A year after releasing its corporate-minded B-series laptop, Sony replaces it with the new VAIO VGN-BX541B, the first offering from its new VAIO Professional line. One of three new BX models, the $1,500 14.1-inch unit CNET tested delivers a nice mix of features and performance in a package that doesn't sacrifice usability for portability--but its below-average battery life will disappoint highly mobile users.
Just over 12 inches wide, 10 inches deep, and 1 inch thick, the magnesium-alloy VAIO VGN-BX541B is a tad smaller than both the $1,249 HP Compaq nx6125 and the $1,699 Toshiba Tecra M3. Along with the 5-pound Toshiba, the 5.4-pound Sony falls squarely in the thin-and-light category: light enough for travel, though not the smallest laptop available. At 6.2 pounds, the less portable HP edges into midsize territory. The Sony's two-prong AC adapter adds just over a pound to the package.
The VAIO VGN-BX541B's keyboard isn't quite full size, but it's large enough to type on comfortably. In addition to a modest touch pad and two slim mouse buttons, you get a pointing stick that sits in the middle of the keyboard with its own set of mouse buttons (including a scroll button). Our VAIO VGN-BX541B's 14.1-inch (diagonal) display had a 1,024x768 native resolution that gave us some serious screen real estate; we found the screen adequately bright and crisp. The VAIO VGN-BX541B's speakers are subpar: quite weak and tinny. The system got rather hot on its underside.
In addition to a typical set of business-class ports and connections (three USB 2.0, four-pin FireWire, PC Card slot, VGA out, Gigabit Ethernet, and modem), the VAIO VGN-BX541B has some interesting features. There's a biometric fingerprint reader that lets you log in to Windows and other password-protected areas with the swipe of a digit, as well as a Trusted Platform Module for security. An optional ($30) built-in 0.3-megapixel camera sits above the display for videoconferencing. And, as found on the VAIO TX, the BX includes an SD card reader in addition to the expected Memory Stick reader. Also onboard is a CD-RW/DVD-ROM drive in a swappable bay. Aside from a mute button (there are no external volume controls), and two programmable quick-launch buttons, the BX has no multimedia controls. On top of Microsoft Windows XP Professional, Sony includes a nice array of its own software, including media, connectivity and support utilities, as well as the standard apps for burning and playing discs.
Our VAIO VGN-BX541B test unit included a fairly typical set of components for a $1,500 business laptop. In addition to a 1.73GHz Pentium M processor, it had 512MB of fast 533MHz RAM; Intel's 915PM/GM/GMS chipset with an integrated graphics subsystem that borrows up to 128MB of RAM from main memory; and a nice 60GB hard drive spinning at a moderate 5,400rpm. Our unit scored above average on CNET Labs' mobile benchmarks, besting both the Toshiba Tecra M3 and the Turion-based HP Compaq nx6125. All three offer enough power for basic productivity work while on the road. However, the VAIO VGN-BX541B performed below average in the battery tests, offering just 2 hours, 19 minutes between charges. (A different VAIO VGN-BX540 configuration we tested also returned subpar battery life.) For mobile users looking for greater battery performance, we recommend the $1,484 Gateway M250 or a comparably priced ThinkPad T42.