|Name||Ultraportable laptop: Sony VAIO Z (VPCZ217GGX)|
|At a glance:||Intel Core i7-2620M CPU,8GB RAM,256GB SSD (128GB x2 in RAID),13.3-inch, 1920 x 1080-pixel display,Dock provides AMD Radeon HD 6650M graphics and Blu-ray drive|
|Summary:||Ultimate power and portability in one package, but sadly well beyond the price range of the average Kiwi.|
When the press release for Sony’s latest VAIO Z appeared in my inbox, it took just seconds for me to fire back a request for a review model. Why? Because this ultraportable 13-inch laptop and its associated ‘Power Media Dock’ combine to make one of the coolest pieces of tech I’ve seen this year.
Closed, the VAIO Z is a plastic rectangle with a solid aluminium rear hinge. The body is 17mm thick from front to back – the same as the thickest point on the 13-inch MacBook Air. However, the VAIO Z’s lightweight carbon fibre body results in a total mass of just 1.2kg – 150 grams lighter than the Air. Think 150 grams isn’t much? That’s slightly more than the weight of the HTC Sensation, a fairly hefty smartphone.
The Z has a minimalist aesthetic – there’s the traditional reflective ‘VAIO’ badge inset into the lid, a tiny ‘SONY’ logo, and the rest is smooth black carbon fibre inside and out. The VAIO Z is truly the black-clad ninja of laptops.
The island keyboard is almost full-sized, but the keys offer very little travel and feel much too soft for my liking. There’s not enough of a detectable ‘click’ with each keypress, which I found made typing difficult. The keyboard also suffers from a vastly undersized right shift key, which led to rather a few capitalisation errors. Like any laptop keyboard, you’ll probably get used to the key positioning: I’m not convinced about the travel, though.
The trackpad is accurate and fairly responsive, though it could have stood to be a little larger than its 73 x 40mm (excluding buttons). The screen resolution is high, and a small trackpad doesn’t really cut it. A fingerprint reader sits in the centre between the click buttons, and doesn’t get in the way while you’re working.
How high is the screen resolution? A full 1080p (1920 x 1080) – in the 13-inch form factor, this results in a tiny dot pitch that makes it nearly impossible to distinguish individual pixels, however close you get to the screen. That results in crisp, smooth text and gorgeously sharp photos and video. Colours are bright and while the screen is glossy, I didn’t have any major problems with reflections.
Under the hood is an Intel Core i7-2620M CPU, a dual-core model from the ‘Sandy Bridge’ range with a base clock speed of 2.7GHz and a maximum ‘turbo’ speed of 3.4GHz. That processor is backed up by 8GB of DDR3 RAM, the most it can support.
Driving the screen is the 2620M’s on-chip graphics solution, the Intel HD Graphics 3000 engine. Supporting up to DirectX 10.1, the on-chip graphics offer entry-level gaming performance, but work wonderfully for HD video playback and other media-intensive tasks.
Storage is provided by a pair of 128GB SSDs in RAID 0 configuration, giving you a total of 256GB. It’s not huge but it’s fast, lightweight and means you can carry the VAIO Z around while it’s running without any ill effects.
Connectivity-wise you’ve got a headphone socket, wired Ethernet port, HDMI output, VGA output, one USB 2.0 port, one USB 3.0 port, a Sony Memory Stick reader, and an SD card reader.
Altogether, the VAIO Z is a very capable ultraportable that blows away the specs of the 13-inch MacBook Air. But then, it should. The maximum spec Air with bells and whistles is just $2,659, while the VAIO Z goes for an economy-halting $4,800: more than the top multimedia laptops in our August roundup. An unjustifiable price, even for this carbon-fibre block of aspirational technology? Perhaps, if the VAIO Z didn’t boast something extra in the box.
Included in the purchase price is the matching Power Media Dock: a 685-gram, 148 x 17 x 220mm port replicator built in the same aesthetic as the VAIO Z itself. ‘Dock’ is a bit of a misnomer: it connects to the laptop via the USB 3 port and the adjacent power socket, via a custom connector. The laptop doesn’t sit inside or atop the dock in any way.
