Sony VAIO FJ Series Notebook Review (pics, specs)

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by Andrew Baxter, New York USA

The Sony VAIO FJ series notebook is a thin-and-light notebook designed in the typical stylish Sony way.  The unit being reviewed is the Sony VAIO VGN-FJ170 which sports a Pentium M 1.73GHz processor, 512MB of RAM, 100GB 5400RPM SATA hard drive.  The VAIO FJ series features a nicely integrated built-in web camera and microphone for easy video conferencing and chat.

Sony VAIO FJ notebook (view larger image)

Sony VAIO FJ170 Specs

  • Pentium M 740 1.73GHz 2MB Cache, 533MHz FSB
  • 512MB DDR2 RAM
  • 14.1″ WXGA with XBRITE-ECO
  • 100GB SATA Hard Drive 5400 RPM
  • Onyx Black Exterior Lid
  • Microsoft Windows XP Home
  • DVD +R Double Layer / DVD +- RW Drive
  • Ports: RJ-11 Modem port, 10BASE-T/100BASE-TX Fast Ethernet RJ-45 port, Microphone jack, Headphone jack, 3 USB 2.0 ports, Monitor (VGA) port,  Memory Stick Media Slot, PCMCIA slot, 4pin i.LINK connector (IEEE 1394), port replicator connector
  • Graphics: IntelGraphics Media Accelerator 900 128MB Dynamically Shared Video Memory

Build and Design

Design wise the VAIO FJ is quite beautiful.  You can get the lid in various colors such as blue, green, red, white or black.  The model we’re reviewing has an onyx black lid, which is really quite attractive and definitely what you’d want if looking for a more toned down professional look.  The large silver VAIO lettering on the lid is distinctive and people will recognize the branding as being a Sony Electronics piece of equipment, for the style conscious that’s a good thing.

Sony VAIO FJ lid view (Onyx black color, available in 4 other colors) (view larger image)

The look of the laptop is clean, aside from the lid it’s a two-tone silver-gray finish with a dark grey keyboard.  Even the camera is cleanly integrated, it’s hard to notice, and if you removed the sticker from that area indicating there’s a built-in camera then you might not even know it’s there.

I like the way the screen sits slightly below the base of the notebook and not right on top, it’s designed a bit like an Apple PowerBook in this way.  If you’re in an area with cramped conditions, such as a plane, it means the screen sits a little lower and won’t bump into the seat in front quite as easily.

Sony VAIO FJ front side view (view larger image)

The laptop is slim in its design, about 1.2″ thick when the lid is closed and about a 1″ base when the lid is open.  The weight of slightly over 5lbs makes it quite portable, you can slide it into a backpack and not notice the weight too much; it fits squarely into the thin-and-light category of notebooks.

Build wise the VAIO FJ is okay.  The lid seems very strong and protective, if you push in on it no ripples at all are seen on the screen.  But the overall screen has some flex to it and can be bent.  The hinges are good, but not rugged like you’ll find on a competing ThinkPad T43 where you’ll find thick metal hinges.  The overall chassis feels a bit unsturdy, I wouldn’t want to drop this notebook far.  The case is made of plastic, it’s not flimsy like you get on a budget laptop but it’s not the thicker plastic or metal alloy material you get on some of the more expensive more sturdy notebooks.

Sony VAIO FJ underside (view larger image)

The VAIO FJ is about 10-inches deep

The VAIO FJ is about 13.5-inches long

Screen

The screen on the FJ series is a 14.1″ WXGA glossy screen display (1280 x 800).  Sony dubs their enhanced glossy screen as XBRITE, and with the FJ the particular marketing nomenclature is XBRITE-ECO, which apparently is not quite as bright as a regular XBRITE screen but less reflective.  These screen type marketing terms are a bit confusing really.  According to the Sony website this LCD will give you “higher brightness levels than standard displays. The result: deeper blacks, brighter whites, true-to-life color, and razor-sharp detail. And with the anti-reflective coating to minimize reflection, you can enjoy a beautifully clear image from any viewing angle. It’s the ideal way to present your photos and home video, and the only way to watch movies and DVDs when you’re on the go.”

