Editor's note, August 2008: Check out our review of the new Sony Vaio Z550, the lighter and faster version of the SZ.
Reviewed August 19, 2007 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The Sony SZ series, and the S Series before it helped define the ultra-cool 13" notebook segment. Enticingly thin and light but packed with powerful CPUs, dedicated graphics and a glossy XBrite display, the SZ has set the standard for power in a small, sexy package. We reviewed the Sony Vaio S460 two years ago, and the Sony Vaio SZ330 a year ago, and each earned our Editor's Choice award. The SZ6 Series is the new high end of the SZ line for the late summer/fall of 2007 and its the first SZ series with the Intel Santa Rosa chipset. Though the competition is stronger than ever, we're hard pressed to find a better 13", 4 lb. or under notebook with this much power and so many features.
The S6 Series Specs
Sony announced several SZ6 Premium models in late August 2007. All have Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, WiFi 802.11b/g/n, gigabit Ethernet, biometric security, an integrated web cam, dual layer DVD drive, both PC card and Express card slots, LED backlit XBrite displays and carbon fiber cases (which reduces weight while maintaining good rigidity), 2 gigs of RAM, and either the Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 or T7700 and the Santa Rosa 965 chipset. All SZ models feature a hybrid graphics system that allows you to switch from speed (the dedicated NVIDIA 8400 graphics processor) to the Intel X3100 (Intel's new integrated graphics chip for the Santa Rosa platform). And all have a 160 gig hybrid hard drive with 256 megs of memory on-board an otherwise standard SATA hard drive to speed up Vista. What are the differences between SZ6 models? Some include an integrated Sprint Broadband EVDO rev. A modem, some have the 2.2GHz Intel T7500 vs. 2.4GHz Intel T7700 and the top of the line SZ691 has a special coating over the carbon fiber that shows off the fiber threads in a dramatic way. The SZ680 is a build to order model, so it's specs vary in terms of RAM and hard drive, though it only comes with Santa Rosa and your choice of the Intel T7500 or T7700, and a silver keyboard is a $30 option on the SZ680. There's also a non-Premium SZ640 model, that has a magnesium alloy casing rather than carbon fiber (and is thus a bit heavier) and its display does not have LED backlighting. We're reviewing the 3.95 lbs. SZ650N/C which is a 2.2GHz Santa Rosa notebook with no Sprint modem.
The SZ6 series has gained a few ounces, weighing in at 3.95 to 4lbs. compared to the SZ4 series 3.72 lbs. Don't ask us where the added weight comes from, but our best guess would be better screen frame reinforcement since it is more rigid on the SZ650. The SZ6 runs a bit cooler, so there may be a more elaborate heat sink setup inside, though that could also be the result of better thermal management on Santa Rosa's part. In terms of price, the SZ650 is priced $50 less than the last generation SZ450 running the older Intel chipset with older NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 graphics/Intel GMA950.
Design and Ergonomics
As with all high end Sony notebooks, the SZ is pure eye candy. It's exceptionally thin with a wedge shape (thicker at the back), very light and it looks great in it's carbon fiber matte black casing. Inside the theme is black as well with a black trackpad and brushed carbon fiber wrist rest area.
The lid with logo.
The latchless (yes it stays shut) carbon fiber lid is smooth with just a hint of finish grain. The SZ691's finish should match the wrist rest area with its distinct fiber pattern and slightly glossier look. The SZ650N/C's lid doesn't show fingerprints but the wrist rest area does show hand oil, as you'll notice in some of our photos (it's not easy to get it off!). The SZ6 looks nearly identical to the SZ4 series except for the blacked-out casing all-around (rather than just the lid). The lid is rigid and the display doesn't show pools of light when pressed from behind. Given the thin and light design, the SZ still seems reasonably robust, but it's not as chunky and re-assuring as the beefier (and heavier) HP Pavilion machines like the TX1000 and dv6500t. But extreme portability and good looks place most notebooks at odds with Hummer-like durability.