Instead, the dock can either sit flat on your desk, or upright on its edge with the included stand, looking a bit like a tiny desktop PC. Tiny being the operative word here: the dock is something you could easily slip into your laptop bag for an overseas journey, without pushing the overall weight beyond that of a ‘normal’ 13-inch laptop.
The dock has its own power supply: a bulkier version of the laptop’s own adapter, capable of supplying twice the current. Because the dock connects to the laptop’s power socket as well as USB port, that means the dock powers the laptop. You can leave the more portable power adapter in your laptop bag, or on your desk at work.
For your trouble, you get two USB 2.0 ports, one USB 3.0 port (to replace the one on the laptop you’re using up), wired Ethernet, HDMI and VGA outputs. However, that’s not the exciting part.
The Power Media Dock features a slot-loading Blu-ray and DVD reader/writer, making up for the VAIO Z’s lack of an optical drive. On top of that – now this is my favourite part – it also includes an ATI Radeon HD 6650M graphics chip with 1GB of dedicated video memory and DirectX 11 support. Yep, that’s right: an external GPU.
If you’re wondering how that all runs through the VAIO Z’s USB 3 port, the answer is that it doesn’t. Hidden inside that port and the dock’s plug are the makings of a clever optical connection, which allows the external GPU to either run external screens as if they were connected directly to the laptop, or to take over from the processor’s on-chip graphics and provide a full DX11-enabled gaming experience on the laptop’s display. It’s the best of both worlds: ultimate portability on the road, and ultimate power on the desk.
I put the VAIO Z through the same benchmark suite as the multimedia laptops in our August roundup, both with and without the dock connected.
Without the dock, it fared well in processor-intensive tasks but couldn’t compete in the graphical arena – some tests wouldn’t even run, due to the lack of DX11 support from Intel’s on-processor graphics.
With the dock connected and set to take over the VAIO Z’s graphical duties, it breezed through the test suite scoring admirable results for such a portable machine – in many cases outperforming all but last month’s winner, the HP Envy 17 3D. The dock has no effect on processing power, positive or negative, with one notable exception: when using the dock’s AMD Radeon GPU in place of the VAIO Z’s on-chip graphics, it appears that the video-transcoding abilities introduced with Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors are disabled also. If you’re converting video from one format to another, you may actually see much better performance without the dock connected.
Regardless of the dock, the VAIO Z blew away all of our multimedia machines in PCMark 7, which aims to simulate a variety of common computing activities. The lightning-fast SSDs in the VAIO beat the 7200RPM hard drives in our multimedia machines, and the tradeoff between capacity and performance has never been so obvious.
Factoring in the advantages of the Power Media Dock, your $4,800 essentially gets you a 13-inch ultraportable and a full-on multimedia laptop... you’ll just never see them both in the same room at the same time. The price is still high, but this is a beautifully designed, well constructed and highly aspirational piece of tech. Sony knows this, and quantities available in NZ are strictly limited. If you’re one of the select few who can afford to pay the premium, you’re not going to regret the purchase. That unattainability by mere mortals is the only thing keeping the VAIO Z from a PC World Platinum rating.
|Sony VAIO Z (without dock)||Sony VAIO Z (with dock)||Dock performance factor*|
|Call of Pripyat (FPS)||720p||-||20.8||-|
|Trackmania Nations Forever (FPS)||720p||26.5||40.0||1.5|
|Unigine Heaven 2.0 (FPS)||720p||11.9||13.5||1.1|
|3DMark11 (Score)||Performance (720p)||-||P1255||-|
|PCMark 7 (Score)||3897||3496||0.9|
|Cinebench 11||OpenGL (FPS)||-||35.5||-|
|Single CPU (Score)||1.24||1.33||1.1|
|7-Zip||Single CPU (KB/sec)||3208||3104||1.0|
|Single CPU (MIPS)||3662||3544||1.0|
* Factor by whih dock alters performance. >1 indicates improvement, 0 no change, <1 indicates a performance drop