Sony VAIO SZ6 User Review

by Reads (250,218)

Buy Direct From Manufacturer


 

by Ger Ger, Germany

Instead of working on just another VAIO SZ review, I aimed to come up with a review which especially does not fall too short of complementary reports based on personal experience gathered from long-term use in different working environments. Even better, if existing VAIO SZ6 owners might find it useful as well.

Back in 2006, the SZ1 set the standard for power in a small package in the 13" notebook segment. Recently (in October 2007), the Sony VAIO SZ61 was introduced in Europe – two months after it became available as the VAIO SZ6xx in the United States. As the new high end of the SZ line, the SZ6 series is packed with power features. The laptop sports an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, an upgrade to the Intel Santa Rosa platform, a 13.3" glossy X-black widescreen display, and in Germany starts at about EUR 1,650 (incl. VAT) for the standard edition VGN-SZ61MN/B or at about EUR 2,050 (incl. VAT) for the premium models VGN-SZ61WN/C, VGN-SZ61AWN/C or VGN-SZ61VN/X. Though the competition is stronger than ever, it’s hard to find a better 13", 4 lb./1.7 kg or under notebook of its kind.

The latest European Model Sony VAIO VGN-SZ61WN/C has just replaced my VGN-SZ1VP, the very first SZ model which accompanied me from day one since it became available in March 2006. Additionally, I can look back to the long-term (6 years!) use of a VAIO VGN-Z600TEK (one of the first better built laptops in VAIO history and ‘real’ predecessor of the current SZ design and form factor).


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)
 

Left to right: SZ61WN, SZ1VP, Z600TEK

Overview

The SZ6 comes in three (formerly two) different editions: regular, premium, special. For more details, see the Sony Learning Center Comparison.

Regular Edition

Premium Edition Special Edition
Magnesium Body, silver1.93 kg / 4.1 lbs234.3 x 24.7 – 36.4 x 315 mm12.5" x 1.0" – 1.5" x 9.3"LC DisplayMax Battery: 5 hours Carbon-fiber Body, black1,79 kg / 3.7 lbs234.3 x 21.8 – 33.0 x 315 mm12.5" x 0.9" – 1.3" x 9.3"LED Display, razor thinMax Battery: 6 hoursWWAN (HSDPA) Different Case color (region specific) Same specs as Premium Edition. Excl. available through Sony Style.

The Sony VAIO SZ6 is available in a number of configurations. In the United States you can configure a VAIO online at SonyStyle.com or buy a stock configuration from various retailers. In Europe only pre-built stock configurations can be purchased. (Choose between country specific/localized or English versions at Sony Style Europe. Unfortunately, the ordered keyboard layout is linked to the system’s software language. Thus, be prepared to install your own retail version of the operating system and dump the OEM license as I did, if your desired language of operating system and software vary from that of your keyboard. That’s the only way to end up with e.g. a German keyboard layout in coherence with an English version of Windows.)

The feature set of the reviewedSZ61WN/C premium model is comparable to the U.S. version VGN-SZ650N/C. Built-in Wireless LAN a/b/g, but no support for draft n here. All European Premium models offer integrated 3G WWAN.

What’s in the box: Besides the notebook, the package contains a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, AC adapter and power cord, T-Mobile SIM card (+ 30 days HSDPA flat rate trial voucher), express card adapter and printed quick start/troubleshoot guides. It’s backed by a 2-year limited warranty (battery warranty limited to 6 months). The notebook comes preinstalled with Microsoft Windows Vista Business.

 


(view large image)