There are no ports on the front and only the power jack lives on the back (along with the battery). The two audio jacks, FireWire and VGA port are on the left along with the PC Card slot and the 2 USB ports, ExpressCard slot and tray-loading optical drive are on the right. A large fan exhaust is located on the rear and there are air vents on the front edge below the bevel. The bottom has plenty of vent slits and overall the machine runs cooler than we expected. Even when installing/removing large applications to get the CPU and hard drive going for extended periods of time, the fan stayed fairly quiet and we noticed heat on one spot on the underside and under the left wrist rest area. Gaming increased fan speed and the machine got quite warm but not too hot to handle.
Some folks like the SZ keyboard and some folks call it spongy. I prefer a little travel on my keys and so I like the keyboard, which remains largely unchanged from older SZ models other than the color. Key travel is much longer than the Sony Vaio TX series and the new TZ series, and is similar to recent HP notebooks and ThinkPads. The trackpad is offset to the left, but not so much as to bother this leftie. The Alps touchpad has a textured surface that provides just the right amount of drag and traction, and you can scroll by dragging your finger along the right or bottom edge. The fingerprint scanner lives between the trackpad's left and right mouse buttons.
The stereo speakers live under the grill that runs above the keyboard and there's a switch to turn all wireless off (handy when flying).
Ports and Expansion
The SZ6 has two USB 2.0 ports, 1 unpowered FireWire IEEE 1394 port (i.LINK in Sony lingo), a VGA port (sorry no HDMI! The Dell XPS 1330 wins on that front), 3.5mm stereo out for headphones and speakers, 3.5mm mic in and a docking station connector on the bottom. As with prior SZ models, the laptop has both a PCMCIA type II card slot and an ExpressCard/34 slot. We loved this feature last year when ExpressCards were scarce, especially WAN cards. This year we have more ExpressCard options but still find the legacy PC Card slot handy for our older cards.
Horsepower and Performance
Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Sony Vaio SZ650 is its Intel Santa Rosa chipset. Notebook geeks on the Windows and Mac front have waited expectantly for this evolution of the Centrino line and it's also known as Centrino Pro (corporate marketing name) and Centrino Duo (consumer marketing name). Why? The Intel GM965 Express Chipset is faster thanks to its 800MHz FSB (the last generation Napa chipset ran at 667MHz). It allows for 4 gigs max RAM (the old limit was generally 2), adds support for 802.11n at its final draft stages with the integrated Intel 4965AGN, supports Intel Turbo Memory (aka Robson) and ReadyDrive in Vista for use with the hybrid hard drive, better claimed battery life, and it uses a new integrated graphics controller-- the Intel X3100 which shows huge improvements over last generation's Intel GMA950. There's only one difference between Centrino Pro and Centrino Duo, and that's the Intel 82566 gigabit Ethernet chip. Though Sony doesn't tout the Pro label, the SZ6 series has Intel's gigabit Ethernet (which puts it one-up on the 13" Dell XPS 1330 notebook that it competes with).
To take full advantage of the 800MHz front side bus, the laptop should have 800MHz PC-6400 DDR2 RAM. However, that RAM is still a bit hard to come by (in fact when Intel finalized Santa Rosa it didn't yet exist), so the Sony has 2 gigs of DDR2 PC-5300 677MHz RAM. There are 2 standard SODIMM slots under a memory door on the bottom of the computer and the machine can address a maximum of 4 gigs of RAM (Windows Vista 32 bit can't see more than 4 gigs of RAM, only the 64 bit version of the OS can). The SZ650N/C has a 2.2GHz Intel T7500 Core 2 Duo processor, and the SZ670 and SZ691 have a 2.4GHz Intel T7700 Core 2 Duo CPU.
