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by Skyshade, South Carolina USA
“The VAIO FS680/W notebook has an incredibly well- balanced design. It is slim and lightweight to allow for convenient mobility, and the included TV/PVR dock lets you watch and record your favorite TV shows right on your PC. The NVIDIA GeForce graphics ensures your games and images are crisp and sharp. The exceptional 15.4″ widescreen display with Sony’s original XBRITE-ECO LCD technology and Smart Display Sensor provide a movie viewing experience you can only get from a Sony.”
– quote from www.sonystyle.com
As a Sony laptop owner for the past five years and three Sony laptops, I have developed a habit of keeping track of what products Sony is pushing out of its door. Since Sony is a Japanese company and most of their new products are released in Japan first, this little habit of mine means that I get to practice the little Japanese that I learned in college and try to read the official Sony VAIO computer website in Japan (http://www.vaio.sony.co.jp/). One thing that I have learned from years of surfing the Japanese page and the SonyStyle.com in USA is that the Japanese site is much more accurate on the product description and specifications than its US counterpart.
The statement above from SonyStyle.com about FS680/W is a show case of how the US site cannot get its act together and put the right screen technology in the description, despite information on the same page says FS680/W uses XBRITE (we will get to the difference between XBRITE and XBRITE-ECO later). Not only that, it fails to address the two most important design features of the FS680/W and FS Series in general – home use and beginner friendly – both advertised strongly on Sony’s Japanese page. If you use FS for the applications and scenarios that it is designed for, it is an excellent machine. Unfortunately, I fear the inaccurate product descriptions will lead many people to buy FS for the wrong reasons and suffer the penalty from its design.
Mobility and Where to Use
The Sony VAIO FS is Sony’s contender in the heavily contested 15.4″ main stream notebook arena. The choices out there are so numerous that you could divide them into sub-groups, like main stream (of main stream) where mobility, performance, and price are somewhat balanced out, budget oriented machines that use parts with less performance, or some heavy weight ones like the Fujitsu N3510 that really should be in the Desktop Replacement (DTR) category.
The FS Series was the lightest (and probably also the thinnest) among the 15.4″ offerings at its debut and I think it still holds the crown now. Unfortunately, despite its thin and light look, the VAIO FS Series is designed for home use, not on the go. Period.
Sony representatives here will not tell you this, but FS Series is sold in Japan along with 17″ and 15.4″ A Series as “Home Notes”, a.k.a. Desktop Replacement. Considering how small some Japanese (or Sony) electronics are, it is probably not too surprising. However, you don’t really need to worry too much about battery life when you design (or buy) a DTR. In the case of FS Series, the battery life is definitely not its strength and you will be forced to carry the humongous AC adapter with you when you move around, hopefully within your house like it was designed to.
Now, once we understand that the FS Series, in all its glory as a thin and light laptop, is actually designed as a DTR, we will get on with the review of the flagship of FS Series, the FS680/W. Along the way, I will try to explain more on what the Sony FS Series is and isn’t in general, in the hope that our readers can make a more informed purchase on any FS Series laptops.
Review Unit Specifications
The review unit I received was the FS680/W, the flagship of FS Series. The memory and hard drive capacity are both maxed out and the Pentium M 750 running at 1.86 GHz is one of the fastest Pentium M CPU options around. This unit also includes the TV tuner dock option, which costs $350 stand alone (not the $200 plain port replicator, which has no TV tuner). With the loaded configuration, the price tag is $2199 – a solid $450 difference from the next step down in line, the FS660, which uses the Pentium M 740 and 80 GB HDD with no TV tuner.
Except the laptop, everything else belongs to the $350 TV tuner dock option, which includes the dock, the remote control, the IR receiver for the remote control, and two speakers (yes, there are AC adaptors and power cables, I just don’t have a big enough table to hold all of them) (view larger image)
A run down of the major components are listed below, with hyperlink to the specification file in SonyStyle.com. The information on those two links is pretty accurate so you can rely on them (since I just bashed Sony for putting inaccurate information here and there).