(view large image)
Left: VAIO SZ61WN/C Box, Right: VAIO SZ1VP/C Box

SZ61WN/C Specs as Reviewed

  • Operating System: Windows Vista Business OEM
  • Processor: 2.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 (4 MB L2 cache, 800 MHz front side bus)
  • Chipset: GM965
  • Memory: 2 GB RAM (667 MHz, PC5300 DDR2 SDRAM, 2x 1024 MB), 2 SODIMM slots, 4 GB max. (64-bit)
  • Optical Drive: multi-format/dual-layer DVD/CD burner (DVD+-RW/+-R DL/RAM)
    Write: CD-R x24, CD-RW x16, DVD-R x8, DVD-RW x6, DVD+R DL x4, DVD+R x8, DVD+RW x8, DVD-RAM x5, Read: CD x24, CD-R x24, CD-RW x24, DVD x8, DVD-R DL x6, DVD-R x8, DVD-RW x8, DVD+R DL x6, DVD+R x8, DVD+RW x8, DVD-RAM x5
  • Hard Drive: 160 GB hybrid hard drive (SATA, 5400RPM),Windows ReadyDrive: 256 MB flash memory
  • Display: 13.3"widescreen X-black LC-Display with LED-Technology, 1280 x 800 WXGA
  • Graphics: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 (max. 358 MB of shared memory) (stamina), Dedicated: NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS GPU, 64 MB DDR2 dedicated(max. 831 MB of allocated RAM)
  • Connectivity and Expansion Slots: i.LINK (IEEE 1394) 4-Pin 400 Mbit/s, docking station port, integrated Memory Stick reader (Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick PRO Duo, MagicGate), microphone-in, RJ-11 (Modem), RJ-45, 2 USB-Version 2.0 High/Full/Low Type A USB ports, VGA, PCMCIA-Card-Type I or II, Multi-Card-reader (Express Card Adapter VGP-MCA20: MultiMedia Card (MMC), SD Card, xD Card, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO, Magic Gate), headphone/line-out, Express Card 34 slot
  • Networking: WWAN (HSDPA 3,6 Mbit/s, Rx Diversity), Wireless LAN 802.11a/b/g (54 Mbit/s, 100 m), Ethernet adapter 10Base-T/100Base-TX/1000Base-T, Modem V92/V.90, Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR (10 m)
  • Multimedia: compatible with Intel High Definition Audio, 3D-Surround, Stereo speakers (integrated), compatible with Windows Sound System, Sound Reality
  • Camera with microphone: Motion Eye Digital Camera, 25/30 fps, 0.3M motion/ 1.3M still, 640×480
  • Buttons: 2 customizable Special Buttons, On/Off button, Wireless On/Off, Stamina/Speed Mode Switch
  • Security: Infineon Trusted Platform Module (TPM), TCG 1.2 compatible Trusted Platform Module (TPM), biometric fingerprint scanner, Kensington lock slot, G-Sensor HDD Shock Protection
  • Software: SonicStage CP 4.2, SonicStage Mastering Studio 2.3, VAIO Photo & Video Suite, WinDVD 8.0 for VAIO, Adobe Photoshop Elements 5.0, Easy Media Creator 9, Click to DVD 2.6, Adobe Acrobat Standard 8.0, Adobe Reader 8.0, Microsoft Works 8.5, Microsoft Office Ready 2007 (free 60-days trial), Norton Internet Security 2007 (free virus definition updates for 90 days), VAIO Recovery Utility, Protector Suite QL 5, Infineon TPM Professional Package
  • Dimensions: 234.3 x 21.8 – 33.0 x 315 mm/12.5 x 0.9 – 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Weight: 1.79 kg / 3.7 lb
  • Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable, 10.8v, 5800 mAh (VGP-BPS10), claimed runtime 3 to 6 hours, charge time: 270 min, extended 9 cell battery available for purchase (VGP-BPL9).
  • Power Adapter: AC100-240 V (VGP-AC19V26): Dimensions 3 cm x 12.2 cm x 5 cm, Weight 320 g, Output 19.5 V, power cable 1.8 m

Long-term Impressions of the SZ1VP


Sony VAIO SZ1 (view large image)

It took about six weeks for the SZ1VP from pre-order to shipping; just in time to get it ready (performance tests, software installations, configuration, workflow requirements, backup/sync plans) for a forthcoming mobile performance art project at that time. The laptop requirements: Horse power, decent battery life, high build quality and reliability – all in a very small package: Small/slim/light enough to accompany me 24/7 along with all the microphones, sensors, cameras and cords during travelling. But still with a screen big enough for daily work with complex and space consuming software workspaces (signal processing, coding, audio/video editing, post production, digital imaging, and asset management).

And what a choice it was: The SZ1 hit the nail! Something that seemed impossible just months before was real: The perfect mobile workstation was born and saved the show. But it wasn’t Sony alone who made it possible. The star of the hour was Intel with its new mobile core duo processors. For the first time in history they made it possible to build notebooks with similar or even better CPU performance than desktop x86 desktop counterparts. One of the few lasting bottlenecks: The hard drive. But with its 5,400 rpm it still outperformed some former laptops and was actually fast enough for our needs. No dropped frames or performance issues with real-time processing, live rendering of multiple video/audio tracks, video capturing, audio recording, complex signal processing and sensor/midi data.

The acid test: During a time of six months touring through the U.S., working and living in the car, in tents, under the stars and from time to time in motels, the equipment had to withstand many different types of stress every day.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Documentary pictures of the SOUND NOMADS project, USA 2006 & Germany 2007.
(VAIO SZ1VP, video/audio, sound recordings, sensor based art performances)

In the desert: The VAIO SZ1 managed midday heat, sand and sun intensity amazingly well. The notebook’s body temperature went up pretty fast – especially in direct sunlight. Sure enough, you shouldn’t do that too long and try to find some shadow better soon than late. But we had to do so several times (max. 1-2 hours in a row) and it was definitely more stressful for us than for this notebook, to fight the heat. (cf. the second laptop on tour – an old Toshiba Satellite – which could not even be turned on at temperatures far beyond those in deserts.) The screen in bright sunlight is barely readable and a transreflective LCD (similar to Toshiba’s recently announced sunlight/high ambient light readable displays) would make sense.

On the go: Shaky SZ field recordings during hiking, city walks, rodeos, car and theme park rides, etc. The HDD g-sensor protection feature (hardware/software driver combo) does its job, but intense shock hazards can occasionally halt recording streams and cause some glitches with certain software applications. Just beware, but don’t deactivate this overall nice to have feature for a more secure working environment. I always tried to prevent scratches to the notebook, but on the go when the SZ is turned on and the air circulation must be kept, it needs to be carried in the bag without any protection. An USB audio interface in the same bag is enough to easily scratch especially the notebook’s bottom side. Take care.

