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Sony VAIO Z review: Sony VAIO Z

Sony VAIO Z

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Dan Ackerman
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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

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7 min read

Still the highest-end of Sony's Vaio laptops (after all, nothing comes after Z in the alphabet), the Z-series is a rare animal these days. It's a PC that starts close to $2,000 and goes up from there.

Sony VAIO Z Series VPC-Z390X
7.7

Sony VAIO Z

The Good

An upscale 13-inch laptop to give even the MacBook Air a run for its money, <b>Sony's Vaio Z</b> is fast, slim, and light, and includes a docking station with an optical drive and discrete graphics.

The Bad

Even though this updated version of the Vaio Z is less expensive than the previous model we reviewed, it's still a premium-priced laptop. We'd almost rather skip the GPU dock and hit a more ultrabook-style price.

The Bottom Line

With slim 13-inch SSD laptops now well under $1,000, Sony's expensive, high-end Z series laptop is a tough sell, although the long-life slice battery and unique GPU/optical dock help make its case.

When the current iteration of the Vaio Z was first released in the summer of 2011, it was an impressive ultrathin 13-inch laptop, along the lines of the MacBook Air or Samsung Series 9. It outdid those machines by adding a separate docking station that included a few extra ports and connections, as well as an optical drive (upgradable to Blu-ray), and an AMD Radeon GPU.

But in the months since then, the perception of what a slim 13-inch laptop should do, and what it should cost, have changed. The current wave of ultrabooks (laptops that meet Intel's checklist for using that trademarked name) are just as thin, with 13-inch screens, current Core i5 processors, and SSD hard drives. The biggest difference is that ultrabooks start at $799, and few creep past the $1,000 mark, while the Vaio Z starts at $1,649 and can go past $3,000. This review unit came in at $1,999.

The design and build quality are, as expected, excellent, and it feels as solid and sturdy as anything in this category short of a MacBook Air. The only visual/usability note that seems off is the postage-stamp-size touch pad, which is dwarfed by the clickpads in many ultrabooks.

The stand-alone GPU dock is still a unique feature, and if you're looking for an ultrabook-like laptop that can play serious games, it's got that market locked up. But beyond that, the Vaio Z is a very, very expensive example of what we sometimes call an executive laptop--as in, only the CEO gets one to show off how important he is.

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,999 / $1,649
Processor 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2450M
Memory 4GB, 1333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 128GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM65
Graphics Intel HD3000
Operating system Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 13.0 x 8.2 inches
Height 1.3 - 1.5 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 0.66 inch
System weight / weight with AC adapter 2.5/3.6 pounds
Category 13-inch laptop

The slim, black carbon fiber body of the Sony Vaio Z is essentially unchanged from the 2011 version of the system, and my aesthetic reaction remains largely the same. The matte-black finish and slatelike chassis look and feel very high-end, although all the various joints and seams stand in contrast to Apple's unibody construction.

A few oddities make the Vaio Z feel clunkier than it should. Our package (which included the optional slice battery) had two separate AC adaptors, only one of which--the larger one--fits the docking station. The stiff proprietary cable that connects the two components eats up the onboard USB 3.0 (but is replaced by another USB 3.0 port on the docking station), and it's short, so you can't place the dock more than a few inches away.

The flat-topped keyboard used here has the now-standard island-style layout, which Sony has been using for years (along with Apple and a few others). Because the body of the laptop is so thin, the actual keys are extremely shallow, even more so than on most ultrabooks. You can get used to it, but it may not ever be a favorite for long-form writing. The keyboard is, however, thankfully backlit.

The touch pad seemed fine in the mid-2011 version of this laptop, but since then, several low-cost ultrabooks have included much larger touch surfaces. The smaller pad here has a subtle patterned texture, with attached, but nontextured, mouse button zones separated by a fingerprint reader. Despite wanting a bigger pad, the multitouch gestures, such as the two-finger scroll, worked better on this system than on nearly any Windows laptop I've tried.

The native resolution of the 13.1-inch display is 1,600x900 pixels, which is exactly where a high-end 13-inch should be. The last Vaio Z we tested included an upgraded 1,920x1,080-pixel display--as high as mainstream laptop screens get. On a 1080p screen, text could be so small it was hard to read, so that's one add-on that you can safely skip (even though it's only $100). For personal use, the onboard audio, with Dolby Home Theater technology, is fine, but immersive gaming or cinephile video watching would be better served with a set of high-end headphones.

