Sony VAIO SZ Review (Japanese Version)

by Reads (29,970)

I followed the Sony VAIO SZ series since its introduction in 2005. Why didn’t I buy it before? The price probably, and I didn’t really need it. Not that I really needed one now, but the beauty of the Sony VAIO SZ was too much for me to resist.

So I didn’t plan on this baby sitting on my lap right now. I followed the series updates, knowing I would buy one, but never doing it. Then, one day, when the SZ tempted me again with all its glory, I decided to browse Yahoo Japan (the Japanese eBay). Next thing I know, I’ve won an auction for the SZ93S.

This is what I ended up with:

  • Sony VAIO VGN-SZ93S
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 at 2.00GHz (4MB cache)
  • Memory: 2GB DDR2-SDRAM
  • Graphics: Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 (hybrid with Intel GMA 950 for extra battery)
  • Hard Disk: Toshiba 100GB (5400RPM)
  • Screen: 13.3" LCD with LED backlight, 1280×800
  • Optical drive: Dual Layer Matshita DVD-Writer
  • Extras: fingerprint reader, Bluetooth, webcam
  • Weight: 1.69 Kg
  • OS: Windows Vista Home Premium

 

Reason for buying
The reason I fell for the SZ series is its beauty combined with its portability and power. The closed carbon fiber case looks so good, I feel bad when I open it up and can’t see its outside. For me, a laptop is about portability. I wouldn’t buy a 4kg 15” laptop and would never buy a 17” laptop (why buy a laptop at that point?). It has to be portable, but I still want the power of a desktop, which this laptop had to replace.

To be honest, nothing really came close to the SZ when I was comparison shopping. I looked at some budget 13” models, but they were all in the low specs region. The closest rival was the Macbook, but I can’t go into detail about that, scared for the fanboy hate mail … just kidding. The SZ just had better specs (graphics, LED backlight, carbon fiber, weight, fingerprint reader, docking, etc.) and if I had bought it with the same processor, memory and hard disk, the price wouldn’t be a lot different. The 13” Macbook just isn’t a premium system like the Macbook Pro, while the SZ really is the high-end (portable) VAIO model.

Looking at the future, I wasn’t too concerned about the SZ quickly becoming "outdated" either. The T7200 isn’t much worse than the T7300, SSD won’t become feasible (in price) for me in the next two years and the graphics would do, since I don’t game much (if any) on my pc.

Purchasing
So back to Japan. As you know, I had just won the auction. I thought about the consequences of buying a Japanese laptop, but I didn’t really expect to win the auction. Because of that, some things were an afterthought:

  1. How do I power this when it gets here?
  2. How do I replace the Japanese Windows Vista?
  3. What’s the difference between a Japanese keyboard and a European one?
  4. And em, what’s that block at the right bottom side of the laptop?

Luckily, these weren’t big hurdles. After some searching for Japanese images I found out the power supply (1) is parted in two. I didn’t need to buy a new AC Adapter or put a new European plug on it. I could just replace the short cable.

Next was Vista (2). After browsing some forums I came to the conclusion I could probably just use the Japanese key for the European Vista, but I’ll get back to that in the next chapter.

There are some differences between Japanese and other qwerty-keyboards (3). For people who type a lot on their laptop, I wouldn’t recommend it. Overall, the letters are ordered the same, but the rest of the ordering is a little different. Also, when typing you notice the letters are sometimes placed slightly different, making you watch the keyboard when you start using it. For more info, just have a look at the picture and take a look at your own keyboard. I do have to mention, for the tweakers among us, it would be possible to buy a US keyboard (around $60) from eBay and replace it with the Japanese one. Also, the Japanese VAIO store has the option to choose a US keyboard.

When inspecting the laptop picture, I found a strange block inside the right bottom side of the laptop, beneath the keyboard (4). Further inspection brought me to Felica (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FeliCa), a Sony money card system I will most likely never use.

All in all, I saved about 500 euro compared to European models, which made it worth the effort in my opinion. If you are interested in importing one yourself, you can try rinkya.com. Do think about the importing taxes in your country though. And do not forget about the warranty!

Getting started
What’s next? Well, what you would do with any other notebook: boot it up and enjoy the show. Of course, you won’t get far as a gaijin in a Japanese Windows. But I was smart enough to check the hard drive for any helpful files and copied all the drivers from the laptop to my USB stick, which would come in handy later.

