by John Ratsey, England
Overview and Introduction
The Sony Vaio G series is an exception to the trend towards widescreen notebooks and has a 12.1” XGA display. The headline features of the G11 are the 1.13kg (2.49lb) weight and 9 hour battery life. How do these seemingly incompatible features stack up in real life? This review is of the Sony Vaio VGN-G11XN/B which is the less expensive of the two G series models current in the UK at the time of this review. The G series was launched in Europe in early 2007 and a refresh (G21) with dual core CPUs was announced while this review was being prepared.
The G11 outside (view large image)
Reasons for Buying
My Samsung Q35 went to a new home and I am nearly happily settled with the Zepto 6024W. However, while the Zepto has the power and screen real estate that I like, it is still a bit big for the days when I want to travel light while the battery performance isn’t as much as I would like. I had seen the Sony a few months ago and was impressed by the small size, weight and very readable display.
The 12.1” Sony G11 between the 13.3” Fujitsu S6120 and the 14.1” Zepto 6024W with 15.4” Samsung X60plus at the back (all displays at maximum brightness) (view large image)
I stumbled across a website offering the G11 at a discounted (just over £1,000) almost 1/3rd below Sony’s RRP. I suspected that this could be a clearout related to the impending arrival of the new model and, after a short evaluation of the alternatives decided to place an order. I knew from the Q35 that the pixels on 12.1” widescreen are too small for my eyes and the only other 12.1” non-widescreen option is the heavier (and without optical drive but more powerful) ThinkPad X61. In fact, my first attempt to buy a cheap G11 failed because the stock had disappeared before my order was processed but I found another site at a similar price (and they ran out about half an hour after my order went through). Since then I have seen them even cheaper at another site! My G11’s box had what looks like a warehouse label dated 28/02/2007.
What’s in the Small Box?
The G11 came in a commendably small box containing in cardboard packaging:
The contents of the box (view large image)
Hardware Specs: Sony VGN-G11XN/B
My configuration comprised the following hardware and specifications:
The weigh in: Without and with PSU and power cables (kilograms) (view large image)
No backup media are supplied with the computer but there is a restore partition (using 9.5GB) on the hard disc. Users have to use the recovery utility to make backup discs (two single layer or one dual layer DVD).
The G11 came with a relatively large pile of leaflets of which the only one in colour and English language only was a Sony Accessories catalog. The biggest document was about the warranty with 122 pages covering 13 languages. Other documents included a simple diagram showing how to get the computer started; a 12-language Regulations Guide; a 6-language Troubleshooting Guide; a 4-language Recovery Guide and some other bits of paper including a product identifier for Microsoft Works. The User Guide is provided as a PDF file.
Design and Build
The dominant feature of the G11 is its light weight which is the result of the use of carbon-fibre material. Without the battery in place the G11 feels as if it might blow away in the wind. Sony have targeted this notebook at business professionals who value battery time over performance and prefer screen height to width since most of their work is with documents. Such people are also likely to have ageing eyes and value legibility of the larger pixels.
The G11’s colour scheme is black. However, the display surround and back seems to be a darker black than the chassis.The main chassis is very rigid. The palm rests sound hollow but nothing feels fragile. The battery is slight loose even when locked into position, but this seems to be a standard Sony design feature. The thin and unusually flexible display is a little disconcerting: Trying to open the display by one corner just results in the whole screen bending. However, it does not feel as if it might break. Pushing on the back of the display can cause ripples on the screen.
The display bends (view large image)
During travel the display is held closed by spring-loaded hinges. The hinges have no looseness and are adjusted to hold the display firmly in position without needing to use two hands to adjust the display position. The hinge is an unusual design which has the pivots built into the back edge of the sides of the chassis and results in the screen being quite low when open. The bar which forms the hinge also stiffens up the bottom edge of the screen.
