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Sony PCG-X505/SP Review

Highs

  • Very slim and light
  • solid performing
  • excellent battery performance

Rating

Our Score 9
User Score 9

Lows

  • Expensive
  • support is through the retailer not the manufacturer
The Sony X505 pushes the envelope when it comes to sub-notebook design and innovation.

Summary

The Sony X505 pushes the envelope when it comes to sub-notebook design and innovation. Almost everything is unique in one way or another and Sony tops it off by adding the elegance and detail that we have only seen from companies such as Apple. The included optical mouse adds a nice touch by offering a memory stick reader, and the packaging that the X505 comes in is very stylish and retro.

Using the X505 in a public place such as a coffeehouse or on public transportation, you’ll notice a lot of glances. Whether they are looking at the elegant little powerhouse in front of you or the big grin on your face while using it, you will be noticed – it’s just that special. The Sony X505 is an extreme system that will appeal to those wanting the bleeding edge in design and innovation.

Introduction

Since we deal with high-end consumer electronics on a daily basis, it usually takes a revolutionary product to really get our attention here in the office. Every once in a while a product comes across the proverbial review desk that catches us by surprise.

Throughout 2003, we saw notebook computers gain in power and shrink in size; from the large 6lb Gateway MC675S workstation notebook with the 17″ display to the tiny and elegant JVC 7310 Interlink sub-notebook that is striking in many respects.

Nothing we’ve seen in the last year could have prepared us for what Sony had in store for us. Weighing in at just around 800 grams (around 2 lbs), The Sony PCG-X505 series laptops are most likely the thinnest and lightest laptops in the world. Featuring Nickel Carbon and Carbon Fiber construction and packing a 1GHz Centrino processor with 512MB of memory, these little notebooks set a new benchmark in sub-notebook design. Of course with innovation comes a price but those willing to pay for cutting edge electronics will be handsomely rewarded by the Sony X505. The Nickel Carbon model has a price of $3,499 while the Carbon Fiber costs more at $3,999.

Design and Features

Earlier this year, we made the decision to review laptops designed for the Japanese market and imported here in the US. There are a couple importers such as iCube here in the US that will take a Japanese model and slightly convert it over for the US market. This includes installing an English version of Microsoft’s Windows operating system, remapping some of the keys and adding English characters to the keys. This gives computer and electronics enthusiasts a slight technology edge over the average consumer that buys his or her products in the U.S. market.

Look how thin the Sony X505 on the right is compared to the Sony TR1A on the left

Demand for these Japanese products has increased in America and we set out to provide reviews for these products. The first thing we noticed in regards to the Japanese notebook systems is that there is a much stronger emphasis on design and size, and less of an emphasis on price than in the U.S. We saw the first flip open CD/DVD ROM drive in the Panasonic W2 and a piano black paint finish on the JVC 7310 Interlink. Sony’s TR1A notebook gave us performance and features in a system smaller than anything we had every seen at the time. Well this time around, Sony has gone over the top by developing the PCG-X505 notebook computer.

The JVC Interlink 7310 is still smaller in overall size, but is thicker in height

(there is a protective cover on the Sony X505 on the left)

This shows how thin the Sony X505 (right) is compared to the JVC 7310 (left)

Performance

In our benchmarks the Sony X505 proved to be on par with the other systems being tested. Because the JVC 7310 uses a different screen resolution than the other systems being tested, 3dMark unfortunately was not compatible with it. We would have expected the JVC’s performance to be close to the other systems however based on the 7310’s configuration. The only difference between these systems performance wise would be the memory bandwidth. Because the JVC 7310 and Panasonic W2 come standard with 256MB of memory versus the 512MB present in the Sony X505 and TR1A, you will notice more delayed performance while multitasking.

