Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sony VAIO SZ2 Review

Submitted by swisstoni

Background

The VAIO SZ is Sony's latest thin and light range of notebooks, available in a range of specifications all with dual Intel / nVidia graphics and Intel dual core processors.



Sony VAIO SZ2 (view large image)

I opted for the flagship SZ2VP model with the following specifications:
Intel Core Duo T2600 -- @ 2.16Ghz per core
1GB DDR2 RAM
120Gb 54000RPM hard drive
13.3" LCD with LED backlight, running at 1280 x 800 resolution
Dual Layer DVD +/- RW optical drive
Switchable Intel GMA 950/nVidia GeForce 7400 graphics
Being the limited edition prestige' model, this was only available to purchase through Sony Centres or Sony Style online. After a visit to my local Sony Centre and being told a very vague "we might be able to get one for mid September" I decided to pursue the online method!

Build and Design

Sony VAIO SZ2 setup (view large image)


My first thoughts on unpacking the SZ were "wow...it's small!" This is my first laptop, yet with the top level VP' only weighing in at 1.69 kilos (3.7 lbs) I was very pleased with the size and weight of the unit.

(view large image)

The VP features a carbon fibre top casing, yet there is much discussion as to how much carbon fibre is actually present in the laptop! The casing does not feature the weave' you would expect from this material, yet it still provides an interesting effect and also contains blue metallic particles visible in certain light conditions.

The palm rest and keypad area have a brushed aluminium finish which makes a great change from the plastic of many other machines and gives great aesthetic appeal.

There are a total of 5 switches located above the keyboard; two shortcut switches, a wireless on/off switch, power button and the graphics switch. It's a shame you can't turn off wifi/Bluetooth independently with hardware switches but it is easily done from the software utility.



