Sony Vaio TT slim'n'light laptop
Small form-factor, hefty price tag
Review Sony has been pitching small, slim laptops at executives for years now, packing in as much functionality into as compact a chassis as it can and charging a premium for it. Why mess with a successful formula? So the new Vaio TT doesn't.
There's clearly a market for this kind of machine, as the success of previous Sony thin'n'lights, Toshiba's Portégé R500 and Apple's MacBook Air shows. Credit crunch notwithstanding, there are still plenty of well-heeled executives willing pay extra for a laptop that doesn't weigh them down and looks the business.
Sony's Vaio TT: looks the business
But the TT brings something more: the promise of phenomenal battery life, up to nine hours of mains-free runtime. OK, so that's not up there with the 19 hours Dell claims its Latitude E6400 can run for, but that's with a clip-on secondary battery pack. Dell says the E6400 will do ten hours otherwise, so given that the TT's rather smaller than the 14in E6400, it's clearly in the same league.
Design-wise, the TT is well ahead of the other machine - and of other notebooks in its thin'n'light class, particularly Toshiba's silver-painted plastic R500. The TT's exterior is kitted out in matte black, giving it a more business-like air than shiny, piano black laptops possess. Yet the sides of the machine sport chrome-like panels that alleviate what might otherwise be that overly pragmatic look that ThinkPads have.
The TT's design hinges about the back end - literally as well as figuratively - which is like a tube running the length of the machine and provides readily grippable contours that come in handy when you're carrying the machine. So light is the TT - just 1.3kg - that you will want to carry it rather that shove it in a backpack or briefcase.
The display is a petite 11.1in, and that determines the overall size of the machine: an eminently portable 199.8 x 279 x 23.5mm. Unlike smaller netbooks, it's still good to use without feeling you've compromised on the keyboard or the screen. Opening up the TT reveals the 1366 x 768 display and Sony's standard 'lozenge' keyboard.
Compact and easy to carry
The key array is a good 20mm narrower than the deck on the MacBook Air, but no less typist friendly for that. The keys don't have the Air's solid foundation, but there's not too much flex. Unless you're a very fast typist indeed, it's perfectly usable.
Less so is the ALPS-made touchpad, which is as basic as these things get: tap-to-click and that's your lot beyond pointer pushing. There are no scroll zones or two-finger multi-touch scrolling, either of which we'd expect to see on a machine commanding the premium the TT does. You do get a fingerprint sensor, but then that's par for the course these days.
Smaller than standard keyboard - but still very usable
So too is a wireless switch, and you'll find that on the front of the TT alongside separate SDHC and MemoryStick memory card slots. To the right of the curved front panel you'll find mute and volume buttons, plus as user-definable button and a fourth to eject the optical drive tray.
Yes, unlike Apple's Air, the TT has a multi-format DVD writer on board, on the right side next to a VGA port. The left side is home to 3.5mm audio sockets, a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a four-pin Firewire connector, ExpressCard 34 slot and - beneath a cover - Ethernet and HDMI ports. Design seems the only reason for tucking these two away under a hatch.
The TT's small, 16V power brick connects to a port on the side of left-hand screen hinge - the power key's located at the opposite end of the laptop. The TT's lid is a scarily thin 4mm that's a bendy as the one on the Toshiba Portégé R500 . Push the centre of the lid when closed, and the screen will touch the keys - how long before they start leaving marks? The hinges themselves had a degree of non-rotational movement, while the power connector was quite wobbly too.
The lid's only 4mm thick
All in all, we can't say we feel confident that the TT's display or its mounts will survive much punishment. You might think an executive's pricey laptop might not be likely to take as many knocks as, say, a student's shoved-in-a-backpack machine, but we know company directors - not our own - who've had machines knocked off desks because they were casually placed too close to the edge. So business bods' notebooks have to be no less tough a time that ones aimed at the rest of us.
The main body of the TT, though light, feels solid, so it's really the display that's the danger point. The lid on the Air, since we mentioned it earlier, isn't much thicker than the TT's but its metal shell makes it much more sturdy.
Internally, Sony offers a range of the latest Core 2 Duo processors and chipset tech, all part of Intel's Centrino 2 array. We looked at the top-end TT11WN, which has a 1.2GHz SU9300 CPU with 3MB of L2 cache and an 800MHz frontside bus over which it connects to 4GB of 800MHz DDR 3 memory.
The TT comes with Windows Vista Business, the 32-bit version, so 1GB of the memory may as well not be there so far as the OS is concerned. The on-board graphics are handled by the Intel GS45 chipset's own, integrated GMA 4500MHD GPU - which is why the TT's Windows Vista Experience rating is only 3.2 - the lowest score of the set, for desktop graphics. Gaming graphics rate 3.3, the CPU 4.4 and the memory 4.8 - the same score the 160GB, 5400rpm SATA hard drive gets.
