This is a love story. If you were hoping to read this review and have me tell you this uber ultraportable isn't worth the cash, you'll be disappointed. The Sony Vaio Z as ever reigns supreme in the niche market where desktop replacement power meets extreme portability. And I mean extreme: this 13.1" notebook weighs just 2.5 lbs. and it packs a full third generation Intel quad core i7 mobile CPU, 8 gigs of RAM, a 1080p wide gamut anti-glare display and a 256 gig custom SSD. The Sony SVZ1311 is not an Ultrabook with an ultra low voltage CPU that uses less power and is slower, rather it's the same CPU you'd find in a full size notebook. If you want mind-blowing portability and the computing power of a 15.6 to 17" laptop this is for you. If you just want to work with MS Office, email and web browsers, save yourself some serious cash and get an Ultrabook for $1,000.
The Sony Vaio Z third gen (we'll call it Z3), starts at $1,599 in the US for the 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5-3210M dual core Ivy Bridge with Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics, 8 gigs of RAM and a 128 gig SSD drive. For $1,949 you can upgrade to a 2.1GHz Intel Core i7-3612QM and a 256 gig SSD. Our model has Windows 7 Professional rather than Windows 7 Home and it retails for $1,999. If you've followed the Sony Z series and in particular the Sony Vaio Z2, you'll notice the price has dropped $400. The 1080p display is now standard (and the only option) and the Portable Media Dock with integrated AMD Radeon GPU, Blu-ray drive and USB/HDMI ports is now sold separately, and that brings the price down $400. The Portable Media Dock from the Z2 will work, but we're awaiting the updated version that uses a newer Radeon GPU. At launch, the new dock is available in some countries but not in the US. Given the power of Intel HD 4000 graphics, we and Sony suspect many buyers won't feel the need for the PMD.
Design and Ergonomics
The 0.66" thick machine has a metal frame with a carbon fiber casing, and it looks pretty much identical to the second generation Vaio Z2. It's elegant, understated and modern. It will never be mistaken for an Apple product and it's beautiful. It weighs just 2.5 lbs., which is significantly less than the Sony Vaio T Ultrabook and most other Ultrabooks on the market. That's even more impressive because this computer packs the power of a much larger desktop replacement notebook. No one miniaturizes like Sony, and the Vaio Z3 is an engineering marvel that impresses me like no other notebook on the market.
The Sony Vaio Z has an HDMI port, VGA port, two USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot, Memory Stick slot, 3.5mm audio jack and a gigabit Ethernet jack (no dongle needed). All ports are on the right side except for the VGA port that's on the left side near the fan exhaust vents. It has dual band Intel WiFi Advanced-N 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 and Intel WiDi wireless display. It has a fingerprint scanner nestled between the mouse buttons, a TPM and noise cancelling earbuds are included in the box. You'll appreciate those earbuds because the built-in stereo speakers that fire from the bottom are quiet and tinny.
The Z3 is available in standard carbon fiber black with a contrasting brushed aluminum back panel, gold with the same back panel (no additional charge) and premium carbon fiber ($50 extra) that's a glossier black with a black rear panel. The 15th Anniversary Edition that commemorates 15 years of the Vaio notebook has engraving on the rear matte black panel that denotes the occasion. Personally, I like the standard carbon fiber look: you can see strands of carbon fiber but it's low key and not flashy. The contrasting brushed aluminum back edge adds a pleasing contrast for more visual interest. That back edge has two wedge-shaped rubber feet that raise the back of the notebook up just a bit to improve the typing angle.
Unlike most Ultrabooks and newer MacBooks, the battery isn't sealed inside but you will have to unscrew three wide slot head screws to remove it. There's no RAM or HDD access door because Sony doesn't expect you to upgrade those yourself. The RAM card and RAID 0 SSDs are proprietary.
Despite the fast CPU and thin design that puts little between you and the CPU/GPU, the bottom of the notebook is comfortably warm when doing everyday tasks. The keyboard likewise stays below 95F and there's one hotspot on the bottom that reaches 110F when gaming (though it doesn't feel as hot to the touch as you might think since it's not metal).
Keyboard, Trackpad and Controls
The Vaio has capacitive buttons above the keyboard that launch Vaio Care, an application of your choosing and the web browser. If the machine is off, tapping the web button turns the machine on and launches the web browser in a matter of seconds. Nice. There are LED indicators on the front edge for power, SSD activity and wireless. You can control the wireless radios using an Fn key (there's no dedicated slider switch). The full size SD card slot and Memory Stick HG Duo slot are also on the front edge and SD cards sit nearly flush with the edge.