VAIO SZ2 right side view (view large image)
VAIO SZ2 left side view (view large image)
VAIO SZ2 front side view (view large image)
VAIO SZ2 back side view (view large image)
Screen
The LCD features LED backlight technology, which gives a very thin screen and lid -- only around 5/6mm thick. Whilst helping to reduce weight and giving a great look to the product, it does make the LCD seem slightly fragile with a little amount of twist (though probably not as much as you'd expect from something this thin).
The 1280 x 800 resolution works excellently on the 13.3" screen. Not having perfect eyesight, I was concerned about a high resolution on a smaller screen but I find it a pleasure to use with absolutely no problems.
It features Sony's X-Black technology, which gives the typical glossy effect to the screen. Not having a massive range of experience with various manufacturers, I can't really compare it to others, yet suffice to say it also seems to feature some kind of anti glare coating which is hard to describe but it seems to reduce the visible reflections from objects behind you. I am also impressed with the very large viewing angle on the screen, far more so than any other LCD's I've used.
The brightness on the screen is excellent and I find myself turning it down from the highest setting when indoors and only using the brightest setting when outside, which still gives a decent picture.
Features and Performance
I'm not a gamer yet I tend to run multiple applications at the same time, particularly resource hogs like Photoshop. The Core Duo seems to live up to the task very well though I can't say it's any faster compared to my desktop running an Athlon XP at 2.17Ghz with the same 1GB of RAM and a lowly graphics card.
The dual graphics are a fantastic feature and allow you to switch between the integrated Intel GMA 950 chipset, or the dedicated nVidia GeForce 7400 with 128mb dedicated memory. Use the Intel while running office applications to conserve battery life, or the nVidia for more extreme use. A restart is required to flick between the two chips, which is a bit of an annoyance yet it is still an excellent innovation and something I haven't come across in any other laptops.
The fingerprint reader is located between the two touchpad buttons and although I considered it a toy in the pre-purchase stage, I now consider it a godsend! It can be used for logging onto Windows, launching applications (assign an app. to each finger) or entering passwords into web windows. It does the job very well and recognises my fingers first go around 95% of the time. To check security I asked a co-worker to try and logon to my system but they were denied access even after 5 minutes of trying! While I'm sure it's not that secure, it is certainly a viable alternative to entering hundreds of passwords.
The optical drive provides pretty much every kind of functionality I could ever dream of with dual layer DVD +/- rewrite ability. My only gripe would be that the disc tray seems a little fragile, yet for the amount I use the drive this is only a minor concern. I suspect this is due to the thin form factor of the laptop.
Expresscard 34 and a PCMCIA slots both feature on the laptop, yet the Expresscard is filled with Sony's included card reader which seems to cope with all the main formats such as SD and MMC. A built-in Sony memory stick duo reader takes care of their own format, but it's a shame they shun the popular SD format to a separate reader in favour of their own cards.
Included media card reader in the ExpressCard slot (view large image)
It also seems Sony were a bit tight on room by only including two USB 2 ports, which although is adequate for myself, I'd have preferred to have seen more.
There's VGA out but no composite video for outputting to a TV, which I consider a major downside on a laptop costing £1800 ($3,000)! Also, my VGA to TV converter doesn't work on this laptop like it did on my Mac Mini meaning it will be difficult to output the image to a standard TV screen.
Heat and Noise
The laptop seems exceptionally quiet, and the fan noise is almost inaudible in anything other than total silence. I've yet to hear the fans totally shut down, but this may be because I primarily use the nVidia graphics. Shortcut button 2 is pre-set to drop fan noise and CPU clock, yet whenever I've used it the difference has been minimal.
The optical drive is far from quiet when in use and during start-up, yet again as I use it so little this is not a problem for myself.
It seems to produce a fair amount of heat when using the nVidia graphics, though no more than I'd expect from a performance orientated machine with dedicated graphics and it never gets annoyingly hot, just quite warm. Again this is something I can live with. Using the Intel graphics allows the laptop to run very cool and quiet.
Keyboard and Touchpad
(view large image)
After reading various forum reports of problems with the spacebar and keyboard in general on the SZ I was very sceptical. However after using it for a few weeks it seems to have none of these problems. I neither greatly like or dislike the keypad and assume it's something I'll grow to like over time but at the moment I'm still adjusting from my full sized Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard.
The key travel seems about right and it seems relatively quiet in operation. Being a touch typist, I still occasionally hit the wrong key but again, I'm sure this is something I will adjust to over time.
The touchpad has a slightly rough texture to it which works well, and it is easily configurable from within windows for scrolling and tapping speed, etc. Another neat feature is the ability to use the top left corner to maximise, minimise or close windows. Perhaps this is common to other laptops too, but I was still impressed by this simple feature. I later discovered, however, that I kept inadvertently tapping the top left corner while typing and this led to me closing the window I was working in! So this corner functionality has now been disabled; a shame really.
Speakers
I was all set to purchase a cheap pair of speakers to supplement my laptop, yet I think I'll leave this for a while now given the quality of the built in speakers. Peering through the grille results in what looks like a pair of tiny (half-inch) diameter drivers which result in an exceptionally clear and loud sound. Of course, there's no bass but I really wouldn't have been disappointed had the speakers had JBL or similar logos on!
External audio is provided through a 3.5mm line out socket, though the output seems very quiet when using this into my amplified external speakers. There is also a massive amount of hiss/feedback that appears only when the AC power cord is plugged in. If someone uses the external audio a lot then this will prove annoying and the Sony representative I spoke to did not have any idea what it could be. SPDIF optical output would have been nice, especially as this one of the most expensive laptops on the market today!
Battery
Doing everyday tasks as I have been for the past weeks, using the nVidia graphics and wireless and Bluetooth on I reliably get just under three hours battery life. This is using a high/mid LCD brightness setting. I expect 4+ hours easily using the Intel graphics with wireless switched off. Sony offer an extended life battery, but it is far too expensive at around £240 and increases the size and weight of the laptop considerably (see the notebook review forums).
Bundled Software
This is by far and away the laptops worst feature. The amount of bundled useless software was unbelievable and performance out of the box was far below my expectations. Sony make it reasonably difficult to do a clean install, by not providing a separate windows CD (or any CD's... for that matter) in the box. They include a hidden recovery partition on the hard drive and there is an option to create your own recovery discs. The problem with recovery is that it would reinstall all the bundled nonsense!
I have a separate standalone copy of XP pro so I installed this on the laptop with no problems, using the drivers available to download from Sony's website. Though there are many forum posts relating to this issue, I had a problem free clean install and everything works perfectly.
Benchmarks:
Super Pi calculated to 2 million:
Notebook
Time
Sony VAIO SZ2 (2.16GHz Core Duo)
1m 14s
Asus W3H760DD (2.0 GHz Pentium M)
1m 33s
Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo)
1m 16s
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)
1m 18s
Toshiba Satellite M100 (2.00GHz Core Duo)
1m 18s
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo)
1m 29s
Dell XPS M140 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
1m 41s
Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
1m 53s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
1m 45s

3DMark05:
Notebook Comparison
3DMark05 Score
Sony VAIO SZ2 (2.16GHz Core Duo, nVidia GeForce 7400)
1,851
ASUS W3V (2.0 GHz Pentium M, ATI X600
1,263
Lenovo ThinkPad Z60m (2.0GHz Pentium M, ATI X600 128MB)
1,659
ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)
727
Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)
2,530
HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)
2,536
Toshiba Satellite M100 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)
1,660

HD Tune:
(view large image)
Conclusion
I am very pleased with the SZ2VP. Is it a performance machine...is it a thin and light...is it a desktop replacement? It combines extreme performance in an exceptionally lightweight package. I was after a super-fast notebook to take to university and the weight saving is a fantastic plus.
Spending an afternoon reformatting isn't much work for the machine you have at the end, but it shouldn't be a required step.
Pros:
High speed -- T2600 dual core runs at 2.16 GHz
Battery life -- Expected around 4 hours with no wireless and Intel graphics
Lightweight -- only 1.69kg (3.7lbs)
Overall design -- the use of aluminium and carbon fibre make it stand out as something a bit special.
Cons
Terrible pre-installed software -- It shouldn't be there!
Lack of independent wireless switches
No TV out -- For £1800 ($3,000), it really needs this basic feature!
Lack of SPDIF -- Again, for £1800 it would be nice.
Shortage of USB ports

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