Reviewed October 23, 2006 by Lisa Gade, Editor
The Sony TX line is the smallest, lightest and thinnest traditional notebook series sold mass market in the US. Though the Sony Vaio UX180P is lighter and smaller, it has a radical non-notebook design and only a thumb keyboard. If you want something that walks, talks and operates like a notebook, the TX is your man. Weighing in at 2.76 lbs with an 11.1" XBRITE display, the notebook requires a spot in your briefcase or large purse rather than a notebook bag. The TX line has been around for some time and evolves slowly (often there's barely any difference between a model and the one that replaces it). This is because CPU, motherboard and hard drive options are limited in a notebook this small, especially one that's designed to run 6 hours on a charge.
How does Sony manage to get so much into a machine this small and light? The research and design efforts from the ultra-thin carbon fiber X505 (now put to shame by the TX), U70 and more recently the UX180P pay off as the technology moves from these low volume exotics to mainstream lines like the TX.
With the TX850, Sony has finally made the move to the Intel Core Solo U1400 CPU running at 1.2GHZ (the same clock speed as the TX750 but with the new processor). The Core Solo is faster and uses less power than the ULV Mobile Pentium M it replaces, bringing the TX into the modern age. While the TX series models have had an embedded Cingular EDGE radio for quite some time, but the TX850 has no embedded WAN (cellular) modem. This isn't a bad thing at all, since Cingular's faster 3G HSDPA network makes EDGE seem so last generation and many buyers prefer to stay with their own provider for data service, if indeed they want such a service at all. Sony will soon release their new TXN variant notebooks, which are spec-d like the TX850 but have embedded Sprint EDVO radios for data. And finally, Sony has added biometric security to the TX, which is always a good idea with a machine powerful enough to carry large amounts of sensitive data yet small enough to easily mislay.
Is the Sony Vaio TX850 for me?
If you're looking for the smallest and lightest you can get with extremely good battery life, then yes. As usual, you're paying a premium for miniaturization and weight reduction. The TX850 sells for the same price as the "everything but the kitchen sink" 13.3" Sony Vaio SZ330 we just reviewed. The SZ weighs 4 pounds and is quite an easy machine to haul around , though it's near 1 lb. power brick is too heavy and jacks up total toting weight. And it's got a Core 2 Duo running at 2GHz, 2 gigs of RAM and a 120 gig hard drive. . . and we're only getting started. So the SZ line is thin and light and can beat the pants off of your 2 to 3 year old desktop. Well, the TX850 makes the Vaio SZ look like a desktop replacement; that's how much smaller and lighter it is. If you want machine that you'll barely feel on your lap, doesn't require a separate carry on for flight, runs twice as long as the Sony SZ on a charge yet can handle any business task and burn DVDs on the go, the TX850 might just find a place in your bag.
Vaio size comparison: Sony FS620, Sony SZ330, Sony TX850 and the Sony UX180P. The largest notebook in this group, the FS620, is only a 15.4", six pound model!
Par for the course, the TX850 isn't going to impress anyone on the CPU and hard drive fronts. Machines this small just can't have the fastest CPUs or fit in the faster and roomiest 2.5 notebook drives. However, the machine has an excellent list of standard features that beat the competition in the subnotebook category. Sony has managed to fit in a dual layer DVD burner, WiFi, Bluetooth 2.0, an 80 gig hard drive, 1 gig of RAM, 7800 mAh battery, a captivating widescreen display and good performance into a package that's smaller than the latest Martha Stewart Magazine and half the size of Computer Shopper. It's lighter and thinner than the Fujitsu LifeBook B6210, Toshiba Satellite U200, and old Sony TR series. The Sony TX and TXN series also feature an instant on AV mode which allows you to play DVDs and music CDs without booting Windows.
Design and Ergonomics
OK, we've established that this is the smallest and lightest machine you can buy with a traditional notebook design in the US. Knowing that full and well, I am still amazed and shocked at just how small and light the TX is each time I get my hands on one. The carbon fiber body isn't just marketing fodder; it's very strong, flexible (so it won't crack when flexed) and lighter than the magnesium alloy and ABS plastic commonly used for laptop casing and internal framing. Though some earlier carbon fiber Vaios exhibited too much screen flexing, the TX850 is reasonably rigid and we saw no image distortion when handling the top lid during use. The display lid is fantastically thin, about 3mm and the entire unit runs well under an inch thick at the front and 1.12" at the back where the battery lives. The latchless lid stays firmly closed, and hinge operation is smooth. The machine is expensive and it looks expensive, with Sony's usual beautiful industrial design, sensual textures and generally good fit and finish. The less than full-sized notebook keyboard looks like the keys were sculpted out of metal (they weren't) and typing is fairly good for a small keyboard with 1.7mm key travel. Though the masked dark gray letters on mid-gray keys looks lovely, they aren't easy to see in low lighting and had me pining for Apple's backlit keyboard.
