Sony VAIO FW Review

by Kevin O'Brien Reads (228,209)

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by Kevin O’Brien

The VAIO FW is a brand new Centrino 2 platform notebook from Sony, offering a much needed facelift, as well as a 16.4" widescreen. What sets this apart from other widescreen notebooks is the aspect ratio of the screen lets movie aficionados enjoy a video without ugly bars above and below the screen. Our full review gives you all the details you need to find out if this notebook is right for you.

Our Sony VAIO FW (vgn-fw198u) specifications:

  • Screen: Sony XBRITE-HiColor 16.4" 1600 x 900 display, glossy
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 (2.53GHz, 1066MHz FSB, 6MB Cache)
  • Operating System:Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate SP1 (32-bit)
  • Memory: 4GB RAM (only 3GB usable)
  • Storage: 320GB HDD (5400rpm)
  • Optical Drive: DVD+/-RW / BD-R DL
  • Wireless: Intel 5100 802.11a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 2.0 w/ EDR
  • Graphics: ATI Mobility Radeon 3470 w/ 256MB
  • Built-in web camera
  • Battery: 4400mAh Li-Ion Battery
  • Dimensions: 15.12" x 1.14"-1.45" x 10.27" (38.4cm x 2.9-3.7cm x 26.1cm)
  • Weight: 6.83 lbs (3.1kg)
  • Retail Price: $2,149


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Build and Design

The fit and finish of the Sony VAIO FW is wonderful, and the overall design is beautiful. The notebook has a streamlined sculpted look, and when opened has a palmrest and keyboard surround that looks like the graceful sloping surface of a car hood. The surface starts out flat, has a small dip, and then gracefully slopes down to the screen hinges. From working day in and day out at a ThinkPad, it is much easier on the eyes to say the least.


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Build quality is excellent, with the overall chassis feeling rigid and sturdy. Although thin at the very edges of the palmrest, you can pick the notebook up from the corner with minimal flex from the chassis. Even the super thin screen shows that quite a bit of effort went into making a durable design, as you are able to man-handle and even punch the back of the LCD panel and no ripples or distortion shows on the display.


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Screen

I have to say that my first impression of the true HD screen format was one of hatred. Another odd format I would have to get used to, and more odd screen designations to remember. I figured it would be just another gimmick … but then I started to enjoy it. Outside of watching movies, the extra-wide wide screen is great for organizing many tasks on the screen, where a normal widescreen display just starts to feel crowded. Two documents side by side, a webpage next to a document, or even a webpage with my IM buddy list far off to the side. Of course it is nice for movies as well.

Moving past the widescreen experience and onto the LCD quality itself, it was rather disappointing on our review model. On anything but full brightness you could see a tunnel effect where the sides and corners were much darker thand the center of the screen. At full brightness it was more even, and was passed by early on. Not counting the tunneling effect, brightness range was more than adequate. I found the most comfortable setting at home to be 50-60% and 70-80% in the office. Anything above that it strained my vision.


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Colors appeared to be rich, if not slightly over saturated. Contrasted felt washed out, with black levels seemed to be leaning more towards grey/white. Watching a dark movie at high brightness became very distracting, especially with the unevenbacklight. 

Viewing angles were better than what I have seen on some notebooks, with a larger sweet spot before colors started to invert or distort. Vertical range had about 45 degrees down and 35 degrees up before colors started to get funky. Horizontal viewing range was flawless besides a mild orange tint at extreme angles.


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Keyboard and Touchpad

The "Macbook Style" keyboard on the Sony FW (yes, Sony did it first, but most people recognize this style of keyboard as a "Mac" keyboard) was delightful to type on once you got the hang of finger placement and distances between keys down. Spacing is just slightly off from a standard keyboard, and without the cupped keys, it can be difficult to type on the keyboard without some practice. That said, compared to other keyboard of similar design (Macbook, Macbook Air) the keyboard on the Sony FW was much nicer to type on.


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Key throw distances were about the same as most keyboards, and with each press came a soft click feeling. Support underneath the keyboard was great with little to no flex. It felt as if you could stand on the keyboard without making anything cave inward.

The touchpad surface was great, large enough for wide motions and sensitive for smooth sliding without having to adjust any settings. The touchpad buttons were the only drawback, being at the same height as the palmrest, and just barely off the surface of the touchpad. Finding the key without looking down usually ended with tapping the touchpad instead of the button.


