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Sony makes some of the best multimedia laptops in the world -- you only have to look at the awesome Blu-ray-equipped Vaio AR11S for evidence.
Never ones to rest on their laurels, Sony's engineers have been busy trying to up the ante. Its latest creation, the new FZ series, aims to do for desktop replacements what the gorgeous TZ series did for ultraportables.
The FZ is small for a digital entertainment laptop. It's nowhere near as effective as its 17-, 19- or 20-inch cousins for watching videos on from across a room. It is, however, ideal for anyone who simply intends to use it at a desk.
There's nothing particularly adventurous about the FZ's design, but there's no debating its attractiveness. Even from a distance, this thing screams 'premium'. The matte silver lid will attract admiring glances should you venture into the wider world, as will the glossy silver Vaio logo in the centre. You may not be venturing too far, though -- we had to lug its 2.7kg chassis between home and the CNET.co.uk offices and it wasn't much fun.
The area above the keyboard is dedicated to speakers and a set of multimedia shortcut keys for adjusting volume and playback, plus buttons for launching the dedicated AV mode. Below this, the keyboard, palm rest and the mouse trackpad are all matte black, which makes a nice contrast to the rest of the laptop. The keys are all of a good size and feel responsive enough, but the mouse trackpad is a tad too small for our liking -- you'll either have to ramp up the sensitivity or use multiple finger strokes.
The port arrangement on the FZ is subject to the same foibles as most laptops. The USB ports on the right side of the laptop are too close together so large USB devices will obscure the adjacent port. By the same token, one of the ports sits ludicrously close to the optical drive, bringing about the possibility of obscuring the drive tray.
The rest of the ports are logically arranged, though. There's 4-pin FireWire, a single USB, D-Sub, S-Video and HDMI ports on the left, plus LAN and modem ports at the rear -- where they should be. The front of the laptop is home to an SD card reader and a Memory Stick Pro reader, plus a wireless switch for starting and stopping Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.
The 15.4-inch screen is a joy to look at -- it's clear, crisp and pretty accurate in most regards. But ignore the 'Full HD 1080' sticker on the bottom left of the palm rest -- the screen's native resolution is only 1,280x800 pixels, which isn't very high. Sure, the small screen size limits the number of pixels that can be accommodated, but a 1,440x900-pixel panel (as seen on a MacBook Pro) would have been better. We can, at least, be content with the fact you can output video via the HDMI port.
Whereas the top-spec FZ ships with a Blu-ray drive, our third-tier VGNFZ11L.CEK shipped with a standard, and frankly dull, DVD-RW drive. It also has a weedy 120GB hard drive instead of the maximum 200GB. This is fairly rubbish for a multimedia laptop, so unless you have an existing external hard drive, we'd opt for the next model up -- the VGNFZ11S.CEK.
Unusually, all flavours of the FZ have the same base specification: a 1.8GHz T7100 Core 2 Duo CPU and 2GB of DDR2-667MHz memory. So no matter whether you go for the cheap-o VGNFZ19VN.CEK (£880) or the all-singing, all-dancing VGNFZ11Z.CEK (£1,499), you'll get a very similar level of performance. Be warned, though -- the bottom-spec model has Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator X3100, whereas the rest have a superior Nvidia GeForce 8400M GT card. Both will let you play games, but only the latter will let you actually run them at a decent frame rate.
Audio on the FZ series is a mixed bag. The integrated speakers are awful -- barely able to fill a medium-sized room. The laptop has an Intel High Definition Audio sound card so it can, theoretically, output 7.1-channel audio via external speakers. Unfortunately the laptop only has headphone and mic output jacks so 2.1 audio is the best you can get from it.
Being a Centrino Duo laptop, the FZ packs Wi-Fi as standard -- 802.11a/b/g formats are acceptable, but we were disappointed at the lack of support with the faster 802.11n standard. There's no integrated 3G for wireless access away from a Wi-Fi hotspot, but we figure the laptop is a little too bulky to be a mobile office, so it's no great loss.
Software on the FZ is par for the Sony laptop course. You get Adobe Photoshop Elements for editing images, Adobe Premier Elements for editing video, plus WinDVD for movie playback. The woeful SonicStage is included, as is a trial of Microsoft Office 2007 and Microsoft Works. Sony supplies a one-year warranty with an option to buy a further two years.
The FZ series offers very similar performance to the Vaio AR11S. Despite having a processor that's 200MHz "slower", it racked up 4,324 in our PCMark 2005 test, compared to the AR11S' 4,320. It should, however, have a bigger edge than this score differential suggests. It has twice as much RAM as the AR11S, so it's more reliable a machine when dealing with photo or video editing applications.
It's nowhere near as good as the AR11S for gaming, though. It scored a fairly paltry 1,253 in 3DMark 2006, which is a full 1,606 marks lower. It won't trouble an Alienware, but you'll be pleased to know it will run games at modest settings.
Battery life isn't particularly important on a laptop that isn't designed to stray from the confines of your bedroom or lounge, but for reference, the FZ stayed alive for 80 minutes away from the mains.
The FZ is a solid machine. It's nowhere near as well-equipped as the Vaio AR11S, but if you're after a cheapish multimedia laptop with an optional Blu-ray drive, you could do a lot worse.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Kate Macefield