- Processor: Intel Pentium M Processor 750 (1.86GHz)
- Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition with Service Pack 2
- Front Side Bus: 533MHz
- Chipset: Intel 915GM
- Integrated Wireless LAN: Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG (802.11b/g)
- LCD: 15.4″ WXGA (1280×800) with XBRITE technology
- Hard Drive: 100GB 4200 RPM Ultra ATA
- Memory: 1GB PC-2700 333MHz DDR (512MB x 2)
- Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce Go 6200 with TurboCache supporting 128MB (32 MB onboard TC and 96 MB shared main momery)
- Optical Drive: DVD+R Double Layer / DVD RW Drive
- Connectivity: Integrated V.90 Modem (RJ-11) and 10BASE-T/100BASE-TX Ethernet (RJ-45), Memory Stick Slot, PCMCIA – Type II/Type I card, 4-pin i.LINK connector(IEEE 1394), 3 USB 2.0 ports, port replicator connector, VGA out, monaural mini microphone jack, headphone jack.
- Pointing Device: Electro-Static touch pad
- Keyboard: QWERTY, 86 keys with 2.5mm stroke and 19.05mm pitch
- Action Buttons: S1, S2 (programmable), Wireless LAN on/off
- Weight: 6.28 lbs. with standard battery
- Dimensions: 14.33″(W) x 1″-1.41″(H) x 10.41″(D)
- Supplied Accessories: Standard Lithium-ion battery (VGP-BPS2A), AC adapter (VGP-AC19V11), TV/PVR Expansion Docking Station, Speakers (2), Remote Control with USB IR Receiver, Power Cord.
- TV/PVR Expansion Dock with Speakers: 4 USB 2.0 ports, VGA out, SPDIF Out, Line Out, DC In, RJ-45 Ethernet, TV (Composite) In, S-Video In, RF In, Giga Pocket MPEG2 real-time encoder/decoder board with TV Tuner
- Product Link: Sony VAIO FS680
- Product Specs Link: Sony VAIO FS680 Specs
Design & Build
Since I mentioned I own three Sony laptops, it is probably not too surprising that I (and actually my wife and my 4-year-old, too) find the FS design to be aesthetically pleasing. I really like the overall look of the FS Series, especially when it was put side-by-side with my VAIO S170. Somehow the little curves here and there just give you the distinct Sony touch and make you feel that you want to play it and you don’t feel tired or bored looking at it.
Also, when you put the FS680 along side the S170, you will truly appreciate how thin the FS Series really is. If you look at the pictures below, the FS is just as thin as the S (if not thinner in certain areas), and the only thing that really makes FS stands taller than S is the little stud in the back that tilt the laptop for better typing angle. Realizing that my S170 has only a 13.3″ WXGA LCD, with about only 90% planar size of the FS, you know FS is really, really thin for its size. Again, this realization just reinforces my earlier plead to the readers to recognize what FS is design for because its look certainly is deceiving.
Frontal look at the FS680, now without the goodies that come with the TV dock (larger image)
Comparison between the 15.4″ FS680 and 13.3″ S170. Looking from the top, you clearly see the family resemblance and the size difference between the two laptops. However, if you look from the sides, it is very hard to tell which is the smaller one — fortunately, Sony uses different color schemes for the two different series.
The FS680 that is reviewed here has the white-and-black, two-tone finish, or “Panda Finish” as I like to call it. I personally am not a big fan of extreme-contrast two-tone schemes, even though I think Sony has really done the best job possible. If you are like me, there are other color schemes available if you order FS directly from Sony. The last time I checked, they don’t have an equivalent to FS680 that includes the dock, so you will have to buy the dock separately.