The SZ650 is one of the first notebooks with a hybrid hard disk (H-HDD). This is essentially a standard notebook drive with non-volatile flash memory on board that's used to speed up operations. Microsoft states that Windows Vista automatically recognizes H-HDD drives and turns on the NV (non-volatile) caching. In fact, you'll see an extra tab when viewing hard drive properties labeled NV Caching. It tersely states that this feature will speed things up and can be enabled or disabled by policy administrators. Boy, that makes ya feel good. Seagate states that the drive pins the most commonly used hard drive data onto the 256 meg NV cache (and maintains control of that data for reliability), and that Vista manages that cache. The drive is a 160 gig SATA Seagate Momentus 5400 PSD running at 5400 RPM with a traditional 8 megs of standard hard drive cache in addition to the 256 NV memory. It has a 3Gb/s SATA interface which is the fastest SATA standard available. In theory, one could see power benefits from a hybrid drive, but we really wonder how much of a difference a mere 256 megs of cache can make when it comes to performance and battery conservation. We can state that the machine does boot quickly and resume from hibernation quickly as well, and these are probably the 2 strongest uses of the cache.
The SZ6 has Sony's usual internal dual layer DVD drive that can burn single and dual layer DVDs, CDs and play both forms of media. There's a built-in Memory Stick Pro DUO slot and Sony includes an ExpressCard/34 memory card reader than handles all current variants of SD (included SDHC), MMC and xD Picture Cards.
PC Mark05 Sony SZ650 Benchmarks
(Feel free to gloss over this section if you're not a technical type)
Benchmarking under Vista isn't a straightforward task when Vista's three new technologies: ReadyDrive, ReadyBoost and SuperFetch and Intel's Turbo Memory come into play. We do not enable ReadyBoost for our tests (this uses a fast USB flash drive or other removable memory card for a potential speed boost) and the Vaio doesn't have an Intel Turbo Boost memory card (internal flash memory using in a somewhat similar way to Ready Boost, though that's a gross oversimplification). But Vista has SuperFetch which attempts to see which applications you (and Windows) use most often and keep them in memory. SuperFetch can take a week to figure things out, and of course a synthetic benchmark test doesn't make use of these most often used apps and data, so it's not much help there. The Vaio does have ReadyDrive, but again Vista looks at applications and DLLs used primarily at boot and resume from hibernation mode, and these won't necessarily be the same apps and data used by the benchmarking application (the simulated Windows load time test in PCMark might accurately replicate Windows booting). Flash memory used on a hybrid hard drive will have incredibly fast (~ 1ms) access times but slower than hard disk write times, thus it will not do well in current synthetic benchmarks on write times and the fast access time helps only for data in the NV cache. We're going into this deeply because you'll note that the overall PCMark score from the day 1 test was dragged down quite a bit by the slow HDD benchmark number, thus not giving a true reading of the SZ650's real world performance.
Sony Vaio size comparison: 15" FS620, SZ650 and 11" TX850.
But wait, things get more interesting and complicated. Running the same test 6 days later, after Windows and the drive's firmware had time to optimize the NV cache, our hard drive benchmark went up by 1,000 points!
We also ran HD Tune 2.53 on the drive, and you can see the results screen here. This hard drive benchmark test had some problems with the hybrid drive numbers since it rated the drive at a max burst rate of 43.8MB/sec with an average rate of 27.7MB/sec but it came up with a burst rate of only 17.4MB/sec (the burst rate should always be higher than the max transfer rate, generally significantly higher). So take these results with a grain of salt. HD Tune showed an average access time of 16.8ms which also doesn't sound right as we'd expect this number to be much lower given flash memory's fast access times (lower numbers are better for access times).
The Vista Experience Score for the hard drive was a very good 4.8 (beating all other conventional SATA notebook drives we've tested under Vista), which leads us to believe Windows knows how to use the NV Cache much better than do the benchmarks.