Sony X505

System Configurations:

Sony X505/SP

Windows XP Home; 1GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM; Intel 855GM Chipset Integrated Graphics 64MB; 20GB Hard Drive

JVC Interlink 7310

Windows XP Pro; I GHz Intel Pentium M; 256MB SDRAM (DDR) standard, expandable to 512MB ; Intel 855GM integrated video controller max. 64MB (UMA) VRAM; 40GB HDD

Panasonic Toughbook W20

Windows XP Home; 900MHz Intel Pentium M; 256MB SDRAM (DDR) standard, expandable to 512MB ; Intel 855GM integrated video controller max. 64MB (UMA) VRAM; 40GB HDD

Sony VAIO TR1A

Windows XP Home; 900MHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM; Intel 855GM Chipset Integrated Graphics 64MB; 30GB Hard Drive

It should be safe to say that Sony set out to design a notebook computer that is thinner and lighter in size than anything currently available. We’d love to know the story behind the decision to go with carbon fiber. Perhaps a few engineers were sitting around the break room table and asked what would happen if you made a system out of carbon fiber material. We don’t know how they came up with the idea, but we do know that Sony has successfully developed a system that is not only the thinnest and lightest available, but which cools the internal components while hardly making any discernable noise. Because of the physical dimensions of the X505, Sony really had to come up with some innovative ideas to make the system functional.

There are two choices available when purchasing the PCG-X505 and they are in the way of the notebook casing; Nickel Carbon and Carbon Fiber. Commonly used in the biking world, Carbon Fiber provides an incredibly strong body at a fraction the weight of other metals; the only catch is the cost. This price difference is reflected in both the X505/P and X505/SP models as the fully Carbon Fiber X505/SP model weighs slightly less then the X505/P model but costs more.

Both of these systems feature a 1 GHz Pentium M processor, 512MB of RAM, a 20GB hard drive, a 10.4″ XGA screen, a 10/100 Ethernet port, a dialup modem, FireWire, USB and WiFi specifications. On the left side of the system is where you will find the USB, FireWire, mini-VGA and DC output and on the right hand side is where the PC card slot is located. There is no integrated WiFi on this system, but Sony does give you an 802.11b/g combo PC card which you can use. Sony has chosen to go with a different chipset on the X505 than what you may have expected. The Intel 855GM chip set features AGP 4X support and 64MB of VRAM (video memory) instead of the smaller 16MB of VRAM normally associated with notebooks of this class. There is also no integrated CD or DVD drive on this system so you will want to purchase an external drive such as the Pioneer SK-12D which we reviewed earlier this year. Do not be put off by the lack of an internal drive, most if not all laptops in this class (notice we do not say size) do not have an internal drive.

There are a few things out of the ordinary that Sony has chosen to do with the X505. First of all they decided to include an optical laptop mouse with the system. Not only does the mouse match the aesthetic design of the notebook, but there is a memory stick reader embedded into an opening at the base of it.

Sony also includes an ethernet/VGA out adapter in the form of an external dongle instead of having the ethernet jack in the computer itself. So in all, there is an external mouse, ethernet/modem dongle, and WiFi PC Card that comes with this system. By having as many external peripherals as possible, it not only helps give the main unit a slimmer design, but it also cuts down on the amount of heat the system produces.

We’d be remiss if we didn’t touch on the presentation of this system as a whole package. We always praise Apple for creating a thorough presentation for their products in the way of packaging, and Sony has chosen to go this route as well. Without even opening the box, you can tell this system is something special.

The outside box is dressed in a dull black with a dusty grey Sony Vaio logo. This same theme carries throughout the rest of the packaging. There are two black nylon cases, one in which you store the system and the other in which you store the peripherals. Sony has taken exhaustive measures to make sure this system is protected by the carrying case and the package wrapping. We saw similar measures with the JVC 7310 Interlink system in the way of a leather carrying case.

Setup and Use

Since iCube installs an English language version of Microsoft’s Windows XP Professional with this system (yes we said Windows XP Pro), setup was no different than any other system here in the States. All of the documents with exception to the Windows manual are in Japanese however, so you will have to call iCube if you have any questions regarding the system or warranty.