Soak Zones: Never do that to your VAIO. But different high humidity scenarios turned out well and so did a few raindrops. (At least good to know: The VAIO Z600TEK survived a whole cup of water followed by three days of drying and is still running.)

Build Quality: The build quality is very good, although there is also some room to improve. The battery of the SZ1 doesn’t fit tightly into the back and causes rattle. Display and WLAN module both had to get replaced after the first 12 months. The repair service acted quickly and was covered by Sony’s warranty. The battery died two more months later, not covered by warranty (only over the first six months). After several months of use, the right hand rest area became somewhat discolored (brighter). The CD/DVD drive mechanism didn’t make any problems. There were complains that several other users had with the SZ1’s space bar. This has been fixed in SZ2s and above. But I never experienced this sort of glitches with my keyboard. (Besides the fact that the SZ1VP’s space between keyboard and closed lid is too small and can affect your screen, if you carry your laptop in your bag.)

Battery/Power Adapter:Battery life (2-4 hours) with the SZ1 was ok on Windows XP, but the whole tour would have been easier and still more productive with more juice on days working away from civilization. The power adapter should be smaller.

Software/Drivers/Vista issues: The initial (bloated) Windows XP Professional SP2 setup was replaced by my own installation and later (Feb 2007) upgraded to Windows Vista Business together with a new firmware from Sony’s support website. Very high WLAN activity could cause dropped network connections, blue screens, or necessary reboots because the Intel wireless adapter in Windows suddenly disappeared and couldn’t be switched on any longer. The Nvidia driver in a dual monitor setup lost its settings from time to time. With Windows Vista at least the blue screens caused by high network activity were gone, but occasional reboots remained and they do so with the SZ6 (But the November release of Intel’s wireless driver from Sony’s SZ61WN support website fixed most of these issues.). Other Windows Vista specific issues: The fan were suddenly running louder than on XP and audio playback on the internal Sigmatel sound card began with a clicking noise (not just media player files, also recognizable in professional audio production software). Disk performance (internal SATA and external USB 2.0) both with the SZ1VP and the SZ61WN under Vista is very poor. But don’t blame Sony for that.

Bottom line: Looking back on 19 months of heavy usage: The VAIO SZ1VP has some small flaws (which were most fixed with the SZ2-6 releases, please read on) but it’s still a very good fit for mobile work with style and speed. The 100% impeccable laptop just doesn’t exist.

The Evolution of the SZ Line (SZ1 vs. SZ6)


Sony VAIO SZ6 (view large image)

Some major differences and widely overlooked small changes between the SZ1 and SZ6 series:

VGN-SZ6WN VGN-SZ1VP
Accessories VGP-MCA20A VGP-MCA20
Battery/AC Adapter 10.8V/5800mAh, better battery lifesmaller power adapter 11.1V/5200mAh
Body color scheme, labeling, build qualityflexible and unpluggable WWAN antenna
Chipset Santa Rosa Platform, Intel GM965 Intel GMA950
CPU 2.2 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 (4 MB L2 cache, 800 MHz front side bus) 2.0 GHz Intel Core Duo Processor T2500 (2 MB L2 cache, 667 MHz front side bus)
Dimensions/Weight slightly thicker (not noticeable)1,79 kg / 3.7 lbs 1,69 kg
Display screen rubbing protection
Drives (HDD/DVD) 160 GB Hybrid HDD, faster optical drive 120 GB HDD
Graphics Stamina: Intel GMA X3100Speed: NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS Stamina: Intel GMA 950Speed: NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400
Keyboard/Touchpad feel better, space bar fix since SZ2, fits better with the overall color scheme rattling buttons, space bar doesn’t always work
Networking WWAN (HSDPA), Gigabit Ethernet Gigabit Ethernet only with the docking station, no WWAN
Operating System Windows Vista Business Windows XP Professional SP2
Memory SO-DIMM 667Mhz (DDR2) SO-DIMM 533Mhz (DDR2)
Webcam VGP-VCC7 VGP-VCC2

 

The SZ61WN’s keyboard typing noise seems to be louder compared to the SZ1VP but therefore the mouse buttons on the SZ1 rattled a little bit. The SZ6’s touchpad feels better and fit well with the new overall color scheme. The SZ6 has a more elegant Jet Black look. The SZ6’s lid doesn’t show fingerprints but the wrist rest area shows hand oil much more noticeable then the SZ1 did.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: SZ61WN VAIO and slightly changed windows logo, SZ1VP, SZ61WN touchpad/finger print reader, SZ1VP

Sony/VAIO logo labeling swapped. More andbigger pads were added onto the SZ6’s bottom inner lid to protect screen rubbing on the keyboard during transport. Between the lid and chassis activity lights a black strip of padding has been added to prevent the scratching produced on previous models. It’s very possible, that Sony also added more stability to the extremely thin premium screen, since the SZ61WN drops WLAN connections with limited signal strength as soon as the lid closes. Bad for docking station and external display usage, good if the screen would be more robust now. Time will show. A newWWAN LED has been added to the SZ61WN for connection status indication.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: SZ61WN, SZ1VP, SZ61WN, SZ1VP

