Intel’s new ultrabook specification is thought to be cutting edge, but before the wave of hype and imitators, there were PC laptops that strove to be as thin and light as possible without any prodding. One of those laptops was the product we’re reviewing today — the new Sony Vaio Z.
The Z is a legend among laptops. It’s always been among the thinnest laptops available, and at just under .7 inches thick, the current model is no exception. It’s also always been among the most expensive laptops available, and at a starting price of $1,849, this Z once again fulfills expectations.
Our review unit arrived with an Intel Core i5-2410M processor with 4GB of RAM. It also includes a Radeon HD 6650M GPU – but not in the laptop itself. Instead, the GPU is placed in a “Power Media Dock” which is plugs in to the laptop as a peripheral. This dock also includes an optical drive, which was upgraded to a Blu-Ray drive in our review unit. A 128GB solid state hard drive provides storage.
As equipped, our review unit would ring up at $1899, so this represents an entry-level version of the Z, yet it’s already priced far beyond what most people would ever consider spending. Let’s see if this laptop can live up to its reputation.
Thin, and it shows
The official thickness measurement for the Sony Vaio Z is .66 inches, which means it is a hair thinner than the MacBook Air at its thinnest point. “Thinnest point” becomes the key phrase, however, because the Z’s chassis is the same thickness from front to back while the Air tapers at the front. In practice the Z does feel a bit thicker.
Even so, the thin profile of the Z is striking even from across the room. Several people who saw the laptop remarked on its size the moment they saw it, including a couple strangers. This is particularly remarkable considering the laptop’s drab “Carbon Fiber Black” paint job, which reflects virtually no light and is broken up only by a strip of a silver at the rear side of the display hinge.
Most of the chassis is stiff, but there are some build-quality issues. There are large gaps on either side of the keyboard that seems eager to invite dust and dirt, and it’s possible to flex the interior portion of the chassis if you finger presses at these points. Display wobble is also a problem thanks to a thin display lid and loose hinges.
Despite the thin profile, connectivity hasn’t been left in a ditch. Without the dock, the Sony Vaio Z includes VGA, HDMI, Ethernet, one USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0 port and a combo headphone-microphone jack. That’s about on par with your average ultrabook, though the inclusion of VGA is exceptional.
With the dock you receive another VGA port, another HDMI port, one more USB 2.0 and 3.0 port, and even another Ethernet port. An optical drive is part of the dock, as well, and can be upgraded to Blu-ray if desired. The plethora of video-out ports makes it possible to hook up three monitors at once if you have the dock attached.
Taking it easy
Fortunately, the build quality issues don’t translate to the user interface. While the Z does exhibit short key travel, feel is still adequate. Combine that with large keys and spacious palm rests and you have an excellent layout. Using this Sony for long typing sessions should produce a minimum of pain.
Backlighting is standard on the keyboard, but differs from what you find a most laptops. Instead of using bright white LEDs the Z uses green-white lights similar to what you find lighting many automobile interiors. The result is so dim that it’s not visible during the day, but it won’t blind you when you’re working after dark. Light leakage around the keys is kept to a minimum, as well.
Touchpad size isn’t a strong point of this laptop, and at first glance seemed to be an issue. After a few minutes of use, however, it grew on us. Though small, the touchpad is responsive without feeling fidgety. Multi-touch gestures work well. The left and right buttons are short on key travel, but otherwise adequate. A finger print reader lies between them.
Don’t look at it cockeyed
Though equipped with only a 13.1-inch display, the Z offers a minimum display resolution of 1600×900. Some models offer 1080p as standard. Our review unit came with the 1600×900 panel, and it proved plenty sharp. Text is crisp as a spring morning and there’s plenty of space to stretch out whatever windows you’d like to open.
Backlight brightness reaches from fairly bright to almost blinding. This, combined with a semi-gloss panel that doesn’t show reflections easily, makes outdoor use pleasurable even on a sunny day.
Display quality isn’t perfect, however. Though the high resolution results in sharp images, black level performance and overall contrast isn’t remarkable, which results in flat performance when playing games and watching movies.
That issue pales in comparison to what might be the Z’s biggest flaw: viewing angles. Vertical angles are so limited on this laptop that it’s impossible for the entire display to appear uniform if you’re viewing it from more than two feet away. When this is combined with the display wobble we described earlier, the result is annoyance on an epic scale. Typing causes the display to move forward and back, which in turn causes the display to brighten or darken as the viewing angle is slightly altered.
The Z’s speakers do nothing to redeem the multimedia experience. They’re flat, lack bass, and have very little volume. Virtually any background noise will make listening to music on this laptop impossible, so you’d better pack a pair of headphones with you on your travels.