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Sony Vaio Z Review

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Highs

  • Incredibly thin and light
  • Powerful
  • High-resolution display
  • Good battery life
  • External dock enhances functionality

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 7.0

Lows

  • Chassis feels flimsy in spots
  • Display and audio quality is sub-par
  • External dock is a pain to pack
  • Expensive
If you need power in the smallest laptop possible, Sony's Vaio Z offers an acceptable compromise.

Whisper quiet

Noise is rarely a problem for the Sony Vaio Z. Basic productivity, like document editing and Web browsing, never forces the fan to speed up so much that it’s obvious (you’ll have to pause and listen for it). Noise does increase at load, but even then it is more than tolerable. There are some laptops that are nearly as loud at idle as the Z is at load.

Heat can become an issue if you’re using the Z on your lap, but only if you’re running a demanding program. At low load levels, both the top and bottom remain comfortable. As load levels increase the heat begins to rise around the left-side exhaust port, and eventually rises enough to make the laptop uncomfortable.

Ultra, but portable?

One potential weakness of the Z is the battery. Because of the laptop’s small size, Sony could only squeeze in a 4,000mAh battery. That’s extremely small for a laptop with a powerful Core i5 processor.

sony-vaio-z-review-black-battery-pack-off

The Battery Eater test seemed to reflect this, chewing through the Z in one hour and twenty-five minutes. But the Battery Eater Reader’s test, which measures a low-load scenario, returned a much more promising six hours and twelve minutes. In real-world usage involving Web browsing and the use of Google Docs,we found that the latter figure was much closer to the truth.

If that’s not enough endurance for you, Sony offers an optional sheet battery that attaches to the bottom of the laptop. This adds another 4,400mAh of power and, as you might expect, more than doubles the battery life. In Battery Eater Reader’s Test the sheet battery allowed a run time of fourteen hours and thirty-one minutes, which is astounding.

sony-vaio-z-review-black-battery-pack

The sheet also doubles the laptop’s thickness, more-or-less. But since the laptop is so thin to begin with, that is hardly a problem. The main obstacle to portability is the dock, which is a bit of a pain to tote around due to a non-detachable cord that connects the dock to the laptop. You also have to carry a separate, larger and heavier power adapter if you decide to take the dock with you (due to its higher power requirements).

Software

Like other Sony laptops, the Z ships with the same crazy top-of-screen dock (called Vaio Gate). And as on other Sony laptops, it is persistently redundant and annoying. As we’ve mentioned before when reviewing other products from the company, Vaio Gate doesn’t really accomplish anything that Windows 7 taskbar can’t, but it does manage to interrupt browsing sessions by popping up a unwanted moments. And despite the power of the Core i5 processor in this laptop, Vaio Gate feels sluggish and unfinished. It’s like trying to interact with a Flash web element on a five-year-old computer.

sony-vaio-z-review-screen-angle

Another annoyance caught our attention while using the Z:Vaio Update. The inclusion of a built-in update app isn’t unusual, and often can be a good thing. A well-built version can help users lacking in tech know-how keep their drivers updated.

In fact, Vaio Update downloads updates quickly and provides a fair amount of information about updates, but when an update it exists, it absolutely will not shut up about it. A pop-up in the system tray persistently appears, even after you exit it. Worse, there’s no obvious way to shut down Vaio Update. You’ll either have to end it through the Windows Task Manager or uninstall it completely if you find the notifications offensive.

Performance

The Sony Vaio Z is yet another Core i5 dual-core laptop, and it performed in line with others that we’ve tested. In SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic benchmark we recorded a combined score of 37 GOPS, while the 7-Zip test returned a combined score of 7,345 MIPS. Both of these scores are solid.

PCMark 7 returned an impressive score of 3,528. These results are higher than any other laptop we’ve reviewed so far, but they should be interpreted with caution. PCMark 7 seems to prefer fast dual-core processors and definitely prefers solid state drives. Since this configuration has both, it does extremely well, but a quad-core system will be better in many real-world situations.

sony-vaio-z-black-review-dock

Testing the Z in 3DMark 06 without the dock resulted in a score of 4,468, which is what we’d expect to see from a system using Intel HD 3000 graphics. Attaching the dock (and its Radeon 6650M graphics solution) nearly doubled that score to 8,377. It also made running 3DMark 11 possible, and it returned a score of 1,243.

With the dock attached, the amount of graphics power available is more than enough for many games, including titles like Dawn of War 2: Retribution, Just Cause 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. The latter titles will have to be restricted to low or medium settings, but that’s better than most laptops can claim.

Without the dock, performance is equivalent to that of any $600 Core i5 laptop lacking a discrete graphics component. That doesn’t sound impressive, given the price. But the Z isn’t about raw performance; it’s about good performance in a phenomenally small package. If you compare this laptop to those of similar size, like any ultrabook currently on the market, it defeats the competition at every turn.

Conclusion

Judged by its technical achievements, the Sony Vaio Z is easily a 10/10 laptop. Sony has managed to pack a number of high-quality components into a very small space, achieving things that most ultrabooks shown at CES could only hope for. Better still, the Z isn’t particularly hot or noisy, nor is the battery life disappointing. And with the dock connected, this tiny laptop can play games as well as much large machines. Yes, it’s expensive. But what did you expect? This isn’t your grandmother’s laptop.

Unfortunately, the design of the Z sours the wonderful hardware. The lid feels flimsy, the chassis allows for some flex, and material quality doesn’t live up to the price tag.

Does all of this sound familiar? If so, it’s because some of these complaints also popped up during our reviews of the Sony S 13.3-inch and Sony Vaio SE 15.5-inch laptops. These were also technical overachievers, but succumbed to design flaws that lowered their scores.

Not everyone cares about design, of course. But users do. If you decide to purchase a Z, you have to do so knowing that you could receive a laptop with a sturdier and more attractive chassis for less. If you need power in the smallest laptop possible, Sony’s Vaio Z offers an acceptable compromise.

Highs:

  • Incredibly thin and light
  • Powerful
  • High-resolution display
  • Good battery life
  • External dock enhances functionality

Lows:

  • Chassis feels flimsy in spots
  • Display and audio quality is sub-par
  • External dock is a pain to pack
  • Expensive

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