The Battery has fitted into the SZ1-5 laptops loosely and users reported adding a thin piece of sticky foam would improve things a bit, but with the SZ6 one more design flaw is gone. The battery fits quite well. Finally! Lithium Ion Battery capacity has changed from 11.1V/5200mAh to 10.8V/5800mAh. Two more vents (Santa Rosa specific?) at the bottom front of the SZ6, which should help with heat reduction. At the same time, the HDD and fans of the SZ6 produce less noise. The docking station port cover didn’t close properly on the SZ1VP, on the SZ61WN it does.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: SZ61WN, SZ1VP, SZ61WN, SZ1VP

The new AC power adapter VGP-AC19V26 is smaller than the VGP-AC19V12 of the SZ1. The VGP-AC19V26’s input: ~1.5A vs. the VGP-AC19V12’s input: ~1.3A.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

The SZ61WN’s new AC power adapter is smaller than the SZ1VP’s.

A small Express Card Memory Card Reader upgrade (VGP-MCA20->20A) may implement support for newer large size memory cards. The new VGP-VCC7 Motion Eye Webcam has a more stylish design. What I like about the SZ61WN’s new palm rest: it still has a smooth surface but also incorporates a subtle feel of friction.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: 3x SZ61WN vs. SZ1VP, VGP-MCA20A vs. VGP-MCA20 Memory Card Adapter

The graphics upgrade from the SZ1’s Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 to the SZ6’s Nvidia GeForce 8400GM is far less spectacular than the performance boost which comes with the upgrade from Intel’s GMA 950 to the new Intel X3000 in Stamina mode. The Santa Rosa platform keeps the notebook running cool combined with a significantly improved battery life and the system feels more responsive as well.

Improved write and access speed of the optical CD/DVD drive (SZ61WN vs. SZ1VP): CD-RW: 16x vs. 10x, DVD+R: 8x vs. 4x, DVD+RW 8x vs. 2.4x, DVD-R: 8x vs. 4x, DVD-RW: 6x vs. 2x, DVD DL: 4x vs. 2.4x

Design and Ergonomics

The SZ6 looks great in the carbon fiber matte black casing and is still more eye candy than its predecessors. This notebooks is very light and exceptionally thin with a wedge shape, thicker at the back.


(view large image)

The carbon fiber lid stays shut without any latches. As already mentioned, the SZ61WN’s lid doesn’t show fingerprints but the wrist rest area does. It’s not very easy to get them off.

The SZ61WN’s fan stays fairly quiet and heat can be only noticed on one spot on the underside and under the left wrist rest area. The machine can get warm but never hot.

Some people like the SZ keyboard, some would prefer less travel on the keys. It remained largely unchanged from older SZ models. Despite the fact that the members of Sony’s mechanical design team were instructed to keep the SZ line thin, they fortunately went with a keyboard that has a generous 3mm stroke. Reducing the stroke from 3mm to 2mm would have meant they could make the whole computer 1mm thinner. Instead they decided to go for a keyboard with a 3mm stroke that would be great for typing and just as good as the keyboards on the large ‘desktop replacement’ portables. I personally like the SZ keyboard, it just could produce less typing noise – unfortunately it’s on the loud side.

The VAIO SZ61WN’s Alps touchpad with its textured surface provides just the right amount of drag and traction (improved over the SZ1VP). A biometric fingerprint sensor is located between the mouse buttons.

Two switches: One to choose between Stamina and Speed mode (Stamina: X3100 Graphics, Speed: Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS) (reboot required), another to turn all wireless on/off (handy when flying, but a dedicated switch for each of the three wireless modules WWAN, WLAN and Bluetooth would eliminate the buggy VAIO Smart Network software).
Display and Multimedia

The Sony SZ61WN’s 13" 1280 x 800 Wide XGA X-black LC-Display with LED technology is brilliant. It’s razor-sharp, color saturated, deep blacks, glossy and comes with an anti-glare coating as well as very white backlighting. The white of the (premium) SZs are often reported to look pure white compared to cream-colored Apple Cinema Displays. In direct comparison to my Dell UltraSharp 2405FPW 24" Studio Display (Dell brightness level to 50%) the whites of the VAIO SZ come out very similar. With a brightness level of 100% the Dell would be much brighter, but too bright for studio work and painful on your eyes anyway. The VAIO SZ1VP had small areas of light leakage, theSZ61WN does not. When it comes to monitor profiling (I’m using the Spyder2PRO Studio), very high accuracy of brightness and color saturation can be achieved. Indeed I would even say, the SZ produce slightly more accurate color tones than the 2405FPW where colors come out a bit too bluish/cold with standard settings.


(view large image)

The SZ’s Hybrid Graphics System lets you set your graphics performance and battery life. A simple hardware switch enables you to toggle between an internal Mobile Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 for optimal power consumption with already very good performance and an external Nvidia GeForce 8400M GS GPU for even more robust performance (gaming, 3D, multiple displays).

