by Kellen Steffen
Overview and Introduction
I've always liked small, pretty things. That's what drew me to the Sony VAIO TX850p, a sleek little notebook from Sony's ultraportable VAIO TX line. It appears that Sony wishes to target "travelling professionals" with the TX line, which is why aesthetics, small size, and battery life appear to be emphasized in its design.
The TX850p was the newest TX when it appeared on the market at the end of summer 2006, until Sony released the TXN series which coincided with Microsoft's release of Windows Vista. Having seen and used a TXN25, I can say that currently, the only difference between the TX and TXN series is that the latter comes with Windows Vista Business and has a slightly faster processor (a Core Solo ULV U1500 at 1.33 GHz).
Sony VAIO TX850p (view large image)
Sony VAIO TX850p specifications:
Note About Processors:
Intel currently has two processor product lines with the word "core" in their names: Core and Core 2. When choosing a processor, please be careful to check which series the processor is in (Core or Core 2) as well as the actual model name (Solo, Duo) (obviously, not all processors from Intel are Core or Core 2). Most importantly, not all Core 2 processors are dual-core. For instance, a Core 2 Solo processor is a single-core processor with Core 2 architecture (actually, it is a dual-core processor with one core physically deactivated). Conversely, a Core Duo processor is a dual-core processor with Core architecture. Core 2 processors are generally regarded as superior to Core processors, but Intel has yet to develop and release Core 2 ULV (Ultra Low Voltage) and Core Duo ULV processors. This is why the TX850p only comes with a Core Solo; it's the only Core/Core 2 ULV processor on the market.
Intel has probably chosen these confusing names for its CPU lines in hopes of taking advantage of uninformed consumers who may think that Intel is the only manufacturer of dual-core processors.
As of this writing, there aren't many applications which take advantage of dual-core processors' capabilities, but it would seem that they are the processors of the future, and more and more developers are writing for dual-core architecture. Thus, a dual-core machine is more "future-proof" - that is, less likely to become obsolete in the near future.
Reasons for Buying
My search began as one for the most affordable ultraportable laptop I could find, which led me first to Averatec, a little-known notebook manufacturer, with its 1000 series which has a 10.6" screen, decent specs and, at the time, an attractive $999 price tag. But when I saw the VAIO TX850P, my budget quickly skyrocketed. I also considered the Lenovo ThinkPad X60 for its small size, Core Duo CPU (which is a dual-core processor as opposed to the TX850P's single-core Core Solo), and legendary ThinkPad build quality.
Where and How Purchased
This laptop was purchased at my university bookstore for $2,049, which was just about the lowest market price at the time (October 2006). It is a bit steep, but half a year later, I still feel that it was an excellent purchase for my needs.
Build & Design
Aesthetic design is one of the TX series' best attributes. The keyboard and lower potion of the laptop is a cool grey supporting a razor-thin black screen housing. The case is made of carbon fiber, which allows for both flexible strength and light weight (Sony quotes 2.75lbs with the standard battery).
Top view of the TX850p (view large image)
Sony has managed to squeeze a ton of features and gadgets into this tiny machine, and yet I find the placement of the various ports, switches, and buttons to be absolutely optimal, and they look good, too. The power button, which is translucent and lights up green when the laptop's on, is located on a raised hump near the bottom of the screen, along with a row of other multimedia buttons and an soft-eject button for the optical drive. The Wi-Fi/Bluetooth switch as well as mute and volume +/- buttons are located at the front, just below the right hand when typing; they're functional and solid. Props to Sony for this.
Unfortunately, build quality is one of the lesser qualities of the TX850p, though it isn't horrible. Because the case is thin carbon fiber, it flexes a small amount, though I don't doubt its strength. However, there are definitely weak points in the construction (see pictures):
On the plus side, the casing is smooth yet matte enough to shrug off fingerprints and is easy to clean. Overall, no unbearable problems with build quality, and again, the TX850p looks phenomenal. This laptop has no trouble getting comments from friends and even passersby ... if you're in to that sort of thing, of course.
Sony TX850p screen (view large image)
The display is the place where the TX850p shines (no pun intended). It's glossy, crisp, vibrant, has no dead pixels (or, at least mine doesn't), almost never glares, and has the widest brightness range of any notebook computer I've ever seen. There are 9 levels of brightness, and I never go above 6. The lowest setting is about as bright as a piece of paper and is great for dark rooms or just saving battery power.
Its maximum resolution is 1366x768, which has a 16:9 ratio and is great for watching widescreen videos, as they fill the entire display. This resolution is also higher than most of the TX series' competitors, such as the aforementioned ThinkPad X60 (max resolution 1024x768) and Averatec 1000 (1280x760). There is also a keyboard shortcut (Fn + F10) which instantly lowers the resolution to a 4:3 ratio'd 1024x768 if you really need to see something small. I almost never use this function as I don't have any trouble reading text on the 11.1" display. It might be handy though, if you often find yourself hunched over or squinting (but if that's the case, you might want to consider a laptop with a larger display).
