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Sony VAIO FZ180 review: Sony VAIO FZ180

Sony VAIO FZ180

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
5 min read

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.


Sony VAIO FZ180

The Good

Typically excellent Sony design; handy media control buttons; Blu-ray drive and HDMI output.

The Bad

Loaded up with adware and bloatware; no Bluetooth; not configurable.

The Bottom Line

We can't imagine the market for a 15-inch home theater laptop with Blu-ray is very large, but the Sony VAIO FZ180 certainly fits the bill--even if it's preloaded with unwanted come-ons for other Sony products.

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).

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.

The FZ180 ran for 2 hours and 2 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, using the included lithium ion battery. Two hours from a 15-inch laptop isn't especially impressive but falls within acceptable parameters and was better than the HP dv6500t. Our DVD battery drain test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use.

Sony includes an industry-standard one-year parts-and-labor warranty with the system, which included on-site service. Upgrading to a three-year plan will cost an extra $199. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line and an online support Web site, which helpfully gives you a custom page of links to manuals and drivers for your specific model.

Multimedia multitasking test (in minutes)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio FZ180

Adobe Photoshop CS2 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio FZ180

Apple iTunes encoding test (in minutes)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio FZ180

Microsoft Office productivity test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio FZ180

DVD battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio FZ180

'Quake 4' performance (in frames per second)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
1,024x768, 4xAA 8xAF  
Sony Vaio FZ180

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System configurations:

Sony VAIO FZ180
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GT; 160GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

HP Pavilion dv6500t
Windows Vista Home Premium Edition; 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500; 2048MB DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB Nvidia 8400M GS; 200GB Toshiba 4,200rpm

Dell Inspiron E1505
Windows Vista Home Premium; 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon x1400; 100GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

Gateway E-475M
Windows Vista Business Edition; 2.2GHz Intel Core Duo T7500; 2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 256MB ATI Mobility Radeon HD2300; 100GB Hitachi 7,200rpm

Sony VAIO FZ180

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 6Support 7