Sony VAIO TR Series TR5 Review (pics, specs)

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by Andrew Baxter

The Sony VAIO TR series is Sony s entry into the ultraportable notebook market.  At 3.1lb the amount of features, power and fun Sony has packed into the latest member of the series, the VAIO TR5, is nothing short of amazing.  The TR5 is the same notebook as the TR3AP2 but adds a built-in DVD burner and faster 1.10 GHz Pentium M chip.

Sony VAIO TR Overview

First of all I have to say I do not own the Sony VAIO TR5, I was simply given the chance to use and review this notebook for a period of two weeks.  I use an IBM ThinkPad T40 as my main notebook, so I m used to using a thin-and-light style notebook with good power and decent screen size.  I have however had the opportunity to use a Fujitsu P5020 ultraportable notebook and IBM ThinkPad X31 ultraportable notebook, so I had some expectations and reference comparisons in using the TR5.  One thing you have to know that you re getting into with an ultraportable notebook is that you ll sacrifice having a full-size keyboard, you ll get a less powerful processor, and of course a smaller screen.  On the flip-side of this, with an ultraportable you get a wonderfully light laptop that s very easy to travel with and simply more of a head turner than the typical bulkier laptop out there.

I alluded to the fact that you have to expect sacrifices when you buy an ultraportable notebook, but the Sony VAIO TR5 starts to put into question if this really needs to be the case.  Simply put, the TR5 is a powerful little machine due to it s 1GB of installed RAM and faster than you d expect Pentium M 1.10 GHz power-saving processor.  Think you have to sacrifice on storage space with a smaller laptop?  Not so, the TR5 hard drive is 40GB (spinning at 4200 RPM), which is ample space for the target audience of mobile professionals.  And how about the optical drive, lucky to get a CD burner in such a small machine you d expect, right?  Well, how would you like having both a CD burner and DVD burner drive in a 3.1lb notebook, because that s exactly what the TR5 provides and is the first in the North American notebook market to do so in such a small form factor.  The DVD burner does not support DVD+RW, but is rather just a DVD-RW drive (view http://www.webopedia.com/DidYouKnow/Hardware_Software/2003/DVDFormatsExplained.asp for more information on DVD formats) but I guess you have to make some sacrifice in functionality in using a smaller notebook!  My initial point here is that the Sony VAIO TR5 will give you as much and more than you bargain for given the small size it comes in.

Specifications

  • Processor: Ultra Low Voltage Intel Pentium M processor, 1.10GHz
  • Operating System: Microsoft Windows XP Professional
  • Cache Memory L2: 1MB Integrated On-Die
  • Front Side Bus Speed 400 MHz
  • LCD 10.6″ Wide (1280×768) TFT display with XBRITE technology
  • Price: $2,999.99 (U.S. Dollars)
  • Graphics Intel 855GM Chipset Integrated Graphics 64MB (shared)
  • Memory: 1 GB DDR SDRAM (512MB x 2), maximum 1GB
  • Hard Drive: 40 GBhard drive (4200rpm)
  • Optical Drive: Internal DVD-RW/CD-RW drive (Max speeds: DVD-R/RW write 2x, CD-R write 16x, CD-RW write 8x, CD Read 24x, DVD-ROM read 8x)
  • Modem: Integrated V.90 modem
  • Ethernet: 10BASE-T/100BASE-TX Ethernet with RJ-45 interface
  • Flash Memory Card Reader: Memory Stick Media Slot (supports optional Memory Stick PRO media)
  • Pointing Device/Keyboard: Electro-Static touch pad
  • Keyboard: QWERTY, 83 keys with 2mm stroke and 17mm pitch with magnify button and Volume buttons
  • Estimated Battery Life: Lithium-ion battery providing 2.5-5.5 hours with standard battery (optional high-capacity battery provides 7-9 hours)
  • PC Card Slots: 1 type I or type II card with CardBus support
  • Integrated Camera: CMOS 370,000 pixels (VGA 640×480) MotionJPEG
  • Audio: Windows sound system compatible Dolby Headphone & Dolby Virtual Speaker Built-in stereo speakers; monaural mini-jack microphone, Internal microphone
  • Other Interfaces and Ports: RJ-11 modem jack, i.LINK (IEEE 1394) interface3, 2 USB2.0, RJ-45 Ethernet, VGA output, headphone (stereo), monaural mini-jack microphone
  • Integrated Wireless LAN: Intel PRO/Wireless 2200BG Network Connection (802.11b/g)
  • Weight: 3.11lbs.with a standard battery
  • Size (H x W x D): 1.37″-1.44 X 10.6″ X 7.4″
  • Supplied Accessories: Lithium-ion battery, power cord and AC adapter
  • Productivity Software: Microsoft Works 7.0
  • Video Software: Sony DVgate Plus , InterVideo WinDVD
  • Music Software: Sony SonicStage
  • Photo Software: Sony Network Smart Capture, Sony PictureGear Studio
  • Warranty: 1 Year battery, 1 Year Hardware and parts
  • Repair Service: Includes customer replaceable part service and mail-in Sony depot service options
  • Telephone Support: 1 year of 24-hour, 7-days-a-week, free support for hardware issues. 90 days of free support for software and operating system issues. 

