The Sony Vaio SZ-110/B (model # VGNSZ110B) is Sony's entry-level SZ-series notebook. The SZ line represents Sony's latest attempt to combine mobility and power without sacrificing too much of either. These ultraportable notebooks weigh in at a light 4 pounds, about average for their category, but they come loaded with features not found on other ultraportables.
As of late March 2006, the Sony SZ line is one of the few ultraportable Intel Core Duo notebook series currently available. Other notebooks in this category include the Lenovo Thinkpad X60s, the Asus W5F, and the Toshiba Portege M400 convertible tablet, but several important features differentiate the SZ line from the others.
General info about the Sony SZ line
Sony's SZ notebooks are divided into two major categories, "Regular" (Sony just calls them "SZ", but "Regular" is used here for clarity) and Premium:
The two types are otherwise the same. For more details, see Sony's SZ comparison page.
The SZ-110B in particular
The Vaio SZ-110B (view large image)
The 110B is Sony's lowest-priced SZ notebook (excluding the custom-configurable SZ-140). This means:
SZ-110B Specs as Reviewed
Reasons for Buying
DVD drive (view large image)
I was in the market for a new notebook because my old one was too slow and too heavy. I wanted a faster, more portable model and I looked around for a good match. Intel recently released their new Core Duo processors, and seeing the supposed performance gains in multitasking environments and multithreaded applications, I decided to get one instead of an older Pentium M model. A few notebooks had already begun to make use of the new processors and I examined the offerings from several major notebook manufacturers. Lenovo (which acquired IBM's PC division) had the Thinkpad X60s -- a generally excellent machine, but it had no internal optical drive, something I considered an absolute necessity. Toshiba had the Portege M400 convertible Core Duo tablet, but it had a strange keyboard layout that moved or eliminated several keys I frequently used. The Asus W5F seemed like a potential match, but at the time, the product website was incomplete and buggy so I couldn't find out enough about it and the product itself seemed to be unavailable for sale everywhere I looked.
Then I found Sony's SZ series. I traditionally avoided Sony products because -- in my opinion -- they tended to be overpriced toys that sold themselves based more on style and looks than functionality. Initially skeptical, I examined the SZ series' specifications, and to my surprise, Sony's expensive toy actually seemed to offer more than anything else out there. It has an internal optical drive (a dual-layer burner, no less); a regular full-size keyboard; a 13.3" widescreen display; both a PC Card slot (which I use for EV-DO wireless Internet) and an ExpressCard/34 slot (which may soon gain popularity); 802.11a/b/g WiFi; Bluetooth; FireWire; a multi-card reader; a webcam; a fingerprint reader; and to seal the deal, a unique Hybrid Graphics System that allows the user to switch between an Intel integrated graphics card and a discrete NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 card.
Finding any of two or three of those features in an ultraportable would be a tough task, yet Sony somehow managed to integrate all of them into one sleek and lightweight machine. I was impressed.
Where and How Purchased
I purchased the notebook from Amazon.com at a list price of $1899.99. After a variety of Amazon discounts and rebates, my final price was somewhere along the lines of $1720. ($150 Amazon rebate, $30 A9.com discount). The price hasn't stabilized yet and some of the buyers commented that the price had decreased by a few hundred dollars since they placed their orders. In the last few days, however, the price has actually gone up and as of March 31, 2006, the list price is $1,999.99 (the rebate and A9 discount are still available). Nonetheless, thanks to free shipping and a lack of sales tax in my state, this turned out to be a reasonably good deal for the notebook -- according to Pricegrabber.com, other merchants were selling it for $1800+.
As expected of Amazon, the notebook arrived on time and in perfect condition.
Build & Design
Top view (view large image)
The SZ-110B has a black-and-silver magnesium and plastic body. The cover is matte black plastic with a rough sandpaper-like texture. The silver "VAIO" logo is embedded in the center. Inside, the screen border and keyboard keys are solid black. The rest of the notebook is metal with a few areas of black trim.
Scale comparison: The SZ-110B is slightly larger than an average-sized magazine (view large image)
At roughly 4 pounds, the notebook is lightweight and very portable. Carried in a backpack, I could hardly feel its weight. The notebook isn't quite as light as the smaller 3-pounders, but its larger screen and internal optical drive make the tradeoff worthwhile.
