Sony has a reputation for building excellent high-end laptops (and even the company's less expensive models usually have a snazzy feel), but the Vaio Z is truly the top of the Vaio line, starting at $2,000 for a thin 13-inch with decent specs and a sharp design.
The latest version of the Vaio Z adds some very unusual new features. While the laptop itself looks and feels like a standard luxury 13-inch (its competition would be the MacBook Air or Samsung Series 9), it includes a separate docking station about the size of an Amazon Kindle e-book reader. That docking station includes a few extra ports and connections, as well as an optical drive (upgradable to Blu-ray), but more importantly, it has an AMD Radeon 6630M GPU built in.
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When connected (via a cable that uses both the AC and USB 3.0 ports and a version of Intel's Light Peak technology), the laptop can use the external GPU just as it would a built-in one. We've seen a few companies (such as Asus) try similar ideas in the past, but Sony is the first to built it into a the kind of fashionable consumer product you'd likely be able to find on a store shelf.
The setup works surprisingly well, although our package (which included the optional slice battery) had two separate A/C adaptors, only one of which fits the docking station. The stiff proprietary cable that connects the two components eats up the on-board USB 3.0 (but is replaced by another USB 3.0 port on the docking station).
We like that the docking station is included by default with the Vaio Z, it's not a sold-separately add-on, but at the same time, it's hard to imagine too many potential Vaio Z shoppers that are all that interested in adding gaming capabilities (especially via a deskbound docking station) to their high-fashion laptop. The Vaio Z is also crushingly expensive, which further limits the potential audience.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$2,749 / $1,999|
|Processor||2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M|
|Memory||4GB, 1333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||256GB SSD (128GB x2)|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6630M / Intel HD 3000|
|Operating systemWindows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.4 x 8.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2.5/3.3 pounds|
The slim, black carbon fiber body of the Sony Vaio Z actually looks quite different from the last Vaio Z we reviewed. That model was thicker, with black keys against a silver finish, and a two-tone base. Its main claim to fame was the inclusion of a whopping 256GB SSD storage system, which drove the price up to $2,300. In comparison, the new Vaio Z looks and feels like an entirely different machine. In fact, it reminds us of an older Vaio, the TZ150, which was one of the last pre-Netbook $2,000-plus ultraportables back in 2007.
The matte black finish and slatelike chassis look great (and ditch the common Sony rounded-screen hinge), but at the same time, all the various joints and seams reminds us of how much we like the minimalism of Apple's unibody construction.
The flat-topped keyboard will be familiar to anyone who has used a Sony Vaio laptop in the past several years (or a MacBook, for that matter). There is one important difference, however. Because the body of the laptop is so thin, the actual keys are extremely shallow--more so than we've seen on any laptop in recent memory. That made typing an awkward experience, at least until we got used to the design. It will not, however, ever become our favorite laptop for long-form writing.
The touch pad walks the line between the click-pad-style units found in some newer laptops and traditional touch pads with separate left and right mouse buttons. The pad itself has a subtle patterned texture, with attached, but nontextured, mouse buttons separated by a fingerprint reader. That added tactile feedback from the touchpad texture was just right for accurate cursor control, and we were surprised to find multitouch gestures, such as the two-finger scroll, worked better on this system than nearly any Windows laptop we've seen.
One of the highlights of the Vaio Z is the 13-inch display, which has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels--as high as laptop screens get, even massive 18-inch desktop replacements. A less expensive 1,600x900-pixel option is also available, and may even be a better idea. On the 1080p screen, text could be so small it was hard to read, and even with the external GPU, running newer games at the highest possible resolution would be a challenge. For Blu-ray or other HD video playback, however, it's great.
The 5.1 built-in speakers include a small subwoofer and the overall audio quality is excellent--if you keep in mind this is a small laptop with little room for air-pushing speaker cones. For personal use, it's fine, but immersive gaming or cinephile video watching would be better served with a set of high-end headphones.
|Sony Vaio Z||Average for category [ultraportable]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI (system), VGA, HDMI (dock)||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||5.1 speakers, combo headphone/mic jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0 (system), 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0 (dock), SD card reader, Memory Stick reader (system)||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner or optional Blu-ray player (dock only)||None|
As the docking station, called the Power Media Dock, is standard equipment for even the most basic Vaio Z configuration, its ports and connections have to be taken into account as well. The system itself includes the only-on-Vaio Memory Stick slot, in addition to the usual SD card slot. Both the system and dock have USB 3.0 ports, but connecting the dock uses up the USB 3.0 on the system itself, so you never have access to more than one. Both the dock and system have HDMI and VGA ports, and when connected, you can use a total of three of the available ports, plus the laptop's screen, for four total video displays.
Our upgraded version of the Vaio Z had a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M CPU--a very powerful part for a 13-inch laptop. In our benchmark tests, it beat other recent high-end 13-inch laptops, such as the Lenovo ThinkPad X1, and even beat Dell's new XPS 15z in some tests, which had the same CPU, but twice the RAM. Interestingly, this system was much faster than Samsung's high-end 13-inch Series 9 laptop, which used an Intel Core i5-2537M--but both are more than powerful enough for everyday use, streaming HD video, and even basic photo and video editing.