The GMA X3100 graphicssolution sports a unified shader model, like the Xbox 360’s Xenos chip and Nvidia’s latest GeForce 8800 graphics cards, and Intel’s Clear Video technology. The latest iteration of Intel’s integrated graphics offering is also fully DirectX 10 and Vista compliant, so you can make use of all Aero effects. Too bad, that the VAIO SZ6 doesn’t sport HDMI, TV-out and DVI ports. Dual display mode over DVI since the SZ1 implies the use of Sony’s docking station and the Nvidia Speed mode. The GMA X3100 would support HDMI output, complete with HDCP compliance and the ability to playback 1080p content for high definition TV, but not without a port. Also, with Santa Rosa being able to dynamically change the refresh rate on the display, power will be saved by reducing the amount of liquid crystal twisting in certain scenarios which don’t benefit from a fast refresh rate.

The Intel X3100 with its 3D acceleration is certainly good enough for casual gaming as it is for most image editing tasks. It benchmarked between 1630 to 1740 in several PCMark05 tests, compared to the Intel 950GMA which averaged 950. Aero is responsive (although I’ve turned it off in favor of an additional performance boost). The X3100 can use up to 358 MB of shared memory while 150 MB get allocated for average business tasks. The SZ stays much cooler in Stamina mode and I’m using this mode regularly as long as I don’t need a multiple monitor setup. I can’t feel any speed loss even with Photoshop and video editing tasks and just prefer the Nvidia Speed mode for heavy 3D and compositing work with After Effects or Cinema 4D.

The Nvidia 8400M GS is a midrange dedicated graphics card with a significantly better 2860 benchmark result compared to the X3100. But memory is where the SZ’s 8400M falls short: Sony opted for only 64 MB of discrete memory. However, the SZ6 is said to be a very good gaming machine as well and several demanding 3D games have been tested with good results by different user groups around the globe. I personally can’t comment on this, because I just don’t find the time for gaming.

Watching movies on the VAIO SZ61WN is a less noisy (reduced fans and DVD spinning noise) experience than it has been with the SZ1VP before. Picture clarity, and rich sound powered by Sony’s Sound Reality technology is coming out of the stereo speakers under the grill above the keyboard. The speakers lack deep bass but don’t distort (clear trebles) and can be pretty loud (adequate volume for personal use and presentations in front of a small group). The SigmaTel’s (CXD9872 High Definition Audio Codec) audio output through headphones (3.5mm stereo out) offer excellent clarity and no background hiss. The HD audio includes ASIO drivers which allow you to set latency and buffer size as well as to switch between ASIO and DSD (Sony Direct Stream Digital). Indeed, I find myself using the integrated SigmaTel ASIO far more often than my external very good Alesis IO|2 audio interface even for music production and audio editing.

DVD playback software:Windows Media Player 11 (supports DVD playback only with Vista Ultimate) or/and the bundled version of WinDVD.

The SZ line includes a 1.3 megapixel webcam, a camera that isn’t any deeper than the display panel. It sports and integrated microphone. The webcam was tested with Skype and it works well. The picture could be more vibrant and color saturated though.

Performance and Benchmarks

The VAIO SZ61WN premium notebook features a Windows ReadyDrive hybrid hard drive (160 GB, 5400 RPM), an emerging notebook technology that intends to shorten boot-up times, increase battery life and enhance overall performance speeds. Hybrid hard drive technology blends traditional hard disk technology with flash memory, utilizing the quicker read/write ability of flash memory to manage and process the majority of hard disk related tasks. This allows the hard disk to sit idle until needed, simultaneously extending battery life while enhancing performance.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: HD Tune benchmark SZ61WN High Performance mode, second test, HDD details, VAIO Maximum Battery mode

In direct comparison, the SZ61WN’s 120 GB HDD ends up with a slightly higher transfer rate than the SZ1VP’s 120 GB drive.


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)
 

Left to right: HD Tune benchmark SZ1VP High Performance mode, second test, HDD details

As HD Tune in its current version 2.53 has some problems with hybrid drives, the SZ61WN’s drive was rated at a burst rate of only 20 MB/sec. The burst rate should normally be significantly higher than the max transfer rate.

Although these HDD benchmark results are pretty good for 5400 rpm, Vista is terribly slow at copying files. Since this annoying bug affects so many Vista systems, it’s hard to believe that twelve months after release there is still no solution on the horizon. For some people things are getting faster as soon as the Remote Differential Compression Service is turned off – but not for me, only slightly. Unplugging all USB devices speed up file transfers a little – but still, very slow. Installing all Microsoft hotfixes and turning off OneCare or the Windows Search Service doesn’t help either. Various software applications seem to have file access/throughput issues as well. Sony Vegas e.g. can’t produce full resolution live previews, loading high resolution videos into WMP takes a while. This issue affects both VAIO SZ1VP and SZ61WN. Best results were measured with the preinstalled or clean version of Vista. Best copy speed result: 15-17 MB/s (from/to the same built-in SATA disk). After the installation of several software applications, plugging in USB devices and OneCare (search/DC/UAC services disabled) average transfer speed goes down to 1-7MB/s. The following screenshots can give you some proof:


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: from the internal HDD to a SD card, from an external USB 2.0 7200 rpm drive to the internal HDD, vice versa

Read: Microsoft TechNet

Graphics Performance: My reasons to not publish so many different 3D benchmark results: These tests vary with each new version of the graphic driver and are pretty notebook vendor independent. Thus, you can find additional benchmark results for the SZ’s Intel and Nvidia Graphic Cards all over the Internet.

