is superb. The Vaio SZ330 has very good range for WiFi connections, getting a stronger signal and faster data transfers than the full size Vaio FS, Sony UX180P (to be expected since tiny devices usually have weaker radios to consume less power) and the Panasonic R5. Connections were also reliable and we tested both Windows and Intel's wireless manager on the notebook (we prefer the Intel software's features). It uses Intel's PRO/Wireless 3945ABG for WiFi.
Bluetooth is a pleasure to use thanks to the fast, interference rejecting Bluetooth 2.0 radio. File transfers and Bluetooth syncing with PDAs and smartphones were very fast and trouble-free and we got about 95k when transfering files to and from the Bluetooth 2.0 Nokia E62 and Nokia N73. The machine supports every common profile including serial port, OBEX, FTP and headset and like most notebooks on the market today uses Toshiba's Bluetooth stack.
For wide area networking (WAN) that's available anywhere you can get a Cingular signal, the SZ330 has an embedded Sony Ericsson wireless module that works in a similar fashion to PCMCIA data cards from Cingular. The antenna is located on the Vaio's right side and swivels up for use. It's made flexible plastic (no doubt with a conductive wire inside) and lays flat against the notebook when not in use, though it's not completely flush with the notebooks' body (see photos above). Cingular charges approximately $60/month for unlimited data and the SIM card lives in a slot near the battery. Reception with the module is very good and in our extremely well-covered EDGE area it got an impressive -57db signal indoors. Data transfer speeds averaged 130 to 160k which is good for EDGE, 3 times faster than dialup but no comparison for HSDPAand EVDO's 400 - 700k or better. The machine ships with Cingular's Connection Manager which negotiates connections quickly and supports multiple connections including tethering to a Bluetooth phone (handy if you later get a 3G Cingular phone with HSDPA). For some reason Vaios always ship with an older version of Connection Manager, but you can download the latest version free from Cingular's web site (you must uninstall the old version before installing the new version).
We've come to expect long battery life from ultralights and subnotebooks because they're generally under-powered when it comes to power hungry CPUs and they lack dedicated graphics. Not that all ultralights have immpeccable battery life but they do tend to hit 4 hours with power savings enabled. The SZ330 is no energized bunny, sorry to say. It lasts about 3.4 hours on a charge doing business tasks on the stamina setting (Intel integrated graphics) with WiFi on for surfing and email. That's using Sony's default power managment settings which set the display to half brightness and otherwise aren't as miserly as they could be (I recommend setting the hard drive to sleep sooner and turning off power to the DVD drive when not in use). The speed setting which turns on the Nvidia graphics card will take away about 45 minutes depending on what you're doing; but generally if you've turned on the dedicated graphics it's because you want to play a game, use graphics intensive apps or encode/decode video, all of which use more power.
So speed has its price, and that means good but not great runtimes unless you crank down on the items that suck juice such as the hard drive, optical drive and display brightness. . . then you might get 4 hours on the stamina setting. Sony does sell their ever-pricy spare standard and extended batteries if you need more staying power. The charger is Sony's standard large brick which will add just under a pound to your gear bag.
Even if you and your notebook aren't important enough to make the headlines when your machine is pilfered and your data compromised, it's more than nice to know that you've got good security on board. The SZ series has a biometric fingerprint scanner and Trusted Platform Module to help you keep your data private. You'll enroll a few of your fingerprints and create a password in Windows to get started. Do enroll more than one finger or a paper cut could lock you out of your computer until you supply the old fashioned typed password. Thereafter with the swipe of a finger, you can log on to Windows, enter passwords on web sites and in local applications (you choose which ones). The machine comes with ProtectorSuite QL software for Windows and the TPM means even if someone hacks Windows to attempt an encryption break, they haven't hacked the embedded security chip's encryption. Yes, serious data thieves and spies could dust your notebook for your fingerprints, make a cast of those prints and swipe those across the sensor, but let's face it, most of us aren't important enough to worry about that nor is our data. And if your data is that sensitive, wear gloves when handling your notebook and get a smartcard reader .
If you have a need for speed but don't want to haul a seven pound notebook, need to burn DVDs on the road, play games and have one of the best looking machines around, then the SZ is for you. The XBRITE widescreen display is excellent, the machine is small and thin and it has enough RAM and CPU power to please even the most demanding road warrior (or perhaps even desktop replacement user). With triple wireless networking you need not be near a hotspot to get on the Net and Bluetooth 2.0 will have your PDA or smartphone syncing fast.
Pro: Fast, lightweight, small: an unusual combination! Great display, quite and cool when running on battery power (still cool on AC with only moderate fan noise). Very good looking machine-- both the standard magnesium alloy models and the carbon fiber models. WiFi with great reception, Bluetooth 2.0 and Cingular WAN will keep you connected wirelessly most anywhere. The dual layer DVD burner is much appreciated, especially in a machine this slim.
Con: As always with Sony Vaio notebooks, no printed user manual (a must have with a feature-ladden notebook) and you must create you own restore DVDs or order them from Sony for $20 (it's not the price, it's the hassle). Cingular's EDGE coverage is great across the US, but 3G (HSDPA or EVDO) would really be a charm. As of now, you'll have to add your own 3G PC Card if you want faster cellular wireless speeds.
Display:13.3" XBRITE display, 1280 x 800 resolution. Nvidia Ge Force Go 7400 dedicated graphics adapter with 128 megs (has both dedicated memory and can use system memory). Has hardware switch to change to Intel GMA950 integrated graphics with 128 megs shared memory (stamina mode).
Ion rechargeable.5,200 mAh, 11.1v, 6 cell. 7800 mA extended battery available for separate purchase.
Performance and drives:2GHz Intel
Core 2 Duo T7200 processor with 4 megs level 2 cache and 667MHz front side bus. Intel 945GM chipset. 2 gigs PC-4200 (533MHz) DDR2 RAM. 120 gig SATA 5400 RPM hard drive. Dual layer DVD burner (4x DVD burning, 24x CD, 2.4x dual layer DVD burning).
Size:Standard SZ models: 12.5" x 1.0" - 1.5" x 9.3", 4.1 pounds. Premium carbon fiber models: 12.5" x 0.9" - 1.3" x 9.3, 3.7 pounds.
Camera:Front facing camera for video conferencing and chat.
in stereo speakers and microphone, 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack and mic jack.
Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG WiFi 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth 2.0 and Cingular EDGE/ GPRS internal radio (Sony Ericsson module). 10/100 wired Ethernet and V.92 modem.
XP Professional, service pack 2. Windows Vista ready. Full versions of MS Works 8.5, Quicken 2006, WinDVD, Norton Internet Security (2 month subscription), Sony Image Converter 2 Plus, Vaio Backup, Sony's SonicStage, Vaio Media, Sony wireless management utility, Protector Suite QL (for the biometric security feature). 60 day Trial versions of MS Office 2003 Small Business Edition.
Ports and Expansion:1
Memory Stick PRO Duo slot and SD/MMC card reader( ExpressCard) included. One PCMCIA slot (supports type I and II cards as well as CardBus), ExpressCard/34 slot, 2 USB 2.0 ports, 1 4 pin unpowered FireWire port, VGA, Ethernet, modem, docking station connector.