So I’ve been hooked on laptops since 1996, when I got my first Toshiba Tecra. It weighed about 15 pounds and was a total desktop replacement (meaning it had about all the power of a desktop PC, and virtually all the weight as well), which was perfect for my needs. I went through two more Tecras over the years, then somehow managed to migrate through an HP, a Gateway (it wasn’t bad, really!), and settled on a Dell Latitude for a few years until it died (a bit young in my opinion). I set out to replace it, and settled on the Sony Vaio VGN-SZ160P. It’s been a few months, and I like it quite a bit. Cutting to the chase: if you can afford it, it’s probably one of the best laptops on the market at present. Read on if you want to know the details of why I think so.
I am very happy with the performance. It’s a zippy dual-core Centrino laptop, and easily outperforms my last one, which sported a Pentium-M chip (The good kind that came out 2 years ago, not the crappy one from 3-4 years back. Thanks for the clever naming there, Intel). I am a constant multi-tasker, and at present have 4 IE browser windows open, Windows explorer, Outlook 2003, Outlook Express, AIM, Flickr, MSN Messenger, Word 2003, and Photoshop CS. I can swap between them with ease (unless of course Outlook is synchronizing, in which case it absolutely brings this, and all other, PC to its knees), and rarely notice any delay in launching applications.
The battery life is so-so. I’m bringing this up early in the review, because I am really not happy with the battery. I was expecting 4-5 hours out of the standard battery, but can’t beat 3ish hours in the most aggressive battery saving mode. I ended up getting an additional extended life battery that lasts about 5 hours with no ‘power-conscious’ activities, or about 6:20 in savings mode. I was really hoping for better performance out of the dual-core system. The Vaio comes with some nice power management utilities, although a slight glitch in the system caused me to spend a lot longer tweaking settings than I’d expect. I’ve now done exhaustive tests of battery life and here are my key observations (all based on using the extended battery, on airplanes):
- Disabling wireless barely makes a difference to battery life, adding no more than 45 minutes (max)
- Using the power-saving graphics mode gains about an hour
- The ‘best’ way to save battery life is lowering brightness, which I usually drop to 3 (out of 9)
- I can easily watch 5 hours worth of DVDs in this mode
- ‘Suspend’ mode of power-saving uses more battery than I’ve ever seen before – do not do it if you are trying to maximize your time
- Major hard drive activities were also very battery-intensive
- Intensive activities (e.g. video games) are extremely costly for battery life. I played Battle for Middle Earth 2 for about 30 minutes ‘used up’ over an hour’s worth of remaining life
The screen and keyboard are absolutely great. Michael Gartenberg didn’t like the keyboard but I really did, and find myself typing notably faster than on any other notebook I’ve ever owned. It does ‘clack’ a little louder than I’d hope for (especially because I feel noisy while typing and really don’t like disturbing those around me while on the plane, you know, unlike that jerk who won’t lower the window shade and the sun is reflecting off the wing into your eyes while you are trying to watch Crocodile Dundee in LA), but that’s an acceptable evil in my book. The screen is almost undeniably stunning. I haven’t seen a single person who isn’t blown away by the vivid brightness, and it’s a real pleasure to look at. If there’s one area all hardware manufacturers need to ‘borrow’ from Apple, it’s in the screens, and it seems like the Sony team is catching up quickly. Why the Vaio team couldn’t make their keyboard light up as well is beyond me, it’s such an obvious improvement!
I’ll run through a few other details now. The Vaio VGN-SZ160P (and others of the same line) have two integrated video cards, one for ‘performance’, one for ‘stamina’. This clever integration allows you to maximize your battery life (see above), or have video playback at a near-gaming level, quite impressive for a laptop! The unit also has built-in wireless (in this day and age I don’t think I needed to say it, but you never know) as well as bluetooth (which really works occasionally). It also has a Memory Stick slot (useless) and comes with a 4-in-1 adapter with SD and other ‘small card’ support. Another feature I really like is the fingerprint sensor, which had always seemed a wee bit goofy to me, but now I use all the time. The reason it’s so helpful is I can finally go ahead and make unique passwords for different Web sites and not worry quite so much about remembering them all – sure there’s still scenarios where this can be a problem, but we’re talking edge cases people. Love the fingerprint sensor. Another clever integration is a Web-cam built into the casing above the screen (thankfully it works exactly as it should). Finally, the unit includes a dual-layer DVD burner, a PCMCIA card slot, a new ExpressCard slot, USB, and Firewire/1394 support.
Now, switching topics for a moment, you may have noticed the title of this review (if you’ve read this far) is ‘function meets form’. This is a beautiful piece of equipment. The screen is super-thin, in fact, it’s so thin I’m nervous it could just snap off if someone ahead of me reclines too quickly! The Vaio has a carbon-fibre finish, and feels great to the touch. I can honestly say it is the first laptop I have owned in over ten years that I walk around with and people walk up to find out what it is! If you aren’t willing (or interested) in picking up a MacBook, this is without question the next-best looking notebook on the market.
Sony offers the Vaio VGN-SZ160P in a few different model numbers. There’s a SZ140P and SZ170P, both seem to differ by hard drive size and possibly memory (this unit has 1GB of RAM built-in). There’s a SZ260P and SZ280P, which also include Cingular EDGE service for Internet-anywhere access. I don’t really think it’s worth getting, since the data rate is so slow, and since I can just as easily tether to my Sprint PPC6700, it just wasn’t an option for me.
- Great design
- Vivid screen
- Convenient keyboard
- DVD burner (dual-layer)
- Good graphics system
- Other nice accoutrements
- Fingerprint sensor
- Memory stick slot
- 4-in-1 card reader (with SD)
- Battery life nowhere near as good as claimed, not at the same par as competitive units
- No hardware volume controls or dials
- Too much included Sony software – I’m sure this is slowing down performance
Overall, if you are looking for a very portable laptop that performs on par with more ‘heavy-duty’ systems, this is a very good option. If you travel a lot, you must pick up an extended battery, and I would probably grab a port replicator too (which, amazingly, does not include an extra power supply!). The screen is remarkable for anything from gaming to Slinging, and the system never fails to impress me or anyone I present to.