Sony VAIO FZ Review

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by Jerry Jackson

The Sony VAIO FZ is the latest family of sleek, solid performance notebooks from Sony. With available Blu-ray disc drive, available HDMI video output, a reasonably tough build, clean looks, and enough processing muscle to handle a variety of needs, the VAIO FZ promises to be your mobile entertainment solution.

The VAIO FZ is available with a full range of Core 2 Duo processors (from the Intel T7100 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo up to the T7700 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo). The only screen offering is the 15.4" WXGA but the notebook can take up to 4GB of RAM. Built-in wireless 802.11 a/b/g/n is standard.

Our review version of the FZ, priced starting at $1,199.99 with Intel graphics, has the following specifications:

  • Screen: 15.4-inch screen WXGA (1280 x 800) with XBRITE-ECO (glossy finish)
  • Processor: 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300
  • Hard Drive: 200 GB hard drive (SATA, 4200RPM)
  • Memory: 2GB RAM (PC5300, 667 MHz, DDR2 SDRAM) — 4GB max memory
  • Optical Drive: DVD+-R Double layer / DVD+-RW Drive (Blu-ray drive optional)
  • Ports and Slots: Three USB 2.0, one FireWire 400 port, one ExpressCard 34, one S-Video, one VGA, one MemoryStick Pro reader, one SD card reader, headphone / line-out, microphone-in, modem, 10/100 Ethernet
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Graphics: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 (NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GT available)
  • Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium
  • Dimensions: 14.0" x 10.2" x 1.4" (Width x Depth x Height)
  • Weight: 5.75 pounds


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Build and Design

The overall first impression that one has when looking at the FZ series is that this notebook was designed to look clean and simple. From the matte black and silver plastics to the flat keyboard keys the FZ is a design that lacks the flashiness of the glossy, multi-colored notebooks that have become so popular in recent years. While some consumers will find the design a little boring, I consider the Spartan design elements to be quite attractive … and less obnoxious than some of the "look at me, I’m so cool" glossy designs.

The lid of the VAIO FZ also has a nice matte finish with the VAIO lettering in a polished silver material. After opening the lid and seeing the black plastic interior and rounded brushed aluminum surface of the FZ you’ll notice how this thin notebook has a remarkably solid build. The entire case is sturdy with relatively thick plastic and magnesium alloy reinforcement in just the right places. There are no creaks or signs of case flex anywhere to be found.


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The VAIO FZ lid does not have a latch to hold it closed, but the hinge mechanism works well and firmly holds the lid in place. There is almost no flex to the screen lid unless you apply significant (as in way more pressure than you should) force.

Sony officially classifies the VAIO FZ as a “thin-and-light” notebook. While the 1.4" thickness is certainly thin, the weight of 5.75 pounds isn’t particularly “light” by today’s standards. Still, given the fact we’re talking about a notebook with a 15.4" screen, the weight is hardly an issue.

Performance and Benchmarks

The Core 2 Duo processors that come with the VAIO FZ-series provide more than enough performance, even at the 1.8GHz low-end of the T7100. The 2.0GHz T7300 processor in our review unit packs an impressive punch … despite the fact that our FZ isn’t equipped with a dedicated graphics option. The 3DMark05 benchmarks are low at first glance, but this is due to the fact that our FZ uses the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 (Intel 965 chipset) which shares the notebook’s system memory. The available NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GT dedicated graphics would have performed significantly better.

Super Pi comparison results:

Notebook Time
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300) 0m 59s
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300) 0m 58s
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300) 1m 01s
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300) 0m 59s
HP dv2500t (1.80GHz Intel 7100) 1m 09s
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300) 0m 59s
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo T7200) 1m 03s
Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (1.73 GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T5300) 1m 24s
Toshiba Satellite A205 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 34s
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52) 2m 05s
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T2400) 0m 59s
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 02s

PCMark05 comparison results:

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 3,377 PCMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS) 4,591 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 4,153 PCMarks
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 3,987 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
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 3,487 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks

3DMark05 comparison results:

Notebook 3D Mark 05 Results
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 910 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 3,116 3DMarks
HP Compaq 6510b (2.20GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, Intel X3100) 916 3DMarks
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270) 871 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 2,013 3D Marks
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400) 1,791 3D Marks
Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB) 4,236 3DMarks
Alienware Aurora M-7700(AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB) 7,078 3D Marks
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB) 2,092 3D Marks
Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI x700 128 MB) 2,530 3D Marks
Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB) 2,273 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB) 2,090 3D Marks

3DMark06 comparison results:

Notebook 3DMark06 Score
Sony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100) 532 3DMarks
Dell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB) 1,408 3DMarks
Samsung Q70 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 and nVidia 8400M G GPU) 1,069 3DMarks
Asus F3sv-A1 (Core 2 Duo T7300 2.0GHz, Nvidia 8600M GS 256MB) 2,344 3DMarks
Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB 2,183 3DMarks
Fujitsu Siemens Amilo Xi 1526 (1.66 Core Duo, nVidia 7600Go 256 MB) 2,144 3DMarks
Samsung X60plus (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, ATI X1700 256MB) 1,831 3DMarks
Asus A6J (1.83GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB) 1,819 3DMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 827 3DMarks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 794 3DMarks
Samsung R20 (1.73GHz T2250 and ATI 1250M chipset / GPU) 476 3DMarks

 

Screen

The 15.4" glossy screen is a WXGA 1280 x 800 beauty with rich color and excellent contrast. The display features fairly bright and even backlighting with eight levels of brightness. Horizontal viewing angles are excellent, but the vertical viewing angles weren’t as good. If the screen is tilted just slightly forward or back parts of the screen “wash out” or colors begin to invert … making it all but impossible to see low contrast details.

