Reviewed November 13, 2009 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Imagine the computing world without Sony: it would surely be a more boring place, at least if you like ultraportables and super-sexy tech. Their cutting edge products may be expensive, but without them, the march to a world of thinner, cooler, Star-Trekian computing devices would be slower. Now, the same folks who brought you the Sony Vaio P earlier this year are at it again with an ostensibly more normal looking notebook, the Vaio X. If you look at photos of the Vaio X, you might not get the whole picture: sure it looks superbly thin, but in person it's so thin and light that it seems more like a sci-fi movie prop. At 11.95" x 7.29" with an 11.1" display, it's about as wide and deep as a netbook or the now discontinued 11" Vaio TT. But at a half inch thick and 1.5 to 1.6 lbs. it's half the weight of a 10" Eee PC netbook and less than half the thickness. At 0.55" thick, it competes with skinny cell phones rather than notebooks or netbooks. It's a tenth of an inch thicker than the Sony Reader PRS-600 eBook reader and about the same size as the 6 ounce lighter Kindle DX. You get the idea-- really slim and compact. But not overly so like the Vaio P, whose small but high resolution display is hard on the eyes. The Vaio X's design fits in with the 11" netbook crowd and the Vaio TX/TZ/TT in terms of usable ergonomics.
Specs at a Glance
The Sony Vaio X is available in two models that are identical other than hard drive capacity. The 64 gig SSD model lists for $1,299 while the 128 gig SSD model sells for $1,499. Clearly these aren't budget laptops and you're paying for extreme fit and finish, a carbon fiber casing, extreme portability, great battery life and good looks. Such is the price of entry if you want to carry the thinnest and lightest notebook extant. The 64 gig model has a matte black top (similar to the carbon fiber finish on the Sony Vaio Z series 13.3" ultralights) while the 128 gig is available in black or gold (gold paint on top of carbon fiber). The bottom half of the casing and the extended battery on both is a complex brown metallic that looks bronze, chocolate or muted brown-black depending on how light strikes it. The bottom casing has a very slight rough texture that helps keep the skinny laptop in hand. The speaker is located on the bottom, and is louder than the Vaio P but quieter than most notebooks.
The notebook has a 2GHz Intel Atom Z550 CPU, 2 gigs of DDR2 RAM, an SSD drive, Intel GMA 500 integrated graphics and an 11.1" LED display that's not gloss (thank you) and is scratch resistant. Those sound like netbook specs, other than the higher speed Atom CPU (most netbooks run at 1.6GHz max). But wait, in typical Sony fashion, there's more: a webcam, WiFi 802.11n, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, Verizon EV-DO Rev. A and a GPS that works with the included Microsoft Streets and Trips 2009. Both a standard and extended battery are included in the box but there's no optical drive. Apple's MacBook Air engineers should snoop around Sony's design center since the little X manages two USB 2.0 ports, a drop-down Ethernet RJ45 jack, stereo headphone jack, a standard VGA port, SD and Memory Stick Pro Duo slots.
Power, 2 USB ports and a headphone jack on the Vaio's left side.
SD and Memory Stick Duo card slots on the front edge.
Drop-down Ethernet jack and VGA port.
I know: you're wondering why no ULV single or dual core Intel CPU for the price? The answer is that the machine couldn't be this small given the greater power and heat dissipation requirements of those CPUs. Also, there's no way Sony could have gotten the incredible battery runtimes with a non-Atom CPU. Give it a few more years. . .
Here's our 8.5 minute video where we take a walk around the machine and compare it to the MacBook Air, Sony Vaio Z and Eee PC 1005HA. We also demo YouTube standard and HQ playback and Hulu video playback.
