Beautifully designed and reassuringly robust, the 1.5kg VAIO Z11 marries a decent-sized 13.1-inch screen with good portability. It's not flawless, but if you can afford it, you won't be disappointed.
Sony is not shy about charging premium prices for its notebooks and the AU$3700 cost of the ultraportable VAIO VGN-Z11WN/B is pretty eye-watering. To justify this level of expense, the notebook needs to be truly superb. It is.
The Sony VAIO Z17 has a carbon fibre casing, which makes for a light yet strong chassis. It's an ultraportable weighing just 1.5kg, and so is eminently portable. However, there's no clasp to hold the upper and lower sections together in transit: to be safe, you should use a carrying pouch or ensure the machine has its own pocket in your travel bag.
The Sony VAIO Z17 measures 31.4cm wide by 21cm deep by 2.45-3.3cm high. This rather large footprint (for an ultraportable) is due to the display.
This notebook's screen simply bowls us over. It's a 13.1in. unit with LED backlighting and Sony's X-black image-enhancing technology. The screen's surface is semi-reflective, which we find far preferable to the over-reflective screens on some other notebooks.
Even more acceptable is the 1,600-by-900-pixel native resolution. This wide-screen 16:9 aspect ratio makes it no problem at all to work with two document windows open side by side.
Ultraportables need to balance the trade-off between portability and screen size. We think Sony has got it just right with this notebook.
The VAIO Z11WN/B shares some key design elements with its recent stablemates, including the cylindrical hinge, one end of which houses the on/off switch and the other the power input. The hinge gives the system a distinctive look, and when the notebook is powered up the on/off switch area is nicely backlit.
Another design element shared with other VAIOs is the Apple-like keyboard. These protrude from a backplate made from a single sheet of aluminium that runs down the wrist rest and into the front of the casing. This forms what Sony calls an 'isolation keyboard'. The keys are well spaced — indeed touch typists with smaller hands may find they are a little too far apart. The keys give good feedback and feel well built.
The wrist-rest area houses a large touchpad. Although it takes almost two full sweeps to move the cursor right across the screen, we like the wide-aspect touchpad. It has vertical and horizontal scrolling built into the bottom and right edges, and underneath there's a pair of wide mouse buttons flanking a fingerprint scanner.
To the right, above the row of two-thirds-height function keys, is an eject button for the optical drive caddy. It's unusual to find a physical button for this task, and we're not sure why Sony bothered with it — particularly as there's a button on the caddy itself.
Above the function-key row to the left are buttons marked S1 and S2. These can be configured to launch applications of your choice. By default, one switches between display types (normal, mirror, extended desktop), while the other opens up a VAIO Guide that walks you through using the notebook.
There are several Z-series models, including one with a 128GB solid-state hard drive. Sony's configuration service means you can further configure some of the models, altering their hard drive size and other components should you choose.
Our review sample had a 2.53GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P9500 processor and the maximum 4GB of RAM installed. The operating system is Windows Vista Business with Service Pack 1, but the box includes an install CD for Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2 should you wish to downgrade.
The graphics subsystem is a dual-mode affair comprising a discrete Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS GPU with 256MB of dedicated video memory and the integrated GMA 4500MHD module in the Intel GM45 Express chipset. A slider button on the keyboard area lets you switch between 'stamina' (integrated) and 'speed' (discrete) modes depending on whether you need to conserve battery life or maximise graphics performance respectively.
As befits and ultraportable aimed at mobile professionals, communications features are exemplary. Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g and Draft-N) and Bluetooth (2.0+EDR) are present, as expected, along with Gigabit Ethernet and a V.92 modem.
Above the display, built into the bezel, is a 0.3-megapixel (640-by-480-pixel) webcam that's suitable for video conferencing. Unfortunately, this is a fixed-position camera rather than a more convenient swivel-mounted unit. Still, the bundled ArcSoft WebCam companion software helps you capture stills and video, and includes motion detection. The automatic brightness adjustment is reasonably good too.
Our review sample's hard drive was a 320GB with a rotation speed of 5400rpm. 'G-Sensor' shock protection helps to prevent hard disk damage when the system is being used on the move. The optical drive is a slimline multi-format DVD rewriter.
Ports and connectors are ranged around three sides. The front carries a hardware switch for Wi-Fi connectivity (there's also an on-screen controller for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet and modem) and stacked flash card readers for Memory Stick and SD-compatible formats. These are a little hard to reach as they are located beneath a protruding lip on the chassis. We found we had to raise the front of the system off the desk to locate the required slot accurately.
The left side houses microphone and headphones jacks, a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port and a single USB 2.0 connector. Next to this, under a protective cover, is the modem (RJ-11) connector and behind this an ExpressCard slot. Right at the back, again behind a protective cover, is the Ethernet (RJ-45) port.
On the right side, behind the optical drive caddy, are an HDMI port, a second USB 2.0 port, and a VGA-out port. The VAIO Z11WN/B supports external monitors at up to 1,920 by 1,200 resolution.
Performance & battery life
Because the VAIO Z11WN/B supports 'stamina' (integrated graphics) and 'speed' (discrete graphics) modes, we ran the Windows Experience Index (WEI) twice. In both modes Processor (calculations per second) and Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate) scored 5.3, while RAM (Memory operations per second) scored 5.9 — all WEI scores are out of 5.9.
In 'speed' mode, Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) scored 5.1 and Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero) 4.4. In 'stamina' mode, Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) dropped to 3.8 and Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero) to 4.1. Overall, performance — especially in 'speed' mode — is excellent.
Sony rates the system's Li-ion battery at 270 minutes (4.5 hours) in 'speed' mode and 325 minutes (5.4h) in 'stamina' mode. We ran two anecdotal battery tests, in each case asking the notebook to play a DVD movie continuously from a full battery charge under the VAIO Optimized power scheme.
In 'stamina' mode we got just under 2.5 hours, while in 'speed' mode the system managed just over 2 hours.
Although these are reasonable battery life figures, you're not going to get a day's work (8 hours) done on battery power, especially if you're a heavy user of Wi-Fi when on the move. Many mobile professionals will therefore need to consider buying the optional extended battery, which costs an extra AU$279.
This notebook is beautifully designed and also reassuringly robust. It marries a decent-sized 13.1in. screen with good portability.
There are some downsides, including a meagre two USB ports. It's also packed with software, much of it eminently removable: out of the box the VAIO Z11WN/B has shortcuts to eBay, My Club VAIO and Google search on its desktop plus a whole host of preinstalled software, including Skype, Picasa2, Roxio Easy Media Creator, Google Earth, Google Talk and more. We'd really appreciate it if Sony offered all this on a CD, to be installed as required.
Despite these niggles, this is a superb ultraportable computer. If you can afford it, you won't be disappointed.