Sony's Z line is at top of the line and luxurious end of the Vaio notebook range. When you consider that Sony generally pitches its laptops as being premium machines anyway, it means the Vaio Z should be something special.
The model of the Vaio Z submitted to us for testing certainly was. It was the deluxe gold finish model, which is currently only available in Sony Centre stores and online from Sony's website. It's a damn fine-looking notebook if seriously blinged out is your thing, and a gaudy eyesore if it's not. We like it, but you may not, and in any case the gold finish (it's not real gold) doesn't cost any extra over the regular colour scheme.
The dimensions of the Vaio Z is where things get really clever. Plenty of notebooks we've tested can lay claim to being really thin — recent examples include the MacBook Air and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 — but the Vaio Z isn't just thin; it's thin all over. There's no "minimum" thickness to the Vaio Z, which measures 16.65mm at the front and the back. It's uniformly thin, in other words, and this makes it appear slender rather than bulgy. It's also extremely light. For those who live for MacBook Air comparisons (whether on the pro or anti side), the Vaio Z tips the scales slightly lighter than the Air at 1.165kg, making it very easy to carry around in its portable configuration mode.
The Vaio Z comes with what Sony calls the "Power Media Dock", something that on first glance you might just mistake for an external Blu-ray drive. To be fair, it is indeed an external Blu-ray drive, but that's not all it can do. Connecting up via Light Peak, it also houses an external GPU for additional graphics grunt when connected. The basic idea is that you'll use the simple portable mode of the Vaio Z, along with its smaller charger when you're on the road, and then dock at your desk with the Power Media Dock and its larger charger instead.
One design note we can't let pass — and it might be unique to our review sample, but in this lawyer-happy world, we suspect not — is the warning label on the base of the Vaio Z. Flip this laptop over, and you'll find a yellow warning sticker that reads "Do not leave your computer in contact with your body for an extended period of time. The temperature of the base of the computer and air vent may increase and could result in discomfort or burns."
Call us naive, but isn't the point of a laptop to put the device on your lap without risking flesh burns?
It could be that the warning is there because this is, in specification terms, a pretty hot little number. It all runs from an Intel Core i7 2620M 2.7GHz processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. The 13.1-inch display screen has a matte finish, meaning no glare, but more critically it's got a top resolution of 1920x1080, making it truly Full HD compatible. On the one hand, Full HD on a 13-inch screen is overkill, and it does mean the default Windows icons are on the small side. Then again, if you're going to go all out on a notebook, why not really go all out?
On the graphics side, the Vaio Z's internal graphics are limited to only Intel's HD Graphics solution, but when connected up to the Power Media Dock it picks up the power of the 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6650M processor. That's not the absolute high end that could have been bundled in with such a unit, but it does provide a noticeable performance bump for those who love flashy graphics.
In day-to-day performance the Vaio Z is swift and responsive, with a good keyboard and a decent but not great trackpad. We've got to bring attention to the Vaio Z's speakers. Sadly, it's not because they're great; it's because for a notebook that sells for just short of four grand, they're really quite bad. We expect a little distortion at top volume on a notebook, but even at lower volumes the speakers don't sound good. Given it's fair to assume that with a Blu-ray dock in tow some folks are going to want to watch high-definition movies on the Vaio Z, this is a serious oversight.
We benchmarked the Vaio Z twice; once with the Power Dock connected, and once without, to get a feel for what should be on the road performance as well as desk-based performance. Without the dock, it registered very respectable scores of 12,091 in PCMark05 and 4564 in 3DMark06. With the dock installed, 3DMark06 predictably improved to a decent 7960, but oddly PCMark05 dropped slightly to 11,052. Our only guess there is that shifting some of the graphics capabilities over to the dock drops the throughput ever so marginally, even given the Light Peak connection. In any case, for a notebook this thin, those are still very solid scores that point to a system that can churn serious numbers quite quickly.
Sony's claims for the Vaio Z's battery life are, it's got to be said, pretty hyperbolic. Up to 14 hours is claimed on a single charge, but there's a big catch there — or at least a big, flat catch. The Vaio Z uses an optional slim sheet battery that docks onto the bottom of the Vaio Z to add eight claimed hours onto the Vaio Z's claimed internal seven-hour battery life.
Sony didn't supply us with the bolt-on battery, so we can't talk about its additional battery juice, but we did run our normal test past the Vaio Z's internal battery, disabling the battery-saving features, pumping the screen brightness up to maximum and running a full-screen video file until the Vaio Z took its last breath. This gives us an "at least" figure; you should get more, but it's a good way to undercut the hype of "up to" figures. In the Vaio Z's case, Sony claims "up to" seven hours, but we managed to run the Vaio Z flat in three hours and eight minutes.
It's not a bad figure, and our test is deliberately brutal, but it's worth noting that other SSD-based notebooks we've tested recently, such as Dell's Latitude E6220 and Apple's MacBook Air 13-inch have managed better battery life figures. We tested without the Power Dock attached — we honestly can't see too many situations where you'd be comfortable setting up the Power Dock and not have access to power as well — but it's a fair bet to say that adding another GPU and Blu-ray drive to the system wouldn't have a positive effect on battery life.
At AU$3999 the Vaio Z is the very definition of a premium-priced system. It's also a performance machine, and an attractive one at that. We're left befuddled by why Sony let it out the door with such poor speakers, but otherwise it's a great laptop — although one you'll clearly have to pay top dollar to acquire. We've seen similar performance from machines that are considerably cheaper than the Vaio Z, and that's perhaps its biggest drawback; you could buy a number of laptops for the price of just one Vaio Z.