Sony Vaio Z series VPC-Z116GX/S review: Sony Vaio Z series VPC-Z116GX/S

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MSRP: $2,299.99

The Good Light and sturdy design; large SSD hard drive; switchable discrete graphics; excellent performance.

The Bad Expensive; switchable graphics options can be confusing.

The Bottom Line Sony's top-of-the-line 13-inch Vaio VPCZ116GX/S has a speedy Core i5 CPU, discrete graphics, a huge 256GB SSD, and a sky-high price to match.

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8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 6
  • Support 8

Though most laptop shoppers may be laser-focused on value, snapping up $300 Netbooks and $600 ULV systems, there's always a little room at the top of the heap for a high-priced, full-featured showpeice. In the 13-inch category, HP has the Envy 13, Dell has the Adamo XPS, and Sony has the Vaio Z series.

In this latest refresh, the Vaio Z has a very fast Intel Core i5 processor, an Nvidia GT 330M GPU, which can be switched off to save battery life, a DVD drive (something missing from those other high-end 13-inch laptops), and a huge 256GB SSD hard drive, which is no doubt a big part of the $2,299 price (although it's not yet available for sale at the time of this review).

Price aside, the Vaio Z may be our new 13-inch laptop of choice, as it breezed by many other recent 13-inch systems we've tested, which all use older Intel CPUs (or slower low-voltage ones). The trade-off is in battery life, even with the system automatically changing power profiles as needed with its Dynamic Hybrid Graphics System (which is a fancy name for the integrated/discrete graphics switch).

Unfortunately, the Vaio Z116 priced out of range for most consumers, but if you get an opportunity to test-drive one, we highly recommend it.

Price as reviewed $2,299
Processor 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 M520
Memory 4GB, 1066MHz DDR3
Hard drive 256GB SSD
Chipset Intel HM55
Graphics Nvidia GeForce GT 330M / Intel GMA 4500MHD (switchable)
Operating System Windows 7 Professional (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 12.4 x 8.3 inches
Height 1.3 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 3.0/3.9 pounds
Category Thin and Light

Compared with the ubiquitous 13-inch MacBook Pro, the Sony Vaio Z is not quite as thin, but it's definitely lighter. Despite the full-power processor, its body feels more like a ULV system, which generally trade horsepower for size and energy efficiency. The chassis is a mix of brushed metal and magnesium, making for an end product that feels airy but sturdy at the same time.

That said, the design tilts a little industrial, with black keys against a silver finish, a two-tone base, a blocky raised wrist rest panel, and a bulky metal slider for the switchable graphics. It feels like it belongs in a '90s industrial art space/coffee house. It's not unpleasant to look at in any way, but our tastes have moved toward devices that emphasize unibody construction (or at least try to simulate that look).

Sony's typical raised-island-style keyboard is here, although in this 13-inch design the key faces feel just a little too small and too widely spaced for our fingers. Important keys such as Shift and Tab are generously sized and we found no major problems with the logic of the keyboard layout. We'd award bonus points for the backlit keys, always a feature we appreciate, but for $2,000 it had better be a standard feature. The Vaio Z's touch pad is likewise excellent, offering plenty of space and small, but effective, left and right mouse buttons separated by a fingerprint reader.

For years we've dinged Sony for its bloatware and adware-filled systems, but the company has toned its act down of late. The Vaio Z shoves only a handful of marketing come-ons at you, including one labeled "Secure your Vaio rewards," which in our case was an offer to buy a one-year license for Norton security and LoJack for laptops software for $99.

Three quick-launch buttons sit above the keyboard. One launches a built-in suite of Sony support resources and troubleshooting apps and easy access to tech support contact info. The second is user assignable, and the third launches Sony's Media Gallery software, which is a perfectly fine collection of media organizing and playback tools, but does require you to learn a new piece of software if you're already familiar with popular products such as iTunes or Windows Media Player.

Above the keyboard on the left side is a three-way switch that controls power profiles and principally turns the Nvidia GeForce 330 graphics on or off. The settings are labeled "speed" and "stamina," and it can be confusing as to what the switch actually does if you're not familiar with the concept of switchable graphics. There's also a third position, named "auto," that turns the GPU off when you unplug the laptop.

Of course, the entire point is largely moot, as Nvidia's new Optimus technology finally allows your laptop to turn its discrete GPU on and off on the fly, without making the screen blink off for a second, or requiring you to quit any apps. In our recent hands-on tests, it was completely seamless, and makes every other method for switching between graphics chips outdated. Though this model doesn't offer Nvidia Optimus technology, we don't see any reason it couldn't be included on a near-future refresh.

The 13.3-inch wide-screen LED display has a 1,600x900-pixel native resolution.That's what we'd expect in an upscale 13-inch laptop; less-expensive 13-inch systems often have 1,280x800-pixel or 1,366x768-pixel displays. The higher resolution makes it good for 720p video, and gives you plenty of desktop real estate.

  Sony Vaio VPCZ116GX/S Average for category [thin-and-light]
Video VGA-out, HDMI VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, single headphone/microphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader, Memory Stick reader 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion ExpressCard/34 ExpressCard/54
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

The Vaio Z116 has a standard set of ports and connections for a 13-inch laptop, although for $2,300, we'd expect a Blu-ray drive. Still, it's impressive the system manages to fit in an optical drive at all; it's a feature missing from HP's 13-inch Envy, Dell's 13-inch Adamo XPS, and even Toshiba's T-135.

We've seen a handful of laptops with Intel's Core i5 mainstream CPU, and so far have been very impressed with its performance. The Vaio Z116 is no exception, and the 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 M520 ran our multitasking test around twice as fast as the HP Envy 13 we reviewed back in September 2009, which had a 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SL9600. We checked HP's Web site to see if the Core i5 had been added as a configuration option for the Envy, but it hadn't.

Also rare in a 13-inch laptop are discrete graphics. In this case, turning on the switchable Nvidia GeForce GT 330M GPU gave us 57.2 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 at 1,440x900 pixels. This isn't a PC gaming powerhouse, but it can certainly handle any current game at middle-of-the-road resolutions and quality settings.