Editors' note: This review is part of our 2009 Retail Laptop and Desktop Holiday Roundup, which covers specific fixed configurations of popular systems found in retail stores.
Several months ago, one of our favorite retail laptops was the Sony Vaio FW480J/T. Besides offering no-hassle Blu-ray playback and a large if not full-HD 1,600x900-pixel 16.4-inch screen, it had decent discrete graphics that could handle many mainstream games. At the time, its $1,199 price was a little high, but very good when compared with traditional "gaming" laptops.
Just a few months later, the Sony Vaio FW560F/T has found itself at the top of our retail laptop roundup, a high-end system by definition of its price and features. At $999, however, this Vaio slips right under that psychological $1,000 line, while keeping Blu-ray and slightly improving the processor speed--and now it has Windows 7 Home Premium preinstalled instead of Vista.
This has jumped from a good deal to a great deal for anyone looking for a Blu-ray-ready multimedia laptop. The package offered is a big improvement over the Vaio FW351J/H, which cost nearly the same amount early this summer.
On the other hand, gaming laptops have changed the landscape recently with the release of the Intel Core i7 processor. High-end laptops have never been faster, and going with a Core 2 Duo is now a significant step down from that new plateau. We can't really call the Vaio FW560F/T a gaming laptop, but it's certainly affordable, and can handle many games better than you think.
|Price as reviewed||$999|
|Processor||2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7450|
|Memory||6GB, DDR2 800MHz|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel PM45 Express|
|Graphics||ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4650, 512MB|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.1 x 10.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||16.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.3 / 7.3 pounds|
Like the Vaio FW480J/T, the Vaio FW560F/T has an elegant, sleek style to it that's reminiscent of Apple's design work with the MacBook Pro line. Like the last FW we reviewed, the exterior is matte black and the outside has an attractive semi-shiny chocolate-brown-colored finish. The materials inside and out are mostly plastic, but the layout and construction have a formal high-end look to them. Sony's style tends to lean toward minimalist chic, and this Vaio fits right into that mold.
The raised keyboard is wide and comfortable, although there's so much empty space on either side that we wonder why Sony didn't include a number pad. Typing is reminiscent of typing on Apple's MacBook keyboards. The touch pad, which has a smooth feel and clicky, flush buttons beneath, is good, too, though a little small.
Above the keyboard is a set of physical buttons for media playback and volume control, but these are not backlit touch-sensitive buttons, as found on many multimedia machines. The media playback buttons include a shortcut key, which acts as a mute button by default, and an AV Mode button, which brings up a PlayStation 3-style media bar browser as an alternative to Windows Media Center. While the media control buttons are responsive, they're all identically shaped. Since they are not backlit, which is unfortunate, in dimly lit viewing conditions, it's hard to hit the the right controls by feel alone.
The speakers lie in a bar above the keyboard and under the screen, and their exposure gives them good sound projection--they're not the loudest or best speakers we've seen, but they're more than adequate--although perhaps not for gathering a group around the screen for a Blu-ray movie.
Built into the screen's hinge are the AC charging port on one side and a glowing power button on the other. There's also an LED ring around the hinge; it changes color when charging/charged and pulses when sleeping. This is one of the few touches of color on an otherwise austere Vaio.
Sony Vaio laptops have been known to pile on the preinstalled garbageware, creating an uncomfortably cluttered laptop that must be cleaned out before using. The FW560F/T was less cluttered, focusing on the Vaio Multimedia suite of software, which is one of the better included packages outside of Apple that offers movie editing and photo management. Windows 7 only improved our experience on the FW series, and adds to the appeal of upgrading to this model.
The 16.4-inch screen, which Sony touts as being "ultra-widescreen," has a native resolution of 1,600x900 pixels, which is a 16x9 aspect ratio. While its size is great for movie watching and is better than 720p, it's not true 1080p--although there is an configuration option if you buy directly from Sony to up the resolution, it's not available in this retail configuration. Nevertheless, you could always watch the Blu-ray on an external HDTV using the built-in HDMI port for a fuller experience.
|Sony Vaio FW560F/T||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA and HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader, Memory Stick card reader, mini-Firewire||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray drive/DVD burner||DVD burner [high-end: Blu-ray]|
The FW560F/T comes with a 500GB hard drive, a step up from the 400GB offered in the older FW480J/T, but with the same 6GB of DDR2 RAM (upgradable to 8GB). It's a little surprising that DDR3 RAM isn't included, but 6GB is a larger-than-normal included amount in a mainstream machine.
The included collection of ports runs to the media-oriented, with mini-Firewire and HDMI being the most notable. There are only three USB 2.0 ports, but the memory card reader is actually dual-slot: one for Sony's proprietary Memory Sticks, and one for SD cards. Although mini-Firewire is starting to disappear from use, it's still nice to have for older hard drives and camcorders.
The Vaio 560F/T's 2.1GHz P7450 Core 2 Duo processor is a hair better than the 2GHz P7350 that we reviewed in this summer's FW480J/T, and compared with a generally more efficient Windows 7 Home Premium operating system, the performance is slightly improved. Still, the pairing of a Core 2 Duo and the decent, but not spectacular ATI graphics GPU inside are no substitute for a Core i7 power rig, and are only showing their age more now that more Core i7s are on the market.