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Sony VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C

  • Editors' rating
    7.7 Very good

Pros

  • Discrete and integrated graphics processing units
  • Fingerprint recognition
  • Camera for videoconferencing
  • 120GB hard drive
  • Support for HSDPA at up to 3.6Mbps

Cons

  • Somewhat flimsy screen protection
  • Short on ports and connectors
  • Expensive

A 'premium carbon fibre notebook for professionals', the VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C has everything you’d expect from Sony in terms of sleek design and careful attention to detail. The presence of a built-in camera, fingerprint recognition and HSDPA support mark it out as a serious notebook for business use. However, it's very expensive, and we are concerned about one aspect of the build quality.

Design

It's perfectly possible to carry the 1.69kg VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C to and from work and between meetings. Its desktop footprint measures 23.4cm by 31.5cm — dimensions that betray the fact that it has a wide-screen format; the system is 3.26cm tall at the back, tapering to 2.18cm at the front.

Sony is referring to the VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C as an 'ultraportable', and although its dimensions are on the large side, it's a very reasonable weight for the business traveller who has a capacious enough bag.

Sony also tells us that this system has one of the slimmest screens ever produced, and here we have an issue. The lid section is indeed thin, but its construction is also very flimsy. It's easily bent between two hands when the notebook is opened, and, more worryingly, with the lid closed there's a lot of play when pressure is applied. If you do intend to carry this notebook around, you'll need to have a case with plenty of padding.

We are also nonplussed that the system lacks a catch to hold the upper and lower sections together — another argument for a snug-fitting case with no potentially screen-damaging objects like pens or paper clips floating about.

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We can’t fault the general design, though: the carbon fire casing is a stylish combination of black and slate-grey, and the overall look is sleek and, well, businesslike.

The 13.3in. WXGA wide-screen display has a native resolution of 1,280 by 800 pixels and is as good as any we’ve seen. Sony’s 'X-black' LCD, while exceptionally clear and bright, is also particularly reflective, which can be a problem when you're working with a light source to the rear.

The keyboard has a wonderfully light feel to it. There is plenty of return under each key, and the keys themselves are large. A two-thirds-size row of function keys sits above the number row, and Sony has found room for a double-width, double-height Return key as well as a suite of four full-sized keys to provide the 'inverted -T’ cursor control keys. There are no half-sized keys, and we had no trouble getting used to the keyboard.

Above the keyboard is a small panel containing buttons and switches. The main power button is here, along with two sliders and two additional buttons. One slider turns Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on and off (unfortunately you can’t toggle these independently of each other), while the other switches between two power schemes labelled Stamina and Speed. With the slider set to Stamina the system uses the low-power integrated graphics on the Intel 945GM Express chipset; switching to Speed mode brings in the faster Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 discrete graphics processing unit (GPU).

This upper panel also has two buttons labelled S1 and S2. These can be programmed to perform a range of system functions such as hibernate, mute the sound, switch to an external display or run applications. Sony has made these very simple to configure: you just hold one of the buttons down to access the settings area for both.

The touchpad beneath at the base of the keyboard has a fingerprint sensor between the left and right mouse buttons. Above the screen is a 0.3-megapixel camera designed primarily for video calling. It's in a fixed position and therefore can only be used for face-to-face calls. We’d have preferred to see the camera mounted on a swivel mechanism, allowing it to be pointed away from the system if required.

Features

The VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C runs Windows Vista Business. On that front, it's worth noting that a wide screen is vital for anyone wishing to use Vista's Gadgets — the tools and utilities that sit in a sidebar down the right-hand edge of the screen. Even on the the VGN-SZ4XWN/C's 13.3in. screen, it's a challenge to have two application windows open and still keep the Gadgets sidebar visible.

The VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C runs on Intel’s Core 2 Duo T7200 processor running at 2.0GHz. This has 4MB of Level 2 cache and a 667MHz frontside bus. There is 2GB of DDR2 RAM, which is plenty for running Vista and the maximum the VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C can support.

Like the VAIO VGN-SZ2M that we reviewed last year, this notebook has two graphics chipsets. The idea is that switching between them — using the Stamina and Speed sliders mentioned above — allows you to maximise battery life or graphics power depending on the circumstances. For speed (but less battery life), there's Nvidia’s discrete GeForce Go 7400 GPU with a total available memory of 335MB. For stamina (but less graphics processing muscle), you can switch to the GMA 950 module that's integrated in Intel's 945GM Express chipset.

The 120GB hard drive spins at 5,400rpm and is shock protected. Fresh out of the box, it reported a shade over 82GB of free storage space. Bluetooth 2.0 and Wi-Fi are both built in, the latter courtesy of Intel’s PRO/Wireless 3945ABG adapter; 10/100 Ethernet is provided by a Marvell Yukon 88E8036 controller.

The VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C has supports HSDPA data communications up to a maximum speed of 3.6Mbps. This is in advance of anything currently available from UK operators, where 1.8Mbps is the maximum speed available — and this not from every operator. HSDPA support is delivered not by an integrated adapter but via an ExpressCard into which you slot your SIM card. It's a solution that allows a SIM to be transferred from mobile phone to notebook, but it does mean that the ExpressCard has to be carried as a separate item.

Sony provides a second ExpressCard device — an adapter for reading Memory Stick standard and Pro, SD, MMC and xD flash drives. A second flash card reader, this time compatible only with Memory Stick Duo and Pro Duo is on the left side of the notebook. The left-hand side is also home to a Type II PC Card slot, a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port, a VGA connector for an external monitor and, at the very back, headphone and microphone ports.

There are only two USB 2.0 ports on this notebook, on the right-hand side. As is often the case, these ports are close together, and depending on the connector size of your peripherals, you may find it difficult to use more than one at a time. The right-hand side also has a covered slot protecting the RJ-11 modem and RJ-45 Ethernet connectors at the back and an optical drive — a double layer DVD rewriter — at the front.

Performance & battery life

Sony suggests that this system's Li-ion battery should keep it going for 270 minutes (4.5 hours) in its Stamina mode using the integrated graphics, and a 200 minutes (3.5h) in Speed mode using the discrete Nvidia GPU. Unfortunately we were unable to test either battery life or performance as the industry-standard Vista-compatible benchmarks MobileMark 2007 and SysMark 2007 are not yet available in their final form. However, in our experience, Sony's battery life claims are not unreasonable, and the system performs perfectly well when carrying out mainstream business tasks — obviously somewhat quicker and with less battery longevity if you run in Nvidia-powered Speed mode.

Service & support

Sony's support offering includes online information on drivers and updates, manuals, specifications, memory upgrades, backup and restore, and accessories. You can contact the company via email, fax or phone, with telephone support available at National Rate for in-warranty products and at 35p a minute if your notebook is out of warranty.

Conclusion

It's good to see a camera integrated into this notebook, but slightly annoying that it lacks a swivel mechanism. We like the overall design, but have concerns about the flimsy feel to the outside front, and therefore about the level of protection given to the display. We would also have liked to have seen a wider range of external connectors — in particular more USB ports spread around the casing.

Although the VAIO VGN-SZ4XWN/C commands a premium price (£1,531 ex. VAT), we feel that despite Windows Vista, dual graphics subsystems, integrated HSDPA, a fingerprint scanner and a 120GB hard drive, it lacks one or two finishing touches that would make it a must-have purchase for business users with the budget to match.

 

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