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Sony VAIO Z review: Portability, meet Power

A Closer Look: Chassis

We are not going to beat around the bush; the new Sony VAIO Z ultra-thin notebook is both an engineering and design marvel, and this is readily apparent as soon as one lifts the notebook out of its box. Adorning the VAIO Z's front is the distinctive VAIO logo that is a mainstay of the Japanese electronics giant's notebook PCs, while the entire chassis is crafted out of tough carbon fibre, and not cheap plastic or heat-conducting metals. This immediately gives Sony's VAIO Z notebook a distinct and unique look and feel from the competition, and comes with the added benefit of being extremely smudge-resistant. Take a very good look at the image below: can you make out the ghosts of any smudges or fingerprints caused by our manhandling of the notebook? We sure could not.

Sony did not provide any dimensions for the new Sony VAIO Z on its product page, so we gave in to our curiosity and put the notebook up against a ruler to determine just how thick (or thin) it actually is. As it turns out, the VAIO Z's height measured in at no more than approximately 19mm, or slightly less than two centimetres.


While it is not the Macbook Air-thin dimensions which some people would have expected out of Sony's premium notebook (the current 2011-model Macbook Air's height tops out at 17mm), it is definitely close enough. After all, a mere height difference of two millimetres is not going to be noticeable in any way, and more importantly, the fact that Sony chose to build the frisbee-thin VAIO Z out of carbon fibre and not aluminium meant that the notebook cannot be too slim, if it is to have any structural integrity. As it stands, the ultraportable is already flexing a tad too much for comfort every time we held its screen or body by the corners.

That being said, it is clear that compromising on features just to achieve such a design is definitely not what Sony had in mind, and it shows. A quick look around the chassis reveals that the new VAIO Z notebook sports a variety of I/O and expansion ports one would expect to find on a full-fledged notebook. For starters, the company has somehow managed to squeeze in a VGA-port on the notebook's left. This is in stark contrast to the approach adopted by other OEMs, where the VGA-out port is usually dropped on ultra-portable notebooks to save space for the more important ports.

Turning the VAIO Z over to the right reveals the remaining I/O ports present on the notebook; there is the 3.5mm audio-out jack, along with an Ethernet port to facilitate a network connection via a LAN cable. A HDMI-out port also resides here, a USB 2.0 port which can be used for charging various USB-connected devices when the system is powered off, as well as a SuperSpeed USB 3.0 port which plays a critical role in the expandability of the VAIO Z's hardware capabilities (more on this later). The DC-in jack is also located here.


Apparently, Sony's obsession for clean design is not focused on only the VAIO Z's top, but also extends to areas of the notebook that are usually hidden from the public eye under regular usage, such as its underside. You will not find the usual messy array of screws and heat vents on the underside of a Sony VAIO Z, that much is certain. Also, you got to admit that the hexagon-shaped vents for the notebook's miniature cooling fans add a nice touch to the overall design of the notebook's underside.



Unlike how most ultra-thin notebooks feature built-in battery packs that are designed to be non user-replaceable, our review unit was bundled with a removable battery pack; this means that users can potentially replace the Sony VAIO Z's battery on their own without having to worry about being conned into paying 'battery replacement fees' like those Apple are charging for the Macbook Air.


Our review unit came bundled with a 4,000 mAh battery pack that has a rating of 45 watts per hour. 



That being said, you may have noticed that this is one of those rare reviews where we did not provide a teardown of sorts to show you the hardware that was used in the assembly of the new Sony VAIO Z ultra-thin notebook. There is a very simple explanation for this; the VAIO Z, being the design and engineering marvel that it is, is definitely not meant to be user serviceable in any way; at least, not without access to a proper service manual from Sony.

In fact, we did attempt to disassemble the VAIO Z, but upon getting far enough to find out that the I/O ports were held by nothing more than thin, flexible cables and the chassis refusing to give any ground at a certain area around the power button, we opted to give up on disassembling the notebook to prevent causing any accidental (and irreversible) structural damage to it. Also, considering how none of the hardware is user-replaceable by any means (custom DIMMs and SSDs galore), it makes sense that Sony would want to restrict user access to the VAIO Z's innards.