Sony Vaio Z series Average for category [13-inch]
Video VGA plus HDMI (duplicated on the dock) VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, (duplicated on the dock), SD card reader, Memory Stick slot 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet (duplicated on the dock), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive None (Blu-ray player in the external dock) DVD burner

The Power Media Dock, as Sony calls the docking station, is standard equipment for the Vaio Z, starting with the entry-level $1,649 model. Connecting the dock uses up the USB 3.0 on the system itself, so the second USB 3.0 on the dock is an even trade. Both the dock and system have HDMI and VGA ports, however. The laptop chassis itself has a standard set of ports and connections, plus the only-on-Vaio Memory Stick slot, right next to the traditional SD card slot.

Our upgraded version of the Vaio Z added Windows Professional ($50), a Blu-ray drive in the external dock ($50), and the extra sheet battery ($150). You can also upgrade the CPU to an Intel Core i7-2640M ($250), and trade up the SSD from 128GB to 256GB ($200) or even 512GB ($1,100). Adding a Verizon/AT&T/Sprint 3G antenna costs $50; a Verizon 4G antenna is $150. It's rare outside of gaming machines to find a high-end 13-inch laptop with this many configuration options, so the flexibility is appreciated.

On our benchmark tests, the included Intel Core i5-2450M performed as expected, matching up with both ultrabooks and other 13- and 14-inch laptops with the same or similar CPUs. Right now the Core i5-2450M is the default go-to CPU for mid-to-high-end laptops, and has more than enough power to juggle multiple tasks, including video playback and editing, Web surfing, and running productivity apps.

On its own, the Vaio Z relies on Intel's common HD 3000 graphics, standard in any current Intel-powered laptop. For HD video playback it's fine, but for gaming, you'd better forget anything beyond FarmVille. Fortunately, the dock includes an AMD Radeon HD 6650M GPU, which, via the high-speed cable that connects it, allows it to function just as an internal GPU would. Street Fighter IV, at 1,600x900-pixel resolution, ran at 15.5 frames per second without the external GPU dock, and 30fps with the dock connected.

I'm dubious that too many people want to play high-end games on their slim 13-inch laptops, but if you're one of those people, this is the only mainstream version of this you're likely to find (Asus and others have played around with external GPUs before, but not in any products you're likely to find for sale in stores).

Juice box
Sony Vaio VPC-Z390X Avg watts/hour
Off (60%) 0.24
Sleep (10%) 5.28
Idle (25%) 1.05
Load (05%) 43.19
Raw kWh number 27.10
Annual power consumption cost $3.08

Annual power consumption cost
Sony Vaio VPC-Z390X
$3.08 

The battery in this new Sony Vaio Z was even better than in the previous version, clocking in at 5 hours and 4 minutes (versus 4 hours and 30 minutes in 2011). It also ran longer than ultrabooks such as the Lenovo U300s and Acer Aspire S3, but not as long as Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air or Samsung Series 9. But, when attaching the secondary slice battery, the system uses both the internal and slice, and runs for an impressive 10 hours and 29 minutes (note that our battery life comparison charts include the internal battery score).

The Sony Vaio Z is backed by an industry-standard one-year warranty, although for $2,000 we'd expect two or three years. You can upgrade to a two-year plan for $179 or add a third year for $249. Support is accessible 24-7 via a toll-free phone line, an online knowledge base, and a Web site with driver downloads. Sony's support sites are clean and easy to navigate, but information about your exact laptop configuration may be hard to find.

Prior to ultrabooks, the Sony Vaio Z was an expensive, but not unthinkable, bit of executive flash. The hardware and extras, including the unique external GPU dock, are still impressive, but with thin, upscale 13-inch laptops hitting $999 or less, the audience for this has shrunk to only those who absolutely need the extra graphics power.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Sony Vaio VPC-Z390X
Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2450M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Samsung Solid State Drive

Dell Latitude E6220
Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2450M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Samsung Solid State Drive

Asus UX31E-DH52
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-2557M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1,696MB (Total) Intel HD 3000; 128GB Solid State Drive

Lenovo IdeaPad Z370
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1696MB (Total) Intel HD 3000; 500GB Hitachi 5,400rpm

Acer Aspire S3-951-6646
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-2467M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 128MB (Shared)/1,696MB (Total) Intel HD 3000; 320GB Hitachi 5,400rpm + 20GB Solid State Drive

HP Pavilion dm4-3090se
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2450M; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated)/1696MB (Total) Intel HD 3000; 520GB Intel 7,200rpm

Sony VAIO Z Series VPC-Z390X
7.7

Sony VAIO Z

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Battery 8Support 7
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