Sony Vaio Z11 13in laptop
Anyone for two GPUs and a full-gamut RGB display?
Review Apple may have grabbed headlines for releasing its new MacBook Pro with two GPUs on board - one for casual, one for best - but Sony had already done so, with its Vaio Z11, launched in the summer and now available for review.
Sony's Vaio Z11:
As a recently launched laptop, it's no surprise that the Z11 is based on Intel's Centrino 2 platform, so it's offered with a range of 45nm Core 2 Duo processors. Our unit was fitted with the 2.4GHz P8600 - a lesser part with just 3MB of L2 cache - and 3GB of 1067MHz DDR 3 memory, but it's the chipset that most interests us.
It's a GM45 with Intel's GMA X4500 integrated graphics engine. Not that you'd know when you turn the laptop on, because it also has an Nvidia GeForce 94300M GS standalone GPU with 256MB of dedicated video memory.
The notion - as with most other dual-GPU laptops - is that you use the discrete GPU's horsepower when you need it and flip to the more basic integrated graphics core when you're running on batteries. Sony has made this easy with a slider switch mounted just above the keyboard and has Speed mode at one end and Stamina mode at the other.
The speed switch is built into the cylindrical back end of the Z11, a key part of the design Sony's applying to all its more serious laptops, including the Vaio TT ultra-portable  we reviewed last week. Here, it's more obvious - the whole tube's a different colour from the rest of the machine, but at least the screen hinges are an inch in from the ends, a feel rather more resilient than the ones on the TT.
Nice looking lid - shame about the flimsiness
Alas, the display is just as thin - around 4mm thick - and just as flimsy. This time, the flexi-lid houses a 13.3in display with a 1600 x 900 resolution for a widescreen TV 16:9 aspect ratio. And bloody nice it looks too, partly because of the high resolution but mostly because of the "100 per cent colour fidelity" - it delivers the full RGB colour gamut as per the NTSC US TV standard.
Like the TT, the Z11's keyboard is of the lozenge type, but here the keys are larger and space further apart. They're also higher, which, with the spacing, will require some speed-typists take a short time to adjust to it. There's a little bit of flex to the board.
The lip at the front impedes access to the memory card slots
Above the main key array are two pairs of slots that sit about the Z11's voluminous speakers. Next to these, on the left, are two user-definable shortcut keys and, on the right, an eject button for the Z11's multi-format DVD writer, itself position on the right side of the machine. The LEDs usually found above the keyboard are here below it, tucked into the incline the rises from the plain of the keyboard to the plateau that is the wrist rest. So the lights are between the spacebar and the touchpad where, unless you have the screen angled at about 45° downward, you can't see what they represent.
Design over practicality? You betcha!
Not so the rubber blocks placed at either side of the keyboard to support the lid when it's closed. They do, but there's nothing to stop the screen bending in to touch the keys.
The touchpad is nice and large, covered with a pattern of dots that make look like a designer's cutting mat. It's otherwise a plain model that's sole nod toward the cutting edge of touch control are (unmarked) edge-of-pad scroll zones.
The front of the Z11 is home to power, hard drive and wireless LEDs, the latter above a cut-off switch, itself alongside the laptop's MemoryStick Pro and SDHC memory card slots. Unfortunately, Sony has placed these under a jutting lip which, while not making them impossible to reach when the Z11's flat on a desk, doesn't make them as accessible as they could or should be.
See how skinny the screen is?
On the left side of the laptop you'll find an ExpressCard slot plus 3.5mm audio, four-pin Firewire, USB, 56Kb/s and Ethernet ports, the last two under flaps. Sony doesn't believe you'll use these much - hence the flaps and hence the fact they're disabled by default. Use the handy Vaio Smart Network utility to activate them, or any of three radios - Bluetooth, 802.11n Wi-Fi and HSDPA 3G - the Z11 can come with.
As per the TT, the Z11's power cord slots into the end of the 'tube'. Again, it's rather more wobbly that we feel comfortable with, but with hindsight it's probably a good thing, helping to give the connector room to move if it's knocked or sharply yanked.