The keyboard is identical to the Vaio Z2, and that means excellent spacing, good tactile feedback and a yellow-white backlight that triggers via ambient light sensor and turns off when you're not typing. Travel isn't that great since this is a very thin notebook, but that didn't stand in the way of typing at full speed with good accuracy. We're actually impressed at just how good the typing experience is. The right shift key isn't oversized and it's surrounded by arrow keys (right and below), and that meant an occasional line switch until we learned to compensate.
The trackpad is small, and we wish Sony had made it wider but the battery lives underneath and we assume Sony didn't want to cut battery size. We love the alligator texture that tells you if your finger has wandered onto the smooth deck, and the slick button strip also offers good tactile feedback. As Windows trackpads go, the Vaio's is better than average with reliable cursor behavior and multi-finger gestures that work. Given the small size, we stuck with two finger gestures as there's hardly room to get three fingers involved.
Portable Media Dock
For those of you new to the Vaio Z, the optional Portable Media Dock houses a Blu-ray drive, USB ports, HDMI and the dedicated graphics card. It connects using Intel Light Peak technology to one of the two USB 3.0 ports via fiber optic cable and it has another cable that connects to the power jack. It ships with a higher capacity charger that can power both the notebook and dock. The original PMD has an AMD Radeon 6550 GPU with 1 gig of VRAM, and the updated dock should house a comparable but newer GPU.
1080p Anti-Glare Display: Luscious
The display is 1920 x 1080 at 13.1 inches, which yields 168ppi pixel density. That's very high pixel density and it helps make text readable despite the small size because it's so sharp. The standard premium display has an anti-glare coating, good brightness, good viewing angles and a spectacular 96% Adobe RGB color gamut. Photoshop jockeys, take note. Other than the new 220ppi MacBook Pro with Retina display, you won't find a higher resolution notebook. And that 15.4" Mac is considerably larger and heavier than the Z.
Our unit has the Intel Core i7-3612QM quad core Ivy Bridge CPU clocked at 2.1GHz with Turbo Boost to 3.1GHz, which is currently the fastest CPU option. Interestingly, you can't get the quad core i7 in the Z's bigger brother, the 2012 Vaio S 13.3. The S is only available with a dual core i7 because Sony doesn't want the less expensive S cannibalizing Z sales. Like all Z3 models, it has 8 gigs of RAM and Sony's custom SSD (available in 128, 256 and 512 gig capacities and configured as two drives in RAID 0 that appear as one drive). There is no room for an internal optical drive. Can it play Skyrim at full 1080p with good frame rates? Yes. Can it edit 1080p video with decent render speeds? Yes.
The base $1,599 model comes with an Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5-3210M dual core CPU clocked at 2.5GHz (not available in all countries but it is sold in the US). All configurations use Intel HD 4000 graphics in the notebook itself because it's too thin to handle the cooling needs of a serious dedicated GPU and the motherboard is too small to house it. 8 gigs is the maximum amount of RAM you can order and the 512 gig SSD is the largest offered. There are no conventional spinning hard drives offered.
3D Mark Vantage: 4,003 (GPU 3194, CPU 19,737) on Performance test preset
Geekbench 2: 12,716
PCMark Vantage: 17,003 Memories: 8607
TV and Movies: 7362
Here we pit the Sony Vaio Z against other Intel Ivy Bridge notebooks:
The machine's impressive speed, especially with the Core i7 option, is what really sets the Z apart from any other notebook on the market. It's insanely fast given its size, and it walks circles around Ultrabooks with their low power ULV CPUs. The third generation Vaio Z scores 17,000 on PCMark Vantage, which is a truly impressive figure that beats larger gaming and multimedia machines with dedicated graphics like the HP Envy 15. Now take that with a grain of salt: PCMark gives lots of points for fast SSDs and that accounts for some of the large gap between the Vaio Z and the HP Envy 15 or the non-Retina MacBook Pro 15". That said, this machine really is fast. It exports edited 1080p video from AVCHD to MPEG4 at the rate of two minutes export time per minute of footage. That means a 10 minute 1080p video exported in the included Sony Vegas Platinum 11 or Windows Movie Maker takes about 20 minutes. That's pretty close to decent desktop speeds. It can play 1080p video in a variety of formats fluently and the display is stunning. The only letdown is the tinny speakers, even with Dolby Home Theatre enhancements (external speakers and headphones do sound great).
