Sony VAIO SZ280P/C Review (pics, specs)

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by Jim Boutilier

Overview and Introduction:


The Sony Vaio Premium SZ280P/C is a bit of a cross between an ultraportable and a thin-and-light notebook.  It’s slightly larger and heavier than most ultraportables, but far more powerful and feature rich.  It’s smaller and significantly lighter than most thin-and-lights while, but can easily match or exceed their power and feature set. The exact configuration on the SZ280P/C under review is as follows::

  • Intel Core Duo Processor T2500 2.0GHz
  • 13.3″ WXGA XBRITE LCD Razor-thin (1280×800) w LED Backlight
  • 2GB (Dual Channel) 533 mhz DDR2 Memory (2GB Max)
  • NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 w 128mb and Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950
  • 120GB (5400RPM) Hard Drive w/ G-Sensor Shock Protection
  • Dual Layer DVD RW Optical Combo Drive
  • Integrated Multi-Card Reader for SD/MS/MS PRO with MagicGate
  • PCMCIA PC Card(Type I and Type II card slot)
  • Integrated 10/100 LAN
  • Integrated Bluetooth 2.0 PAN
  • Integrated Intel Tri-band 802.11a+b/g Wireless LAN
  • Integrated Cingular EDGE WAN with SmartWi
  • Integrated Global 56K V92 Modem
  • Built-in Electro-Static touch pad
  • Biometric Finger Print Sensor and TPM
  • Motion-Eye Camera and Microphone
  • Sony Sound Reality Audio
  • Carbon Fiber Encasing
  • 12.5″(W) x 0.9″-1.3″(H) x 9.3″(D) Only 3.7 lbs
  • Windows XP Professional w/SP2
  • 3 Year On Site with Accident Protection Warranty


Sony VAIO SZ280 (view large image)

Reasons for Buying:

I was looking for a new thin-and-light to replace my existing Portable One MX.  Specifically I wanted something similar to my existing MX, but with a new dual core CPU and dedicated graphics.

Laptops I looked at seriously were the new Portable One MX (same as the Asus A8J), the HP dv1000t, and Dell Latitude D620. All were 14″ widescreen 5-pound thin and light notebooks with the power and features I was looking for.  This was the class of laptop that most interested me as I travel a lot and fly at least a couple of times a week.

When Portable One began handling Sony products and I saw that Sony began offering all the power and features I wanted in a package that was considerably smaller and lighter than all the competition, I knew that was the one for me. The extra $500 or so over the cost of a similarly configured thin-and-light was worth it to me.

Where and How Purchased:

I purchased this via phone from Portable One for $2999 + $299 [3-yr on site service with accident protection].  I keep going back to Portable One year after year because of their excellent customer service and products. This price was list, but the going rate for this “just out” product, and an excellent value when considering how Portable One stands behind and supports the products they sell over and above the manufactures warranty and support.

Build & Design:


Sony VAIO SZ280 lid (view large image)

The design is generally excellent. A very thin, slightly wedge shaped package with high quality materials. It feels amazingly light, and the carbon fiber case is very stylish and strong. Pushing on and twisting the screen showed no evidence of distortion so even though its extremely thin, it seems well protected. The hinges seem small but sturdy, and while there is no “latch” holding the unit closed, the screen seems to stay wherever you adjust it — open or closed.

A few small points that for me detract from the design, are

a) All the ports are on the sides and I prefer most on the back; and

b) the small wireless antenna for the WAN card on the right side of the machine seems a bit flimsy and clumsy — this should be built in and

c) the battery is a bit loose and rattles, but this was easily fixed with a few adhesive felt pads.


Sony VAIO SZ280 underside (view large image)

Screen:

The 13.3″ screen is the brightest I’ve ever seen on a notebook. There were no dead pixels, and the screen is very crisp and clear using normal font sizes at its 1280 x 800 native resolution. I’m used to a 14″ 1280×1024 display and this is even more readable.

It’s the first notebook screen I’ve ever had where I usually leave the brightness a couple of steps down from the top!  Horizontal and vertical viewing angles were very good, with apparent changes in brightness but not color as viewing angles became more severe. From a viewing angle perspective I’d say this is a big step up from my Toshiba M200 Tablet PC, and a bit of a step down from Asus’s Ultra Viewing Angle screens.

The screen has a very high contrast ratio with blacks being very black with little bleeding and whites being very white. Brightness over the screen area is very even at all brightness levels 1 (dim) to 9 (blinding).

Speakers:

The speakers are crisp, clear, and sufficiently loud in a quiet environment, but they have no real bass, and you’ll need headphones or external speakers for quality listening.

Processor and Performance:

Overall performance is excellent – phenomenal considering the units size and weight. It’s no problem to have several significant tasks going on at once (say a download, disk defrag, a virus scan, and a DVD rip, with plenty left over for Word Processing etc).

This machine boots quickly (less than 30 seconds from the initial fingerprint scan until sitting idle on the desktop with all the default 70 some services loaded) using the stock 5400rpm 120gb SATA drive.