The trackpad is fairly large for a very small notebook and it's slightly offset to the left. The trackpad has a texture which makes for more precise "mousing" and the two buttons are close to the front edge which some folks find awkward though it doesn't bother me. To the right of the trackpad on the front edge you'll find the Bluetooth and WiFi indicator lights, volume controls, mute button, headphone and mic jack. The fingerprint scanner is near the front right corner. To the left of the trackpad you'll find the stacked Memory Stick and SD card readers slots.
Two USB 2.0 ports live on the left side, one near the back and one under a plastic door next to the modem jack. The tray-loading DVD drive is on the right, as is the VGA port (toward the back). The TX850 has a dock connector on the bottom beneath a snug-closing door (unlike the SZ series loose door that slides open all the time). a 4 pin unpowered FireWire port and 10/100 Ethernet jack are on the back and the spine houses controls for AV mode controls, the power button, DVD eject button (gone is the too tiny mechanical eject button on the DVD drawer). Also on the spine you'll find charging, caps lock. num lock and hard disk access lights.
back of the Sony TX850
Performance, Drives and Ports
The TX850 is a little workhouse, despite the unassuming Intel U1400 Core Solo processor. It handles office tasks admirably and does the job for light Photoshop, Dreamweaver and multimedia work such as ripping CDs and watching DVDs or iTunes movies. It's faster than the tiny Sony UX180P running on the same CPU and you won't experience lags doing everyday tasks such as launching apps or doing a spell check on the Word document. The U1400 has 2 megs of level 2 cache and a 533MHz front size bus. Thankfully, the TX850 has 1 gig of PC-4200 RAM, while older TX series models shipped with only 512 megs which was a bit low for serious work. The machine can take a maximum of 1.5 gigs of RAM and you'd need to discard the factory provided 512 meg SODIMM and replace it with a 1 gig module to reach 1.5 gigs. Really, 1 gig is plenty good enough for most users though.
Though considerably slower than the Sony SZ330 with a 2GHz Core 2 Duo processor (no kidding!), it holds it's own against pre-Core Duo Vaio models averaging 1750 PCMarks on a 1.73GHz Dothan Centrino machine and the smaller Core Duo Systemax notebooks (we benchmarked their 2GHz model at 1999).
The Vaio ships with an 80 gig hard drive with an Ultra ATA interface. It's a 4200 RPM 1.8" drive and you'll have about 65 gigs free since the recovery partition, Windows and factory installed applications take up about 15 gigs. It's a big bonus when a subnotebook this small comes with an optical drive, let along a dual layer DVD burner that burns dual layer, standard single layer DVDs as well as CD-R and CD-RW media. Use that drive to make recovery DVDs and you can reformat the drive if you wish to recover the space used by the recovery partition. As always, Sony unfortunately doesn't include recovery disks and you'll need to burn the two DVDs yourself or call up Sony and order them for $20. A machine this expensive should come with recovery media!
Though small, the laptop has a decent set of ports and slots: two USB 2.0, one 4 pin FireWire, 1 PCMCIA slot that's compatible with type I, II and CardBus cards (we tested it with Cingular's Option Max GT HSDPA card and it worked fine), Memory Stick and SD card slots and a VGA port.
Display and Multimedia
OK, we like XBRITE displays, and so does everybody else. They have great contrast, a glossy rich look, strong colors, good blacks and not too much glare for a gloss LCD. The TX850's is even a little nicer than the usual XBRITE display thanks to LED backlighting which is brighter and whiter than standard cathode tubes. Though more expensive, Sony uses LEDs because it allows them to make a thinner and lighter display panel, important to the smallest of traditional Vaio notebooks. The Vaio uses Intel's GMA950 integrated graphics card with 128 megs of shared memory. That's good enough for business work, light to medium graphics work and some gaming (don't expect F.E.A.R. to play well, but The SIMs, Rise of Legends and similar titles run fine).
Booting Windows XP isn't fast. What if you want to play a CD or DVD without the boot time and overhead of Windows? Rather than pressing the power button to boot up XP, press the AV button and you'll be greeted with a simple launcher in just seconds that lets you play a CD or DVD. Nice. The launcher also allows you to power down the device or boot into Windows.
