- Solidly built yet reasonably lightweight
- dual-mode graphics subsystem (integrated and discrete)
- good array of bundled software
- Only two USB 2.0 ports
- keyboard may not suit faster touch typists
- lacks Bluetooth
Sony’s SZ series of VAIO notebooks is designed to bring power computing to a reasonably compact and lightweight (sub-2kg) design. The original SZ1 series has been updated with SZ2 systems, all of which sport 1GB of SDRAM as standard. There are versions with built-in fingerprint recognition and a camera above the screen for video conferencing, and both of these features can be found in the £1,361 (ex. VAT) VGN-SZ2XP model. The system supplied to us for review is more basic, and although it's still suitable for many business users, it does come with Windows XP Home rather than Professional.
Many notebooks have a wedge-shaped chassis (thicker at the back than at the front), but this design feature seems particularly pronounced in the Sony VAIO VGN-SZ2M. The outer casing is black, with a lid section that's unusually rough to the touch; this sandwiches a silver flash which, when you open the clamshell, extends to the keyboard surround. There is no latch between the clamshell sections: objects in a bag could easily prise the two sections apart, so be prepared to invest in a carry case for added protection.
The VAIO VGN-SZ2M's 31.5cm by 23.4cm footprint is a shade larger than a sheet of A4 paper, which rules out true 'ultraportable' status: however, its 1.85kg weight makes it entirely feasible to carry this notebook around regularly. Higher-end models in the VGN-SZ2 range reduce the weight further to 1.69kg.
A key benefit of the VAIO VGN-SZ2M’s size is that it can accommodate a 13.3in. screen, which has a native resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels. The 'X-Black' LCD is pin-sharp -- although, as ever, we find the screen a little too reflective for our tastes.
The keyboard also benefits from the larger chassis: the keys are large and feel less cramped than they can do on true ultraportables. The row of function keys is full width and two-thirds height. However, the keys travel down rather a long way when pressed, which may slow down competent touch typists.
The large touchpad is indented into the wrist-rest, with its left and right mouse buttons slightly raised. Between them, on some models, sits a fingerprint sensor. Hold a finger down on the right edge of the touchpad and you can scroll vertically through documents; you do the same along the bottom horizontal edge for horizontal scrolling.
Beneath the screen, centrally placed on a strip that houses the stereo speakers, is a bay of buttons and switches. One of these is the power button, while the remaining two buttons -- labelled S1 and S2 -- can be programmed to perform a range of different functions such as launching applications, forcing hibernation, changing the screen brightness and muting the audio. Many of these are duplicated as function key combinations, but others are not. There are two switches in this strip: one turns wireless networking on and off, while the other allows you to choose between two performance modes -- Stamina and Graphics.
Unusually, the SZ-series VAIOs feature both integrated (Intel 945GM/GMA950) and discrete (NVidia GeForce Go 7400) graphics processors. The default Stamina mode (integrated graphics) uses less power, while Graphics mode (discrete graphics) delivers better performance. By switching to Graphics mode only when high-end graphics processing is needed, you should be able to get the best of both worlds. You slide the switch to start the changeover, and then reboot to effect it. Lights at either side of the switch provide remind you which mode you're currently in.
The VAIO VGN-SZ2M has a decent collection of ports and connectors, although it falls short of perfection. The front edge is clear, while the left side has a single Type II PC Card slot, a FireWire (IEEE 1394) connector, an external monitor port, and -- located awkwardly towards the back -- headphone and microphone connectors. The left edge also houses a Memory Stick reader; if you need to read other memory card formats, the ExpressCard slot on the right-hand side can be used in conjunction with a Sony-provided adapter for MultiMedia, SD and xD cards (as well as Memory Sticks).
Also on the right edge are two USB 2.0 ports, modem (RJ-11) and Ethernet (RJ-45) connectors covered by a protective hinged cap, and the optical drive -- a double-layer DVD+/- RW drive. The back edge is free of connectors, as it houses the removable Li-ion battery.
The VAIO VGN-SZ2 range uses Intel's Core Duo processors -- the 1.66GHz T2300 in our review system, but also the 2GHz T2500 and 2.16GHz T2600 in other models. All notebooks in the range come with a generous 1GB of RAM as standard, expandable to a maximum of 2GB. For storage, our review system had an 80GB Serial ATA hard drive spinning at 5,400rpm; elsewhere in the range, the maximum capacity is 120GB.
Wireless networking is catered for by Intel’s PRO/Wireless 3945ABG adaptor for 802.11a, b and g connections, while wired Ethernet is handled by the Marvell Yukon 88E8036 controller. There is no Bluetooth support, which may put off some potential buyers.
Sony bundles a wide range of software with the VAIO VGN-SZ2M. As well as its own utilities and tools, you get Microsoft Works 8.0, Adobe Acrobat Elements 7, Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, Adobe Premier Elements 2.0, CD and DVD creation tools from Roxio, Norton Intenet Security 2006, VAIO recovery, various free Google’s applications including Picasa, and Skype. Trial versions of Microsoft Office 2003 and Norton Ghost are also included.
Performance & battery life
The VAIO VGN-SZ2M is built around the 1.66GHz Core Duo T2300 processor, and has a healthy 1GB of RAM plus a fast 5,400rpm hard drive: in the default Stamina mode, using Intel's integrated graphics, the system scored a respectable 205 under the MobileMark 2002 test. Battery life didn't get close to Sony's claimed six hours, but 3 hours 46 minutes is not unreasonable.
The VAIO VGN-SZ2M is an entry-level model in the SZ2 range, and its software bundle leans more than a little towards the consumer end of the market. But it's reasonably compact and lightweight, and it delivers enough performance to run mainstream business applications comfortably. Even so, business users would do better to consider one of the higher-end models in the SZ2 range that comes with Windows XP Professional.