Most of Sony's VAIO laptops are nothing to write home about. Though they are fine laptops, they don't distinguish themselves from many other modern laptops.
They are, for lack of a better description, typical. But every so often, Sony bucks common trends with a product that is clearly ahead of the curve – and very expensive. These special laptops remind us of olden days when a Sony TV or music system carried a huge price premium but virtually guaranteed superior design and quality.
The new Sony VAIO Z is one of those rare, ahead-of-its-time, money-is-no-object Sony laptops.
The 13in Sony VAIO Z is ridiculously thin and light. At 0.7 inch when closed, the body is about as thick as the thickest point on the larger 13in Apple Macbook Air, though the VAIO Z doesn't taper as Apple's ultraportable does. It's even lighter than the 13in Air, too, at 2.5 pounds.
This is due in part to Sony's having made the body out of aluminum and featherweight, durable carbon fibre. It looks good, and it feels good.
And despite the laptop's incredibly svelte size, Sony crams a full-voltage Core i5 or Core i7 processor into it.
Our review model came with an Intel Core i7-2620M and 4GB of RAM. It also carried a 256GB solid-state drive, and the combination powered the system to a very impressive WorldBench 6 score of 138 – one of the highest scores we've seen for an ultraportable laptop.
Amazingly, the battery lasted for 5.5 hours, about an hour less than the batteries on most recent ultraportables have managed, but quite impressive considering the horsepower under the hood.
Sony loads this thin system with other goodies, too. You get a VGA port on the left; a pair of card readers (for Memory Stick and SD Card) along the front edge; and an audio jack, gigabit ethernet, HDMI and a pair of USB ports on the right.
Sony uses Intel's Light Peak technology to turn the lone USB 3.0 port into a special high-speed connector to a thin dock that houses the optical drive (DVD or Blu-ray) and a discrete Radeon HD 6650M graphics card with its own set of video, display, and USB connectors (including USB 3.0).
The base-model VAIO Z – with a Core i5 processor, 128GB SSD, and a 1600-by-900-pixel display – will set you back £1434.
Our review model packed the aforementioned Core i7 CPU and 256GB SSD, plus a 1920-by-1080-pixel display, all for about £2303. The 1.5-pound dock is included with the package, though the type of optical drive it contains may vary. The price quoted here is with basic DVD writer.
Though many people have erroneously called the media dock port a Thunderbolt connector, it isn't one. Thunderbolt is the port that eventually emerged from Intel and Apple, based on Intel's Light Peak technology, but with a few changes.
Light Peak was going to come to market using a USB port and an optical cable, as in the VAIO Z, but it underwent some tweaking before its designers settled on a Mini DisplayPort connector and copper cable. So Sony's implementation, though it uses very similar technology to Thunderbolt, is incompatible with Thunderbolt devices. It is essentially a proprietary dock connector, but it also serves as a USB 3.0 port, so there's no wasted space.
The glossy display is impressive, with bright, vivid colours and good contrast. Cramming a 1920-by-1080-resolution full-HD display into only 13 inches is a neat feat, though in our tests the display sometimes made default text sizes look a bit small and hard to read. Off-axis viewing was above average. Movies and games looked great, especially when powered by the Radeon HD 6650M in the Power Media Dock.
With so much to love about this system, it's a shame that the keyboard and touchpad ergonomics aren't especially good. The keys are on the small side; and though they are spaced apart well, they have very little travel when pressed. The result is a keyboard with poor tactile feedback, which can make extended typing feel a little uncomfortable.
The touchpad is smallish, too, and it doesn't have discrete buttons, though the left and right clickable zones along the bottom (separated by a fingerprint reader) are obvious. The touchpad tracks well, but we'd prefer a little more size and buttons that are either physically separate or totally absent – none of this “button zones” business.
We’re not a huge fan of Sony's software loadout, either. The drop-down menu at the top of the screen is distracting and superfluous. Windows 7 already has application launching from its own toolbar at the bottom.
Sony's VAIO Care application is a good way to keep your system up to date, but Sony's Media Gallery and photo apps don't work any better than more-common software.
Sony also bundles in Skype, Arcsoft Webcam Companion, PowerDVD and a limited trial of Norton Internet Security.
The last of these is a common annoyance on modern PCs that every laptop maker would do well to avoid; it does a fine job of protecting users from viruses, but it slows performance and nags you incessantly until you either fork out your money or uninstall it. Overall, it's not a good customer experience when you've just spent more than two grand on a new laptop.
These are relatively minor shortcomings, however. The software is easy to remove if you don't care for it, and the typing and pointing experience is by no means poor.
The Sony VAIO Z provides a road map to the kind of incredible industrial design and advanced technology that Sony would do well to bring to much lower-cost laptops. This ultraportable is so thin, light, and powerful that it's almost like getting next year's laptop today. Fantastic style and power that's easy to carry around make the VAIO Z a winner, even though it costs more than twice as much as most customers are willing to pay for a new laptop.