The Vaio Z3 can play Skyrim at 1920 x 1080 at low settings at a playable 30-40 fps and it can handle Diablo III at 1600 x 900 at 30-45 fps using just integrated graphics (1080p resolution drops frame rates below 30 in Diablo III). That's darned impressive. When it comes to productivity tasks and Adobe CS 5.5, it can handle anything you throw at it; these tasks are less demanding than video editing and serious 3D gaming. Here's a video demo of the Vaio Z playing Skyrim, Diablo III and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. We show you the settings we used for each game in the video.
Sony Vaio Z Gaming Demo- Skyrim, Diablo III and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3
The machine is available with Windows 7 Home for the base price and you can get Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate for an additional charge. Sony used to be one of the worst offenders for bloatware, but they've greatly improved: the software bundle is tolerable if not pleasant. You get the usual Office 2010 Starter Edition, a 30 day trial of nag-ridden Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2012, webcam software, Cyberlink Power DVD BD, Sony Vegas Platinum 11 (capable video editing software) and Sound Forge Audio Studio. There's a utility that lets you use the Vaio's keyboard with your PS3 and the less useful but large PlayMemories Home (uninstalling it seems to kill other more useful multimedia software).
The Vaio Z has a 4,000 mAh Lithium Ion polymer battery that's secured with three screws so it's not a quick swap to put in a spare. As with the last generation Vaio Z2, there's a 4,400 mAh sheet battery that's optional for $150 and available as a bundle too (the same battery is used for both the Vaio Z2 and Z3). Sony claims 6.5 hours of runtime on a charge, and with WiFi on and brightness set to 60% in a mix of productivity tasks, we averaged just over 6 hours per charge. If you edit 1080p video or stream high quality video, expect shorter runtimes. Editing 720p and 1080p video uses a lot more power, as does gaming with current demanding 3D titles, while streaming video is easier on the battery. Given the Vaio Z's power and bright 1080p display combined with the 2.5 lb weight, we're impressed with its stamina that rivals much slower Ultrabooks.
This brings our love story to an end. If you crave an ultraportable that's as capable as much larger laptops, it's hard to beat the Sony Vaio Z 2012 model. It's stunning, weighs only 2.5 lbs. and has a small footprint. There's really nothing like it, and it's a continued testament to Sony's engineering capabilities. The Lenovo ThinkPad X230 comes closest but it weighs 3.4 lbs. and is significantly thicker and less attractive. And then there's the 1080p display with amazing color gamut. It might not have IPS viewing angles, but the brightness, incredible whites and rich blacks are a rare find on a notebook. If you're a photo or video editor, the display is unparalleled for white levels and gamut: even the MacBook Pro with Retina Display falls short for these.
Display:13.1" premium 1920 x 1080 wide color gamut display (96% Adobe RGB). Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics. AMD Radeon HD 6650M (1GB) in Power Media Dock. HDMI and VGA ports.
Battery:4,000 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. 4,400 mAh slab battery optional for doubling runtimes. Claimed runtime on internal battery: 6.75 hours.
3rd generation 2.5GHz Core i5-3210M and 2.1GHz quad core i7-3612QM full mobile CPUs. 8 gigs DDR3-1600MHz RAM and 128, 256 and 512 gig SSDs available in RAID 0 configuration. No internal optical drive.
x 8.27 x .66 inches. Weight: 2.58 pounds.
Camera:1.3MP 720p webcam with Sony Exmor sensor.
in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Dolby Home Theatre audio.
dual band Intel Advanced-N 6235 WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 + HS.
7 Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate available (64 bit). MS Office 2010 Starter Edition, 30 day trial of Kaspersky Anti-Virus 2012, Sony Vegas Platinum 11, Sound Forge Audio Studio, Sony PlayMemories Home, remote keyboard for PS3 app, Cyberlink Power DVD BD, Skype and Evernote.
Expansion and Ports:Two USB 3.0 ports (one with charging), Gigabit Ethernet, VGA, HDMI and 3.5mm headphone.
SD slot and Memory Stick Pro HG Duo slot.
Security:Fingerprint scanner and TPM.
In the Box:Vaio Z, charger, noise cancelling earbuds and printed guide.