The notebook seems generally well-built and nothing feels too loose or flimsy. The magnesium/plastic casing feels solid and looks great to boot. The screen hinges are sturdy and the screen itself doesn't ripple unless you try to "bend" the screen from its two sides -- something that seems unlikely to occur in regular usage.
The only other issue I noticed is that the spring-loaded DVD drive has a bit of give and can be pushed in 1mm or so, which can feel kind of odd when you pick up the notebook from that side. I keep thinking that I pushed the eject button and the drive is going to pop open, but it doesn't.
Front view with screen turned on (view large image)
All SZ notebooks come with a 13.3" WXGA 1280x800 XBRITE glossy widescreen (but the Premium models come with thinner screens that use a different backlight technology). That's larger than usual for an ultraportable and I think the resolution (1280x800) is just right -- any higher and text would be difficult to read. The SZ-110B's screen is bright enough at maximum brightness, but the glossy screen makes it hard to see things at half brightness or lower (due to the increased visibility of reflections). This is an issue inherent in most glossy screens, so it's not unique to this notebook.
Front view in darkness with backlight on (view large image)
The screen had no dead pixels and the backlight seems very even to me -- better than what the picture here shows. If you look carefully, there's a tiny bit of light leakage at the bottom, but it isn't significant. In normal use, while watching DVD movies and such, I never noticed anything. I had to specifically examine the bottom portion in complete darkness to see it.
Integrated webcam (view large image)
An integrated webcam and microphone are located above the screen.
A sample shot from the webcam
The camera quality isn't very good, but it's better than nothing.
They're normal laptop speakers with no bass. Use headphones if sound quality matters to you.
Processor and Performance
Bottom view (view large image)
The SZ-110B ships with an Intel Core Duo T2400 1.83GHz processor, 1GB of DDR2 PC2-4200 533MHz RAM, and a 5400 RPM SATA hard drive.
It seems speedy enough during regular office and Internet usage, but that's a subjective judgment. The notebook uses a dual-core processor and certain optimized applications will run much faster, but there should be no significant difference for regular programs. See the Benchmarks below for actual performance data.
One of the major features of the SZ series is Sony's Hybrid Graphics System, which integrates two video cards in a single notebook. A switch toggles between the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 (for improved battery life) and the NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 (for better 3D gaming). The Go 7400 rates a bit below the ATI x1400 graphics card found in some slightly bigger notebooks, but neither one is really good enough for current-generation gaming. Nonetheless, the 7400 is an amazing find in an ultraportable. While not a gaming card per se, it can certainly handle older and less-demanding games.
It should be noted, however, that the notebook comes with an excessive amount of pre-loaded software (remember the huge list in the Specs section?). All this bloat slows the notebook down, especially since much of the software is redundant. If performance is an issue to you, I'd recommend uninstalling the included programs that you don't use or starting over with a clean install of Windows XP -- which, unfortunately, is a very difficult task with this notebook (see the Complaints section below for more info).
In terms of upgrades, both RAM slots are accessible from the bottom of the notebook. The system ships with 533MHz RAM, but the theoretical maximum should be 667MHz, in line with the system's front-side bus speed. The 5400 RPM hard drive, unfortunately, is buried deep in the system and cannot be accessed without dismantling the body and keyboard (more information is available in a forum thread).
These benchmarks were performed after a hard drive wipe and a clean installation of Windows XP. There were no programs running in the background except for necessary drivers. VAIO power management was disabled so the CPU wouldn't be throttled down.
Windows XP Startup
Time to get from BIOS power-on screen to Windows logon screen: 25 to 30 secs.
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B (1.83GHz Intel Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|HP dv5000t (1.83GHz Core Duo)||1m 17s|
|Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 16s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 52s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Sony VAIO S360 (1.7 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||1m 57s|
|Gateway 7510GX (AMD Mobile Athlon 64 3700+ Processor, 2.4 GHz)||1m 31s|
|Sony VAIO S380 (1.83 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 42s|
(Super Pi does not use the second core of dual-core processors, so the score isn't as good as it could've been. On the other hand, this does somewhat represent real-world usage since most applications don't take advantage of the second core.)