Maxon Cinebench R10 Benchmarks in Speed/Nvidia and High Performance Mode:


(view large image)

(view large image)

Left: VAIO SZ61WN/C, Right: VAIO SZ1VP/C

Super PI: Same results for both, the SZ61WN and the SZ1VP.

SZ6+SZ1: Performance Mode, VAIO Maximum Battery: Super PI [2M] 00m 56s

Overall Performance: 3925 (SZ61WN) PCMark05 rating vs. 3173 (SZ1VP) marks.

SZ61WN vs. SZ1VP: PCMark05 results

Battery

Battery life with the standard 6 cell 5800 mAh Lithium Ion battery (VGP-BPS10) is far better than the SZ1’s battery life (Vista RTM, all automatic updates installed). Sony claims 3 to 6 hours runtime on a charge, which turned out to be not too optimistic. There is also a $299 extended battery (VGP-BPL9) for 1.5x capacity and runtimes that adds relatively little bulk to the laptop.

Some SZ61WN real world battery power results:

1. Screen brightness: Level 3 (8=brightest), Stamina mode (Intel graphics). WLAN/WAN/BT off, power plan: Power Saver (Sony’s own Power Management not in use), software installations and intense HDD activity, two reboots. Remark: Right after startup the battery status indicates only 91%.

Status indicator after 4:05 hours of intense use: 5% left.

2. Screen brightness: Level 5, Stamina mode. WLAN/WAN/BT off, power plan: VIAO Maximum Battery, file copying/sorting, little Photoshop work, small benchmarks, and Microsoft Office 2007 work.

Battery status of 93% right after boot up, 45% (stating 2 hr 47 min left) after 2 hr 45, 39% (stating 2 hr 26 min left) after 3 hr 05, 25% (1 hr 29 min left) after 4 hr, 10% (40 min left) after 5 hr, 4% (13 min remaining) after 5 hr 20 min of active use.

3. Screen brightness: Level 5, Stamina mode. 3G WWAN on, power plan: VIAO Maximum Battery, outlook/web/office work.

Battery status of 90% right after boot up, 84% (3 hr 30 min remaining) after 20 min, 81% (3 hr 15 min left) after 35 min, 78% (3 hr 13 min remaining) 78% after 45 min, …

4. Screen brightness: Maximum, Speed mode (NVIDIA graphics). 3G WWAN/BT on.

Battery status of 92% right after startup, 50% (1 hr 12 min remaining) after 80 min, then a USB HDD plugs in, 20% battery status (25 min remaining) after 2 hr of heavy use.

SZ61WN VAIO Power Management Viewer, Advanced Settings (Power Schemes can turn on/off ports or drives to save power)

Charge time:

Charging status indicator while working with the machine in VAIO Maximum Battery mode, full brightness, WLAN on (these settings seem to make no difference in charging, though), battery drained down to 2%): 17:39 -> 2% available, 18:45 -> 30% available, 21:12 ->92%, 21:25 -> 95%, 21:34 -> 97% (Vista taskbar indicator: charging, orange Battery LED stopped blinking), 21:51 -> 99%, 22:00 -> 100% (taskbar indicator: plugged in, charging), 22:02 -> Fully charged.

The whole charging process took 4 hr 23 min (263 min) which meets the claimed charge time of 270 min. Thus, it seems save to calculate about 25% for each hour – having in mind that the last 5% will take more than 30 minutes.


Save battery life with enabling VAIO Battery Care functions.

Connectivity and Expansion Slots

SZ1-6 notebooks offer two USB 2.0 (High/Full/Low Type A USB) ports, one FireWire IEEE 1394 (unpowered 4-Pin 400Mbit/s i.LINK) port, aVGA port (no DVI, no HDMI), 3.5 mm stereo-out, 3.5 mm microphone-in and a docking station connector on the bottom.

 
(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: SZ1VP, SZ61WN’s 3.5 mm audio/IEEE 1394/VGA/PCMCIA, SZ61WN’s back (battery/power), SZ61WN’s ExpressCard Memory Card Adapter, USB ports, DVD/CD-ROM drive

Both a PCMCIA type I/II card slot and an ExpressCard 34 slot are on board. The legacy PC Card slot is handy for older cards but with all the ExpressCard options available today it becomes dispensable.

The SZ61WN’s networking features: WWAN (HSDPA 3,6 Mbit/s, Rx Diversity), Wireless LAN 802.11a/b/g (54 Mbit/s, 100 m), RJ-45 Ethernet adapter10Base-T/100Base-TX/1000Base-T, RJ-11 ModemV92/V.90, Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR (10 m)

Memory Cards support: An integrated Memory Stick reader for Memory Stick Duo, Memory Stick PRO Duo and MagicGate. A Multi-Card reader/Express Card Adapter (VGP-MCA20A) for MultiMedia Card/MMC, SD Card, xD Card, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO and Magic Gate.

Security and Safety Features

The SZ61WN (and all SZ6 premium models) has abuilt-in biometric fingerprint scanner and theTrusted Platform Module 1.2 to help keep data private.