Opening the notebook's lid reveals the keyboard and trackpad in their entirety, as shown below:




The first thing we noticed about the VAIO Z's trackpad was that it does not sit flush with the notebook's chassis. Regardless of how many times we attempted to correct the problem by pushing the trackpad's corners down to have it make contact with the adhesive layer that holds the device together, the surface will eventually just pop free after a while. This does not present any usability issues per se, but it does make for a minor cosmetic annoyance of sorts.


Another issue we experienced with the trackpad was that its left and right-click buttons are not located at the bottom corners of the device; rather, the click buttons are situated near the centre of the trackpad's button strip, or directly above the biometric sensor. This means that unsuspecting users who are not aware of the actual placement of the trackpad buttons will probably experience some initial discomfort of sorts when utilizing the trackpad, as pushing the button strip on any other area will result in users experiencing the need to exert a large amount of force to activate the click buttons situated beneath it.

Also present at the top of the VAIO Z's keyboard are three touch-sensitive buttons that provide additional functionality of sorts for users, although only two of them will probably be of use to the average user. Pressing the 'Web' sensor when the notebook has been shut down triggers the VAIO Instant Mode which allows users to boot into a stripped down Linux operating system to access the Internet without having to load Windows 7. When this sensor is activated on Windows 7, it calls up Internet Explorer instead.


The VAIO sensor, on the other hand, is probably the more important one which users will need to take note of, as it is this sensor which actives the VAIO Z's factory recovery sequence. In addition, we should also point out that the VAIO sensor can be activated even when the notebook has been shut down, so users might want to ensure that they do not trigger the function by accident.

Lastly, the keyboard used on the Sony VAIO Z will probably require some getting used to, as the actuation distance for each individual key is significantly lower than those found on most typical notebooks. If we had to describe how the typing experience on the VAIO Z feels, we'd say that tapping on the VAIO Z's keyboard feels similar to pressing on a thin piece of sponge on a hard table.


Also bundled with our review unit is the other major attraction of Sony's new VAIO Z notebook, and it comes in the form of the Power Media Dock. Which, as most people will probably know by now, serves as an external optical drive that doubles up as an external graphics solution for the VAIO Z, thanks to the use of AMD's XGP or eXternal Graphics Platform. For the Sony VAIO Z's case, the graphics card bundled within the Power Media Dock is that of an AMD Mobility Radeon 6650M.


Here is a look at the optical disc drive component of the Power Media Dock. Apparently, Sony's insistence on elegance and style extends to the docking station as well, for the Power Media Dock makes use of a slot-loading optical disc drive to achieve its slim design.

Turning the Power Media Dock around to its rear reveals a variety of additional I/O ports to expand on the limited number of such ports that are on the VAIO Z. Notice that the ports on the Power Media Dock mirrors those that are available on the notebook itself, namely two USB ports, an Ethernet port, a HDMI port and a VGA port.

An additional USB port hidden under a latch on the right completes the package.

This is where things get interesting. Sony has claimed, and we have confirmed through our tests that the Power Media Dock for the Sony VAIO Z cannot be operated while the notebook is running off battery power. This is because the Power Media Dock needs to be connected to its own separate power brick, which in turn has to be attached to both the notebook's USB 3.0 port and the DC-in jack, the later of which is designed to accept energy flowing into the system, not out of it. This means that it is not possible for users to engage in some virtual carnage while on the move; however, we have to admit that Sony's choice makes perfect sense. After all, the Sony VAIO Z is designed for maximum portability, and lugging along a cumbersome docking station goes against the need it is intended to meet.



That being said, Sony has already claimed some time ago that the Power Media Dock makes use of optical cables (i.e. a variant of Intel's Thunderbolt Technology) for its data transfer needs to and from the docking station. Since we were not willing to split the cable with a knife to find out how its wiring looks like, we decided to 'recycle' an image from our coverage of the notebook's launch event for such a purpose. And just so we make it clear, the Power Media Dock is not compatible with other notebook except the new VAIO Z.

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