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Stamina Mode (Using Intel GMA 950)||3038 PCMarks|
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3637 PCMarks|
|Panasonic ToughBook T4 (Intel 1.20GHz LV)||1390 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400)||3646 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Satellite M70 (Pentium M 1.86GHz)||1877 PCMarks|
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Stamina Mode (Using Intel GMA 950)|| |
137 3DMarks (SM2: 63 | HDR/SM3: N/A | CPU: 1504)
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||794 3DMarks (SM2: 288 | HDR/SM3: 269 | CPU: 1547)|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800GTX)||4,085 3DMarks|
HD Tune benchmark results (view large image)
Minimum transfer rate: 5.8 MB/sec
Maximum transfer rate: 35.3 MB/sec
Average transfer rate: 28.2 MB/sec
Access time: 16.3ms
Burst rate: 90.3 MB/sec
CPU Usage: 3.1%
Keyboard and Touchpad
Keyboard (view large image)
The keyboard feels, for the lack of a better term, "different" from most other notebook keyboards I've used. I'd describe it as a mix between the loud, hard, clickety IBM keyboards of the early 90s and the current, softer notebook keyboards. It's no better or worse than what's out there, just different. Some people like it, some people love it, and some people hate it. Personally, I think it's fine. More important to me is the fact that it has full-size (or near it) keys, not the miniature ones found on notebooks like the Dell 710m and the Sony TX series. Also, as a long-time touch typist, I'm glad Sony stuck with the traditional notebook-QWERTY configuration and not the erratic layout that some Toshibas and Lenovos use.
The keyboard has a bit of flex, but it didn't affect my typing. I encountered one other minor issue: The extreme left and right edges of the spacebar aren't detected as a keypress, no matter how hard you push. The spacebar only starts working about an inch in from the left side and half an inch in from the right side. Depending on your typing and keyboard usage habits, this may or may not bother you. It doesn't bother me during regular typing since my hands are already positioned; but sometimes, when I use the spacebar to select OK buttons and such, I use the ALT keys to find the spacebar and in these cases I do have to reposition my finger a bit.
If you plan on doing any serious work on your notebook, the keyboard is going to be one of the most important parts. If you're at all uncertain about it, I would suggest that you first try out the keyboards (both Regular and Premium kinds) at a brick-and-mortar retail store before you buy.
Shortcut keys and switches (view large image)
While the keyboard seems okay to me, I do not like the lack of dedicated shortcut functions. The notebook comes with two sliding switches. The STAMINA/SPEED switch toggles between the two internal graphics cards, but the system has to be rebooted whenever the mode is changed. The WIRELESS switch turns wireless functions on and off, obviously, but it controls both WiFi and Bluetooth simultaneously. They can be individually toggled in software or using the undocumented Fn+F1 key combo, but I would much prefer a separate switch for each.
The S1 and S2 buttons are customizable shortcut buttons that can be set to functions like muting the sound or launching a program.
Personally, I don't think there are enough shortcut buttons. There's plenty of space available on the notebook and I'd have liked at least a dedicated mute button and volume switch, if not ones for Bluetooth, the touchpad, and the webcam as well. Though some of these functions can be accessed with Fn+key combinations, the keyboard can't be seen in the dark and it's hard to remember which key does what. Sony's barely-visible red and blue key labels for alternate functions doesn't help the situation.
Touchpad and fingerprint scanner (view large image)
I don't like touchpads much (I prefer a trackpoint-style pointing device or an external mouse), so this section may be biased. As far as touchpads go, though, this one seems to be pretty average. It has a slightly coarse texture that's relatively easy to glide your fingers across. The touchpad is centered below the F and J keys instead of the center of the notebook body, meaning it doesn't get in the way of your palms when you're typing. A good design decision. The touchpad supports both tapping and horizontal/vertical scroll areas on the bottom and right sides.
Between the two touchpad buttons lies the fingerprint scanner. It works as expected: You slide a finger down across it and it scans your fingerprint for whatever nefarious uses you have in mind. However, the sensor's positioning is questionable. Since it's right by below the touchpad, it's too easy to mistake for a mouse button and it can be accidentally activated when you're just trying to click on something.