Design and Ergonomics
What goes around, comes around. Sony has released quite a few novel ultraportable computers in the past 5 years, from the U50 and Vaio UX series of micro PCs that looked more like super-sized handhelds to the more ergonomic but still lilliputian Vaio P that looks like a notebook halved. Now somewhat with the Vaio P and fully with the Vaio X, Sony has returned to their cult-classic roots: machines like the 2004 Sony Vaio V505, Vaio TX and especially the X505 that boasted standard notebook ergonomics made slimmer and lighter and prettier. In fact, the Vaio X is the direct descendant of the 2004 Vaio X505, a carbon fiber 1.73 lb. notebook that we described at the time as "razor thin". In fact, it's still razor thin nearly 6 years later, though not as thin as the new Vaio X. Like most keenly ultraportable computers, the Vaio X505 ran on an underpowered 1GHz CPU with 512 megs of RAM and a 20 gig hard drive, yet it cost between $3,000 and $4,000. Remarkably, it sold well in Japan and passably in the US at those prices because nothing else could touch it in terms of size, weight and looks. That makes today's Vaio X look like a bargain. But the world of low margin, low spec netbooks has reset the consumer market when it comes to small machines, and anything above $400 seems expensive. You do get what you pay for, and those $400 and under netbooks lack the features, extreme low weight and quality of the X. So if you want a bargain priced netbook, stop reading now. Clearly that's not Sony's market.
Above: The Sony Vaio X (left) and the Sony Vaio Z550, a 13.3", 3.3 lb. ultralight. Below: The X on top of the Z.
The X looks like a normal notebook, only smaller and much thinner. There are no weird design concessions to size here, at least not on the outside. There's a normal subnotebook/netbook keyboard, a standard Alps 2 button multi-touch trackpad, a decent selection of ports and slots and a very good display. If Sony hadn't removed the trackpad and wrist rest area, the Vaio P would look much like the X. The standard design affords a fairly standard 11.1" LED backlit display running at 1366 x 768 resolution (higher resolution than most netbooks and the same as the Vaio TT subnotebook and Vaio W netbook). The island style keyboard with chicklet keys has wonderful feel when typing but it's on the small side-- seriously big-fisted fellas won't like it. We assume Sony couldn't bring the keyboard out to the edges since the frame increases rigidity. Two small pop-down feet under the computer raise it just a bit for typing, and the extended battery raises it quite a bit more making for even more ergonomic typing and providing a cooling space underneath. The included extended battery has a very unusual design that leaves a large open space between it and the notebooks' bottom. It attaches firmly via the battery latches in the front and two thumb screws at the back. Though high capacity, it's surprisingly light at 12 ounces.
Though it might look delicate in photos, in person it feels solid with surprising rigidity. The notebook is made of carbon fiber with an aluminum keyboard deck, and though carbon fiber by design flexes, the X does not. One could imagine James Bond using it as an impromptu weapon since it's so thin and solid. The matte lid doesn't show fingerprints much, but the aluminum wrist rest area does. Sony includes a cloth for cleaning the LCD that they suggest storing between the keyboard and display when transporting the laptop. Though the keyboard module is recessed and very low profile rubber bumpers line the LCD bezel, apparently there's a chance they might touch in transit. The machine is so skinny that we did tend to grip and squeeze it more tightly than normal, though so far we haven't seen any key marks on the LCD.
With the extended battery installed.
The trackpad is adequately sized and the buttons are easy to press. It supports multi-touch gestures but is a little small to do these easily. When you remove the battery, you can see the underside of the trackpad assembly under a thin cover. Had Sony used a larger trackpad, the battery size would have suffered. Talk about tight tolerances. Buttons are at a minimum: the power button that lights green when the notebook is running and is amber when it's sleeping and a wireless on/off slider switch. Charging, hard disk activity and wireless indicator LEDs live on the front edge.
The display is Sony's usual excellent stuff: extremely bright with plenty of color saturation. The LCD panel folds back nearly flat and doesn't show excessive light pooling when pressed from behind nor is there light leakage on the edges. Viewing angles are good and even small text is sharp and clear. For indoor use, 50% brightness is more than adequate and max brightness is retina-burning.