Keyboard, Touchpad and Other Input Buttons

The keyboard on the VAIO FZ is quite nice if you don’t mind flat keys. The keyboard itself has almost no flex, keys have minimal travel with excellent cushion and response, and there are dedicated keys for home, end, page up, and page down.


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The touchpad is nice and large with a very usable and responsive surface. The mouse buttons are likewise nicely sized. The touchpad buttons have slightly shallow feedback and produce very noisy clicks.

The VAIO FZ also features dedicated media buttons above the keyboard and beneath the speakers. The media buttons make watching DVDs or listening to music files as easy as using a DVD or CD player. Next to the media buttons is a dedicated “AV Mode” quicklaunch button that lets you activate the media player functions without booting Windows. At least, that’s what the AV Mode button does in theory. We received two FZ units from Sony and neither one had a functioning AV Mode button. The first review unit simply booted up Windows Vista when we pressed the AV Mode button. When we press the AV Mode button on our second review unit we get a black screen with an ugly DOS-style message (pictured below). At first we thought it might be an issue with our review units, but several new FZ owners reported in our forum that their AV Mode buttons don’t work either.


The power and media buttons … including the AV Mode button that does nothing. (view large image)


The DOS-like error message that pops up when you press the AV Mode button. (view large image)

Input and Output Ports

Let’s take a quick tour around the port offerings of the VAIO FZ:


Front side: Nothing here except the wireless on/off switch and the two media card readers. (view large image)


Back side: Nothing except the battery, the Ethernet port, and the modem port. (view large image)


Bottom view: Here you’ll find access to the memory slots, some well-placed vents, the battery release switch, and the battery lock switch. (view large image)


Left side: Kensington lock slot, heat vent, a blank slot (obviously designed for HDMI), S-Video, VGA out, a USB port, FireWire 400, and an ExpressCard34 slot. (view large image)


Right side:  Headphone and microphone ports, two USB ports, optical drive, and DC jack. (view large image)

Although the port selection is pretty good, a 15.4" notebook really should have at least four USB ports rather than just three. In addition, I still don’t understand why Sony includes a separate reader for the MemoryStick Pro card and another reader for the SD card. Every other manufacturer uses a single 5-in-1 memory card slot that reads SD/xD/MMC/MemoryStick type cards. I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that Sony wants to draw attention to their proprietary memory card format.

Audio

The VAIO FZ has stereo sound via speakers located above the keyboard. With the speakers located on the top of the interior in this way they tend to direct the sound at you and make for a reasonably enjoyable listening experience. While the built-in speakers aren’t the best that I’ve heard in a notebook of this size, the sound they produce has good clarity and loudness despite the almost complete lack of bass. The headphone jack is located on the right side (a less than ideal location for people who like to plug in external speakers while using the optical drive and/or an external mouse).

Heat and Noise

The VAIO FZ runs extremely quiet with the 2.0GHz Core 2 Duo processor. Still, even though the fan is silent it kept heat under control. The bottom center area gets a bit warm, but temperatures remained comfortable enough to keep the FZ on the lap. Temperatures are likely kept within acceptable limits thanks to a rather large copper heatsink visible through the vent on the left side of the FZ.

As mentioned, the system fan is quiet when running. You have to put your ear down at desk level to hear it over any other ambient noise in the room. Despite the lack of noise the fan pushes out a significant amount of heat … enough to make your hand uncomfortable if you put your left hand next to the vent during benchmarking.

Battery

Battery life on the FZ was far from impressive. Even with the screen brightness set to less than half, wireless on, and Vista power settings set to maximize battery life, the FZ powered down in less than 3 hours (2 hours and 52 minutes). While I’m sure it’s possible to get more battery life by turning the screen brightness all the way down and turning off the wireless, this isn’t particularly useful for a modern notebook. Of course, Sony offers a high-capacity, long-life battery for the FZ if you’re interested in longer battery life.

Software

Sony includes some useful and not so useful bloatware with the VAIO FZ. Here’s a short list of some of the highlights:

  • AOL
  • AOL Pictures
  • AOL Video
  • AIM 6.0
  • Click to DVD – Sony DVD creation software
  • Sony SonicStage Media Player
  • 30-Day Trial Version of Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo XI
  • Microsoft Works 8.5
  • 60-Day Trial Version of Microsoft Office 2003
  • Norton Internet Security 60-Day Trial
  • Napster
  • VAIO Security Center
  • VAIO Productivity Center
  • VAIO Entertainment Center

While none of these applications are horrible and some are even helpful, many of these applications are hogging system resources when you startup the FZ for the first time and experienced users will likely want to uninstall most of this bloatware.

Conclusion

The Sony VAIO FZ is a nice looking notebook with a solid set of features that are sure to appeal to people looking for a full-featured notebook with clean lines. While the entry-level version of the FZ with integrated Intel graphics lacks the power for serious gaming, even the Intel chipset provides enough performance for a mobile multimedia center. The optional NVIDIA graphics, blu-ray and HDMI make the FZ a perfect HD powerhouse. If Sony could only find a way to fix the annoying AV Mode button error, remove some of the bloatware, and improve battery life the FZ would be nearly perfect.

Pros

  • Simple design with clean looks
  • Fast Core 2 Duo processors and up to 4GB of RAM provide plenty of system performance
  • Screen has excellent horizontal viewing angles
  • Solid build quality and sturdiness
  • Stays cool and makes little noise
  • Good keyboard if you don’t mind flat keys

Cons

  • Useless AV button
  • Too much bloatware installed
  • Poor battery life
  • Only three USB ports.


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