It comes with the software Protector Suite QL and fingerprint recognition is accurate and stable. You’ll enroll a few of your fingerprints, create a password to get started, and with the swipe of a finger, you can log on to Windows, access secure websites and local applications without having to fill out the login form over and over again. Fingerprint data can be saved directly to the module and the SZ61WN can be locked from intruders at BIOS level if enabled (disabled by default). Otherwise the encrypted security/fingerprint data is saved on the HDD.

It’s a great feature, but I personally don’t use it because it slows down Windows startup, and the neat website login functions require Protector Suite QL software patches with each major browser (e.g. Firefox) update.

The SZ1-6 VAIOs also come with HDD Protection. It’s a hardware/software combo safety feature. The protection can be disabled and the sensitivity level against shock hazards can be set as well.

Docking Station

The VGP-PRSZ1.CEL docking station lets any VAIO SZ series notebook quickly and easily connect to peripherals, offers three additional USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet (because this wasn’t right built into the SZ1-5, it was a welcome upgrade for those models), VGA, DVI-D (the only reason for me to buy this docking station) and DC in. The product description writes “When you’re on the go, there are no cables to plug or unplug.”. That’s wrong if you use anything other than USB. In that case you would at least have to unplug your FireWire and audio devices.

Product Dimensions: Weight 1.6 kg, 34.6 mm (H) x 343 mm (W) x 213 mm (D)


(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

(view large image)

Left to right: VGP-PRSZ1(view from above), SZ61WN docked, the SZ’s integrated VGA port can’t be used when docked and the station lacks FireWire/Audio ports expansions, VGP-PRSZ1 ports (back view)


(view large image)

Dell UltraSharp 2405FPW 24" Wide Aspect TFT Monitor powered by the VGP-PRSZ1’s DVI signal, DualView with SZ61WN, Apple Wireless Keyboard (BT)

It’s a solid built unit but I’ve experienced the following shortcomings:

  • Dual monitor software/driver support is poor. Manual (NVIDIA control panel) configuration of the external monitor is required on nearly every re-connect and you always have to boot up in Speed Mode for the use of DVI. I’d rather prefer to work in Stamina mode all the time, because in that mode the SZ stays cooler, quieter and battery runtime on the go is significantly increased.
  • No power adapter included. You’ll need to buy one if you don’t want to dig out and hook up the laptop’s AC adapter each time you dock.
  • No power on/off button. You can undock, but can’t use the VAIO SZ’s power button to shutdown or turn on the computer without opening the lid. (Thumbs up for the good old Z600, which provides a power switch on the right side.)
  • Only three USB ports. No FireWire port. No audio jacks.
  • Some users complained about poor analog video quality. The dock is reported to degrade signals, but I can’t confirm this since I haven’t used the dock’s VGA-out so far.

Operating System and Software

The VAIO SZ6 series ships with Windows Vista Business Edition and a Windows XP downgrade option is available. You can also upgrade to Vista Ultimate through Microsoft’s Windows Upgrade Anytime program in order to receive Media Center and DVD features, BitLocker drive encryption and parental controls.

But Sony has filled their VAIOs withbloatware as well – toolbars, trial software, pop-up ads, etc. At least more useful: A 60 day trial of Office 2007 and a full copy of MS Works 8.5 for those who don’t need a full MS Office solution. You also get some of Sony’s own multimedia software – just too bad, that they don’t add some products of their excellent Sony Creative Software catalog.

Thus, plan on spending a day using the Programs and Features control panel to remove unnecessary software and speed up your VAIO or go for a clean install.

Clean Install/Setup Tips

I decided to give TrueImage 9.1 Workstation Universal Restore a shot and try to upgrade from my former VAIO SZ1VP to the SZ61WN without a complete reinstall. It worked! This procedure saved me nearly a week, the time needed for a fresh setup and tweaking of all software products I’m working with. With 110 GB of data on the original SZ1’s hard disk, the TrueImage Universal Restore process took about 14 hours to transfer all those files from the USB 2.0 backup drive to the new SZ61. The Universal Restore did a pretty good job. System specific drivers were skipped.

The next step: Install the latest SonyVAIO applications and drivers for the SZ61WN – the very same procedure as for a fresh clean install of Windows Vista. I had tried lots of different driver and utility combinations before I came up with the following solution for a fully functional, unbloated, and stable system. I’m currently using Windows Vista Ultimate 32bit. All steps described here should work with Windows Vista Business as well. Although Sony does not officially support Ultimate Editions with their SZ Series, everything works as expected. I upgraded to the Vista Ultimate Edition after testing out the Business Edition on the SZ1VP first and finding me not being able to playback DVDs in Windows Media Player.