It's not terribly hard to open up the machine and gain access to the internals-- just unscrew 11 tiny Phillips head screws (one is under the heat warning label). But there's not much to be gained from opening it up since RAM isn't expandable (it's soldered onto the motherboard) and the SSD drive is a custom 1.8" model that looks like a RAM card (there's no external cover as there is on aftermarket 1.8" drives).
Speaking of heat, the machine runs relatively cool thanks to the Intel Atom Z550, though there's one hot spot where the yellow heat warning sticker lives (next to the only bottom surface air vent). When working hard, that 3" x 1.5" area reaches 105 degrees fahrenheit, and 95 degrees with light use. The palm rest area doesn't get hot (only the battery lives underneath that area), and the keyboard can get warm but not hot. CPU temps average 45 to 49 degrees centigrade and can get into the mid to high 50s when playing Flash video (these temps are normal for Intel notebooks).
The 2GHz Intel Atom CPU isn't going to win any races unless it's competing against netbooks (they typically have 1.3 to 1.6GHz Atom CPUs) or a several year old notebook with a single core Centrino CPU. I expected the worst, especially for Flash video playback which generally is punishing of the Atom CPU, and was pleasantly surprised to discover the machine is fast and responsive, even when running multiple applications. In fact standard and HQ resolution YouTube videos play very well, and only drop some frames in full screen mode. Standard quality hulu.com video plays fine, while the 480p resolution drops some frames but is watchable. We tested iTunes standard def movies and TV shows in full screen mode and the Vaio played them smoothly (another task that's hard on standard Atom netbooks). Watch our video review to see YouTube and Hulu in action. Apparently the jump to 2GHz really helps. Our other concern was the Intel GMA 500 integrated graphics, which hasn't been a stellar performer in part due to weak drivers. That same GPU powers the Vaio P and it took a lot of tweaking to get good video playback in a variety of formats. Out of the box, the Vaio X is much stronger in the video department, we suspect thanks to improved Intel drivers and Windows 7 good video codecs. While this is obviously not as powerful as a normal notebook, it runs well under Windows 7 Home Premium (Sony ships it with Aero turned off and we left it that way despite good Aero ratings in the Windows Experience index) and the OS is snappy. How about multi-tasking? I typically run MS Office 2010, Firefox with a few tabs open and Photoshop simultaneously and the X didn't bog down. Add many more apps and it will start to slow down once it has to hit virtual memory. With 2 gigs of RAM, 3 to 4 "serious" apps (I don't mean lightweight Twitter clients or notepad) is about as many as I'd recommend.
The notebook has 2 gigs of DDR2 RAM (non-upgradable, soldered to the motherboard), a custom 64 or 128 gig SSD drive and the Intel Atom Z550 2.0GHz CPU with a 533MHz FSB. The SSD drive uses the older and slower PATA interface rather than SATA due to motherboard architecture, so drive speeds aren't amazing like they are on full sized notebooks with SATA SSD drives. They're as good as a fast conventional SATA notebook drive. The Intel GMA 500 performs much better than we expected, and experientially we had no issues with it. The PCMark05 graphics benchmark score was terribly low though, which is interesting and odd.
Windows Experience Index: 2.4
Memory (RAM): 4.4
Graphics for Aero: 4.3
Gaming graphics: 2.4
Hard disk: 5.2
As noted, there's no internal optical drive (there's absolutely no room) and an external one isn't included. That means you'll have to wrangle up your own external USB drive (these typically cost $70 to $90 for a dual layer DVD burning model) if you want to install software via CD or DVD. Alternatively, you can use the 2 USB 2.0 ports and a flash drive to install software. Note that the Vaio X doesn't supply a lot of power to the USB ports, even when plugged in, so opt for external DVD drives that use dual USB or Y USB cable connectors or get a drive with external power. We had no problems booting the Vaio from an old Sony external DVD burner and a new Plextor Blu-ray drive. Since there's no optical drive, Sony ships the machine with a recovery partition, which brings the 64 gig SSD down to 53 gigs usable. Out of the box, before removing bloatware, our drive had 38 gigs free.