As with all glossy screens, it is quite vulnerable to fingerprints and visible dust. I give mine a gentle wiping-down about once a day with a soft cloth (or a cotton sleeve) and a good cleaning with iKlear wipes once a month.
The display is also unique in that it's lit by LEDs at the bottom rather than the conventional cold cathodes used in almost all modern laptops. LEDs are more power-efficient than cold cathodes, which require some power conversion; this leads to improved battery life. More on that later.
Onboard speakers are never the high point of a laptop review, but the TX's speakers are actually not all that bad. These tiny (1/2"-diameter) speakers can't compare to name-brand laptop speakers like Harman Kardons, but one thing I've noticed is that they are clearer than other laptops'. This makes them seem louder than the others, especially when watching videos where understanding dialogue is important. A DVD that was extremely hard to hear with full volume on an Apple MacBook and a Dell was easily interpretable on the TX. But, the TX's speakers are inferior to the others in terms of low frequency response, and they distort easily (again, because of the small diameter). I personally keep the onboard soundcard disabled to save battery power and plug in a USB DAC when I'm at my desk.
Processor and Performance
In the CPU department, the TX850p has an advantage over its predecessors, which had Pentium M processors, in that it has the new, more efficient 65nm architecture in its Core Solo processor.
The optical drive is annoying. Not only is it of lesser build quality as mentioned before, but unlike most optical drives which, when accessed, spin up to full speed and keep spinning at that speed for about a minute or two after the disc stops being accessed, this one does so only a few seconds after the drive stops being accessed. This means that if you stop reading from a disc, even for a few seconds, the drive slows down. So, if you're browsing the directories of a data disc, by the time you decide which directory to choose or which file to open, the disc has stopped spinning. When you open the next directory or file, you have to wait for the disc to spin up to full speed again, and then the command is executed. This process makes no sense, as not only is it a great deal slower, but it requires more power since it takes more energy to start a mass spinning than it does to keep it spinning.
The TX series uses a tiny 1.8" hard drive - the same type of hard drive that you find in iPods and other hard drive-based portable devices. Naturally, this helps allow for the TX's diminutive size and long battery life. Also, the 80GB size is quite good, and on par with much larger laptops. However, these hard drives only spin at 4200 RPM, while most ultraportables use 2.5" 5400-RPM drives, which should make the TX slower than its competitors. Also, there have been many reports that, while the 2.5" drives are interchangeable (i.e. upgradable), the TX's 1.8" drive is not. I have not noticed the TX850p to be all that slow in loading time, but perhaps users coming from faster rigs would be frustrated. If you use many memory-thirsty programs, I recommend expansion of the RAM from the stock 1GB to its maximum 1.5GB as soon as possible to minimize paging, which may slow down the computer significantly. Note that the stock RAM configuration is 2 x 512MB sticks, and one of them is soldered directly to the motherboard - you can't even access it from the underside. This means that the only way to reach the maximum amount is to replace the other 512MB stick with a 1GB.
Overall, the TX850p is quite snappy in my everyday use, which is probably all that a prospective ultraportable consumer needs. Temporarily switching to other, faster laptops and then back to the TX850p doesn't leave me hanging, either.
Following are some benchmarks to give you an idea of how the TX850p performs.
Super Pi Comparison Results
Super Pi gives an indication of overall processor speed.
|Sony VAIO TX850p (1.2GHz Core Solo)||1m 55s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)||59s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo T7200)||1m 03s|
|Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (1.73 GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T5300)||1m 24s|
|Toshiba Satellite A205 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 34s|
|HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52)||2m 05s|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T2400)||59s|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 02s|
|Toshiba A100 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo)||1m 29s|
|HP dv5000z (2.0GHz Sempron 3300+)||2m 02s|
It would seem that the 65nm Core architecture has a decent advantage over the Pentium M in this test; the 1.2GHz Intel Core Solo ULV processor performed nearly as well as a 1.6GHz Intel Pentium M at regular voltage.
Comparison table for PCMark05
PCMark05 tests overall system performance.
|Sony VAIO TX850p (1.2GHz Core Solo)||1,428 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)||4,084 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950)||2,981 PCMarks|
|HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270)||2,420 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Satellite A135 (Core Duo T2250, Intel GMA 950)||3,027 PCMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||4,234 PCMarks|
|Fujitsu LifeBook A6010 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel GMA 950)||2,994 PCMarks|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX)||5,597 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Tecra M6 (1.66GHz Intel T2300E, Intel GMA 950)||2,732 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400)||3,646 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo)||3,427 PCMarks|
On the flip side, it appears that the Core Solo has no advantage over the Pentium M in PCMark05, and might even be at a disadvantage due to its lower clockspeed. Take that as you will, but remember that benchmarks sometimes have little bearing on real-life applications.