Input and Output Ports
Front view (view large image)
Left view (view large image)
Back view (view large image)
Right view (view large image)
The notebook has two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, a PC Card slot, an ExpressCard/34 slot, a V.90 modem jack, a 10/100 Ethernet jack, a VGA-out port, a MemoryStick Duo slot, a microphone jack and a headphone jack.
I love having both a PC Card slot and an ExpressCard slot -- an unsual combination in an ultraportable. The PC Card slot can be used with the huge catalog of existing PCMCIA devices, while the ExpressCard/34 slot promises compatibility with future devices (though an ExpressCard/54 slot would've been even better). If you don't have any current ExpressCard devices, you can use the included 4-in-1 flash card reader (xD/SD/MMC/MS) that goes in the slot.
The FireWire port is a welcome bonus, as well.
On the downside, I would've liked at least three USB 2.0 ports, and not all in the same place. The notebook's port layout in awkward in general. Currently, the two USB ports are both located on the right side, along with the DVD drive, the modem/ethernet jacks, and the ExpressCard slot. The DC-in port (for the AC adapter) is also located on the back right hand side. Having so many ports so close together is annoying for right-handed mouse users since everything comes out right by the mouse or mousepad. Besides, there isn't anything on the front side and the back side only has the DC-in port and the Kensington Lock slot. Sony could've spread the ports out more.
The Ethernet port is a 10/100 one that does not support Gigabit Ethernet -- which is probably only important if you do a lot of networked file transfers. The modem is a V.90 one and not the current V.92 specification.
There is no parallel or serial port. The system also lacks an S-Video/TV-out port, a seemingly strange decision on Sony's part given this notebook's good multimedia capabilities. There are convertible boxes that allow a VGA signal to displayed on regular TVs, but they're expensive and not always portable. Too bad.
Sony includes both internal WiFi (Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG 802.11a/b/g) and internal Bluetooth (an unspecified Toshiba device). WiFi works as expected, but I didn't have any Bluetooth devices to test that with.
There is no infrared port.
There is also no WWAN connectivity (for Cingular EDGE, Verizon BroadbandAccess, Sprint Vision PCS, etc.). Some SZ notebooks come with an EDGE antenna, but the 110B does not. If this is important to you, you can buy one of the higher-priced SZs or go with a USB/PC Card/ExpressCard device.
Heat and Noise
The notebook generally runs cool. There is little to no heat in the keyboard and palm rest areas, and there are no side vents to pump hot air onto your mousing hand. The heat comes out from a single vent in the rear. The bottom of the notebook gets a bit warm, but not uncomfortably so.
The system isn't as quiet as I'd like it to be. The fan is audible and on quite often. However, it can be made quieter using either a shortcut button (if you configure one as such) or using the VAIO Power Management program (which lets you set the fan speed lower or make it adaptive to changing loads).
The two other sources of noise are the keyboard (which is very "clicky" compared to most notebook keyboards) and the DVD drive (which sounds like a blender when in use). I didn't mind the noise all that much, but if you demand absolute silence from your notebook, this won't fit the bill.
The battery life is somewhat below average for an ultraportable. Sony has a few different estimates on the battery life, depending on which website or spec sheet you're looking at, but all of them are inaccurate. Far from the claimed 4-7 hours, the actual battery life is more like 2-4 hours with 3 hours being the average that I get with the settings I normally use (no wireless, medium-to-high brightness).
There is an extended-life large-capacity battery available, but it's currently hard to find in stock and it costs upwards of $200 when available.
Operating System and Software
This notebook has a poor software package. It comes with Windows XP Home Edition and a recovery partition, but no Windows CD or recovery discs. Sony wants you to burn your own set onto 8-9 CDs or 2 DVDs or buy a set from them. Ugh. Normally, this wouldn't be so bad, but Sony made it even worse because:
Aside from the operating system situation, the included Sony drivers and control programs are also not very good. Everything is decentralized, unintegrated, and redundant. There are 3-4 conflicting/competing programs that control the WiFi card, another two or three that controls Bluetooth, and a bunch of separate control programs for everything else. I wish Sony would either stick with the standard Windows control functions or at least make one integrated control center.