The far side of the tube is home to the Sony flavour-of-the-month green-lit power key, which sits next to VGA, HDMI, a second USB port and the optical drive.
A rather basic touchpad
For a 13in machine, the Z11 is surprisingly light. It's 1.5kg, which is barely more than a MacBook Air (1.4kg). We'd have said, having picked them both up, that the Sony is the lighter of the two. It's certainly smaller than the Air, at least in terms of desktop footprint: 314 x 210mm to the Air's 325 x 227mm.
Out of the box, the Z11 scores a Windows Vista Experience score of 4.4, ranking 5.3 for the CPU, 5.9 for the memory, 4.4 for UI graphics, 5.1 for 3D graphics and 5.3 for its 250GB SATA hard drive.
Switch from Speed mode to Stamina, and the Experience score drops to 3.8, the integrated graphics core's 3D performance pulling the overall rating down, though the GPU does rate 4.1 for desktop graphics.
Longer bars are better
You can see the impact more clearly with the 3DMark06 numbers: at either of the two resolutions, the Nvidia GPU scores more than twice what the Intel one does, though there's nothing to choose between Sony's implementation of the Centrino 2 integrated graphics core and Dell's at matching screen resolutions.
Within the benchmark app's margins of error, there's nothing to choose between Speed and Stamina mode beyond graphics, PCMark05 shows - or, we'd say, with other Centrino 2 laptops, typified here by the Dell Latitude E6400.
Longer bars are better
Incidentally, the ThinkPad X300 scored so well in the HDD test because of its top-of-the-line SSD.
We've seen how the Z11's two modes affect graphics performance, but what about their impact on battery life, which is what having them is really all about? As we saw with the Windows Vista Experience ratings and PCMark05 scores, all the differentiates the Vaio's two modes are the graphics core being employed.
Battery Life Results
Times in minutes
Longer bars are better
We tried Stamina Mode first, again running our regular PCMark05 constant-run test, a benchmark that yields a worse-case result that's roughly half the real-world usage you'll get out of a machine.
Using the integrated Intel GPU we got just over two hours runtime out of the Z11 - 123 minutes - a disappointing figure that puts it behind the Dell Latitiude E6400. That said, four hours in the field's not too shabby.
Switching to Speed mode saw the battery life hit just under an hour and 50 minutes. Again, that means a real-world of three-and-three-quarter hours, more if you're not thrashing the GPU.
The Vaio Z11 is not, then, a machine for folk who need plenty of away-from-the-mains runtime. And, just as we noted with the equally thin-lidded Vaio TT, it's not for buyers who expect their laptops to take a lot of punishment.
Pay for the name
What it is is a machine for punters who appreciate aesthetics and are after a good looking machine that offers a decent degree of performance and connectivity in a unit that's more portable than a 15-incher but with a larger screen than you'd find on an ultra-portable laptop or a netbook.
We should also mention that it'll appeal to folk who appreciate good connectivity. In addition to Bluetooth 2.1 and 802.11n Wi-Fi, it has built-in HSDPA 3G - just slot in a SIM.
Sony obviously has its eye on people who might otherwise be Mac users - hence the full RGB gamut claim, which it hopes will appeal to designers and photographers. Even so, the screen's not the best we've seen - we noticed hints of moire patterns when our eyes moved rapidly and horizontally across the screen.
And we're not sure how many potential buyers the 16:9 ratio will really matter to. Some, yes; but most folk we know are happy watching DVDs on any screen, happily putting up with the letterbox bars - which you're going to get on 2.4:1 movie content anyway.
Sony wants between £1399 and £2999 for models in the the Z11 range, which is a lot for a laptop. The higher price tags buy you faster CPUs and bigger hard drives, but the £1505 model we reviewed delivered sufficient performance for most tasks and going up the range doesn't get you a better GPU.
We like the Vaio Z11's performance, portability and connectivity, but we were disappointed with the battery life - especially because its dual-GPU set-up is supposed to improve it. If battery life doesn't matter to you, you have deep pockets and you want a full-gamut RGB screen, there's a lot of to appreciate here. But more mainstream users can find better value machines out there.
Sony Vaio TT
Asus Eee S101
Apple MacBook Pro