The AV controls
WiFi, Bluetooth and Wired Networking
Just because the TX850 is small, that doesn't mean you have to compromise on networking. The machine has Intel's PRO/Wireless 3945ABG WiFi chip which supports 802.11a/b/g wireless networks and comes with Intel's excellent WiFi management utility (though you can use the Windows connection manager if you prefer). Often subnotebooks have sub-par range (less room for a long antenna and conservative power management), but the TX850 had very good range by subnotebook standards and average range compared to full-sized notebooks.
Like most high end Sony Vaio notebooks, the TX850 has Bluetooth 2.0 which offers great transfer speeds and better interference rejection. The machine uses Toshiba's Bluetooth stack and comes with a healthy selection of Bluetooth profiles including serial, OBEX, FTP, headset and A2DP. We had no problems transferring files to and from other computers and mobile devices and syncing with various Nokia phones and Microsoft Pocket PC and Smartphones.
And for those times you need wired connectivity, the Sony TX850 has wired 10/100 Ethernet and a 56k V.92 dial up modem with fax capabilities.
The TX850 is small enough to carry lots of sensitive data and small enough to easily misplace. The machine 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 Protector Suite 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. 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 non-pro thieves.
Fantastic: 6 hours on a charge with standard power management and wireless on. The Vaio's compact battery packs 7800 mAh of power which is quite a lot for any notebook, let alone one so small. Vertical market models like the ToughBook have long battery life, but you'll be hard pressed to find this kind of stamina in a consumer or business notebook. You'll be able to watch a 2 hour DVD on flight, then have plenty of power for work when you land. No outlet required.
Some like it small and light. Take me, for example: I need a powerful but not killer notebook on the road, and prefer something I can slip into a large purse (one less carry on at the airport and one less roller-bag at the trade show). And I want a machine that lets me watch a few episodes of Lost on the plane with plenty of juice left for checking email in the taxi and then some for surfing in the hotel room. And I need a PC Card slot for my high speed HSDPA wireless WAN card. All taken care of nicely by the TX850. Really nothing else on the US market currently offers the same combination of diminutive size, carbon fiber light weight build, great looks, fantastic battery life and dual layer DVD burner. Though I'm sold, if you prefer more bang for the buck and don't care as much about size and weight, look at the Sony SZ330 and other competing slim and lights.
Pro: Sony packs a lot into an amazingly small and light machine. Battery life is phenomenal (no wonder Sony doesn't bother with an extended battery). The screen is wonderfully bright and clear and the WXGA 11.1" size is just right to prevent eye fatigue while keeping the notebook small. Strong built in wireless and wired networking support. The PC Card slot means you can slip in the WAN card of your choice. Good Bluetooth and WiFi connection quality and speeds. Integrated DVD burner means you can install software, watch DVDs, play games and burn disks on the road.
Con: Pricey: you're paying for miniaturization and the large capacity (but physically small) battery. The specs can't compete with a full sized notebook at the same price. As with all subnotebooks, this machine isn't the fastest kid on the block, nor is it capable of playing the most demanding 3D games. We complain every time we review a Vaio: no printed manual and no restore media in the box. C'mon Sony.
Display:11.1" XBRITE display with LED backlighting, 1366 x 768 resolution. Intel GMA950 integrated graphics with 128 megs shared memory.
Ion rechargeable.7,800 mAh.
Performance and drives:1.2GHz Intel
Core Solo U1400 processor with 2 megs level 2 cache and 6533MHz front side bus. Intel 945GM chipset. 1 gig PC-4200 (533MHz) DDR2 RAM (1.5 gigs max). 80 gig 4200 RPM Ultra ATA hard drive with G- Sensor shock protection. Dual layer DVD burner (4x DVD burning, 24x CD, 2.4x dual layer DVD burning).
Size: 10.7 x 7.7 x 0.83 - 1.12 inches, 2.76 pounds.
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. 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, Sony Image Converter 2 Plus, DVgate Plus, Click-to-DVD, Vaio Backup, Sony's SonicStage, Vaio Media, Protector Suite QL (for the biometric security feature). 60 day Trial versions of MS Office 2003 Small Business Edition and Norton Internet Security 2006.
Ports and Expansion:1
Memory Stick PRO slot and SD slot. One PCMCIA slot (supports type I and II cards as well as CardBus), 2 USB 2.0 ports, One 4 pin unpowered FireWire port, VGA, Ethernet, modem, docking station connector.