We ran our customary PCMark05 test, this time with 3DMark06 too. The latter confirms that the TT is limited to casual gaming, scoring a mere 617 points at 1024 x 768, rather less than other integrated-graphics Centrino 2-based laptops we've looked at.
Longer bars are better
We've compared the TT's numbers to scores from a couple of recent machines and Lenovo's ThinkPad X300, which we reviewed back in February but has since been displaced at the top of the company's thin'n'light totem pole by the X301. Apart from the X300's astonishing HDD score - thanks to its top-spec solid-state drive - the TT has it beaten, but only just. It in turn is eclipsed by Dell's Centrino 2-based Latitude E6400.
A more relevant comparison, perhaps, is with the Asus N10 , a netbook that, like the TT, runs Windows Vista so is aimed at a similar audience as the one Sony's chasing. The two are matched on hard drive performance, but the Sony has the N10 licked elsewhere. Note that the N10's benchmarks are incomplete because PCMark05 won't run its graphics tests at the Asus' 1024 x 600 resolution.
Fortunately, 3DMark06 tells you all you need to know. Think the TT's score was bad? At least the 617 it rated at 1024 x 768 was better than the 139 the N10 got at 1024 x 600.
Like the N10, the TT comes with 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 2.1 on board, but the TT11WN variant adds 7.2Mb/s HSDPA and 2Mb/s HSUPA support courtesy of a built in 3G module from Option. Sony would like you to connect using T-Mobile, but we fitted our Vodafone SIM - the slot's hidden by the TT's battery - and were quickly up and running. We got a decent signal strength when we tried the HSDPA link out in North London, and there's no doubt having 3G built in is better than using a dongle.
Sony provides a nice utility, Vaio Smart Network, that allows you to disable individual radios - the Wireless switch on the front is an all-or-nothing affair - and the Ethernet port, which is turned off by default. This is all in the interests of conserving power, as is a Task Bar icon that'll power down the optical drive.
We used it during our battery test, which involves running PCMark05 continuously until the power's gone, though it continued to report that the drive was turned on. As usual, we had Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on, but disabled the HSDPA radio. We set the screen to maximum brightness after pulling the power cable auto-dimmed it.
The design's defined by the 'tube'
The TT ran for just shy of four hours - three hours 55 minutes - which is rather better than the two-and-a-half hours we got out of the Dell Latitude E6400  in the same test. Our benchmark is a tough test that keeps the CPU, GPU and HDD doing rather more work than the usually would, so take it as a worst-case figure. Typically, you can almost double the time for ordinary workloads, which takes us to the best part of eight hours, and by dimming the display and turning off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth you could probably eke that out to nearly eight-and-a-half hours, which isn't so far off what Sony claims you'll get.
So, Sony's largely delivered on battery life, and if the Vaio TT isn't one of the fastest Centrino 2 machines out there, it's certainly one of the most compact, most portable and well-connected. The problem is, it's also one of the most expensive.
Slick design, expensively priced
The TT we looked at retails for a pound short of two grand, though you can pick up a lesser, HSDPA-less model for around £1399. Either way, that's a lot to pay for a laptop these days. Time was when Sony, Toshiba and others could get away with charging a packet for portability, but in the age of the netbook, it's a lot harder to make a case for demanding a lot more cash than a regular laptop for something smaller.
Asus' Eee PC S101 , for instance, isn't as powerful as the TT, but its battery life isn't unworkably poor - as so many netbooks' battery runtimes are - and it's only £449, a third of the price of the entry-level TT. DSGi's Advent 4213  netbook is cheaper still - £350 - and is has built-in HSDPA. Both the S101 and the 4213 run Windows XP, so they'll crunch the same financial spreadsheets as the TT will, call up the same contact details and spell-check the same business proposal PowerPoints.
To be fair to Sony, it knows this, and it knows there are folk who'll turn their nose up at the cheaper machines and go for the expensive one because, first, nothing impresses a boardroom quite as much as a slick, black well-branded notebook and, second, because they can.
Also available in... er.. gold
Judging the TT on those terms, it's another success for Sony, despite the flimsy lid and hinges, the second-rate touchpad, and a screen that's has (just) too high a resolution for its size - we found ourself squinting - and shows too much colour dithering for the price.
No question, the Vaio TT is a stunning machine: small, capable, supremely portable and very well connected. But you pay a lot for these benefits at a time when netbooks - even ones with on-board HSDPA - can do much the same job for a fraction of the cost. Yes, with less horsepower; yes, with a lot less battery life. But it's hard to argue with the saving you'd make over the expensive Sony.