The unit generally feels very snappy, but occasionally a seemingly small task will take a few seconds longer than it normally does. I’m not sure if that’s Windows trying to balance the processor load or what. It does not happen very often or for very long so I don’t find it annoying.

While I don’t play games much, I did try Quake 4 for a few minutes and it was pretty “playable” at the auto detect settings. Video ripping is considerably faster (about 4x) than on my 1.83 GHz Pentium M notebook with integrated graphics.

Benchmarks:

This machine is pretty much stock with the only real change that might impact performance results being that I use Zone Alarm Security Suite rather than the Norton one that came with the system.

I wanted “real world” numbers so I made no attempt to performance tune by doing things like switching off AV or stopping processes/services I really do not need. I downloaded the Free Versions of PCMark05 and 3DMark05 and their results appear below.

3DMark 05 Results:

Below is the overall 3DMark05 score and comparison to other notebooks:

Notebook 3DMark 05 Results
Sony VAIO SZ280 (2.00GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400)  1,919 3D Marks
Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB)  2866 3D Marks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800 GTX)  7,078 3DMarks
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Intel T2500, ATI X1400)  1,791 3D Marks
Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility 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
 Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)  4,157 3DMarks

 

PCMark 05 Results:

Below is the overall PCMark05 score and comparison to other notebooks:

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Sony VAIO SZ280 (2.00GHz Core Duo) 3,560 PCMarks
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 3,487 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60) 5,597 PCMarks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Dell Inspiron e1405 (1.66 GHz Intel T2300) 2,879 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400) 3,646 PCMarks
Toshiba Satellite M70 (Pentium M 1.86GHz) 1,877 PCMarks


While I was impressed with the PCMark05 score, the 3DMark05 was not as good as I hoped — most of the simulations ran at 1024×768 and the frame rates hovered at about 7 which would not bode well when you want 30 for good playability. The auto detect settings in Quake 4 set things up for 640×480, low detail for decent frame rates so this is not an ideal gaming machine.

For those of us that just want great business graphics this is just fine.

Heat and Noise:

Thermal management and design are very effective. There are separate heat sinks and heat pipes for both the CPU and GPU, but they share a single fan. Even under heavy load, there are no hotspots on the palm rest or keyboard, and the bottom of the unit gets warm but not uncomfortable for “lap” use. Very impressive for so much power in such a small package.

The cost of this very effective thermal management system is noise. The fan runs pretty much constantly. Under light loads (Office Applications) in Stamina mode, the fan is pretty quiet, but you can tell its running in a quiet room. As load increases, so does the noise. In performance mode under heavy load, the fan is very noisy and gets pretty annoying (it is louder than some high speed optical drives I’ve used).

Oddly enough the GPU seems to have more impact on fan speed than CPU as in “Stamina” mode the machine is mostly pretty quiet but in “Performance” mode even at light CPU load the fan can be pretty loud and annoying. I’ve played with various performance/fan speed options in the power management but as long as the NVIDIA GPU is in use, the fan runs pretty fast and can get pretty loud.

Sony clearly anticipated this limitation, as one of the programmable buttons on the keyboard had a default of reducing fan speed/noise.

The combo optical drive is about average, being very quiet at lower speeds and getting louder at higher speeds. At its higher speeds it does overpower the fan noise.

Keyboard and Touchpad:

The keyboard has very full size keys and has a sturdy, firm feel. Key travel is a little shallow and the keys are a bit noisier than some. Layout is standard and overall feel is excellent. The Fn keys are a bit hard to read as they are marked dark blue on black. Normal key markings are large and white on black and very easy to read.

The touchpad works very well, although it seems to have some “give” to it when pushing on it. It supports horizontal and vertical scrolling although it is not marked as such.

The fingerprint scanner between the right and left mouse buttons works very well, with a success rate in excess of 95% for me most of the time. I’ve noticed in some environments, the success rate drops to almost zip, and while I can’t figure it out completely I know the temperature of your hands plays some part (cold dry hands then forget using the reader), and some hand soaps also appear to have an impact so I’m not sure if the natural oils or salts are needed for successful reading. All I can say is that if at some point you think the scanner died, wait a few hours and try again or wet you finger and use while still damp (which will get a scan usually but not always accurately). When this has happened I noticed the reader would say you scanned too quickly (when you did not or just rested your finger without having a chance to move it) or fail to read parts of your print (bad scan). All I can say for sure at this point is that it works great at home and at work, but forget trying to use it at my hotel. Weird.

Anyway, I’ve got the fingerprint scanner set up to enter system, hard drive, and Windows passwords with one swipe, thus giving a very high level of security with very little bother. Well, when it does not work I have three passwords to type in, but that’s not often.

Above the keyboard is a group of controls containing two programmable keys (set to mute sound toggle, and quiet fan toggle by default), a stamina vs. speed switch that toggles between dedicated and integrated graphics cards (requires a reboot), a wireless on/off switch that controls WiFi, Bluetooth, and WAN radios, and finally a power button.

