Reviewed August 28, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
A year ago we reviewed the Sony Vaio SZ650, a powerhouse ultra-portable 13.3" notebook that combined excellent performance with carbon fiber styling and a compact design. It looks like we're at the end of the SZ series life-- but that's not a bad thing. For those who thought the SZ could have been even sexier looking and lighter-- thoughts that might not have arisen were it not for the MacBook Air-- there's the new Vaio Z series, announced this summer and shipping now. The Z makes the 4 pound, smaller than everything else on Best Buy shelves SZ look a tad large. It's got the performance and dual-graphics of the SZ series at a size and weight that put it between the Vaio TZ and SZ series. Pricing is similar to the SZ series, and Sony has the SR line for those who liked the SZ line's size and performance minus the high-end appointments like dual graphics cards, higher-end XBRITE-DuraView display and carbon fiber casing. The SR line isn't cheap compared to the average basic back-to-school HP or Dell, but at its $1,699 starting price, it's cheaper than the Z that starts around $2,099 in retail configuration.
The 13.1" Sony Z550, available at retail locations and online, is one of the first notebooks running on the Intel Montevina platform (Centrino 2). It has an updated 25 watt (that's really low power for a non-ULV Core 2 Duo) 2.4GHz Intel P8600 CPU that uses the 45 nanometer process. This Core 2 Duo CPU plus Montevina's improvements make for a very powerful, yet power-frugal system that's future-proof enough to keep most owners satisfied with performance and features for 3 years. What does Montevina, the successor to Santa Rosa, offer? A significantly smaller motherboard that allows manufacturers to shrink designs (hence the smaller Z compared to the SZ), more powerful Intel GMA X4500 integrated graphics with an HD option that decodes HD video, support for lower power consumption CPUs (translates into longer battery life and cooler temps), a faster implementation of WiFi 802.11n, a 1066MHz FSB (up from Santa Rosa's 800MHz) and support for DDR3 RAM.
The Sony Vaio Z series notebooks come in several configurations, including build-to-order when purchased from Sony's web site. The Z550 ships with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, 3 gigs of DDR3 RAM, a dual layer DVD burner, hybrid graphics (Intel 4500HD and NVidia 9300M GS), a 250 gig 5400rpm SATA hard drive and a 1366 x 768 XBRITE display. When building to order, you can go with a Blu-ray drive ($500 up-charge), or a 1600 x 900 resolution XBRITE display (better have good eyes or be ready to twiddle with Vista's font dpi settings). Other options include 7200rpm SATA hard drives, higher capacity hard drives and single or dual SSD drives.
The Vaio Z, is one of the few notebooks that combine extreme performance and extreme portability. At 3.31 lbs. it's just 5.4 ounces heavier than the MacBook Air and similar in weight to the IBM ThinkPad X300 equipped with a 6 cell battery and DVD drive. The Sony isn't wafer-thin like the Air, nor even as thin as the X300, but it has a smaller footprint than either. This Vaio is wickedly faster than the Air and X300: it packs the performance of a high end notebook with discrete graphics into a package even granny could carry. For the excellent performance, classy carbon fiber packaging and small size, the Z550 is reasonably priced.
Is it worth upgrading if you have a current SZ model? Can't decide which to buy? That depends on your needs in terms of portability and battery life. The Z offers somewhat upgraded performance (mostly in the graphics department) and a nearly identical feature set-- the size, weight and longer battery life are more significant.
* While the SZ series features Sony's XBRITE display, the Z has their XBRITE-DuraView display that's supposedly more impervious to scratches and more importantly has an anti-glare coating. Some folks love the richness of a high gloss display while others are driven mad by the glare. The Z's display is noticeably more color saturated than the SZ (on par with the MacBook Air, minus the gloss), but it's a bit less bright (the SZ could burn your retinas on high brightness settings).
* The Z has a true widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio of 1366 x 768 pixels while the SZ has a more standard WXGA 1280 x 800 display. You won't see black bars on widescreen movies on the Z but older games that support only the more standard 1280 x 800 resolution will run at 1024 x 768 on the Z (if you use an external monitor for gaming, this doesn't matter and most games released in the last two years support 1366 x 768).
* The Z can switch between Stamina and Speed modes (integrated vs. dedicated graphics) on the fly without a reboot, unlike the SZ. The battery and compartment have been redesigned and the battery doesn't have that little bit of jiggle like the SZ.
* The Z's keyboard is radically redesigned and is similar to the Vaio TZ series with raised keys that are much easier to type on than the SZ's.
* The Z runs cooler than the SZ, with both being louder than average when the CPU is doing serious work in Speed mode, but the Z being a few decibels louder at lower stress settings.
* The Z adds an HDMI port that works in conjunction with the NVidia dedicated card.
The Sony Vaio Z550 and the MacBook Air.