But while annoying, these problems aren't really all that big of a deal. You only have to deal with them one time and once you clean up the ones you don't want, you should be able to get used to the rest soon enough.
The system comes with a 1-year warranty and 1 year of toll-free 24/7 phone support. Email support is also available from their website. An extended warranty including on-site service and accidental damage protection may be available direct from Sony, but I can't confirm that.
I had to call Customer Support several times for an issue (see Complaints below for the reason) and I have to say that I was disappointed with their service.
When I first called, a first-level technician picked up after a few minutes. That's fine. Then I explained the issue to him, he tried to help me but couldn't, and asked to transfer me to a senior technician. He put me on hold and I waited and waited... an hour later and ten minutes later, I ran out of patience and hung up. I immediately called them back and asked why the hold time was so ridiculous, and he said that they only had 4 senior technicians. I asked if there was anything he could do, but all he could do was put me back in line at the beginning. I didn't want to wait.
The next day I called back and asked about the hold time. Same deal. They told me to expect a very long hold time and that there was nothing else they could do.
In the meantime, I tried to fix the problem on my own. I eventually learned more about the issue and called them again to provide more details. I spoke to a first-level agent again, but even with the additional info I still needed to talk to a senior tech. I asked to be transferred. He told me the techs were actually gone for the day. So, apparently, the 24/7 tech support is only 24/7 in the sense that somebody is there at all times, but not always somebody that can help you. The agent did, however, promise me that a senior technician would call me back the next day. We scheduled several time slots during which they could call and he said I should hear from them soon.
The next day, I deliberately freed up those slots and waited.
They never called.
I eventually found the solution on the forums here, no thanks to Sony.
Aside from the minor issues listed above, I have one major complaint about this notebook: By not adequately providing necessary drivers and utilities, Sony completely neglected those of us who would want to use a clean Windows installation . The drivers website is incomplete and inaccurate. The recovery DVD is buggy and partially broken. This is only relevant if you want to reformat and reinstall, but if you do, you should be aware of just how bad the situation is:
The recovery DVD that you burn is also supposed to contain the needed drivers, but it has its own set of problems:
I spent hours on end trying to do what should've been a very straightforward task. I had to reformat, recover, reinstall, reformat, partially recover, uninstall, reinstall, reformat, reinstall, call tech support and crawl the support site (both of which are useless, by the way) and Google for help. I finally found the help I needed on the forums here. If you're going to attempt a reinstall, check out this thread first to save yourself the headaches.
But, again, this is only relevant if you plan on reformatting. The notebook works fine in its out-of-the-box configuration.
I think this is a great little ultraportable for anyone who wants the latest technology in a small package. As of this writing, the Sony SZ line simply has no peer. It is the most full-featured Core Duo ultraportable series currently available, and if you don't want to sacrifice power for portability, this would be the series to get. Whether you should get the 110B or another SZ depends on your specific needs and budget. For me, this was the only SZ model I could afford, and honestly, it's not all that different from the other SZs. The lowest-priced model already has everything I need.
Though I don't like Sony very much, I am quite happy with the notebook itself. I dislike the company's pricing, policies and support/service, but I have to say that the products themselves are usually pretty good.
In summary: This is a very powerful ultraportable, but that's not something everyone needs. If you want portability but you're only doing office or school work with Microsoft Word and Internet Explorer, a Core Duo processor and the 7400 graphics card are overkill. You can get lighter notebooks with longer battery lives for less money if you stick with a Pentium M processor and integrated graphics. You probably won't notice the difference.
Or, if performance matters to you but mobility isn't crucial, there are many slightly bigger and heavier notebooks that are faster and cost less. In this case, an ultraportable form factor may not be necessary.
Since the Core Duo processor is still a relatively new product, not every notebook manufacturer has had time to switch over. If you're not in a hurry, it might be wise to wait a few months to see what comes out. But if you want a notebook that can combine portability and speed and you want it now, the SZ might just be what you're looking for.
Pricing and Availability: Sony Vaio SZ-110/B
Sony VAIO Discussion
more than 100 focused websites providing quick access to a deep store of
news, advice and analysis about the technologies, products and processes crucial
to the jobs of IT pros.
All Rights Reserved, Copyright 2000 - 2013, TechTarget | Read our Privacy Statement