It really is the Sony Way. Take a product that’s been around for a while, soup it up, throw in every possible feature imaginable, and make it smaller and lighter than everyone else’s machine.
Then double the price.
Such is the state of Sony’s entry into the suddenly white-hot ultrabook space, a market experiencing a full-scale pile-on as a half dozen competitors all attempt to outdo the nearly three-year-old Apple MacBook Air.
If anyone’s going to best Apple at its own game, it’s probably going to be Sony, and for one reason: If you’re looking at sheer specs, Sony has this round won with the new Vaio Z Series.
Versus the 13-inch Air, the Vaio Z is faster (with a 2.7GHz Core i7 versus a 1.8GHz CPU on the Air), has better screen resolution (1600 x 900 versus 1440 x 900), and — the critical measure for ultrabooks — is a half-pound lighter (2.5 pounds versus 3 pounds).
Those aren’t trivial differences, and it’s clear that Sony has spared no expense in bringing the Vaio Z to market. The benchmarks, at least the non-graphics ones, are exceptional, especially for a computer this thin and light. It’s not a gaming machine — what ultrabook is? — but its PCMark 7 score was more than double that of the Acer Aspire S3.
But man does not live on specs alone, and the Vaio Z, officially the VPCZ214GX/B (again, the Sony Way), does have its share of problems. They start with the physical interface: The keyboard buttons have almost no travel, and the touchpad is a disaster. Not only is it incredibly small (with even smaller buttons), it is positioned way too far to the right, centered on the computer instead of centered with the space bar. It’s so far out of whack that when your fingers are at rest on the “home row,” your left thumb doesn’t even make contact with the touchpad, and it blends in so well that even the backlit keyboard doesn’t help to find it. It’s baffling how a design mistake this glaring could have slipped through QA.
I’m not sold on the hinge design, either. When you open the Vaio, the rear hinge causes the base of the laptop to prop up a few millimeters. It’s not enough to make any difference whatsoever to keyboard comfort, but it does make opening the lid with one hand much tougher, and it tends to grab on to anything underneath, dragging papers around your desk. Overall it just feels like an awkward and unnecessary design feature.
There is also some confusion over the Z’s hard drive, which has been wrongly reported elsewhere as consisting of dual 128GB SSDs. The Z actually includes a single 128GB SSD with two controllers. This does seem to offer some performance improvement, but it’s not in the same class as having real dual hard drives.
The Z also includes a docking system of sorts, a standalone box that includes a slot-loading Blu-ray drive, and an exact duplicate of the ports on the Z itself (1 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, HDMI, Ethernet, and VGA). Few other ultrabooks even have this as an option.
But that elephant in the room just isn’t going away: At $2,500, the Vaio Z is $900 more expensive than the most expensive MacBook Air. Is there any possible way to justify that kind of outlay? For me, it’s an impossibly hard sell. Put it another way: Is it worth it to pay an $100 extra per ounce of computer you don’t get?
WIRED Awesome display: Great resolution and brightness, and very vivid colors. Truly impressive performance. Unrivaled combination of musclebound power with feather weight. Fair battery life (4.5 hours).
TIRED Very loud fan under load. Invasive Vaio software suite bundle is simply unnecessary. Cost equivalent to feeding thousands of starving children for a month.
Photos by Jim Merithew/Wired