Looks aren't everything but they sure help
These days consumer electronics are personal style statements. The Z is certainly one of the sexiest laptops on the market with its carbon fiber casing, new barrel hinge design that hides the battery along with the illuminated power button and power jack (one on each hinge cap). The chrome accents on the carbon fiber give it a more daring look than the SZ and the display bezel is impossibly thin. Sony can make the display panel thin thanks to the rigidity relative to thickness of carbon fiber. You can can flex the display panel, but not more so than a MacBook Pro. Pressing a finger on the lid doesn't cause light distortion or pooling which is surprising given how thin this thing is. You can pick up the notebook by the display panel (a scary thing to do) and it flexes a decent amount but not enough to harm the display (nor does it crack and break). Note-- this doesn't mean we advocate doing this kind of thing under the guise of normal use .
Open the Vaio and you get another dose of high tech eye-candy. The dark silver (with just the slightest hint of Sony's old signature Vaio purple) wrist rest is brushed aluminum. The trackpad has a dot pattern that looks cool and the biometric fingerprint scanner nestled between the 2 mouse buttons is smaller than ever (yet it works well). The raised keyboard keys not only look like sculpted entries for a modern art museum competition but they make for an extremely good typing experience. There's plenty of space between the keys and the backboard is also brushed aluminum (the entire top interior panel is one piece of curved aluminum) which means there's none of the usual notebook keyboard flex. Since this is a small notebook, the page up/down keys are integrated into the arrow key pad-- pretty much the only concession to size. You need not poke at the very small tray open button on the side of the DVD drive-- there's an eject button just above the top row of keys, along with Sony's usual 2 programmable application launcher buttons.
The machine feels extremely light (no kidding) and is small enough to fit inside a briefcase or large tote. Build quality is excellent, and every port, vent and label on the Vaio looks perfectly made.
The Z550 has two USB 2.0 ports (one on each side), a VGA port, HDMI port (both on the right, and you can only use one at a time), DVD burner (right), 4 pin unpowered FireWire port, 3.5mm headphone and mic jacks, modem and Ethernet (both under covers). There are SD and Memory Stick Duo card slots on the front edge and a wireless on/off slider switch. The Z series has one ExpressCard/34 slot and no PCMCIA slot.
Performance and Graphics
Here's the fun part-- usually 3.3 lb. notebooks are weak performers and we have to explain how cramming chips into small spaces requires performance concessions. Put that thought on hold; the Vaio Z550 will compete with any notebook currently on the market and outperform many of them. The Intel Centrino 2's smaller motherboard requirements, lower power consumption and lower heat generation mean that a small notebook can be powerful (plus Sony has had years of practice at making high end subnotebooks). The Z550 ships with the Intel Penryn 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo processor with 3 megs of level 2 cache and a 1066MHz front side bus. A 2.53GHz CPU with 6 megs of level 2 cache is available on other Z models, and all but the base model ship with 3 gigs of DDR3 -1066 (PC3-8500) RAM. The machine can hold a max of 4 gigs, and there are 2 SODIMM slots under a door on the notebook's bottom. One slot has a 2 gig SODIMM and the other has a 1 gig SODIMM, so if you wish to upgrade to 4 gigs, you need only replace the 1 gig SODIMM. This is more useful with 64 bit Vista (not a shipping option on the Z) which can make use of all 4 gigs or if your graphics card is using a lot of shared memory.
The notebook is up to all manner of high demand tasks from DirectX 9 gaming full-throttle (NVidia turned on), DirectX 10 gaming with modest in-game settings, video editing (including HD video editing), HD video playback, Photoshop, Visual Studio, ripping MP3s from disc quickly and more. Despite Vista's famously high overhead, our Vista Business SP1 32 bit edition machine feels extremely fast. Unless you want a desktop-class DirectX 10 gaming experience to play the latest extremely demanding 3D games at high settings, the Z550 should be more computer than most folks need. The standard 5400rpm 250 gig hard drive performed well experientially and in benchmarks, and was fairly quiet and cool (ours was an Hitachi disk). For those who want more performance (and possibly more heat and fan noise), there's a 7200rpm option on built-to-order, and there are SSD (solid state drive) options for an even faster, cooler and quieter machine. Currently Sony offers pricey single and dual 64 gig SSD options ($720 for 64 gig and $1,320 for 128 gigs total). The SSD drives use the slower Ultra ATA interface (most common on SSD drives) and the 2x64 gig is configured as a RAID.
All Vaio Z series notebooks come with a dual layer DVD burner. A Blu-ray drive is optional, and currently only available with the 1600 x 900 display option which also doubles dedicated NVidia graphics memory to 256 megs. Intel's new graphics chipset, the GMA 4500HD is a very good performer that's perfect for DVD playback and light gaming with older titles. The NVIDIA 9300M GS has 128 megs of dedicated DDR3 RAM (256 megs on the 1600 x 900 display version) and can also use shared memory as needed.
