review If you thought the days of luxury ultra-portables were finally behind us, think again. Or maybe Sony just never got the memo. Not that we’re really complaining. The VAIO Z puts every 13” notebook – and most mid-sized machines – to shame with a set of specs that defies belief once you take into account its airy 1.165kg weight. It’s as though the VAIO product team were told to spare no expense in building the most impressive 13” ultraportable ever, and they’ve certainly succeeded in that regard. But the VAIO Z’s fatal flaw is that it isn’t perfect, and to get away with an asking price of nearly four grand, that’s exactly what we expect it to be.
Sony has steered clear of the gaudy lid designs and high-gloss surfaces that can be found on most consumer laptops. The VAIO Z opts for a simple yet classy matte black carbon fibre casing, with a chrome VAIO logo on the lid and a matching chrome hinge. The clean, straight lines remind us of a sharp suit, with front corners that are almost pointy enough to cut yourself on.
Opening the lid props the notebook up at a slight angle, making it more comfortable to type on. If only the keyboard offered the same courtesy. It’s certainly spacious enough, with lots of room to park your wrists on either side of the touchpad, but typing is a flat and unsatisfying experience, not to mention rather loud. A bit more travel and cushioning under each key wouldn’t have gone astray. The touchpad isn’t much better; it supports multi-touch gestures, but it’s too small (similar to the size found on netbooks) to be effective..
At least there’s a decent selection of interfaces on-board. There are two USB ports (one 2.0 and one 3.0), HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet and a headphone jack on the right, and most of the left is taken up by a fan grill, with a VGA port near the hinge. The lip houses an SD card reader and Memory Stick slot (does anyone actually still use those?), and there are three configurable shortcut buttons above the keyboard sandwiched between the power button and wireless switch.
Sony hasn’t bothered offering cheaper i3 or i5 versions of the VAIO Z. Nope, it’s go hard or go home on this notebook, with a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M processor as standard, 8GB of RAM, and two 128GB SSDs in a RAID array.
Graphics are limited to the integrated Intel HD Graphics 3000, but if you need more muscle, the VAIO Z comes with a unique Power Media Dock with built-in AMD Radeon HD6650M graphics. Plug it in, and the VAIO Z automatically switches to using the discrete graphics card. The Power Media Dock also includes a Blu-Ray drive, three USB ports (one of which uses the newer 3.0 standard) and another LAN port. The idea is that you use the VAIO Z on its own when you’re out and about, and then plug it into the Power Media Dock (which needs to be powered separately) when you’re at home or in the office.
The other highlight is the VAIO Z’s 13” screen. The size is pretty normal for an ultraportable, but its native resolution – 1920 x 1080 pixels – isn’t. This gives you a lot of wiggle room to have multiple windows open on the screen at once, not to mention swallowing most web pages whole and displaying Blu-ray movies without needing to downscale the resolution. But running that many pixels on a 13” screen does wear on the eyes after awhile, and we ended up pulling it down to a more comfortable 1366 x 768 (the resolution most commonly used on 13” screens) before long. Still, it’s nice to have the flexibility to move up and down depending on your needs, and the screen looks just as good at the lower resolution.
The VAIO Z’s full voltage Core i7 processor paired with the generous 8GB of RAM and twin SSD sticks didn’t disappoint. This ultraportable powerhouse pulled in an amazing 10,939 in PCMark Vantage, which is about 7,000 marks higher than the ultraportable average. Graphics performance is also above average at 4563 marks in 3DMark06, and this score almost doubles when you connect the Power Media Dock to 7923.
That scorching performance is all to be expected when you’re shelling out this much coin, but the noise and heat that followed on its heels was an unpleasant surprise. When you’re taxing the system, or even just connecting the Power Media Dock, the VAIO Z sounds like it’s ready to take off, while the left half underneath gets uncomfortably warm, to the point that it’s too hot to sit on a bare leg.
Audio quality from the twin speakers, which are rather poorly positioned underneath the VAIO Z, is another disappointment. Not because it’s underpowered or tinny – although it suffers from both of those shortcomings – but because of the heavy distortion that’s evident when you dial the volume up beyond mid-level. Even the Windows startup tone sounds terrible, let alone any music or movies you play through them.
The VAIO Z’s replaceable battery makes a nice change from the sealed internal batteries that have become the norm on skinny ultraportables, giving you the flexibility to carry a spare for long stretches away from a wall socket. You’ll have to bring a screwdriver in your laptop bag, though, as the battery is attached by eight screws. Sony claims you can get 6.5 hours of continuous use from this battery, but we were only able to get five hours of web browsing over Wi-Fi with the screen at 50% brightness. An optional slice battery is available that clamps to the VAIO Z’s underside, which Sony claims can boost the battery life to up to 13 hours altogether.
We’ve got to hand it to Sony’s engineers – they’ve managed to squeeze the internals of a beefy desktop replacement into a tiny ultraportable shell, and the idea of off-loading the discrete graphics to a separate dock to save on weight and battery life is genius. If you want the most powerful 13” thin-and-light notebook on the market, the VAIO Z is it.
But ensuring a good user experience seems to have taken a back seat. The VAIO Z is too noisy by half, due to the loud fan and clacky keyboard, and the speakers sound like they belong on a cheap radio – they certainly don’t belong on a four-thousand dollar laptop. Without these flaws, the VAIO Z might have been able justify its crazy-expensive pricetag, but as it is, there are other ultraportables that, while not as powerful, are a lot easier on the wallet and deliver a better user experience than this one.
Jenneth Orantia turned her back on a lucrative career in law to pursue her unhealthy obsession with consumer technology. She’s known for having at least half a dozen of the latest gadgets on her person at a time, and once won a bottle of Dom Perignon for typing 78WPM on a Pocket PC with a stylus.
Image credit: Sony