The Sony VAIO FJ XBRITE-ECO screen provides vivid colors, also notice the built-in camera at the top center of the screen (view larger image)

The pictures I took of the screen don’t do it justice, up close and in person is really the only way to appreciate this screen fully.  The colors are gorgeously bright and vivid.  Sony included a screen saver that I found rather memorizing as it uses colorful landscapes, wildlife and marketplace pictures to demonstrate the screen.

The horizontal viewing angle of the screen is very good, even from 180-degrees off to the side the screen is still bright and you can see such things as text clearly.  The vertical viewing angles are not as good, color distortion kicks in after you go outside a 15-degree range of the prime viewing angle.  A picture below demonstrates the distortion you will get:

When viewed at a lower vertical viewing angle colors distort, displayed on the screen is the same scene from the street market screen saver image above (view larger image)

Vertical viewing angles are always more of a challenge on notebooks though, so this isn’t abnormal.  Overall the display is really great, the brightness and excellent contrast provide a pleasurable viewing experience.

Sound

The VAIO FJ has two speakers built-in to provide stereo sound.  The volume level is satisfactory and the clarity is slightly above average for notebook speakers.  As you would expect, you won’t get super bass from these speakers and quality is only so good, it’s just the way things are with notebook speakers.  If you need high quality audio then getting a pair of external speakers or headphones is highly recommended.

Performance

The VAIO FJ170 comes with the Pentium M 740, a 1.73GHz processor with 2MB L2 cache and 533MHz front side bus.  So the VAIO FJ features the latest chipset from Intel.  The VAIO FJ180 is available with a faster Pentium M 750 processor (1.86GHz).  For a thin and light machine targeted at business users and students, I believe the 1.73GHz processor is going to meet your needs just fine.  The speed is still good and since you won’t be using this notebook for much gaming (if you think you are, look to a different notebook with a dedicated graphics card), but rather regular office applications, then the 1.73GHz is good enough.  The fact you have a 5400RPM hard drive standard is going to help things.  The included 512MB PC-3200 400MHz DDR2 RAM should be ample too, although 1GB would be nice and may give you a slight performance boost if you choose to upgrade.  Note, Sony gives you a 1-stick of 512MB with the FJ so it’s easy to upgrade with another 512MB stick to get to 1GB of RAM.

Benchmarks

To get a readout of overall processor performance we use the program Super Pi to force the processor to calculate Pi to 2 million digits of accuracy. Below are the timed results of running this program for the VAIO FJ170 and some comparison times from other laptops.

Notebook  Time
 Sony VAIO FJ170 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)  1m 49s
 Dell Inspiron 9300 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 39s
 Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 53s
 IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 45s
 Asus Z70A (1.6GHz Pentium M)  1m 53s
 Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)  1m 48s
 Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  1m 52s
 Dell Inspiron 600M (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  2m 10s
 Sony VAIO S360 (1.7 GHz Pentium M)  1m 57s
 HP DV4170us (Pentium M 1.73 GHz)  1m 53s
 Sony VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 45s

The hard drive on the VAIO FJ170 is a generous size 100GB drive that spins at a respectable 5400RPM, below is a graph of benchmark results gained from running the program HDTune:

Below are results garnered from running PCMark04 to get overall notebook processing and graphic performance results.  The VAIO FJ170 is compared to a Gateway S-7700N notebook with the same Pentium M 740 processors but the Gateway has an ATI X700 graphics card, and you can see where that dedicated graphics card really helps the Gateway in the last two benchmark measurements:

