Sony VAIO Z review: Sony VAIO Z

Still the top end of Sony’s Vaio laptops (after all, nothing comes after the Z in the alphabet), the Z series is a rare animal these days. It’s a PC that starts at $ 2,000 and goes up from there.

When the current iteration of the Vaio Z was first released in the summer of 2011, it was an impressive 13-inch ultrathin laptop, along the lines of the MacBook Air or Samsung Series 9. It surpassed those machines by adding a separate docking station that included a few extra ports and connections, as well as an optical drive (upgradeable to Blu-ray). and an AMD Radeon GPU.

But in the months since, the perception of what a thin 13-inch laptop should do and how much it should cost has changed. The current wave of ultrabooks (laptops that meet Intel’s checklist for using that registered name) is just as thin, with 13-inch screens, current Core i5 processors, and SSD hard drives. The biggest difference is that ultrabooks start at $ 799 and few go above $ 1,000, while the Vaio Z starts at $ 1,649 and can go above $ 3,000. This review unit came in at $ 1,999.

The design and build quality are, as expected, excellent and it feels solid and sturdy like anything in this category less than a MacBook Air. The only visual / usability note that seems wrong is the postage stamp-sized touch pad, which is dwarfed by the clickpads in many ultrabooks.

The standalone GPU dock is still a unique feature, and if you’re looking for an ultrabook-like laptop that can play serious games, that market is stuck. But beyond that, the Vaio Z is a very, very expensive example of what we sometimes call an executive laptop, as only the CEO gets one to show how important it is.

Price as reviewed / starting price$ 1,999 / $ 1,649
Processor2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2450M
Memory4GB DDR3, 1333MHz
Hard disk128GB SSD
ChipsetIntel HM65
GraphicsIntel HD3000
Operating systemWindows 7 Professional (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD)13.0 x 8.2 in
Height1.3 – 1.5 inches
Screen size (diagonal)0.66 in
System weight / weight with AC adapter2.5 / 3.6 lbs
Category13 inch laptop

The slim black carbon fiber body of the Sony Vaio Z is essentially unchanged from the 2011 version of the system and my aesthetic reaction remains essentially the same. The matte black finish and slate-like chassis look and feel very high-end, although all of the various seams and seams contrast with Apple’s unibody construction.

Some quirks make the Vaio Z seem more clunky than it should. Our package (which included the optional slice battery) had two separate AC adapters, only one of which, the larger one, fits into the docking station. The rigid proprietary cable connecting the two components consumes the built-in USB 3.0 (but is replaced by another USB 3.0 port on the docking station) and is short, so you can’t place the dock more than a few inches away.

The flat keyboard used here has the now standard island-style layout, which Sony has been using for years (along with Apple and a few others). Because the laptop body is so thin, the actual keys are extremely shallow, even more so than on most ultrabooks. You can get used to it, but it may never be a favorite for long-form writing. The keyboard is, however, thankfully backlit.

The touch pad looked fine on the mid-2011 version of this laptop, but since then, several low-cost ultrabooks have included much larger touch surfaces. The smaller pad here has a subtle patterned texture, with areas of the mouse buttons attached, but not textured, separated by a fingerprint reader. While I wanted a larger pad, multitouch gestures, such as two-finger swipe, worked better on this system than on almost any Windows laptop I’ve tried.

The native resolution of the 13.1-inch display is 1,600×900 pixels, which is exactly where a high-end 13-inch should be. The latest Vaio Z we tested included an updated 1,920×1,080-pixel display that’s as tall as traditional laptop screens. On a 1080p screen, the text might be so small that it’s hard to read, so this is an add-on you can safely skip (even if it only costs $ 100). For personal use, built-in audio, with Dolby Home Theater technology, is fine, but immersive gaming or cinephile video watching would be best served with a high-end set of headphones.

videoVGA plus HDMI (duplicated on dock)VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
AudioStereo speakers, headphone jackStereo speakers, headphone / microphone jack
Data1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, (duplicated on dock), SD card reader, Memory Stick slot2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader
NetworkEthernet (duplicated on dock), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadbandEthernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical driveNone (Blu-ray player in external dock)DVD burner

The Power Media Dock, as Sony calls the docking station, is standard equipment for the Vaio Z, starting with the $ 1,649 entry-level model. Connecting the dock uses USB 3.0 on the system itself, so the second USB 3.0 on the dock is a uniform deal. However, both the dock and the system have HDMI and VGA ports. The laptop chassis itself has a standard set of ports and connections, plus the unique Vaio Memory Stick slot, right next to the traditional SD card slot.

Our updated version of the Vaio Z added Windows Professional ($ 50), a Blu-ray drive in the external dock ($ 50), and additional battery ($ 150). You can also upgrade the CPU to an Intel Core i7-2640M ($ 250) and swap the 128GB SSD for 256GB ($ 200) or even 512GB ($ 1,100). Adding a Verizon / AT & T / Sprint 3G antenna costs $ 50; a Verizon 4G antenna costs $ 150. It’s rare outside of gaming machines to find a high-end 13-inch laptop with so many configuration options, so flexibility is appreciated.

In our benchmark tests, the included Intel Core i5-2450M performed as expected, pairing with both ultrabooks and other 13- and 14-inch laptops with the same or similar CPUs. Right now the Core i5-2450M is the default CPU for mid to high-end laptops and has more than enough power to juggle multiple tasks, including playing and editing videos, browsing the web, and l running productivity apps.

By itself, the Vaio Z is based on the common Intel HD 3000 graphics, standard in any laptop with an Intel processor. For HD video playback that’s fine, but for gaming, you’d better forget anything besides FarmVille. Fortunately, the dock includes an AMD Radeon HD 6650M GPU, which, via the high-speed cable connecting it, allows it to function just like an internal GPU would. Street Fighter IV, with a resolution of 1,600×900 pixels, ran at 15.5 frames per second without the external GPU dock and at 30 fps with the dock connected.

I doubt too many people want to play high-end games on their thin 13-inch laptops, but if you’re one of those people, this is the only mainstream version of this you’re likely to find (Asus and others have already played with external GPUs, but not in any product you might find on sale in stores).

Sony Vaio VPC-Z390XAverage watts / hour
Off (60%)0.24
Sleep (10%)5.28
Inactive (25%)1.05
Load (05%)43.19
Raw kWh number27.10
Cost of annual energy consumption$ 3.08

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