The hinge (view large image)
The bottom of the computer is smooth, with small protruding feet about 1.5mm (1/16” long). There is a single removable cover for the RAM slot. There are some small air vents on the bottom but they are supplemented by other air vents on the sides. The standard 6 cell battery fits inside the chassis between the keyboard and the hinge and occupies the full thickness of the computer. The battery is slotted in from below and is held in place by two latches, one of which is spring-loaded to facilitate removal.
Underside of the G11: The only removable cover is for the RAM slot (view large image)
The front edge of the palm rest is bevelled and is a comfortably low 21mm from the table surface. The keyboard on the Zepto 6024W has an almost standard layout. The Fn key occupies the front left corner which suits me fine but will cause other people to run away. There are 83 keys which have clear white markings on a black plastic background. The Ctrl key is in the bottom left corner which will please many people (not including myself).The keys are slightly small 17mm pitch which will confuse touch-typists but there’s no space for anything bigger within the width. Personally, I miss dedicated Pg Up and Pg Dn keys and would have been pleased if these had been provided instead of blank spaces between the left and right cursor keys and the right space bar.
The G11’s keyboard without the battery in place (view large image)
The keyboard is responsive and has a comfortable action in spite of the limited travel. There is some bounce in the central part, but not enough to disrupt typing. The Fn keys include the usual options for display switching, brightness and volume controls. Fn+F10 toggles a zoom option which enlarges the display to 800 x 600 resolution. Fn+F6 toggles the touchpad while Fn+F12 enables hibernation.
The touchpad is a reasonably generous 64mm x 39mm and is slightly recessed into the palm rest. It is an Alps touchpad with a limited range of additional functions. I would have liked to be able to define tap zones for the Pg Up and Pg Dn commands but cannot find this option. The touchpad buttons are right on the front edge of the palmrest. The palmrest is almost covered with stickers listing the key features and the specification.
Front indicator lights and audio sockets (view large image)
There are four indicator lights on the front right edge of the palm rest so they are visible from above and from the front. Someone at Sony has realised that this location is more likely to be visible, at least for people who use a mouse, than the more popular indicator location under the user’s left palm. From left to right the lights are: Battery; HDD (also include ODD and other media) access; WLAN on; and Bluetooth on. The lights have symbols to make them easy to interpret.
The switches at the back of the keyboard (view large image)
The power button is located above the Delete key with a green light on the edge of the chassis. This light is visible whether the computer is open or closed. There are three keyboard indicator lights between the power button and the delete key. These are simple green LEDs with a small printed legend next to them. There are two other buttons between the power button and the display. One button ejects the optical drive. The other is user-configurable but, by default, is preset to stop unwanted action during a presentation such as a screen saver or email alert. Above the keyboard on the left side are a fingerprint reader and a hardware wireless switch.
A Tour of the Sides
Overall, the ports are quite well laid out. The fan exhaust is near the back on the left side while there are no sockets near the front of the right side to get in the way of a mouse. However, the audio ports are at the right side at the front and wires with straight plugs could still get in the way. There is no built-in microphone, There are two USB ports, one each near the back on each side. The USB port on the right side is orientated vertically with the “top” facing towards the back of the computer (so you can’t see the activity light on a flash drive if it is on the top). The power socket location is fine because the power plug is L-shaped (with the nice detail of a built-in LED power light). The tray loading optical drive is very close to the table surface. The photos show how close the G11 sits to the table. The SD card socket can only be accessed by lifting the front of the computer because the front edge slopes inwards towards the base. Perhaps the reason for the sloping sides is that they make it easier to lift the computer. Let’s have a tour of the sockets, clockwise starting at the front.
The front has separate Memory Stick and SD/MMC slots (with activity light on left side) , headphone and microphone sockets some air vents and the loudspeaker grill. (view large image)
Left side from back to front: Power socket, USB2.0 port, network port, fan exhaust, cardbus slot and security slot (view large image)
Right side from front to back: optical drive (with air inlet below), modem port, VGA port and USB 2.0 port. They could have squeezed in another USB port. (view large image)
The back: Just the hinge mechanism (view large image)
The display is 1024 x 768 (XGA) matte LCD with LED backlight. I had previously thought that the display in my Zepto 6024W was a good example of a matte display, but it doesn’t stand comparison with the G11’s display which has, in my experience, exceptional brightness and richness of colours without any obvious loss in quality caused by the anti-glare coating. The illumination is very even with the exception of a zone about 3mm high along the bottom edge where there are noticeable slightly brighter patches at about 5mm intervals which, I assume, are caused by the LED lights.
