Sony Vaio Z renders MacBook Air less cool

Sony's Vaio Z series may eclipse Apple in ultra-cool tech, but Sony's pricing is problematic. We won't know how problematic until Sony announces pricing in the U.S. and Apple announces its updated MacBook Air.

Brooke Crothers Former CNET contributor
Brooke Crothers writes about mobile computer systems, including laptops, tablets, smartphones: how they define the computing experience and the hardware that makes them tick. He has served as an editor at large at CNET News and a contributing reporter to The New York Times' Bits and Technology sections. His interest in things small began when living in Tokyo in a very small apartment for a very long time.
Brooke Crothers
3 min read

The Sony Vaio Z not only bests the Air on portability but--perish the thought--may be showing Apple a thing or two about ultrathin laptop design.

Sony's latest Z series, based on published specifications, easily beats the current MacBook Air on raw specs (not surprising since the current Air was released last year). But that's not all. Depending on how far Apple goes with the impending Air update, Sony may have just slipped past Apple in avant-garde design.

First, a quick comparison between the Z and Air (including some projected Air updates).

13.3-inch Vaio Z:

  • Chassis: 0.66 inches thick, 2.6 pounds, carbon fiber
  • Graphics: Internal Intel Sandy Bridge, external AMD 6650M GPU
  • Processor: Sandy Bridge Core i5, i7 standard voltage
  • Storage: solid-state drive only, up to 512GB
  • Connector: Light Peak, aka Thunderbolt, and USB 3.0 on dock
  • Broadband: option for wireless WAN (wide-area network)
  • Display: 13.3-inch, up to 1600x900 resolution
  • Battery: internal battery rated at 7 hours
  • OS: Windows 7
  • Price: As announced in Europe, standard configuration starts at over $3,000.

13.3-inch MacBook Air:

  • Chassis: 0.68 inches thick, 2.9 pounds, aluminum
  • Graphics: Internal Intel Sandy Bridge*
  • Processor: Sandy Bridge Core i series*
  • Storage: solid-state drive only
  • Connector: Thunderbolt*
  • Broadband: N/A
  • Display: 13.3-inch, up to 1440x900 resolution
  • Battery: internal battery rated at 7 hours
  • OS: OS X Lion*
  • Price: Standard configuration $1,299
*projected specification for future Sandy Bridge-based MacBook Air

Sony Vaio Z is slightly skinnier than the MacBook Air--so Sony specs say.
Sony Vaio Z is slightly skinnier than the MacBook Air--so Sony specs say. Sony

So, looking at a rough comparison of the two leading lights in the ultraportable world, let's concentrate on the Z as that's a known quantity.

Graphics: Sony is making a big statement about graphics horsepower in ultraportables, which don't have the space (or thermal design characteristics) for a high-end, fire-breathing graphics card. Which, these days, is one of the few performance features that separate an ultraportable from a larger laptop.

Can't fit high-octane graphics inside? Sony's answer is to put AMD 6660M graphics outside in a "media dock" (which includes an optical drive). That also provides a quick comeback for the inevitable qualifiers from reviewers about ultraportables being incapable of playing higher-resolution games.

Light Peak, aka, Thunderbolt: You say potato, uh, Thunderbolt, I say Light Peak. Lest we forget, Sony was listed on Intel's Web site as one of the early supporters of Light Peak. That said, Apple was first to market when it announced Thunderbolt-equipped MacBooks this year.

Whichever branding you choose, Thunderbolt/Light Peak provides up to 10 gigabits-per-second bandwidth in each direction. "A GPU requires lots of bandwidth which is why USB, especially 2.0, is not suitable for powerful external GPUs," wrote Anandtech. Interestingly, Sony's port combines USB with Light Peak, instead of the Mini DisplayPort-Thunderbolt combination on MacBooks. And can be used as a USB 3.0 port too.

Sandy Bridge processor: Sony is apparently using mainstream Sandy Bridge mobile processors, not the ultra-power-efficient variety of Intel chip used often in sub 0.8-inch designs. Configurations include the Core i5-2410M (2.3GHz), i5-2540M (2.6GHz), i7-2620M (2.7GHz). These "standard voltage" (35-watt) mobile processors are faster than the ultra-power-efficient "ULV" Sandy Bridge chips, rated at 17 watts.

How does Sony do it? One way is to squeeze in two fans, as this photo at Anandtech shows. Of course, strategically placed heat pipes help too, among other secrets Sony isn't revealing yet. Needless to say, it will be interesting to see what Apple has decided to do. In the past, Apple has gone with both standard and low-voltage Intel processors in the 13-inch MBA. The 2010 11-inch Air uses lower-voltage chips.

Material: The Z's carbon fiber versus the Air's aluminum. Apple has reportedly been eying carbon fiber for future devices, which indicates the material is certainly attractive to Apple and may allow Sony to build a lighter laptop than Apple (note that Sony has been using carbon fiber in laptops for a while).

Price: Ah, price. If Sony's pricing in Europe (the only pricing we have so far) is any indication, it is not competitive with the Air. At all. Of course, that's a decisive factor in any buying decision, so we'll see if Sony sticks with this rarified pricing strategy. Sony also has other models like the S series and former X series but neither of those are true MacBook Air competitors.

Updated on Wednesday at 3:20 p.m. PDT with new pricing information for Vaio Z.