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Movie Experience

True HD displays are basically what you have in your living room or TV room if you own an HDTV. 720P or 1080P screens are slightly shorter than what you usually find on a computer. For example on a WUXGA notebook has a resolution of 1920×1200, where as a Full HD 1080P screen is 1920×1080. This has to do with the way most movies are recorded, and in the end thinner or no bars at all showing up during a movie. Below I picked 3 Blu-ray titles from my collection, to give you a good idea of what you might expect to see on this screen format.

Swordfish (2.40:1): Far from full widescreen, with almost 1 inch bars top and bottom.


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The Prestige (2.35:1): Very similar to 2.40:1, huge bars.


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Open Season (1.85:1): Almost fullscreen, just two thin bars top and bottom


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Ports and Features

Port selection on the Sony VAIO FW rates average, and one USB port less of perfection. Users have two video outputs (HDMI and VGA) for easy hookup to external monitors or your home theater HDTV. In some ways the design of the notebook hinders the port layout, as some curved locations which would be prime for an extra USB port end up being too small to work out. The ports and feature selection include the following:

  • 10/100/1000 LAN
  • Modem
  • VGA
  • HDMI
  • FireWire
  • ExpressCard/34
  • Memory Stick Reader
  • SD-Card Reader
  • Headphone/Mic
  • 3 USB Ports

Front: Activity Lights, Wireless On/Off, Memory Stick Reader, SD-Card Reader, Headphone/Mic


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Rear: Hinge


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Left: AC Power, Kensington Lock Slot, CPU Exhaust, LAN, Modem, VGA, HDMI, FireWire, ExpressCard/34


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Right: 3 USB, Optical Drive, Power On/Off


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Speakers and Audio

The speakers on the Sony FW were rather anemic. To enjoy a movie or game at normal volume levels meant putting everything to 100%, and still not being at the level you wanted it to be. Getting past volume levels, bass and midrange were entirely lacking, which is very disappointing for a multimedia oriented notebook.

For external audio, the headphone jack worked fine providing clear audio from what I could hear through my Sennheiser HD80 headphones. This option would be preferred over having to listen to the speakers. The third and probably best option for external audio is the HDMI port. The ATI 3470 graphics supported audio out through the HDMI port, and thus worked perfectly for enjoying your favorite movie on the big screen.

Performance

System performance was very good for most tasks not involving 3D graphics. Working with office productivity software, surfing the web, encoding video, or just looking through your iTunes library performed quite well without any lag. The disappointing part was trying to play semi-modern games such as Half-Life 2 or Portal, and getting very poor frame rates. The ATI 3470 graphics didn’t really help with much besides offloading video decoding while enjoying a Blu-ray movie. I would have much rather seen a 3650 series graphics card, considering notebooks like the Toshiba A305 which fall into the same price category offer this. To give you a quick example of what the game play was like, here is my average FPS while playing HL2: Episode 2 and Portal.

Half Life 2: Episode 2 (1360×768, textures on low and most settings disabled): 18-23FPS depending on what scenery you were looking at. Extra characters on screen like enemies or gunfire brought it down even more.

Portal (1360×768, textures on medium and most settings disabled): 40FPS walking around, 28FPS looking through a portal. High action scenes where you are flying through the air slowed down even further into the low 20 range.

While you technically could lower the resolution even more to one of the lower 4:3 settings, you would be looking at a warped screen and really lose any fun while playing. Trying to play at the native 1600×900 was even worse than the scaled down resolution of 1360×768, with frame rate levels dropping by 5 or 10. For a notebook of this size and cost, it is a big letdown with no higher graphics option available.

WPrime 32M comparison results

WPrime is a benchmark similar to Super Pi in that it forces the processor to do intense mathematical calculations, but the difference is this application is multi-threaded and represents dual core processors better. Lower numbers indicate better performance.


Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Sony VAIO FW (Core 2 Duo T9400 @ 2.53GHz)
30.373s
Dell Studio 15 (Core 2 Duo T5750 @ 2.0GHz) 41.246s
HP Pavilion dv5z (Turion X2 Ultra ZM-80 @ 2.1GHz)
39.745s
Dell Vostro 1510 (Core 2 Duo T5670 @ 1.8GHz) 51.875s
Dell Inspiron 1525 (Core 2 Duo T7250 @ 2.0GHz) 43.569s
Dell XPS M1530 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz)
37.485s
HP Pavilion dv6500z (Turion 64 X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 40.759s
Sony VAIO NR (Core 2 Duo T5250 @ 1.5GHz) 58.233s
Toshiba Tecra A9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 38.343s
Toshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.299s
HP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 40.965s
Lenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.705s
HP Pavilion dv6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz) 38.720s

 

PCMark05 measures overall notebook performance based on processor, hard drive, operating system, RAM, and graphics (higher scores are better):

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Sony VAIO FW (2.53GHz Intel T9400, ATI Radeon HD 3470)  6,002 PCMarks
Dell Studio 15 (2.0GHz Intel T5750, Intel X3100) 3,998 PCMarks
HP Pavilion dv5z (2.1GHz Turion X2 Ultra ZM-80, ATI Radeon HD 3200)
3,994 PCMarks
Dell Vostro 1510 (1.8GHz Intel T5670, Intel X3100) 3,568 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron 1525 (2.0GHz Intel T7250, Intel X3100) 4,149 PCMarks
Dell XPS M1530 (2.20GHz Intel T7500, Nvidia 8600M GT 256MB) 5,412 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron 1520 (2.0GHz Intel T7300, NVIDIA 8600M GT) 4,616 PCMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100)  3,283 PCMarks 
Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB) 4,189 PCMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 4,234 PCMarks


3DMark06 comparison results for graphics performance (higher scores are better):

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Sony VAIO FW (2.53GHz Intel T9400, ATI Radeon HD 3470)   2,598 3DMarks
Dell Studio 15 (2.0GHz Intel T5750, Intel X3100) 493 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv5z (2.1GHz Turion X2 Ultra ZM-80, ATI Radeon HD 3200)   1,599 3DMarks
Dell Vostro 1510 (1.8GHz Intel T5670, Intel X3100) 519 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 1525 (2.0GHz Intel T7250, Intel X3100) 545 3DMarks
HP Pavilion dv6500z (2.0GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-60, NVIDIA 8400m GS)  1,551 3DMarks
Sony VAIO NR (1.5GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5250, Intel X3100) 504 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1530 (2.20GHz Intel T7500, Nvidia 8600M GT 256MB) 4,332 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron 1520 (2.0GHz Intel T7300, NVIDIA 8600M GT) 2,905 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 827 3DMarks

 

HDTune results:


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Battery Life

Working away from a power outlet was not a fun activity with this configuration that included a 4400mAh battery. In the balanced profile with the screen brightness set to 60%, I squeezed out 2 hours and 39 minutes before the notebook shut itself down. Watching a Blu-ray movie decreased the battery life further, putting me into the range of a movie, with enough time to safely shutdown once the film ended … figure 2 hours and 10 minutes overall. The one thing I can say though, if you have the option to select the extended battery, get it.

Charging times were slower than what I am accustomed to, taking almost 30 minutes to go from dead up to 15%. Most notebooks would get into the 30-40% range in this amount of time.

Heat and Noise

Temperatures on your lap felt slightly above that of the average Core 2 Duo notebook with dedicated graphics. Some of this might relate to a fairly laid back cooling system that liked to keep the fan off or at very low speeds unless the system was under severe stress. Lap performance would score probably a C-, making my legs sweat after about an hour of surfing the web on the balanced profile. Fan noise at low and high speed was minimal and in a quiet room the notebook would not stand out.


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Conclusion

The VAIO FW is a great step forward for Sony, and a worthy competitor to the Dell Studio 15 or even the Toshiba A305. The design is great, but more importantly the build quality is excellent. It feels solid, with a reasonably firm screen cover and keyboard that feels as if a child could walk across it. Performance was more than adequate in every area except 3D performance, but hopefully Sony decides to offer a higher performing graphics card as an option at a later date. The only real flaw that stood out to me was the screen, with its uneven backlight. Hopefully this is a preproduction unit flaw, and not something that shows up on shipping models.

Pros

  • Great design
  • Solid build quality
  • Extra-Widecreen (neat for movies and more perceived screen real estate)
  • Comfortable keyboard once you get used to it

Cons

  • Battery life with smaller battery is poor
  • LCD backlight unevenness
  • Speakers sound rather anemic


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