The Vaio X feels considerably faster than the Vaio P, and is comparable to the Vaio TX and TZ, though not as fast as the Vaio TT. For Office and web the difference between the X and TT isn't terribly noticable but for demanding tasks like Flash playback, it is.
Wireless and GPS
The Sony has Atheros single band 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n that had good range and performance in our tests, despite there being little room for the Atheros chipset's single antenna. Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR provides connections for Bluetooth mice, keyboards, and phones for syncing and tethering as well as wireless stereo Bluetooth headsets. Sony has been fond of Qualcomm's GOBI cellular modem that's a chameleon that can change to work on CDMA and GSM. However, the US version works only with Verizon, and that's not a bad choice given the carrier's excellent US coverage, fast EV-DO Rev. A network and day pass features (you need not get a contract if you just want to use the modem for a day here and a day there-- just pay $10/day as needed). For the wired set, there's a gigabit Ethernet port too.
The GPS (a part of the GOBI chipset but you don't have to activate the Verizon cellular modem to use it) worked well in our tests, though it doesn't have as strong reception as some of the better phones on the market (this often seems to be the case with notebooks). Outdoors and in a car it managed to lock onto 4-5 satellites and held a fix fine. The Vaio X ships with Microsoft Streets and Trips 2009, and we had no trouble using it with the GPS (no settings edits needed). Unlike the Vaio P, we were able to turn on the GPS and Verizon modem without turning off WiFi. That said, turn WiFi off if you don't need it when GPS-ing or using Verizon EV-DO since it's a waste of battery life. The GPS drains the battery more quickly than anything else, so be sure to bring the extended battery or a car charger for long road trips.
The Sony Vaio X models ship with both a standard and extended battery. The standard battery fits flush in the machine and is 2,050 mAh, 16 Watts/hour and the extended battery is 8,200 mAh, 61 Watts/hour. The extended battery brings the Vaio's weight up to 2.2 - 2.3 pounds. Sony claims 2.5 to 3.5 hours on the standard battery and up to 14 on the extended. In our tests with WiFi and Bluetooth on and display brightness set to 50% while doing web and productivity tasks, the standard battery lasted 2.5 to 3 hours and the extended battery lasted 10 hours. Not bad. While the Atom Z550 and GMA 500 might not be rocket scientists, they afford great stamina.
Upside down, with the extended battery in place.
One of two knurled knobs that secures the battery.
The Sony Vaio X is as much a step forward for technology as it is a step forward in geek-chic, frou-frou computing. Whether you have a bad back, are sick of frequent flying with large notebooks that have overkill computing power, or just want to have the sexiest hardware in the office, the Vaio X has its appeal. It offers most of the creature comforts of a standard notebook in an impossibly thin, light and well-built package. Does it offer the most horsepower, the biggest hard drive and the most ports for you money? Most certainly not. But that's not the X's purpose and Sony has budget notebooks and more powerful notebooks for the money. It's all about the portability and you currently can't get it any smaller and lighter than this. We like that Sony has finally settled down to more usable and normal form factors for their ultraportable computers-- the X is a computer anyone can use and understand in terms of design and ergonomics. And it runs Windows 7, MS Office apps, Photoshop, Dreamweaver and web browsers just fine.
Pro: The notebook offers standard notebook design and ergonomics made as thin and light as possible. The X looks and feels like no other notebook. Great display, extremely long battery life, pleasant though smallish keyboard, standard ports are on-board. Plenty of wireless including Verizon EV-DO Rev. A and a GPS with Streets and Trips too.
Con: Expensive, good for light to moderate work but no workhorse for desktop replacement tasks and gaming. No optical drive.
Price: $1,299 for 64 gig SSD model, $1,499 for the 128 gig SSD model.