Futuremark PCMark04 Scores
  Gateway S-7700N (Pentium M 740) Sony VAIO FJ170 (Pentium M 740)
 Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression 3.428 MB/s 3.17 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption 25.991 MB/s 24.77 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression 22.691 MB/s 21.18 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing 10.482 MPixels/s 10.04 MPixels/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning 1661.758 MB/s 1704.72 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check 2.747 KB/s 2.45 KB/s
 File Decryption 51.831 MB/s 49.2 MB/s
 Audio Conversion 2370.378 KB/s 2254.79 KB/s
 Web Page Rendering 4.599 Pages/s 4.7 Pages/s
 DivX Video Compression 50.283 FPS 45.45 FPS
 Physics Calculation and 3D 176.246 FPS 83.57 FPS
 Graphics Memory – 64 Lines 1886.398 FPS 400.67 FPS

The application 3DMark05 was run on the VAIO FJ to test graphics performance, as expected the score was very low, gaming notebooks such as the Dell XPS2 will score in the range of 4,000 and above, the VAIO FJ with its integrated graphics did not.

3DMark05 Score: 199

Battery

With a thin-and-light you hope that the battery is good enough to get you 4 — 5 hours of life for those times you need to be on the go and mobile.  That amount of battery life is wishful thinking with the FJ.  Sony rates the included rechargeable Lithium-Ion battery as giving you between 1.5 — 3.5 hours.  That’s a pretty wide range, in our tests here’s what we found using the application Battery Eater Pro to get some benchmarks:

  • With notebook completely idle and screen at 50% brightness: 239 minutes (3h 59m)
  • With screen at full brightness and using notebook constantly: 76 minutes (1h 16m)

The sad news is that if you’re watching a DVD that’s much over 1.5 hours it’s going to be a struggle to make it all the way through without recharging.  You can get a larger capacity battery that claims 50% more battery life, but it will stick out at the back and add weight to the laptop, the cost of that battery is $299 so the buy in is steep.  An extra standard sized battery might be a better option, it costs $199 so is still a rather expensive proposition.  The VAIO FJ media bay is not a multi-bay, so you cannot put a battery in there like you can with some laptops.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The layout of the keyboard keys is good, it is a sturdy full-size keyboard and all the keys you’ll want are there and no weird key placement.

A view of the keyboard and touchpad (view larger image)

Discussing keyboard feel is always a bit subjective as personal preference comes in to play.  This author finds that the keyboard provides too shallow a key stroke, meaning there’s not much travel on a key when you push it in.  The keyboard also feels a little on the clunky side.  I prefer ThinkPad style keyboards where each key feels very individual and pushes down a long way.  If you’ve used a Dell Inspiron before or are familiar with earlier VAIO keyboards, the FJ is similar in feel to both.  I’m very particular with keyboards, I give this one an average rating, if you only care that all the keys are there and full sized then you’ll be completely satisfied with the keyboard.

The touchpad is fine as far as they go, the sensitivity might not suit you right out of the box but this can be configured.  Double tapping can be used to register as a double click.  There’s no hardware button to turn off the touchpad like some laptops have, it would have been nice to see that.

The raised mouse buttons are a nice size and easy to feel, no complaints there.

Ports and Input

The VAIO FJ offers a generous amount of ports, here’s a complete rundown on all that are available:

  • RJ-11 Modem port (left side)
  • 10BASE-T/100BASE-TX Fast Ethernet RJ-45 port (left side)
  • Microphone jack (right side)
  • Headphone jack (right side)
  • 3 USB 2.0 ports (1 on left, 2 on right)
  • Monitor (VGA) out port (left side)
  • Power jack (right side)
  • Memory Stick Media Slot (front side)
  • PCMCIA slot (left side)
  • 4pin i.LINK connector (IEEE 1394) (left side)
  • Port replicator connector (bottom)
  • Wi-Fi on/off button (front)
  • 2 Programmable shortcut buttons (S1/S2) (top right keyboard area)
  • DVD +R Double Layer / DVD +- RW Drive (right side)
  • Built-in web camera and mic

The port distribution is good and things are easy to access.  The two programmable buttons are very nice to have, you can configure them to open such applications as a browser or email with the touch of a button.  The FireWire port and MemoryStick reader are appreciated, it’d be nice to have some alternative media cards as options in the reader but we all know Sony’s intention of vertical integration among products here.