As mentioned earlier, the FS series is also very light for its size. Sony boasts 6.28 lb with the included standard battery and it certainly feels that way when you carry it, even for a person like me that has been carrying laptops around 4 lb for the past five years. Now, the AC adaptor, however, is enormous and very heavy – I forgot to weigh it, but I’d say it’s at least 2 lbs. The fact that its shape and size is close to a brick doesn’t help, either. The AC adaptor is simply not something you want to lug around, unless you are doing some kind of weight training or you need a self defense weapon. As a result, the mobility of FS as a system is being degraded by the AC adaptor, despite the lightness of the laptop itself. Of course, if you use FS in its intended function, the mobility that you need is not that much and you can easily carry the humongous adaptor around.
The build quality is very good and on par with my expectation despite the fact that the pre-built FS series’ are all manufactured in China (customizable FS are still assembled here in US). The LCD is completely unaffected by poking the back of the top cover and almost impervious to pressing the rims around the LCD (one of the little things that draws fire on the S series). The main body of the laptop is also very solid and you feel very little flexing when you press really hard on it. Sony will not be too happy about hearing this, but my 4-year-old got a little too excited a couple time and gave the phrase “key stroke” a new meaning, yet the FS handled the abuse easily. For its original purpose as a home laptop, the toughness of FS series is certainly more than adequate.
I/O Interfaces and Layout
Compared to other 15″ or 15.4″ laptops, the FS series has fewer connector ports. This is mostly due to the fact that Sony is trying to reduce the weight and thickness of the FS and you have some areas that just can’t be utilized for ports. On the other hand, the lack of having every port imaginable does give the laptop a cleaner look from certain angles. You can find most of the ports you need in the laptop.
To the left of the laptop, you have the typical ethernet and modem ports close to the LCD. The majority of the space is taken up by the optical drive, which is a double layer DVD+R burner in FS680. Then, there is the tiny hole for laptop lock. Other than that, there is nothing to the left side.
From left to right are the ethernet, modem, DVD burner and laptop lock slot on the left side of the laptop (larger image)
Going to the back, there is nothing except the battery slot (which you don’t really see because there is always a battery) and air vent. One thing I would like to point out here is the battery does wiggle a little, just like every other Sony laptop that uses the cantilever type battery insertion in the back. I have not owned or operated one that I’ve needed to do something about, but there are people out there that have encountered batteries that rattle more than others. The problem is easily solvable by padding the battery some, however.
Except the air vent, the only slot in the back is the battery slot (larger image)
Compared to the cleanness of the left and the emptiness of the back, the right side seems to be extremely crowded. There is the PCMCIA card slot – not the new Express Card technology, just the plain old PCMCIA — slot nearest to you, followed by 4-pin firewire port, memory stick port, 3 USB, VGA out and AC in. I personally have no problem with the memory stick slot since my digital camera is a Sony and really this is what Sony intends to do – provide an integrated Sony experience so that you keep buying everything Sony, but I am sure some people will moan when they find out whatever media used in their digital cameras is not directly accessible.
PCMCIA card slot, firewire slot, memory stick slot, three USB, VGA out, and AC in fill up the right side of the laptop easily (larger image)
With the right side covering pretty much everything, there is really very little left for the front and the top. You will find the power button and two “S” buttons on the space between the LCD and keyboard, as well as the speakers and indicator lights like “caps lock”. If you do not know what an “S button” is, it’s basically a programmable quick link to a particular function, kind of like the shortcuts you have on your desktop. They are customizable so you can set them up to perform whatever you like to do, IF you can get the setup program to work — again, more on that later.
In the upper right corner you will find the two configurable “S buttons”, three indicator lights and the power. You can also see from the picture that the keyboard is a regular size and normal layout keyboard with Page Up and Down buttons forming a column on the right (larger image)
There are some indicator lights (excuse the grainy picture, but they are power, battery, HDD, optical drive & WLAN, from left to right), wireless switch (beneath the WLAN indicator light) and the typical earphone and mic jacks (larger image)
Rounding up the laptop connectors are the earphone and mic jacks in the front, alongside a bunch of indicator lights and the wireless switch. Overall, I like the layout of the ports a lot and I don’t really think the FS series is missing any ports. The lack of a media reader for different media and only 3 USB (typically you get 4 in this size range) could upset some people.