Before getting the laptop I got a copy of Vista in my home language. I used this hoping I could activate with the key on the back of my VAIO SZ. After getting a chill from screwing up a letter of the key the first time, I continued my install, it worked! A couple of days later I found out my Windows Vista (second install) wasn’t yet activated. I had to call Microsoft and activate via a new number on the phone. The automated phone system couldn’t help me and I was redirected to a random Microsoft guy. He gave me the return code and my Vista was activated. I don’t know if this incident was caused by my Japanese key or if it would have happened with a European VAIO too. Anyway, don’t waste money on a new Vista, you have a valid key!

I could use the drivers I copied from the laptop earlier (all English). But I also used some drivers and VAIO utilities I downloaded from the European VAIO site (www.vaio.eu), no problems there.

Build and design

The VAIO SZ is very well built. The whole thing feels and looks sturdy. Of course, you wouldn’t expect less from a premium Sony product. Everything seems to be worked out in detail and thought through completely. This version of the SZ series is made of carbon fiber, which is used for Formula 1 cars and military plains due its high quality and low weight. This not only sounds good, but feels good too.

The palm rest is made of aluminum, which gives it a nice clean look that goes well with the carbon. Although there is no latch, the screen closes perfectly and fully to the bottom. Little rubber bumpers keep it from scratching the case.

A minor complaint about the build quality would be the battery, which fits a little too loose into the machine. But since I plan on using my laptop while sitting still, I don’t mind that the battery moves when pushed.

As mentioned before, this laptop is really a looker. The carbon fiber makes it look very good, especially when you see the profile in the light.

You will only get this effect with the premium carbon though. Yes, I have it and I like to brag about it. In the process of buying I asked myself if I wanted the premium or not. The premium, at least for VAIO Japan, means LED backlight, dark interior and the premium carbon fiber housing. I went for all or nothing and I’m glad I did. I know I would always be annoyed by a silver interior, which was the biggest factor, but the LED backlit display makes a lot of difference too.

Screen

The LED backlight provides excellent contrast. I noticed the screen was actually usable when viewing it outside in the sun. When using normal laptops outside, I could see next to nothing. Additionally, the color reproduction is just amazing. At 50% brightness the screen is as bright as my girlfriend’s laptop with normal backlight. In the evening you might want to tone the brightness down a little so you won’t be blinded. Here’s a picture with mine and hers at full brightness.

Although it’s thin, the screen is very strong because of the carbon fiber. Pushing at the front and the back doesn’t cause ripples. A minor build problem is the flexibility of the carbon. This makes it possible for you to twist the top corners of the screen. This may also have to do with the thickness, but they could have made it like a millimeter thicker so you wouldn’t be able too.

Sound

I wasn’t really planning on using the laptop speakers, as laptop speakers are mostly just not worth using. I’ve never been pleased by any or even considered using them. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by the speakers on this sexy lady. (Did that sound wrong?) The speakers can go noticeably louder than other laptop speakers I’ve heard. Still, it’s nothing like a good pair of 2.1 boxes for a desktop pc. There’s just not enough bass. But I have to say I will probably use these speakers on the road, which I didn’t expect.

Performance and Benchmarks
I’m very impressed with this the power of the T7200 2GHz processor with 4MB L2 cache. Coming from an AMD Athlon XP 2800+ desktop with Windows XP, this one’s a breeze. The AMD wasn’t amazingly slow, but this one is just a lot faster … almost twice as fast according to PCMark05. Of course, this also has to do with other components, but things like booting Photoshop or editing images is just multiple times faster.

Unless we are talking about installing programs or scanning for viruses you don’t have to wait for anything. Multitasking is no problem. When installing programs and drivers, the laptop could easily handle multiple installation programs, browser windows and file transfers while listening to some music. Running Photoshop on top of that, wasn’t a problem.

The general Nvidia Go 7400 drivers are not the best for Windows Vista. With the normal drivers (from November last year) I got a score of 1638 in 3Dmark05. Installing new drivers (from www.tweaksrus.com) upped the score to 1850. Both drivers weren’t approved by the 3Dmark05 program. Although the better drivers didn’t affect the PCmark05 score, it did increase the ‘Physics and 3D’ result with almost 10 FPS.

Sadly, 3DMark06 gave me an error with the new drivers. Using the (unapproved) November drivers (from VAIO) I got a score of just 170.