3DMark05 Comparison Results
3DMark05 tests the 3D performance of a notebook -- obviously not a strong point of any ultraportable.
|Notebook||3D Mark 05Results|
|Sony VAIO TX850p (1.2GHz Core Solo)||327 3DMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)||911 3DMarks|
|Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950)||559 3DMarks|
|HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270)||871 3DMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||2,013 3D Marks|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)||1,791 3D Marks|
|Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)||4,236 3DMarks|
|Alienware Aurora M-7700 (AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB)||7,078 3D Marks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,092 3D Marks|
|Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI x700 128 MB)||2,530 3D Marks|
|Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,273 3DMarks|
|Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB)||2,090 3D Marks|
Enough said. The Intel GMA 950 just really isn't up to rendering in 3D. But it will definitely be able to handle anything 2D; StarCraft ho!
HDTune measures the hard drive performance:
(view large image)
Heat and Noise
The TX series deals with heat quite well. Because the optical drive takes up about half of the laptop's footprint (seriously), all of the other internal machinery is located on the left side. This is why only the left side of the TX series warms up, and it's also where the only cooling fan is located.
Interestingly, the TX gets warm faster when it's on a wooden desk than when it's in my lap. It could just be my room conditions. Only rarely does it get too hot to comfortably have on the lap, and it's never too hot to type. Note that in most room conditions, the fan will almost always come on eventually, no matter what you're doing with the laptop. It's not silent, unfortunately, but it is fairly quiet, even at full speed. In a classroom, work office, or meeting, the fan is inaudible. Since earlier reviews of the TX series report issues with noise and constant fan-spinning, I am tempted to say that Sony might have improved the TX850p in this regard.
Keyboard and Touchpad
In short the keyboard and touchpad are a joy to use, which is a significant factor in the long-term enjoyment of using a laptop.
(view large image)
I now prefer this keyboard to all others -- both laptops' and full key-travel keyboards. Sony has done an excellent job shrinking the keys down to fit onto this little notebook; I don't notice at all that it isn't a full-sized one. The keys feel extremely solid, and there is no flexing of the keyboard under normal typing pressure. Some things to note about the keyboard:
The touchpad has an immediate and responsive feel to it, and is of good size; not too small, not too big. The drivers allow for the configuration of the right and bottom edges to be used as scrolling areas, so sliding your finger up and down the extreme right of the pad will scroll the current page up and down, and doing so along the bottom of the pad scrolls the pad right and left. One thing to note is that if you install drivers for an external mouse with more than 3 buttons, the original touchpad drivers will be overwritten (see the Customer Service section).
I'll include comments on the fingerprint reader in this section. The fingerprint reader and its Protector Suite program are a biometric defense against self-proclaimed "haXXs0Rz." Once a user inputs their fingerprint (it can store up to ten - one per finger on each hand), sliding their finger across the reader can substitute for a password at the Windows login screen, and once logged into Windows, sliding a finger across the reader brings up a menu of options including "Lock computer," "Unlock My Safe" (which is an encrypted part of the hard drive that can only be accessed with a finger swipe), and Web forms can instantly be filled out once the information is registered with the Protector Suite. I have only used the fingerprint reader for logging into Windows. The reader works quite well, although every once in a while it decides not to remember me. On these occasions, the password can easily be entered instead.
Input and Output Ports
The TX series has the following ports:
This seems to be quite a good amount of places for plugs to go for such a small laptop. The inclusion of FireWire is particularly impressive; many larger laptops don't have it.
Left side view of the TX850p (view large image)
Right side view of the TX850p (view large image)
Front side ports and buttons on the TX850p (view large image)
Looking at the right side upside down (view large image)
The TX850p comes with an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945 A/B/G card, which is a nice step up from the older TX's 2200 B/G. The reception seems to be on par with laptops of any size, so no problems there. It also has built-in Bluetooth, which I don't use so I can't comment on it. Sony includes a handy little program which can be used to easily select which wireless devices are controlled by the Wi-Fi switch on the front of the laptop. So my Bluetooth stack is always off and the wireless card comes on when I flip on the switch.
Most VAIO TX laptops also includes a WAN device which allows the user, for a monthly fee, to access Cingular's Wireless National EDGE Network, which can provide wireless broadband Internet access almost anywhere. But it wasn't included in my model.
Finally. The battery. When I ask most other people how long their laptop battery lasts, the answer is usually between 2-3 hours - sometimes a little more, sometimes less.
As a TX850p owner, I can proudly say that I don't think I could get my battery to run out in 3 hours if I wanted to. I suppose maybe if I plugged in and started defragmenting a few external hard drives, ran HD Tune on the internal hard drive, turned on the wireless card and connected to an extremely weak signal, and watched a movie with the screen on maximum brightness, then maybe the battery would only last a few hours.
