In a laptop universe filled with $300 Netbooks and $600 dual-core midsize systems, an actual high-end product is rare indeed. Apple’s MacBook Pro and HP’s Envy laptops are considered high-end, but generally run between $1,000 and $1,500. In an entirely different category altogether (a different universe, even) is Sony’s Vaio Z128GX, which runs a whopping $3,339. Of course, that’s for our tricked-out review unit, which includes a very expensive 512GB solid-state hard drive, which could easily fetch $1,500 or more on its own.
Other high-end features include a Verizon 3G connection (with a handy app for easily using it to create a Wi-Fi hot spot for your other gadgets), an Nvidia GeForce 300 GPU, and a higher-than-normal 1,600×900-pixel resolution for the 13-inch display.
Although this is Sony’s premium 13-inch laptop, there are versions of the Vaio Z that don’t cost quite as much. For a still-pricey $1,919, you can get a configuration with a smaller 128GB SSD, or you can add even more-expensive options, including a 1,920×1,080-pixel display or a Blu-ray player, driving the price as far up as $4,700.
Though this is an ultrapremium laptop with excellent design and construction, we’re annoyed by Sony’s non-Optimus graphics switching, which uses a manual switch, and is not as seamless as you’d expect for the price.
The slim chassis is a mix of brushed metal and magnesium, making for an end product that feels light but sturdy at the same time. Just as importantly, it feels like a plastic-free high-end product (although for these prices, we’d certainly hope so). The last Vaio Z we looked at had black keys against a silver finish, which didn’t look nearly as slick as this all-dark model.
Sony’s typical raised-island-style keyboard is excellent, although the actual key faces are on the small side. Important keys such as Shift and Tab are nice and big, and we found no major problems with the keyboard layout. The backlit keys are a helpful feature, but we’ve come to expect it as standard in laptops over $1,000. 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.
Above the keyboard on the left side is a three-way switch that turns the Nvidia GeForce 330 graphics on or off. Unfortunately, in the half-year since we saw our last Sony Vaio Z (which had a similar switch), Nvidia’s Optimus technology has taken over, even in budget systems. Optimus works behind the scenes to automatically turn the discrete GPU off and on as needed, completely invisible to the end user. It generally works great, and it’s a major knock that this Vaio doesn’t include it.
The settings on the physical switch itself 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, “auto,” that turns the GPU off when you unplug the laptop. Using the switch can force you to quit programs, and makes the screen flick off, which are all problems Nvidia’s Optimus avoids.
Three quick-launch buttons sit above the keyboard to the right. 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, a collection of media organizing and playback tools.
The 13.3-inch wide-screen LED display has a 1,600×900-pixel native resolution. Most 13-inch systems have 1,366×768-pixel displays, but you can configure the Vaio Z with an even higher 1,920×1080-pixel screen, although at that level, text might be hard to read on the 13-inch display.
The Vaio Z has the standard set of ports and connections for a 13-inch laptop, although for $3,000, we’d expect a Blu-ray drive (it’s an available add-on, however). We’re more excited about the built-in Verizon mobile broadband. It’s a common enough feature, but Sony’s SmartWi Connection Utility includes a very handy button for taking that 3G signal and sharing it as a mobile hot spot, similar to how a MiFi device works. You can actually do this with pretty much any laptop, but it requires some under-the-hood setup, and it doesn’t always work properly.
The 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 M520 CPU in this system is typical of the high-end of mainstream components, and it performed on par with other Intel Core i5 laptops, which is to say it’s more than powerful enough for all but the most demanding applications. We ran into no slowdown or stuttering, even when working on multiple projects at once, which is in part because of the included 8GB of RAM.
With the Nvidia GeForce 330 GPU engaged, we got 57.3 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 running at 1,440×900 pixels. This is a respectable midrange gaming laptop, but not for hard-core PC gamers. Still, it should be able to handle all current games, even if you have to turn the detail or resolution down a bit.