It is difficult for my camera to do justice to this display (view large image)
There are 9 brightness settings. 3/8 gives adequate lighting to extend battery time and the full brightness is almost too bright. Viewing angles are typical for displays of this type. The horizontal viewing angle range is good and the vertical range moderate for text work. However, colour images are best viewed at 90°. They become darker when the top of the screen is pushed back and lighter if it is pulled forward.
The benefit of the matte screen is a much reduced problem of annoying reflections. However, one does not see this benefit unless the computer is put alongside another computer with a glossy screen. This display is usable outside at full brightness if away from direct sunshine
The G11 contains one small loudspeaker located somewhere under the right palm rest. Not surprisingly for such a small notebook, the audio quantity and quality from this loudspeaker is poor. There is no obvious Sony customisation of the Realtek audio installation to give the optimum audio settings. There is no built-in microphone.
Processor and Chipset
The G11 is designed for stamina, not speed, and is powered by the Intel U1500 Core Solo CPU. This CPU is one of the Ultra Low Voltage family with a maximum Thermal Design Power (TDP) rating of 5.5W compared with over 30W for a standard Core Duo CPU. It is a single core CPU (or more likely a dual core CPU with one core disabled) and is functionally very similar to a Pentium M CPU.
CPU-Z reports for the G11 CPU.CPU-Z does not see the second RAM module (view large image)
This U1500 CPU has voltage range of 0.937V at 6x (800MHz) to 0.968V at 10x (1.33GHz). I had expected to see a lower voltage range given the “Ultra Low” name but these values are in the middle of Intel’s specified range (0.80 to 1.10V). The BIOS is dated December 2006 and no updates have been issued.
Alongside the low power CPU is the Intel 945GMS chipset which is a lower power version of the normal Intel 945GM chipset. Features include the use of only a single memory channel with a maximum speed of 533MHz and maximum address capability of 2GB. The computer as supplied has 512MB RAM on board plus 512MB RAM in the single slot. Sony indicate that the maximum RAM capacity of this model is 1.5GB. It seems that they did not try a 2GB module: It works fine subject to the overall 2GB ceiling. However, I don’t know which 512MB is ignored.
Vista reporting 2GB RAM when a 2GB module is installed (view large image)
The supplied hard disk is a 100GB 1.8” 4200rpm Toshiba MK1011GAH using the PATA interface. 1.8” HDDs have smaller size, lower weight and less capacity than the 2.5” HDDs used in most notebooks. They also have lower power consumption: Toshiba show 1.1W for seek and 0.3W for idle. They are slower compared to the current generation of 2.5” HDDs with a maximum transfer rate of 28MB/s dropping down to 13MB/s. HD Tune’s results for this disk are below.
(view large image)
The optical drive is the Matshita UJ-852S. This is an ultra-slim (9.5mm / 3/8”) thick unit. Inspection reveals that it does not have the full housing used in normal notebook burners: There is just a base and a tray built into the chassis so weight is reduced as well as thickness. This burner supports the full range of DVD / CD burning functions including +/- dual layer DVD and DVD RAM but not disc labelling or the high-definition formats. I have not extensively tested the optical drive, but it has played DVDs, CDs and burnt the recovery media without problems. An interesting feature is that Sony have connected this burner as a USB device and provided a utility to shut off the power.
Nero’s report on the UJ-852S (view large image)
Sony provide a number of utilities for the G11. The main interface to these is through the Vaio Control Center. While some of the controls are standard system features, others are special. The most interesting functions are:
(view large image)
The Vaio Status Monitor provides a viewer showing the status of the various settings.
(view large image)
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