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Sony Vaio FW560F/T (brown) review: Sony Vaio FW560F/T (brown)

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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.

OVR
8.0

Sony Vaio FW560F/T (brown)

The Good

Affordable; slim for a 16-inch laptop; Blu-ray playback; decent gaming performance.

The Bad

Screen isn't 1080p; media buttons hard to see in dim light; mediocre battery life.

The Bottom Line

With Blu-ray playback, a large screen and decent discrete graphics, the Sony Vaio FW560F/T is a very compelling sub-$1,000 multimedia notebook.

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.

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.

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.

Still, the gaming results we received using Unreal Tournament 3 are very respectable, and while we wouldn't call the Vaio 560F/T a strict gaming laptop per se, it's a very good multimedia machine that can handle most games. Its performance lagged behind the HP Envy 15, but not by much--and for a $999 laptop, that's worth considering.

Juice box
Sony Vaio FW560F/T Mainstream (Avg watts/hour)
Off (60%) 0.65
Sleep (10%) 1.76
Idle (25%) 16.18
Load (05%) 58.07
Raw kWh Number 102.52
Annual Energy Cost $11.64

Annual power consumption cost
Sony Vaio VGN-FW560F/T
$11.64 

The Vaio FW560F/T had the best battery life of any of the four high-end retail systems we tested as part of the 2009 holiday retail laptop roundup, but the 2 hours and 40 minutes the battery achieved was not spectacular, and is a turn for the worse compared with its predecessor, the FW480J/T. Many laptops are packing larger batteries and getting longer battery life nowadays, particularly Apple's MacBook Pro lineup, and we would have accepted a slightly heavier chassis for a larger battery here, no question. It's the one weak link in an otherwise solid Vaio package.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio VGN-FW560F/T
1082 

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio VGN-FW560F/T
144 

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio VGN-FW560F/T
185 

Unreal Tournament 3
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,280x800, 0X AA, 8X AF*  
1,440x900, 4X AA, 8X AF*  
Sony Vaio VGN-FW560F/T @ 1,280x720 / @ 16x9
82.5 
49.1 

Video playback battery drain test (in seconds)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio VGN-FW560F/T
160 

Sony includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system. While retail shops are happy to sell you an in-store extended warranty, they are often expensive and hard to use, so we don't recommend them. Vaio support is accessible through a 24-7 phone line (but it's not a free call) and a well-laid-out Web site, with an online knowledge base and driver downloads.

Find out more about how we test Windows laptops.

System configurations:

Sony Vaio VGN-FW560F/T
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7450; 6144MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 512MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4650; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Asus G60VX-RBBX05
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7450; 4096MB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 260M; 320GB Seagate 7,200rpm

HP Envy 15-1050nr
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i7 720QM; 6144MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 1GB ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4830; 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm

HP Pavilion dv7-3085dx
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i7 720QM; 6144MB DDR3 SDRAM 1066MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 230M; 500GB Seagate 7,200rpm

OVR
8.0

Sony Vaio FW560F/T (brown)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8Battery 7Support 7