Who needs a desktop? Sony VAIO Z review

The computing industry has spent the last 20 years toiling constantly to bring portable computers toward an inevitable decrease in size and weight. It makes sense – nobody’s interested in carrying around a 5kg notebook when you could carry around a 1.5kg one instead.

If you wanted to go really thin and light with a vanishingly small computer you would have to compromise. You might not have a discrete graphics card or you might have to settle for a low-power CPU. Sony’s shoehorned those hot high-power components into a small and swanky notebook in the VAIO Z but it too has compromises.

The VAIO Z is a 13.1in widescreen notebook and measures in at 16.65mm thick. It’s manufactured from carbon fibre and aluminium and fully loaded including the battery it weighs in at a mere 1165g. The exterior design uses a new form Sony is calling its flat Hexa-shell design with sharp edges and acute angles which further add to the notebook’s sense of small.

Squeezed into this space is a full-cream Intel Core i7-2620M at 2.7GHz which bursts up to 3.4GHz when required. There’s Intel HD 3000 graphics provided by the chip when you’re out and about. It’s also packed with 8GB of memory but you’re unable to add more should you need it as it uses custom memory modules. Sony’s also made a curious decision on the unit’s storage with the VAIO Z offering 256GB of SSD consisting of two 128GB SSD drives running in RAID 0. It’s crazy fast but backing up your data becomes extremely important.

As there’s such limited room for the hardware Sony has gone the dock route and shipped a docking station to match the unit. The dock includes a Blu-ray drive more USB ports and IO options but importantly also packs in an AMD Radeon HD 6650M graphics card. When the unit is docked the 6650M takes up the graphics duties and you’re then rocking some decent firepower for video tasks and moderate gaming.

The dock is a slight dissapointment as I think Sony had an excellent opportunity to do away with a big annoyance of desktop users. The dock is around the size and shape of a paperback and is designed to sit flat on the desk or on its (long) side. IO ports and the Blu-ray slot are on the short thin edges of the dock so you still need to reach around the back to plug in USB devices video cables etc. which is always a pain. Why couldn’t these ports be somewhere more accessible?

The dock connects to the notebook via a thick data cable plugging into a USB port and a power cable to charge your notebook while you’re docked. It also takes time to disconnect the cable (you need to hit a button and wait for a light to change colour) as it needs to switch the graphics back to the notebook’s. It’s ever so slightly inelegant and while no doubt unavoidable from a technical perspective is not ideal.

There are three things about this notebook that impressed us the most. Its super-quick speed the high-end mobile processor and the premium user experience given by SSD drives. Its battery life was much better than we expected with around 5 hours of real usage before it gave up. There’s an extended battery that claims 13+ hours of battery life as well. Last but not least it looks great. It’s modern comfortable to use and feels like a premium product.

It’s not all golden – there are things we didn’t like so much. The dock was a bit of a misstep. It could have solved problems (like port location) and is a compromise in itself. If you want to use the graphics capability on the road you’re stuck carrying around an extra 600g of dock and two power supplies which make the combo as a whole a lot less portable. Waiting around to undock also irked us perhaps unreasonably considering it’s only a short delay. If you’re used to just closing the lid of your notebook and going then you’ll notice it.

Lastly there’s the price. At just under $4000 it’s a huge investment for a computer product considering you can get just as thin or thinner notebooks and Ultrabooks for around (and less than) half the price. They won’t have the performance of the unit when it’s docked but when it’s docked it doesn’t matter what size or how heavy a notebook is.

Available from Sony retailing for $3999.
APC rating: 8/10 (Highly Recommended)