The midsize Media Center laptop is a hard concept to get one's head around. Those interested in playing movies, especially via Blu-ray, are likely to want a 17-inch or larger display, while mainstream users often turn to 15-inch laptops for their mix of portability and pricing--not a surfeit of media features. Still, there's no denying the appeal of a well-designed laptop, and the $1,999 Sony VAIO FZ180 is, like the rest of Sony's line, head and shoulders above the competition in that regard, second only to perhaps Apple. If the design and features appeal, but you don't want the added expense of a Blu-ray drive, the FZ160 knocks $500 off the price by subbing in a plain-Jane DVD burner.
|Price as reviewed||$1,999|
|Processor||2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300|
|Memory||2GB, 667MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||160GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce 8400M GT|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Premium|
|Dimensions (WDH)||14.0 x 10.0 x 1.4 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter [pounds]||5.9/6.9 pounds|
Like much of the Sony VAIO laptop family, the FZ180 has a large VAIO logo embossed on the back of the lid, while the sharp, angular case eschews the recent trend toward soft, rounded edges. At only 1.4 inches thick, it's slimmer than other recent 15-inch media-friendly laptops, such as the HP Pavilion dv6500t and the Dell Inspiron E1505.
Sony's flat-key keyboard is among our favorite laptop keyboards, but we wish the tiny touchpad mouse buttons were a little more substantial. Keeping with the multimedia theme, there's a four-way click-wheel above the keyboard that acts as a media-control hub, offering fast-forward, rewind, play, and volume controls.
The 15.4-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,280x800 native resolution, which is standard for a screen this size. Showing off a little corporate synergy, Sony uses the same LCD technology found in its Bravia line of HDTVs, which the company calls Xbrite, promising higher contrast and richer colors. The screen indeed looks excellent, especially when playing back a high-definition Blu-ray movie--although at 1,280x800, it's not really true 1080p resolution. You'll need the HDMI output into your big-screen TV to get the full Blu-ray experience.
But the system's generally excellent design and features are marred by some annoying "extras." At a time when other vendors like Dell and HP are making conscious efforts to declutter their systems, removing desktop come-ons for Internet access and music subscription services, the VAIO FZ180 is one of the most egregious offenders we've seen in recent memory. Not only is the default desktop background image an advertisement for Sony's Spider-Man 3 movie, the system comes thoughtfully preloaded with full-length copies of both Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2. Unfortunately, you'll have to pony up $8.99 each to unlock the protected film files via an Internet connection, and even then, they'll only play on the original laptop. Together, the two films take up around 2.6GB of hard drive space. Other conspicuous partner applications include GameTap, Napster, and a Travelocity desktop widget.
Clicking the AV Mode button above the keyboard pops up a toolbar with links to a Sony Webcam utility, Intervideo's WinDVD for playing back Blu-ray discs, and Sony's much-maligned SonicStage music application (which pales in comparison to iTunes or Windows Media Player).
|Sony VAIO FZ180||Average for mainstream category|
|Video||VGA-out, S-Video, HDMI||VGA-out, S-Video|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, multiformat memory card reader||4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, multiformat memory card reader|
|Expansion||ExpressCard/34 slot||PC Card slot|
|Networking||Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/g/n Wi-Fi||Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray BD-RE||DVD burner|
We were pleased to see the inclusion of 802.11n Wi-Fi technology, and the HDMI port is a no-brainer in a system with a Blu-ray drive. The lack of a Bluetooth antenna was disappointing but won't be a deal breaker for most.
As a fixed-configuration system, you're stuck with the default specs of the FZ180, but with a fast Core 2 Duo T7300 CPU running on an 800MHz frontside bus from Intel's new Centrino Duo lineup along with 2GB of RAM, Nvidia's new GeForce 8400M GT graphics card, and a decent-sized hard drive, we have no complaints. The similarly configured VAIO FZ160 costs $500 less and leaves out the Blu-ray drive and HDMI output.
The Sony VAIO FZ180 performed in line with other recent multimedia-friendly 15-inch laptops. The HP Pavilion dv6500t and the Gateway E-475M were marginally faster, on account of their T7500 CPU being one step farther up the Core 2 Duo ladder, but in real-world terms, you're unlikely to see any performance difference, even under heavy multimedia use. We were able to, for example, play a Blu-ray movie, surf the Web, and work on an Excel file at the same time with no slowdown or stuttering.