Proceed to the next steps if you want to know how I set up my system:

  • Boot up into your preinstalled system and create your Sony Recovery DVDs. This is necessary to restore your system later if needed. The VIAO SZ does not come with CDs or DVDs. Without this step, your Windows OEM version and all originally installed software would be lost forever. Bust most importantly you need the Recovery DVDs to have all model specific drivers and utilities ready for the clean install. (Sony unfortunately never offer complete driver/software download sets on their support websites, something is always missing. Sometimes, only updated drivers and patches get published.)
  • Once all Recovery DVDs (1 Application DVD + 2 System Recovery DVDs; or 2 Dual Layer DVDs) have been created, you are ready to restart your system and install a fresh copy of Windows Vista or do a TrueImage Universal Restore.
  • Then insert theVAIO System Restore DVD #2 into your drive. Open the disc’s Applications Folder (VAIO\Applications). Install theSonyUtils DLL first, then the Sony Shared Library. (Installing them in the correct order is a must!)
  • Now proceed with the installation of all drivers from the VAIO\Driversdirectory followed by the VAIO utilities located in theVAIO\Applications folder. Check Sony’s VAIO support website for new drivers and software patches. Install all applicable Windows hotfixes (VAIO\Hotfix and online) and updates from Windows Update. Restart your machine if necessary.
  • If you are not interested in the (T-Mobile in Europe) G3/HSDPA deal that comes with your SZ61 or just can’t find a SZ61 version of the pre-installed T-mobile software for the clean install (I didn’t): Thanks to this post on NotebookReview.com I found an excellent service provider independent solution to enable WWAN though. Download and install the sleek Option GT Connect Software from the Orange UK website and just launch the GT Connect utility whenever you need a WWAN connection. Should work with all networks and SIM cards.
  • Tweak your Windows startup items. Click on the Vista start icon in the bottom left corner of your screen and type MSCONFIG in the search box. Press enter on your keyboard. Go to “Startup” and disable LANUtil.exe. This VAIO Smart Network utility lets you turn on/off your wireless modules (WLAN, WWAN, BT) but also makes your system more unstable when running. Thus, better disable autostart on this utility and only launch it manually as necessary. I configured my S2 button to start the MainUI.exe. Thus, whenever I need to switch from WLAN to WWAN or switch on/off BT I press the S2 button, make my new SMART Network selection and exit the tool right after. Works like a charm.

MSCONFIG: Disable LANUtil.exe, VAIO SZ61WN Startup Items (Sony, Intel, NVIDIA) in grey

Left to right: VAIO Smart Network, S Button Configuration, GlobeTrotter Connect

  • Finally, tweak your laptop with the VAIO Control Center (= VAIO Central) application.
Left to right: VAIO Control Center, Mouse Properties (Alps Touch Pad)  

Customer Support

Online Support: Europe: vaio-link.com, USA: esupport.sony.com.
The Knowledge Database lets miss a lot, but the download area for drivers and software patches at least dropped the former obligation to sign up and have your serial number ready – thankfully. But still, there is plenty of room to improve. I personally would love to see a more globalized shopping/support/download/discussion online experience similar to Apple’s.

Telephone Support: If you have some basic software/hardware knowledge, you’re probably better off doing some online research. Phone support in Germany is friendly but not so helpful when issues are tricky – this, at least, is my own experience.

Repair: Call the Sony VAIO support hotline and go through the registration process with them (if not already done). Report your problem. Then you will get the contact details of an official Sony VAIO Repair Center near you. Ask them for a complete list of repair centers in your city and give them a call in order to find out about the shortest repair times. That’s what I did in Berlin some months ago. Screen and Wi-Fi module replacements took less than three days.

Warranty: 24 months in Germany. International and expandable options are available. The International (not truly international, it’s overseas) option has to be purchased within the first two weeks right after you’ve received your laptop. The warranty extension (for another year) can be purchased whenever you want, just before your current warranty period ends.

Conclusion

The VAIO SZ61WN is a good blend of portability without sacrificing on power and comes in a stylish and well built package. Its serious speed and processing power is hard to beat. The notebook has an excellent display and the resolution suits the screen dimensions well.

For me as an artist, speaking of technical equipment is always about versatile tools and means for expression and productivity I have to rely on. The SZ61WN is no exception and offers good value for money.

Pro:

  • powerful, you won’t miss your desktop
  • bright, white, color saturated and crystal clear display
  • decent battery life far better than average
  • form factor, light and thin
  • solid and well made, touch and feel

Con:

  • no built-in DVI and TV-out, only VGA (docking station and NVIDIA Speed Mode necessary for DVI)
  • keyboard noise
  • reduced WLAN signal reception with closed lid, no Draft N Wi-Fi for European models
  • power button not reachable without having to open the lid
  • VISTA/driver glitches (display driver forgets dual monitor settings, display resolutions, desktop icon positions; slow file copy/access speed, sleep and hibernation modes often result in reboots)
  • preinstalled bloatware
  • no Microdrive/Compact Flash (CF) Type II slot (useful for the coherence between D-SLRs and the SZ)

Wish list: Backlit keyboard, silent or no fans at all, high performance solid state disk, drainage system under the keyboard (what selected VAIO or e.g. Lenovo models already offer to withstand spills), switchable transreflective (sunlight/high ambient light readable) screen

If I had to rate this laptop, I would give it a 4.5/5, the SZ1VP would have received a 4.0. However, I currently don’t know of another notebook available today, which deserves a higher rating.

Price: incl. VAT: EUR 2,299(list price) EUR 2,050 (market price) / US Models are considerably cheaper

Other notebooks in the 13.3” range to consider: Dell XPS m 1330, Toshiba Satellite Pro U300, Apple 13” MacBook


LEAVE A COMMENT

0 Comments

|
All content posted on TechnologyGuide is granted to TechnologyGuide with electronic publishing rights in perpetuity, as all content posted on this site becomes a part of the community.