Input and Output Ports:

The only ports on the back of the machine are for power and a Kensington lock.

On the right side there is (from front to back), the Optical drive, express card slot (with included memory card reader), two USB 2.0 ports, and under a little cover, modem and LAN ports. The memory card reader works with at least 1gb SD cards but I have not tried all the other stuff its supposed to read.


Sony VAIO SZ280 right side high angle view (view large image)


Sony VAIO SZ280 right side low angle view (view large image)

On the left side (again front to back) are a memory stick reader, a type 1 pc-card slot, vga out, fire wire, and headphone and microphone jacks.


Sony VAIO SZ280 left side high angle view (view large image)


Sony VAIO SZ280 left side low angle view (view large image)

Above the screen is a built in Webcam and microphone. These appear to work fine with typical IM clients and some of the video capture software included with the machine. There is a light on the camera to let you know its activated. There is a bit of an annoying popup utility that jumps up whenever the camera is activated to let you make a bunch of adjustment that you usually don’t need to, but would be useful if you did.

Wireless:

Wireless options abound on this machine.

There is 802.11 a/b/g, Bluetooth 2.0, and a Cingular Wireless WAN card build in. The WiFi card exhibited excellent signal strength on 802.11g products, good on 802.11b and I have not tried 802.11a yet.

The Bluetooth 2.0 is excellent and had no trouble linking to my phone and a Kensington wireless mouse.

The tri-band WAN card does not take advantage of Cingular’s HSDPA network (up to 800kbps) available in some large markets. Instead it uses the more widely available EDGE network that peaks at about 128kbps (and seems to average about half that in my real world testing so far). It is however faster than the old GPRS packet radio stuff that only gets you 28.8kbps at peak.

Sadly there is no infrared port for my portable printer so I’ll have to use one of the two USB ports for that. The WiFI and WAN card also can not be used at the same time.

Battery:

The standard 6 cell battery is rated at 7 hours and this appears to be a gross exaggeration. Real world use is about half that. You might break 4 hours in “stamina” mode with most devices disabled and the screen relatively dim. On the other hand, four hours is not too bad for a machine this powerful, small, and light.

There is also an extended 9 cell battery that should offer about 50% more battery life. I got one, but am sending it back in favor of an additional standard battery. The extended battery is a large “L” shaped monstrosity that adds about 1″ to both the height and depth of the machine because the “extra” capacity is in the form of a tube fixed at about a 45 degree angle sticking out the rear and bottom of the machine. A hinged design like on the old V505 series that allowed you to choose the angle would have been much better. As with most Sony laptop batteries, pricing is outrageous at $199 for the standard and $299 for the extended.

Operating System and Software:

The system came with Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 pre-installed. There is recovery software pre-installed and a recovery partition that can restore your machine to factory condition. No recovery disks are supplied but software is supplied to create your own. You can also order recovery disks from Sony for a nominal fee.

The machine comes with more than its share of bloat ware in the form of limited editions, starter editions, trials etc that one must spend several hours uninstalling. There are some useful multimedia software included, and a wide array or poorly integrated and buggy Sony utilities you must use to access many of the features of this machine.

A “fresh” install of Windows is a nightmare as with most Sony computers, so either get a Sony with the intent of leaving it largely intact, or spending a LOT of time downloading drivers, utilities, and messing about to get everything working again.

Customer Support:

The machine comes with a substandard 1 year depot, parts and labor and support warranty. Extended warranties are available and I opted for a $299 on site, three year parts and labor with accidental handling protection. While this is not a bad price for such a warranty, a machine at this price level should include it, not have it as an optional extra.

Support wise you get a few thin fancy pamphlets as written material. The support software that comes with the machine has a few useful PDF’s but otherwise leaves a lot to be desired. My past experience with Sony tech support is abysmal and on the basis of a single call for this machine I’d say it has not changed much.

Because of their support, I simply would not have purchased this machine direct from Sony. Thankfully, Sony partners like Portable One exist that offer excellent quality support.

Conclusion:

In summary, I think this is an excellent machine for the frequent traveler needing a lot of power and features in an elegant, compact, light package, and who is willing to pay for it.

Pros:

  • Performance and features of a thin and light in an ultra portable package
  • An amazing screen
  • Dual Graphics cards
  • Fingerprint scanner and TPM module
  • Built in Wireless WAN card
  • DL DVD Combo drive

Cons:

  • Price
  • Basic Warranty and Support is substandard for a machine in this price range
  • Fan Noise
  • Poorly integrated utilities for supporting and using the machines many features.

What would I like to see changed:

  • Build the WAN wireless antenna into the body of the unit
  • Use an HSDPA capable WAN card rather then limiting to EDGE and GPRS
  • Add an IR port, an additional USB port, and an S-VHS out port, and do a better job on the silly cover over the Modem/LAN ports.

All in all I am very pleased with this unit and it exceeds my expectations, albeit at a premium price. If you need all these features in such a small, light package, or just want the “wow” factor, this might be the machine for you.


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