Sony VAIO BX540 Review (pics, specs)

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Sony VGN-BX540B11 Review

The Sony Vaio BX series is Sony’s business class notebook line. The BX line comes in 14.1″ (BX540 series), 15.4″ (BX560 series) and 17″ (BX570 series) LCD screen flavors. The price as configured for my 14.1″ VAIO BX540 is $699. Sony has a deal currently running until 9/30/06 where if you trade in an old Dell notebook, you can get a $500 rebate ($300 for non-Dell notebooks) toward the purchase of a new BX series notebook. I had an old Dell notebook gathering dust so I figured I would give the Sony a try. For more details about Sony’s Trade Up program, go here.


Sony VAIO VGN-BX540B11 specs:

  • 14.1″ XGA TFT with XBRITE-ECO technology (1024 x 768)
  • Intel Pentium M 740 (1.73GHz, 533MHz FSB, 2MB L2 Cache)
  • 512MB DDR2-533 PC2-4200, 256MB x 2
  • 40GB Hard Disk Drive 5400rpm SATA
  • CD-RW/DVD combo
  • Intel GMA 900 graphics
  • Intel 915GM Chipset
  • Intel Pro Wireless 2200BG with wireless On/Off switch
  • Modem/10/100/1000 Ethernet
  • Bluetooth 2.0 technology
  • Ports: Kensington Lock, VGA, Ethernet, Modem, Type I/II Cardbus PCMCIA slot, Firewire 4pin, Audio line in/out, USB 2.0 x 3
  • Built in Memory Stick/MS Duo and Secure Digital card reader slots
  • Built in biometric fingerprint reader
  • Lithium ion 11.1V, 4000mAh, 6 cell battery
  • Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional
  • Bundled Software: Microsoft Works 8.0 with Microsoft Office 2003 Trial 60 days
  • Weight: 5.07 lbs without power brick
  • Dimensions: 12.5″ (W) x 10.4″ (D) x 1.32″ (H)

I have a five year old Dell Latitude C810 notebook which served me well, but I needed a new notebook for school and one that wouldn’t break the bank. I looked at the Sony SZ, Lenovo Thinkpad T and Apple Macbook notebooks, but my school bookstore had a special on the Sony Vaio BX. I wanted a basic notebook to write papers, browse the web, watch an occasional DVD, and be durable and light enough to be tossed into a backpack to go back and forth from the dorm to class.

Sony, well known for their home and entertainment products, have seen the success of the Lenovo/IBM Thinkpad and Dell Latitude and Precision class notebooks and decided to plunge into the corporate notebook business.

Unboxing

After purchasing the notebook I brought it home and unboxed it. I was a little surprised to see the Vaio was packaged in a rather unelegant cardboard box. The box certainly exuded a feeling of all business.


Accessories: DVD/CD-RW combo drive, AC adaptor, battery


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No bubble wrap! The notebook was suspended in the box via a thick plastic bag. Talk about cost cutting!


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Build & Design

At first glance Sony does not disappoint with the aesthetics here. The lid is an attractive silver tone with chromed lettering. The lid is quite sturdy and made of magnesium composite. I could not get the screen to ripple when pressing on the back and there is no flex. Note, only the 14″ screen model is made of magnesium composite. The 15.4″ and 17″ LCD screen models have a plastic frame.

When I pick the notebook up from the corner with one hand there is surprisingly little flex. This is in sharp contrast to my old Dell which felt like it was going to fall apart if I tried that.

The screen hinges are a combination of metal and plastic and appear rather sturdy, although not quite up to the standards of a Thinkpad. There is a single plastic latch to keep the screen down.


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Note when the LCD is locked down with the latch, there remains a small gap between the screen and the laptop base. This was quite disappointing and was not up to my standards for a solidly constructed business notebook.

The silver and black keyboard combination looks ok. The front of the notebook has a reflective mirror plastic to add to the “bling” factor. There is both a touchpad and pointer for mouse navigation. More on the touchpad performance later.


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Another complaint with the design is that the screen and base are slightly angled inwards and it feels funny carrying the notebook in your hand. I don’t understand why Sony didn’t design the notebook to be flat or slightly convex along the height of the notebook:


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The battery attaches to the bottom of the notebook and is held in place with a battery lock switch. The two upgradeable memory banks are also are also on the bottom of the notebook.

Screen:

The notebook comes with a non-widescreen 14.1″ 1024 x 768 resolution screen. The renowned Sony XBRITE-ECO is a nice screen; very bright and crisp. The difference between the XBRITE and XBRITE-ECO are: the XBRITE has two backlights, while the XBRITE-ECO has only one. The LCD is glossy and reflective. I did notice that whites on the LCD had a pinkish cast when viewed from an angle. I would have preferred a higher resolution screen, especially coming from my old Dell’s 1600 x 1200 15″ LCD, but the color reproduction and crispness of the screen is certainly impressive and a joy to use. Most of the time I set the screen to 7 out of 9 brightness because the highest setting is too bright for me.


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Movies looked great without a hint of motion lag.

Viewing angles were better side to side rather than up and down. There were no dead or stuck pixels.

Speakers

The speakers are located at the front of the keyboard. When your hands are on the keyboard you will block some of the sound and the speakers sound muffled. No great surprise, but as with most notebook speakers, the BX540 speakers are disappointing. I had to crank the volume all the way up to get decent playback when watching a movie. Headphones are essential for quality sound. Unfortunately the headphone plug is located on the back left corner of the laptop.

Processor and Performance

The tried and true Pentium M is a lot faster than my old PIII-M. It runs Microsoft Office and Adobe Photoshop smoothly. There is a little lag when multiple programs are open and the older generation Pentium M processor found in this notebook is definitely going to get beaten by a Core Duo, but I’m not doing much multimedia editing or game playing so it’s good enough for my needs.