Screen

The Sony VAIO TR series features a 10.6 diagonal widescreen with 1280 x 768 resolution and Sony XBrite technology.  The Sony XBrite screen technology is designed to give you a bright crisp display at a very wide viewing angle in all types of lighting.  And so it does.  I was blown away by the screen on this notebook, it s perfect for viewing DVD movies due to the widescreen format and blazing brightness.  The only slightly distracting thing about the XBrite display is that it seems there s a special coating placed on the screen to enhance the brightness, and when the screen is totally black it reflects more than your average LCD.  So if there s a lot of light in a room or window behind you and the screen has blacks on it you ll get a lot of reflection.  That complaint aside, the screen is flawless with no dead pixels and you ll find that 10.6 and a 1280 x 768 will fit more on the screen than you d expect.  Viewing web pages or watching movies seemed very natural and not at all a squeeze, text was still quite easily viewable and if you have a problem with the smaller size you can use the cool zoom in magnifying button next to the screen to increase the size of text on the screen.

Design

The Sony VAIO TR series of notebooks are pleasing to the eye.  The silver-white finish provides for a clean look and also grabs attention.  The casing for the VAIO TR looks and feels solid, it s constructed with plastic to keep weight down but  I can t see how there would be any issues with a case cracking or breaking very easily which is sometimes a concern with plastic cases.  Being an ultraportable notebook the dimensions are obviously small and gives you a thin and easy to carry notebook.  Placing this in your briefcase or backpack instead of carrying an extra bag just for a notebook is very doable.

Input ports and Layout

Front-side

Looking at the front of the notebook we can see a number of things.  The Motion-Eye camera sits at the top of the screen, below that the speakers, on the right-side of the screen is the capture button, volume-control buttons and magnify buttons.  Obviously from the front you can see the 10.6 LCD screen.  On the keyboard area we have a wireless LAN switch that can be used to enable or disable the wireless radio being on, turn it off to save battery life.  A battery indicator, hard drive access indicator, Memory Stick media indicator and Wi-Fi LAN indicator lights all sit at the front of the keyboard area making for what is actually a pretty cool looking display of lights.  Turn off the lights in a dark room and a plane might try and land on this runway of lights okay, so these little indicator lights are not that bright or plentiful but you get my point.

Left-side

On the left-side of the VAIO TR, from front to back, you have a VAIO peripheral device DC OUT port, i.Link (IEEE 1394 Firewire) port, USB 2.0 port, Memory Stick Reader, Air Vent and finally a VGA monitor port.  The DC OUT port, Firewire and USB 2.0 port are all covered by a plastic flap to protect these ports and give the notebook a cleaner look.

Back-side

Not too much exciting going on at the back of the VAIO TR, simply a battery port to slide your battery in and out of and the all important DC-IN port so you can get power to the VAIO.

Right-side

On the right-side of the notebook, from front to back, you will find the headphone jack, microphone jack, another USB 2.0 port, PC Card slot and then hidden behind a plastic flap the Ethernet and modem line jack.

Top Side

From above the TR we can see a focusing dial used to adjust the focus of the Motion Eye camera, the power button is seen at the back of the keyboard, the Touch Pad sits at the front of keyboard, a built-in microphone sits on the lower right corner and of course the 83-key keyboard itself is seen from above.


Features

One very cool feature of the VAIO TR5 is the integrated web-camera that can be used to capture still photos or video.  The resolution is rather grainy, but if you need to do a web conference with video or maybe just entertain yourself and your friends then it s a good feature to have.  The capture button next to the screen makes it super-easy to quickly snap a picture.  Pushing the button instantly takes a picture and also launches an application that allows you to control the camera.

Sony included a media card reader slot for easy transfer of image or other media files from your VAIO TR to either a PDA or digital camera.  But with Sony being Sony they of course made this media card reader only for Memory Stick style flash-memory.  I really, really wish the media card reader for the VAIO TR would accept Secure Digital, Compact Flash and Memory Stick types of memory, but Sony never does this and will only ever provide compatibility for its own technologies and formats, for better or for worse.

The built-in DVD and CD burner optical drive is just a beautiful thing to have in such a compact sized notebook.  No other notebook on the market in North America of this ultraportable size offers such a feature right now.  The footnote there is Fujitsu and JVC will be introducing notebooks this summer that will have a built-in DVD and CD Burner, but for now Sony is the lone-ranger here so tip the cap to them for being the first on the block with this innovation.  The DVD burner only supports the DVD-RW format, some manufacturers won t support playback of DVDs created in this format, but for the most part quality DVD players will be able to play back the DVDs you create in this format.  Burning a DVD was easy using the included Sony software called Click to DVD, more information on that software can be found here: http://www.vaio.net/sonyvaio648.html.  A software program named DVGate Plus is also included that makes it easy for you to edit video and images, more information on that product here: http://www.vaio.net/sonyvaio657.html