The battery life of the TX850p is far superior to that of any other laptop that I know of. Here are a few examples of the battery life that I've experienced with FireWire, the modem, and the optical drive disabled, and the CPU power management set to throttle the CPU to 50% at idle and ramp up to anywhere from there to 100% under load:
This is with the standard battery! Sony offers an extended battery as well, which would probably drive the upper range of the battery life to about 20 hours, with 10 hours being a reasonable expectation for moderate use.
The AC adapter is quite small, well-built, doesn't make any noise (not even any high-pitched notes - I've heard some loud ones out there), and there's a velcro strap on the cable to hold everything together during transit.
Please note that I have been absolutely meticulous in keeping the number of Windows services low, the amount of spyware as close to zero as possible, and the number of programs running in the background to be minimal (a total of 29 processes at idle). These figures are also a bit optimistic. Even so, it's not unreasonable to expect 6-7 hours out of the TX with constant moderate use, and the TX will literally run all day long if it's put into standby or the screen is closed when not in use. I also have high expectations for the TX's battery life once I get it dual-booting with Gentoo Linux.
One final note is that one should remember that in order to achieve this long battery life, performance was sacrificed. The Lenovo ThinkPad X60s, with its dual-core processor, should be a good deal faster at certain tasks; but even with an extended battery, the X60s doesn't last quite as long as the TX with a standard battery.
Operating System and Software
The TX series comes with Windows XP Professional, including SP2. Unfortunately, no backup discs are provided, which bothers some people more than others. Regardless, the no-disc approach is becoming more and more common with most manufacturers. Sony does include a utility that can be used to burn recovery discs (2 DVDs), so that should be one of the first things to be done with a new VAIO TX.
As with most laptops, part of the hard drive is partitioned off as a recovery sector, which can be used in conjunction with the included VAIO Recovery software. It can be used to completely restore the hard drive to the state it was in when it left the factory, or it can only reinstall the drivers or software that the user chooses. I haven't used a full recovery yet, but the reinstallations I've done so far have all gone well.
The included VAIO Power Management offers options far more extensive than those that are available with Windows alone, which is great for a computer control freak like me. A few of them include disabling the optical drive, the modem and/or the FireWire port, throttling the CPU (down to 50%), and setting the maximum fan speed.
The TX comes with a moderate amount of "bloatware," including Sony's SonicStage media and portable device management suite and various other media-based rubbish. Luckily, there is no "Special Offer!" or trial software. Also, several of the including VAIO programs are quite useful, such as HDD Protection (locks the drive head when a certain amount [three selectable levels] of shock is detected), Power Management, Backup Utility, and Recovery. There is also a VAIO Central program which provides quick access to all of these. If you really want to go extreme, there is a program that allows you to slow down the DRAM clock from 533 MHz to 400 MHz for an extra boost in battery life. So before you go on a rampage in the Add or Remove Programs window deleting everything with "Sony" or "VAIO" in it, read the program name carefully and maybe try to find and run it on the hard drive to figure out exactly what it does before uninstalling it.
One of the more intriguing software capabilities of the TX is its InstantON mode. If the AV Mode button is held down when the laptop is off, it will go in to a sort of DVD/music player mode where DVDs or audio CDs can be played without booting into Windows. However, the comparatively short (in contrast with its Windows-based times) 2.5 hours that the battery yielded in this mode (with full volume, brightness) makes me wonder if it would be better to watch DVDs from Windows? Nonetheless, the ability to turn one's laptop into a dedicated portable DVD player is neat.
Customer support can be contacted by phone, by e-mail, or by live chat. It turns out that my particular VAIO TX (I'm unsure as to whether they're all like this) is bad at finding its own drivers. For instance, when a USB hard drive is connected for the first time, my laptop is unable When I installed a five-button mouse on the TX and unknowingly overwrote the touchpad's drivers so that it no longer functioned, I had trouble. In order to restore the drivers, I had to manually tell the Add Hardware Wizard to look for drivers in C:\Windows\inf because it doesn't know to look there itself.
I learned this by contacting Sony's customer support through live chat. It took a little while for the technician to understand my problem, but once they did, they quickly told me how to fix it.
The TX comes with a one-year parts and labor warranty. It does cost more to extend the warranty, but I have yet to find a link for the price on Sony's website.
I would highly recommend the Sony VAIO TX850p for the travelling user (or one who, like me, just likes small devices), who isn't power-hungry, who is versed in computer cleanup and doesn't mind giving their machine a little TLC.
I would not recommend this laptop to someone with a budget, gamer, a user who deals with the manipulation of multimedia (i.e. video encoding, audio compression, etc.), or an inexperienced or clumsy user.
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