Sony VAIO FJ left side view ports (view larger image)

Sony VAIO FJ right side view ports (view larger image)

The built-in web came and mic can be great for video chat or doing such things as Skype and IP telephony.  Sony is adding a feature that makes it standout with the built-in camera, not too many thin-and-light notebooks have this.  The video quality it provides is definitely serviceable.  Below is a picture I captured of a coke can, you can use the camera to capture still shots as well as video.

This is an example of an image taken using the integrated VAIO FJ webcam, the quality is really quite good

If there aren’t enough ports for you built-in, there’s an optional port replicator that can be purchased for the FJ series and provides you with such things as a DVI port and printer port.

Wireless

Sony provides you with a built-in Intel PRO Wireless 2200BG card so you can connect to a nearby 802.11 b/g wireless access point.  There’s not much to say here other than the wireless worked well in tests.  There’s no fancy antenna extension into the screen like with some notebooks, but if you’re within a 150ft of an access point and there’s not too many obstructions in the way then you’ll connect just fine.  The 2200BG card is used in many a laptop and has proven a trusty component.

Software

The VAIO FJ170 comes with Windows XP Home, if you’d prefer Windows XP Pro then you’ll need to get the VAIO FJ180.  Here’s a list of all the software you get included with the FJ:

  • Click to DVD – DVD Creation
  • DVgate Plus – Digital Video
  • SonicStage – Digital Music
  • VAIO Media – Network File Sharing
  • Image Converter – PSP Transfer
  • Adobe Photoshop Album Starter Edition
  • Intuit Quicken 2005 New User Edition
  • InterVideo WinDVD
  • Microsoft Works 8.0
  • Microsoft Office 2003 60-Day Trial (Student/ Teacher Edition)
  • Roxio DigitalMedia SE
  • Norton Internet Security 90-Day Subscription – Norton AntiVirus
  • Intermute SpySubtract 30-Day Trial
  • VAIO Update software
  • VAIO Recovery Wizard software
  • VAIO Support Central
  • AOL Online 180-Day Trial

The Click to DVD is a decent application for recording to DVD.  The rest of the stuff is hit or miss and we could sure do without the ubiquitous AOL software, just another thing you’ll have to remove.

Heat and Noise

I didn’t experience any problems with fan noise on the FJ170.  It was very quiet and does a good job of staying cool.  The optical drive is a bit loud though, when the DVD or CD is spinning up you’ll notice the noise.

The heat didn’t get excessive on any area in my usage.  The palm rest areas got a little warm during a benchmark application being run, but nothing terrible.  The bottom stayed relatively cool too.  The popular VAIO S series (13.3″ screen laptop) has a bit of a reputation for getting warm, but the FJ suffers no such problems.

Conclusion

The VAIO FJ series is a very stylish laptop, available in five different colors so that you can express yourself, it’s nice to have that option.  The overall build quality is decent, it’s made of a plastic material but does not flex too much and the screen lid provides good protection.  The weight of 5.3lbs means you’ll be able to carry this laptop around fairly easily, if only the battery life were better than the 2 hours we got it could be considered a more portable machine.  Extra touches such as the programmable shortcut buttons, nicely integrated webcam and wireless on/off switch are thoughtful.  I’m sure the built-in webcam and microphone will be a popular feature for those that are into using video chat.  Although this is a consumer oriented laptop, the webcam can be a very useful business tool as well.  Overall, the VAIO FJ is a nice machine, it’s not a powerhouse or designed for 3D gaming, but for basic high school and college student needs it is perfect, or for small business owners that want to maybe have an all in one video conferencing machine the FJ can fill a role too.

Pricing and Availability:  Sony VAIO FJ series notebook


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