Another cool feature worth mentioning is the zoom button that is also located on the screen.  Pushing this button allows you to to switch screen resolution instantly, so if you re having trouble reading a certain webpage or document, just hit this button and you can switch the screen-resolution and increase text size.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The major concern for me in using a small laptop is how much I ll have to cramp my fingers in order to use the keyboard.  I love the IBM ThinkPad notebook series because of their amazing keyboard and trackpoint (pointing stick) usability.  I believe that having good keyboard and usability for a laptop is of the utmost importance, maybe even more important than actual speed and processor performance of the notebook.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I found that using the keyboard on the TR5 actually wasn t too bad.  Granted, it took some time to get used to reducing the amount my fingers usually travel to reach a key and I had to arch my wrists just slightly as there was no good place to rest my wrists on the laptop (as I do with my ThinkPad T40).  The travel of the keys is good and the feel is not mushy but solid.  To perform certain actions such as PgDn and PgUp you ll need to get used to using the Fn key in conjunction with another button as PgDn and PgUp do not have their own dedicated keys.

The Touchpad is munchkin size on the TR.  I never did get used to using it.  It is of course understandable that the pad has been reduced in size to fit the smaller dimensions, but it s just a challenge to use.  If you can pack a small wireless mouse as part of your traveling accessory kit then do so, because using a mouse instead of the touchpad is just so much nicer.

Processor and Performance

With a 1.10 GHz Pentium M processor you won t be blazing through applications, but the 1GB of included RAM goes a long way in making performance of the TR5 very good.  Notebook startup was relatively fast, I was booted up and using Windows XP Pro in a matter of 40 seconds or so.  Using common applications such as MS Word  (which is not included, you ll have to buy and install yourself), Outlook or IE is seamless.  Playing games, well, that s a different story.  With a shared memory graphics card and 1.10 GHz processor this notebook is definitely not intended for anything that can remotely be considered a high-end game.  Introduce 3-D rendering, polygons and shading into the mix of what you want this laptop to do in a fast manner and things start to get a little herky-jerky on the screen.  But assuming you don t want to use the VAIO TR at the next gaming LAN party you re going to, then things should be good.  The last time I saw a person trying to play Unreal Tournament 2004 on an ultraportable laptop was, well, never, so don t try it yourself!

Sound and Audio

In a word, the speakers are horrible on the VAIO TR.  They re tinny, not very loud and just plain poor.  That s why there s a headphone jack that supports Dolby.  Use headphones when watching a DVD, it ll give a much more pleasant audio experience to compliment the excellent viewing experience you can get from the TR5.

Heat

Pack a bunch of stuff that uses power into a small space and things are bound to get a little warm.  This is true of the VAIO TR.  When watching a DVD that keeps the optical drive spinning the TR5 will actually get almost too hot to put in your lap.  Keep it on the airplane tray or your desk, your thighs will thank you.  I was actually a little surprised at how hot this little notebook got, my ThinkPad T40 stays much cooler than it.  The problem with smaller notebooks is of course there is no room for powerful fans to blow out hot air and all the components are crammed into a small space.

Battery Life

The VAIO TR is a champ on battery life.  When watching a DVD I easily got 3.5 hours of battery power out of it.  This is enough to watch just about any full-length movie.  Well, except for Titanic or Gone With the Wind maybe.  When not using wi-fi or the DVD drive constantly, I got battery life spans of a shade over 5 hours which is excellent!  Thank the 1.10 GHz ultra low voltage Pentium M processor for this win.  If you need enough power to get you through a trans-Atlantic or Pacific flight then go for the extended life battery that will score you 9 – 11 hours of non-stop power.  The part number for the extended life-battery is PCGA-BP3T.

Conclusion

The VAIO TR5 made me a fan of the Sony VAIO TR series and also made me more respectful of the ultraportable laptop category in general.  I used to think that too many sacrifices in usability and performance are made in buying an ultraportable notebook.  But I am a convert, I believe that there really are those that are best suited for buying a small yet highly functional laptop.  I still don t recommend getting this if you ll be at a desk most of your day.  But if you re a journalist, frequent traveler or just a sucker for small size devices then the VAIO TR5 will give you fantastic functionality in a nice and stylish little package.

Pros

  • DVD burner and CD burner built-in
  • 1GB of RAM gives extra performance boost
  • XBrite Widescreen display offers nice and bright display, especially good for DVDs
  • Cool webcam that can zoom, focus and take video or stills
  • Nice design, clean look and just a good wow factor
  • Very light at 3.1lbs

Cons

  • Gets very warm after long periods of usage and especially when using the DVD/CD drive
  • Keyboard is good for an ultraportable, but still a challenge to use and the Touchpad is very hard to use.
  • Built-in speakers are tinny and don t get very loud
  • Price, $3,000 is a lot of money!

Pricing and Availability:

The Sony VAIO TR5 is available for $3,000 currently, but use the NotebookReview.com price comparison listing to find the best price and prices for other TR configurations.

 


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