TV Dock Interfaces
If you think the 3 USB built-into the FS680 itself are not enough for you, don’t worry, you will get 3 more in the included TV tuner dock. I will describe the ports in the dock here as well. Just a reminder, you can purchase this dock separately and I will make my argument in the conclusion that, in general, it is better to buy the dock separately.
There are total of 4 USB ports on the TV tuner dock, two of them on the right and two of them on the back. Yes, that should give you 7 USB ports with the three on the laptop. Unfortunately, the brilliant designers at Sony somehow created a side wall on the dock (to prevent the laptop from sliding side to side I presume) that blocks off the right most USB on the laptop, along with the VGA out and the DC in. As a result, you only get 3 more usable USB ports by using the dock.
The right side of the TV tuner dock has 2 USB ports. The little side wall that blocks my index finger will block one of the three USB ports on the right side of the laptop (larger image)
Nothing to the left except the air vent. Notice the side wall is much shorter so that it won’t block the optical drive (larger image)
Very similar to the laptop itself, all the ports of the dock are concentrated on one side, this time at the back. You will notice some ports that are already in the laptop, such as Ethernet and VGA out, but they are there because the dock wall guides block the ones in the laptop. Other than those “compensating ports”, pretty much every thing else is A/V related — composite, co-axial, s-video, SPDIF, and an additional earphone jack. Except D-sub connector, the TV dock has pretty much everything that’s out there for connecting to TV, so you should have no trouble connecting the TV dock to your TV (or whatever signal receiver you have).
You will find most of the connectors in the back of the TV tuner dock. From left to right, we have DC in, Ethernet port, 2 USB ports, VGA out, SPDIF out, earphone out, composite AV in, S-video in, and the co-axial in (larger image)
When I first booted up the FS680, I heard a very loud, Xerox machine like, noise. After several boots, I confirmed that it was coming from the DVD burner and it apparently did not damage the drive, despite the fact it sounded like it did. While scary, this is the loudest machine noise I can hear from the FS680 and it wasn’t really that loud. When running normally, the optical drive is very quiet — even when I put a disc in and it starts spinning, the noise is much less than the noise it makes during boot up. The fan noise is also very minimal, but it does have a very distinctive “whooshing” pitch (sounds more like I am hearing the air flow, not the fan) that may remind you of the noise more than the actual volume.
Despite its quietness, the fan does its job well. The FS did get warm, but it never got to an uncomfortable level or a level that I would worry about the integrity of the internal components. In fact, it is definitely one of the coolest Sony laptops that I have used. When it does get warm, the areas are mostly on the two sides of the keyboard, so it really does not cause much trouble for using the laptop. Also, putting the FS680 on the TV tuner dock does not have any negative impact on the cooling of either the laptop or the dock. The air vent in the back of the laptop is unobstructed by the TV turner dock and the hot flow will flow through the top surface of the back of the TV tuner dock, leaving a warmer path.
Speaking of keyboard, the keyboard on FS680 is a full size keyboard with the Page Down and Up keys forming a column on the right. It is very comfortable to type on and I have no problem adjusting to the keyboard from either the desktop keyboard at work or the slightly reduced sized keyboard on my VAIO S170. The response is very crisp, with a little “clickiness” (the feeling of your finger, not the sound). I think the overall feedback level is just right for the size of keyboard (I prefer very the soft touch keyboard on smaller laptops because my fingers are all cramped together and I can’t really exert too much force).
The alternative input is the touchpad. The buttons are clicky, as most other touchpads, but it is not difficult to press. The sliding surface itself is ok too, with the typical sliding functions offered in ALPS trackpads. There is no pointing stick, so some may be disappointed.
Continued on Page 2 >> (Audio & Video, Performance & Benchmarking, Battery, VAIO Zone, Conclusion)
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