PCMark05, NVidia graphics, Vaio Optimized power setting (Speed switch setting)
The Vaio ships with a 5400 mAh Lithium Ion battery and Sony offers their (as usual overpriced) extended 8100 mAh extended battery for $249. Centrino 2 lives up to the hype, and we managed 5 hours and 15 minutes on the Optimized power plan and Stamina setting with WiFi on and screen brightness set to 65%. For a notebook this powerful, that's very impressive, and it's significantly better than the current Vaio SZ notebooks. With the Optimized power plan and the speed setting using NVidia discrete graphics we managed 3:30. For our tests we did a mix of heavy surfing, checking email every 15 minutes using Outlook, working with Office documents and watching a few streaming short videos.
It's all here: WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n courtesy of the Intel WiFi Link 5100AGN, Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR with A2DP support, wired gigabit Ethernet, a modem and Sprint EVDO Rev. A wireless module with an internal antenna and GPS capabilities. You'll need to start a Sprint data plan contract to use the Sprint fast WAN service, and those speeds are impressive. Sprint has very good EVDO metro regional coverage that's handy for the business traveler but not so well suited to vacations in the boonies where cellular service is sometimes lacking. Note that you do not have to use the Sprint module or start a contract if you don't care to use the service, and there are Z models that come without the Sprint modem (there is no 3G GSM option for the US, unfortunately). You can also use a Bluetooth enabled GSM 3G or EVDO phone as a wireless modem for the Z. We tested it with the Nokia E71, a lovely 3G HSDPA smartphone with an AT&T SIM inside. Speeds were very good and we loaded heavy pages at rates equivalent to a slower WiFi 802.11b connection. WiFi with our 802.11n router rocked thanks to the Intel 5100AGN module which gave excellent range and very fast data transfers.
The Vaio Z550 is a stunningly light, compact and beautiful notebook. And it's got more than just good looks, with top notebook performance. Clearly it's not priced to compete with the average bargain notebook, but the specs, combined with the small size, light weight and very good build quality make this notebook a bargain compared to ultralights on the market that either cost significantly more and/or are underpowered in comparison.
Pro: Extremely light and small, especially for powerful notebook. Hybrid graphics offer flexibility and performance as needed. Beautiful looks and great design. Excellent build quality. Has the latest Centrino 2 technology inside, and likely won't leave you wishing for an upgrade for a few years. One of the most color-saturated displays we've ever seen-- it looks lovely and is accurate enough for serious graphics work. Runs cooler than most notebooks in this performance class, including the SZ series. Fan noise is definitely acceptable for a performance notebook. Good sound quality and volume from the built-in stereo speakers and great sound through headphones. Sony has cut back on the bloatware, and what's there is easier to cleanly uninstall.
Con: As usual, spare Sony standard and extended batteries are keenly overpriced ($199 for a standard battery, $249 for the extended).
Price: $2,099 (Z550), other Z models are available at different price points.
Display:13.1" XBRITE-DuraView LED backlit color display. Resolution: 1366 x 768 (can drive external monitors via VGA or HDMI at higher resolutions). Hybrid graphics: Intel Mobile Graphics Accelerator 4500HD integrated graphics ("stamina" switch setting) and NVDIA GeForce 9300M GS with 128 megs dedicated memory plus shared memory ("speed" switch setting).
Battery:5400 mAh Lithium
Ion rechargeable. Claimed runtimes: 2 to 6 hours. Extended battery available. Optional 9 cell, 8100 mAh battery available for separate purchase.
GM45 Centrino 2 (Montevina) platform with Penryn processor. 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 with 3 megs level 2 cache (up to 2.53GHz CPU available). 3 gigs DDR3 1066MHz RAM
(4 gigs max). 2 standard SODIMM slots populated with a 2 gig and 1 gig module. Serial ATA drive, 5400prm standard. Our model came with a 250 gig drive, up to 320 gig drives available along with options for 7200 rpm drives and SSD drives. Dual layer DVD/R-W drive is standard, Blu-Ray is an optional built-to-order upgrade.
Size:12.4"(W) x 1.0-1.3"(H) x 8.3"(D). Weight: 3.31 pounds.
in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack plus mono mic jack.
Networking:Intel WiFi Link 5100AGN(802.11a/b/g/n), Intel 10/100/1000 wired RJ45 Ethernet, modem and Bluetooth 2.0 +EDR with A2DP stereo Bluetooth support. Integrated Sprint EVDO WAN module (requires Sprint service to activate and use). EVDO module has GPS capability.
Ports and slots:Ethernet, modem, 2 USB 2.0, 4 pin unpowered IEEE 1394 FireWire, 3.5mm stereo out, 3.5mm mic jack, VGA port, HDMI port, port explicator (bottom).
Software:Windows Vista Business Edition. MS Works SE 9.0, QuickBooks Simple Start, DVD player software and the usual selection of Sony multimedia programs for movie making, music playback and disc burning. 60 day trial version of Microsoft Office 2007, Microsoft Live OneCare 90 day trial.
SD (Secure Digital) slot and 1 Memory Stick Duo slot. ExpressCard/34 slot.