I have to say, with all these comments about online purchasing being the future, having local retail stores that has physical goods in stock is certainly very nice… and considering that they do have a refund policy, it is the perfect opportunity to try out in depth the default version of a new device before ordering the customized one online / in store. I’ve had my eye on the Vaio Z model (VPCZ1) that Sony pre-announced at CES 2010 in January for a while, but had quite a few open questions – battery life, noise of the fan, is it getting burning hot on your lap, …
Well, the laptop is now available in its standard form (the custom built ones will be available in about a week) and I decided to go on a field trip to the nearest Sony store to have a look at it. And after playing with the device in the store, I “borrowed” one for a few days before ordering the custom one (I was upfront about that with the sales guy at the store)… and I have to say, this is one impressive little high-end laptop.
I’ve been looking to replace my MacBook Air (the original model from two years ago) for a few months and was really waiting for the i5/i7 generation of laptops to switch back to non Apple hardware (I have already switched back to Windows 7 as the primary operating system shortly after its launch). While I loved the size and weight of the MacBook Air, the form factor & design advantage does not seem to currently justify the price premium Apple is asking for their hardware. I will also add the disclaimer that at the time of blogging, Apple didn’t announce their i5/i7 models. Throughout this post, I will do some comparison with my existing 2 years old MacBook Air and will therefore not look at the performance (that just would not be fair).
Let’s start first with the screen resolution. The current generation (pre i5/i7) of MacBook 13” laptops (Pro and Air) have a screen resolution of 1280 x 800. Sony’s Vaio Z default resolution is at 1600 x 900 for the same display size. This means that the ratio is not 16:10, but 16:9 instead. In countries outside Canada, Sony also seems to have a version of the 13” display at 1920 x 1080 (in the US, this is only available part of the Signature Edition that is priced at $4,500… ouch). The interesting thing is that Windows is configured by default to have the display at 125%, which still gives large fonts. I always liked to have a high-resolution display and don’t mind small characters. I therefore changed the Win7 settings back to 100%. Once this was changed, I realized that going to 1920 x 1080 might actually make things unreadable (good thing I tested this, because the techno-geek in me thought that a higher resolution would be better 😉 ). Here is a comparison of 1280 x 800 vs 1600 x 900 screen estate:
Regarding the device size, I’ve taken a few pictures comparing the Vaio Z with a MacBook Air (in the form-factor that has been used for 2 years now and should get an update shortly based on Apple’s usual timelines). Keep in mind the the Vaio has a built in DVD Burner (Blu-Ray burner is an option) a Wireless On/Off switch (useful when you travel) and following connectors: 3 USB, 1 VGA, 1 HDMI, 1 Express Card, 1 SD, 1 MemoryStick as well as Audio in and Audio out. The MacBook Air only has 1 USB, 1 Audio out (latest model support iPhone compatible headsets for the mic) and 1 display port (you need a cable to choose between VGA, DVI, …). This makes the size of the Vaio Z really impressive. The only thing I would comment is that the shell, while looking like it is aluminum, feels actually somewhat like plastic.
Even more impressive are the specs inside. In addition to the intel core i5 CPU (an i7 is available as an option), you can have up to 8Gb of RAM (2Gb max for the Air), and a Dual-SSD configuration (in Raid 0, with support for Quad-SSD from the controller) for up to 512 Gb of really really fast disk space (if you have a lot of money to spend). There are actually no configuration with traditional hard drives. And considering that the weight of the VPCZ1 isn’t noticeably different from the Air, this really makes the form factor Sony delivered with the Vaio Z an impressive one. The standard model I am currently trying out has the i5 520M at 2.40 GHz with 4Gb of RAM & 128 Gb of SSD space (actually 2 64Gb SSD drives), and comes with Windows 7 Professional 64-bit. Using it for a few hours, I am really impressed with the general speed and loading time (I am certain you can find detailed benchmarks on other sites).
Another thing on the hardware side that Sony has is what they call the “Dynamic Hybrid Graphics System”. Basically, they include both an intel graphics chipset and an nVidia GeForce GT 330M graphics card with 1Gb of VRAM. Even better, the Vaio is capable of automatically switching from one to the other (built-in slower but lower power graphics when on battery, dedicated faster graphics when plugged-in). You can also switch this yourself if you want.
There is a little thing I noticed with the form factor… for the first few minutes of using the keyboard, I had the impression that the spacing between the keys where slightly wider than what I am used to on the MacBook… but this feeling vanished after a few minutes of typing (this blog post is written with the Z on my lap with battery power, more on this later).
Another thing that I really appreciated with the Apple laptops is the noise the fan does, or should I say the lack of noise. Having played with an HP Touchsmart tx2 last year, I was a little concerned about another PC device that sounds like a jet airplane taking off on a short runway. Well, the Sony laptop is nothing the like. On battery and with normal usage, the fan noise on the Vaio Z is at about the same level as the one on my MacBook Air. And the impressive thing is that the bottom of the laptop is noticeably cooler than the Air.
From a battery perspective, the model I have been playing with has the standard battery. Sony claims up to 6.5 hours of life, which from the tests I have done so far will translate into a good 4 to 4.5 hours of continuous normal use on WiFi. There is also an option for a long-life battery with up to 10-11 hours of battery life according to the manufacturer (didn’t test it, but sure will order it for the custom configuration) which should keep the device going for flights across the Atlantic.
When considering a new laptop, I’ve been looking at two options: Either the Sony Vaio Z described here (actually its Custom version) or the Lenovo ThinkPad X201T, a 12” Tablet PC convertible device with an i5/i7 CPU. My dream configuration would be to have a touch-screen built into the Vaio Z (I don’t need the convertible aspect), but comparing the other specs, the Vaio Z wins my choice. And when compared to a MacBook Pro 13” (pre core i5/i7 configuration), the Apple tax remains a good 10% for an similar configuration & lower screen resolution (assuming same pricing for the i5/i7 models from Apple which are bound to be release any day now). The one thing I will be missing from my Air (from what I can tell so far) is the multi-touch trackpad. (Update April 2, 2010: It actually seems that the trackpad supports at least some basic multi-touch gestures, but that they are disabled by default and can be turned on with the Synaptics drivers… to be confirmed)
All and all, it is now time to return the standard Vaio Z to the store, get a refund and place the order for the custom model. Looks like I will have a trans-pacific flight in April where I will put that little marvel of technology to good use.
Updage April 23, 2010: I’ve been traveling over the last two weeks with my Core i7 version of the Vaio Z and I have to say that this is one great little laptop. I also got the long life battery, which gave me a good 8 hours of life with some time to spare on board of a long-haul flight, including watching a 2 hour movie with the brightness to the max. I also love the screen resolution and the speed the SSD drives provide. And I really don’t miss the Apple trackpad that much in the end. All in all, I can only highly recommend it.