Stamina setting test 1 (max battery life setting):
Because we use notebooks in a variety of settings: plugged and set to high performance for gaming or video editing, traveling on the plane with power savings in mind and traveling or working far away from an outlet when we need the longest possible runtimes from the battery, we tested three scenarios (and repeated the 3rd test a week later to see how much the NV cache and Vista might have improved tests over time). The results above are slowest to fastest, and most aggressive power management to all-out speed. We were impressed by 1) how well the new Intel X3100 integrated graphics chip performed, 2) how poorly the H-HDD does on synthetic benchmarks, 3) clearly power saving modes affect only the processor, FSB and RAM, 4) What a difference 6 days made in the HDD test. The Intel X3100 doesn't go into a low performance power savings state and the drive transfer time was actually a bit faster (OS using NV Cache to save power?).
Display, Multimedia and Gaming
The Sony SZ650's 13" 1280 x 800 white LED backlit XBrite LCD is hard to beat. It's razor-sharp, very color saturated and has deep blacks. Sony's XBrite technology has been around for several years and it's a glossy display that has an anti-glare coating. Indeed it has quite a bit less glare than our HP Pavilion dv9000's glossy display. The backlighting is indeed very white: the Vaio's whites look pure white compared to cream-colored on my 30" Apple Cinema Display (a non-LED backlit display that's otherwise top notch when it comes to sharpness, brightness and color saturation/accuracy). The display is painfully bright at the highest two brightness settings and our unit had no light leakage whatsoever.
The SZ6 carriers on the novel tradition of offers two graphics cards inside so you can switch between Intel integrated graphics and the NVidia dedicated graphics card with discrete memory. New for the SZ6 are updated graphics: the Intel solution is the new X3100 which is part of the Santa Rosa chipset; and the NVidia has moved up to the 8400M GS. To switch between these use the Speed/Stamina slider switch above the keyboard. Stamina= Intel integrated graphics which uses less power for longer runtimes and Speed= NVidia for faster graphics performance (handy when gaming). A reboot is required for the switch to take effect.
We were pleasantly surprised with the Intel X3100 which is good enough for casual gaming and image editing. It benchmarked between 1634 to 1737 in our PCMark05 tests, compared to the last generation Intel 950GMA which averaged 950! Not bad. Aero is responsive, DVD playback and streaming media performance were very good and you might not need the speed setting when you're not gaming or hunkering down with Photoshop. The X3100 can use up to 358 megs of shared memory (it uses 150 megs for average business tasks) and has 3D acceleration.
The NVidia 8400M GS is a midrange dedicated graphics card that's significantly better than even the X3100 but not up to Alienware standards. It's a thin-and-light notebook solution that's relatively power-frugal and doesn't get the machine terribly hot. The 2860 benchmark result with the factory drivers is pretty darned good for a 13" notebook and it's nearly as good as the multimedia powerhouse HP dv9000 with its NVIDIA GeForce Go 7600 and 256 megs of dedicated memory. Memory is where the Vaio's 8400M falls short: Sony opted for 64 megs rather than 128 megs of dedicated memory (why, we'll never know since spec-conscious shoppers have complained about this). This likely brings down the Aero score on Vista's performance rating score (3.5 is surprisingly low for this graphics processor and strangely low compared to the gaming graphics score). But the Aero test places a great deal of importance on the amount of graphics memory. Vista's gaming graphics score for the 8400 is an excellent 4.8 and in fact we found the SZ, like its predecessors to be very viable gaming machines. We tested a variety of fairly demanding 3D games including F.E.A.R. and Age of Empires III with good results. In all but the most demanding games we were able to run with high resolutions and effects settings (we had to be more conservative with F.E.A.R. to get a solid 23 or better fps). No, it's not a 17" gaming monster but it will keep you amused at home and on the road in much better style than other subnotebooks.
The Vaio has stereo speakers under the grill above the keyboard. These provide good stereo separation, adequate volume for personal use (it won't rock a large room) and pleasant sound with decent bass and clear trebles. Since Sony positions this as a business notebook, there is no HDMI or SPDIF, just standard VGA and 3.5mm stereo out. Sound through headphones is excellent. We tested the SZ650 with high end earbuds (XtremeMac FS1 and Etymotics 6i) and over-the-ear Sennheisers and got great bass, excellent clarity and no background hiss. Likewise, the Plantronics Pulsar 590 stereo Bluetooth headphones sounded great by Bluetooth A2DP stereo standards. The SZ6 uses SigmaTel HD audio and includes the SoundReality ASIO control panel (from Steinberg Media) which allows you to set the ASIO latency and buffer size and switch between ASIO and DSD (Sony Direct Stream Digital).