PCmark05:

Notebook PCMark05Score
Sony VAIO SZ93S (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7200) 4,169 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300) 4,084 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950) 2,981 PCMarks
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270) 2,420 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite A135 (Core Duo T2250, Intel GMA 950) 3,027 PCMarks
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400) 4,234 PCMarks
Fujitsu LifeBook A6010 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel GMA 950) 2,994 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
Toshiba Tecra M6 (1.66GHz Intel T2300E, Intel GMA 950) 2,732 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400) 3,646 PCMarks
Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo) 3,427 PCMarks

3Dmark05:

Notebook 3D Mark 05Results
Sony VAIO SZ93S (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce Go 7400) 1850 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300) 911 3DMarks
Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950) 559 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

 

SuperPi:

Notebook Time
Sony VAIO SZ93S (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7200) 1m 03s
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300) 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 (2.16GHz Intel T2400) 59s
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 02s
Toshiba A100 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 1m 29s
HP dv5000z (2.0GHz Sempron 3300+) 2m 02s

HD Tune:

Heat and noise

Overall the laptop doesn’t create excessive sound and doesn’t run hot. You can sometimes notice the fan running, but it isn’t loud or annoying. The hottest part on the laptop, when using it for an extended period of time, would be the upper part of the bottom near the battery, but it’s just a little warm. You can however clearly hear the DVD drive spin. I’ve never met a quiet DVD drive, but this certainly isn’t the one.

The CPU temperature goes from about 35 to 70 degrees Celsius in speed mode with power supply, depending on usage. The hard disk goes up from about 30 degrees with a maximum of about 40 degrees Celsius.

Keyboard and touchpad
Neglecting the fact that this keyboard is Japanese, it’s built very well and types really smooth and light. Using it for an extended period won’t be a problem at all. I wouldn’t prefer my external keyboard over this one if it wasn’t for the numeric pad. The keyboard also has the usual shortcut buttons (Fn) for things like volume, contrast and external monitors.

As for the touchpad, I was pleasantly surprised. Working with multiple touchpads before, I couldn’t get used to it at all. Moving the cursor was way too slow, mostly due to the profile of the touchpad. This touchpad can work a lot faster. Another plus was the scrolling of this touch pad. I’m not sure if this has to do with VAIO software, Windows Vista or the touchpad itself, but scrolling is smooth and works great. All these factors made my touchpad experience an enjoyable one, although nothing can beat a regular mouse (Tablet PCs maybe, but that’s a totally different story).

Fingerprint reader

The fingerprint reader came in more handy than I initially thought. I never considered changing my username and password on websites to a fingerprint … until now. It takes some getting used to, but when you know how to place your finger, it recognizes your finger almost all the time.

I now use my fingerprint to login to Windows and logon to multiple websites. It saves me from typing a lot of passwords. Let’s hope I don’t forget them now I won’t have to type them anymore. You can also use your fingerprint to protect files and other things like that, but I don’t think I will ever use it.

A nice little fact is that you can actually see your fingerprint in the program that comes with it. It’s just fun to see your own or your friends fingerprint pop up on the screen CSI style.

Webcam

The SZ comes with a super thin (30 frames per second, 0.3 Megapixel) camera built in the top of the screen. The camera in the SZ isn’t that great. It’s a standard webcam with 640×480 resolution for pictures. The images have a lot of noise and the contrast isn’t very high. The only positive thing I can say about it is that it works pretty well in the evening (with darker rooms). Here’s a picture of something random, taken during the day:

Input and Output Ports

This portable doesn’t offer many ports. The SZ has two USB ports, firewire, mic in, headphone out, VGA out, Memory Stick Duo Pro reader and 2 inputs for your internet wishes (modem and Ethernet). A plus is the combination of PCMIA and built in ExpressCard reader though.

Rather than a Memory Stick reader Sony should have just included a multiple card reader. Also, a digital output would have been nice … or a multiple output port with a cable for VGA, DVI and HDMI. I will probably get the docking station later, which will have the DVI, but still, VGA only is very nineties.

Battery
Amazingly, when putting it to the test, this SZ almost made the 5 hour mark. The test was done twice in stamina mode with wireless off, using internet by cable. The profile was automatically set to "VAIO maximum battery," but I turned the backlight up to 40%. I shut down the sidebar and while testing, used internet, Word, did some configuring and listened to some songs. Battery life is certainly one of the strong points of this laptop.

Conclusion
Importing the Sony VAIO SZ was a really positive experience for me. The only minor drawback would be the Japanese keyboard, but I’m pretty much used to it now. It saved me a lot of cash. For anyone looking for a portable powerhouse with good looks, I’d say go for it. This is a perfect laptop to replace a standard desktop pc and it’s a great laptop for use on the road.

Pros:

  • Looks (premium carbon fiber)
  • Quality
  • Weight
  • Performance
  • Battery life
  • Fingerprint reader (speeds up password process)
  • LED backlit screen (is viewable outside)
  • Vista (has been good to me)
  • Stamina/speed mode
  • ExpressCard
  • Bluetooth

Cons:

  • Price compared to other manufacturers
  • Screen is twistable
  • Built-in card reader only accepts memory card pro
  • Low-end graphics card
  • No digital output such as DVI or HDMI


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