Now the first thing we want to make clear is that the X505 is not smaller in width or length than the Sony TR1A or JVC Interlink 7310. It is however, significantly slimmer in height and weight. What this means is that you get a laptop with a decent sized screen capable of a 1024×768 resolution and a keyboard with larger keys than what you would get on the other two aforementioned systems.

The screen on the X505 is better than average, but not as nice as some of the screens produced by Apple or even the Sony models that use the Xbrite display. There is no apparent light bleeding from the surrounding edges.

The keyboard is also easier to type on than the JVC 7310 or Sony TR1A notebooks, but because this system is imported from Japan, you will have to get used to some key placements that are different from US models. Sony opted to go with a pointing device embedded in the keyboard versus a touch pad, and from our experience this was the way to go. Navigating the mouse with the pointer and the mouse keys was easy to do and we experienced no problems at all.

As we have mentioned in previous reviews, the systems RAM appears to play a bigger role than the processor when running Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system. And because the X505 comes with 512MB of RAM, we noticed only slight difference in benchmark performance when compared to the Sony TR1A, Panasonic W2 and the JVC Interlink 7310. An interesting thing about these four laptops is that they all share the same chipset but have different memory limitations. Both the Panasonic and JVC models can be upgraded to 512MB of memory (we have had unofficial reports that both support 768MB though), the Sony TR1A can handle 1GB of RAM and the X505 is maxed out at 512MB according to iCube’s specifications. While some may see the max 512MB of memory being a limitation, the X505 should still be able to handle your memory needs for quite a while.

In our benchmarks, the Sony X505 proved to be on par with the other systems we tested. Because the JVC 7310 uses a different screen resolution than the other systems tested, 3dMark unfortunately was not compatible with it. We would have expected the JVC’s performance to be close to the other systems however based on the 7310‘s configuration. The only difference between these systems performance-wise would be the memory bandwidth. Because the JVC 7310 and Panasonic W2 come standard with 256MB of memory versus the 512MB present in the Sony X505 and TR1A, you will notice more delayed performance while multitasking. For complete benchmarking results please click on the performance tab above this review and the performance link below it.

The mouse that Sony includes with the X505 is intended for use with notebooks. This means it is smaller is size than the typical mouse usually associated with desktop systems. It performed just fine for us, however, those with larger hands will probably want to go with a desktop size mouse.

The included 802.11b/g WiFi card plugs in on the right hand side of the system and does not stick out to a point where it is noticeable. WiFi performance was fantastic and we experienced no problems getting a signal through several walls. At first we were surprised to see that Sony did not integrate WiFi capabilities into the system, but the fact that they give you an 802.11g WiFi card instead of the 802.11b present in the other models makes up for it.

The Sony X505 comes with a 2000mAh battery pack which was able to give us just under three hours of life off a single charge. Now in theory three hours sounds like a lot of time from a battery this small in size, but remember that the X505 does not have an internal CD/DVD drive, cooling fans (from what we can tell) or integrated WiFi; it is a very efficient system.

Conclusion

The Sony X505 pushes the envelope when it comes to sub-notebook design and innovation. Almost everything is unique in one way or another and Sony tops it off by adding the elegance and detail that we have only seen from companies such as Apple. The included optical mouse adds a nice touch by offering a memory stick reader, and the packaging that the X505 comes in is very stylish and retro.

Using the X505 in a public place such as a coffeehouse or on public transportation, you’ll notice a lot of glances. Whether they are looking at the elegant little powerhouse in front of you or the big grin on your face while using it, you will be noticed – it’s just that special. The Sony X505 is an extreme system that will appeal to those wanting the bleeding edge in design and innovation.

*Edit 1/7/04 – We mentioned there was an external dongle for the modem, this dongle is actually for ther ethernet and VGA out ports, not the modem.

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