For DVD playback there's Windows Media Player 11 and a bundled version of WinDVD "for Vaio". Sony's usual suspects are also here: SonicStage 3, Camera Capture, Image Converter 3 (handy for converting video to PSP-friendly format), Click to DVD (make DVD movie disks) and Roxio Media Creator LE 9 (make music and data discs).
The SZ series includes a 1.3 megapixel webcam and integrated mic that live above the display. In our tests, using the webcam was a most Mac-like experience: it just worked. We tested it with MS Messenger and Skype and both audio and video streams were of good quality using the default settings. Our video call recipients praised our outgoing video and audio quality, in fact. This compares favorably to some HP notebooks where we had several driver problems, some of which hadn't been fixed 6 months after the product's release.
The SZ6 series is exceptionally well-connected with Draft N 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR, 10/100/1000 gigabit Ethernet, a 56k fax/modem and Sprint EVDO rev. A WAN networking on some models (adds a small antenna that attaches to the right hinge spline). You can of course use your own PCMCIA, ExpressCard or USB WAN adapter from the carrier of your choosing for Internet access anywhere. We tested the SZ650 with Sprint's U595 USB solution and it worked well with very fast download speeds. WiFi range from the Intel Pro/Wireless AGN was good in G mode with speed and throughput performance that's average for 13 to 15" notebooks. We tested 802.11n with a D-Link DIR-665 access point and found range doubled over that of 802.11g as did download speeds-- nice!
While gigabit Ethernet won't do most of us any good when it comes to Internet connectivity (most Internet connections serve data in the 1.5 to 15 meg range), it does make intranet file transfer incredibly fast. If you've got an office or home workgroup of computers with gigabit adapters and switches, files will transfer between them extremely quickly. Bluetooth worked flawlessly on our machine for syncing mobile devices, transferring files, using a Bluetooth mouse and A2DP stereo headphones. File transfer is very quick with another Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR device such as recent Nokia S60 phones and Macs. The SZ uses the Toshiba Bluetooth stack, as do most notebooks.
Battery life is better than average with the standard 6 cell 5800 mAh Lithium Ion battery. We managed 3.9 hours running the machine in Stamina mode (integrated graphics) using the max battery power setting (we didn't test with ultimate battery which disables hardware components to save power). Speed mode (NVIDIA graphics) with the default Vaio Optimized power management setting averaged 3:15 with both WiFi and Bluetooth on and active and screen brightness raised to 70%. The manufacturer claims 3 to 6 hours runtime on a charge, which is optimistic. Sony has a $299 extended battery for 1.5x capacity and runtimes that adds relatively little bulk to the machine.
The SZ650 (and all SZ6 models) has a biometric fingerprint scanner and Trusted Platform Module to help you keep your data private. The Vaio has a Trusted Platform Module 1.2 so fingerprint data can be saved directly to the module (up to 21 fingerprints) rather than the hard drive and the machine can be locked from intruders at the BIOS level. BIOS level security isn't enabled by default, you'll need to enter the BIOS and turn on the TPM feature if you wish to use it. Otherwise security data is saved (encrypted) on the hard drive.
You'll enroll a few of your fingerprints and create a password in Windows to get started. 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 Protector Suite QL software for Windows. While even biometric security can be foiled (if someone dusts the notebook for your fingerprints then uses them to make a cast to run over the scanner), it's certainly much, much better than nothing and will foil most data thieves.