Super Pi Benchmark to 2 million: 1m 46s

PCMark05 Benchmark Results: 1905

The Sony notebook comes with a SATA drive which I was a little surprised about. It is performing slightly faster than my old IDE 5400rpm notebook drive.

HD Tune Hard Drive Benchmark Results:


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3DMark05 Benchmark Results: 266

Performance is good enough to run your basic office applications. Soapbox: Certainly the newest Core Duo (and Core Duo 2) processors are offering faster performance without any penalties in battery life, but I feel like there is definitely a marketing pitch by Intel trying to get everyone to believe they need dual core processing, and that is definitely not true. I would prefer to see a better designed notebook product, rather than one with all the latest hardware components slapped haphazardly together.

This notebook is not a good choice for gamers, without a dedicated video card built-in.

Heat & Noise:

When I first started using the notebook, I noticed it was hot. A lot hotter than my old Dell! I installed Notebook Hardware Control which measured the CPU at a toasty 61C (142F) and the hard disk at 53 C (127F). I installed the latest Sony BIOS upgrade to version R0190X5 (from R0130X5) and now the fan runs constantly at a low speed. I don’t mind the fan; the average temperature of the CPU after the BIOS upgrade is 42C with a hard disk temperature of 47C. There is still considerable heat over the right palm rest and especially the right undersurface of the notebook after prolonged use.

The 4000 mAh battery is rated for 2-3 hours by Sony. After undervolting the laptop with Notebook Hardware Control, I ran Battery Eater Pro to test the battery life. I was certainly disappointed, however, not entirely surprised to see a rundown time of 2:35. However, this is a very rigorous battery draining test and with light word processing and web use I could probably squeeze out 3 hours of usage.


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Keyboard and Touchpad:

The keyboard is standard for a laptop layout with normal sized keys. The Sony website says the keyboard offers 19.05mm pitch and 2.5mm keystroke travel. I am happy to report that there is no significant flex. I’m happy with the keyboard layout as there is a normal sized backspace key and appropriate positioning of the left Ctrl key. There is more key travel than my old Dell, which I’m slowly getting used to. It isn’t quite up to the quality of a ThinkPad keyboard, but it is of above average build quality.


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The touchpad is relatively small compared to other notebook vendors and noticeably more “jumpy” when compared to my old Dell. For example, when using the touchpad, the cursor will occasionally jump to other parts of the screen. The notebook also offers a pointing stick device, however I have always preferred a touchpad to go quickly from one side of the screen to the other. The touchpad does offer side and up/down scrolling, however, there are no physical graphics on the touchpad to indicate that. There is no sensitivity setting on the touchpad itself, so I’m trying to get used to the erratic behavior.

A complaint about the buttons; they are quite small and difficult to push. They are slightly recessed as you can see from the picture and sometimes I miss the buttons when I’m expecting to have pressed them.

There is software to enable just the touchpad or pointing stick if you prefer one over the other. I’m hoping to get a Bluetooth mouse in the future to eliminate having to deal with the touchpad.

The Biometric fingerprint reader actually works quite well and is fun to use.


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Input and Outputs:


Sony Vaio BX left side view (view large image)


Sony Vaio BX right side view (view large image)

The left side contains (from back to front) the Kensington notebook lock, microphone and headphone ports, fan, and DVD/CD-RW drive.

The right side contains (from back to front) VGA out, 3 USB ports, 4 pin FireWire port, and a single Type II PCMCIA card slot. The USB ports are spaced quite close together and when I plug in my iPod Shuffle USB key, it unfortunately blocks the adjacent port.


Sony Vaio BX front view (view large image)

The front of the laptop has two speakers at each end. There is a wireless ON/OFF switch, secure digital and Memory Stick card readers.


Sony Vaio BX rear view (view large image)

The rear of the laptop contains the Ethernet and modem ports, battery slot and AC power.

I was able to successfully sync the Bluetooth with my Palm Tungsten T3 and transfer a few files. I don’t imagine the Bluetooth being all that useful for day-to-day purposes. The Intel 2200BG wireless card provides wireless B and G speeds and works well. The built-in wireless range isn’t any longer than my old PCMCIA wireless cards, but it otherwise functions as expected.

There is a noteworthy lack of S-video output or parallel/serial legacy ports.

Operating System and Software:

The system came preinstalled with Windows XP Professional. I’ve heard about all the bloatware that comes with new laptops these days and this Sony certainly didn’t disappoint! There were a total of 62 processes running with the notebook out of the box. Immediately you are bombarded with popups requesting you to register the trial version of Norton Internet Security and Sony’s fingerprint reader. Also installed were Microsoft Works and a 60 day trial of Microsoft Office 2003. I’m having trouble uninstalling all the programs, so I plan on doing a clean install of Windows.

Sony did include a system recovery DVD, which is nice considering how most companies are charging extra for it these days.

Customer Support:

Sony offers a one year part and labor warranty. I haven’t had to call into their tech support yet.

Verdict:

I struggled a lot with my overall impression with the notebook. I really wanted to like it and so far it has been acceptable, with a subjective rating of 6.5 out of 10. If my rebate is successful for the price I hope I will be able to get it for, I would rate it an 8.5 out of 10. I just hope the notebook will serve me as well as my old Dell and only time will tell.


Pros:

  • Magnesium contruction (only on the 14″ models)
  • XBRITE-ECO screen
  • Firewire port

Cons:

  • USB Ports too close together
  • Runs hot (make sure to get firmware update)
  • Poor battery life of 2hr 30 minutes
  • Not the latest processor (Pentium M single core)
  • “Jumpy” touchpad


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