Software and Bloatware
Things are getting out of hand, folks. This year, Sony has filled their machines with bloatware befitting the Apple Switcher commercial. Yes, there's useful stuff-- a 60 day trial of Office 2007 to get you going if you don't yet own a copy, MS Works 8.5 for those who don't need the full business Office 2007 solution, and some of Sony's own multimedia software that's actually useful or fun. But the list of crap is startling: various toolbars, Antivirus trial software that nags you more than a pop-up ad infection, several different AOL programs and offers-- there are so many you'd think that AOL Time Warner and Sony shared the same parent company, Napster, Grouper screen saver and Sony's own version of media center for home networks (Vaio Media) which I suspect only a handful of people in the US use (this software installs many components included MS SQL server 2005- oye!). Plan on spending a day using the Programs and Features control panel to remove all this junk. It will speed up your computer, especially boot times, if you do remove it. And pity IT departments who have to clean these up before deploying them (doubly-shameful given that Sony puts this machine on their B2B site rather than the consumer site).
The Vaio SZ6 series ships with Windows Vista Business Edition, period. Currently there is no option for other Vista editions or XP. You can use Microsoft's Windows Upgrade Anytime feature to upgrade to Vista Ultimate if you want Media Center features, BitLocker drive encryption (the built-in biometric makes this less necessary), DVD maker and/or parental controls.
If you're looking for a thin and light notebook with lots of power and style, the SZ650 is hard to beat. It's got serious speed and processing power; in fact it's fast enough to be a desktop replacement. The display is one of the best we've seen on a notebook, and the resolution suits the screen dimensions well (no squinting required). We like the dual PCMCIA and ExpressCard slots, very complete networking setup including Draft N WiFi and gigabit Ethernet. While it's hard to quantify the hybrid drive's speed improvement, it does seem to speed up boot times. The dual graphics, unique to the Sony Vaio SZ series is a welcome solution for those of us who travel and need good battery life, but want to hunker down for some good gaming when at home or in a hotel near an outlet.
Pro: Very light and thin, yet extremely powerful computer. Santa Rosa and the Intel T7500 mean you won't miss your desktop. The white LED backlit XBrite display is fantastically bright, clear and color saturated. Excellent networking features, webcam works flawlessly, battery life is better than average. Great looks! Solid and well made, albeit not as durable as some chunky 15" notebooks on the market.
Display:13.3" WXGA 1280 x 800 widescreen display with white LED backlighting, XBrite. Hybrid graphics system, can use either the integrated Intel X3100 graphics or NVIDIA 8400M GS with 64 megs dedicated DDR2 memory (will use additional system memory as needed up to 831 megs).
Ion rechargeable, 10.8v, 5800 mAh (VGP-BPS10). Extended 9 cell battery available for purchase (VGP-BPL9). Claimed runtime: 3 to 6 hours.
GM965 Santa Rosa motherboard chipset, 800MHz front side bus. Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 running at 2.2GHz with 4 meg level 2 cache (2.4GHz also available). 2 gigs PC5300 667Mhz DDR2 RAM, 4 gigs max. Has 2 SODIMM slots.
Drives:160 gig SATA H-HDD with Windows ReadyDrive: hybrid hard disk with 256 megs flash memory (ours had a Seagate Momentus), 5400 RPM. Has G-Sensor shock protection for hard drive. Dual layer DVD burner.
Size:12.5" wide x 9.3" deep x 1.0" to 1.5" thick. Weight: 3.95 pounds. Carbon fiber casing.
Camera:1.3MP web cam with mic.
in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack, mic jack.
Intel Pro/Wireless 4965AGN WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR. 10/100/1000 gigabit Ethernet, V.92 modem. Has wireless on/off switch. Internal Sprint EV-DO rev. A broadband modem available on some models.
Ports and Expansion:PCMCIA type II, ExpressCard/34, 2 USB 2.0, 1 4 pin unpowered FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, VGA, Ethernet, modem, port replicator port (bottom), Memory Stick Pro DUO slot. 5-in-1 ExpressCard reader included that handles MMC, RS-MMC, SD, miniSD, microSD and xD picture cards.