Although I am not a fan of OSX or Mac desktops, one has to hand it to Apple – they do know how to design elegant portable hardware. The iPod largely buried all the other MP3 players, the iPhone set the mobile phone handset market alight and the MacBook Pro is a beautiful laptop.
Recently, I was in the market for a new laptop. So, I wrote my list of requirements:
- Great battery life – I am tired of having to be within an easy-reach of a power source
- Decent Core i5/i7 CPU
- GPU - I will rarely be playing games so don’t need bleeding-edge graphics
- SSD would be nice – perhaps as a post-purchase upgrade
- Able to expand to at least 8GB RAM – again, post-purchase upgrade likely
- Non-glossy screen … I *HATE* glossy screens!
- 15” screen would be fine – if I need more space I can plug into an external screen
- At least 1600x900 resolution – I write code a lot so screen real-estate (even at smaller size) is a necessity
- Backlit chicklet keyboard – am really starting to warm to these vs. conventional buttons
I then tracked down the possible contenders and came up with the following list:
I also looked at various laptops from Acer (e.g. Bamboo and similar), Asus, Gateway, etc. but they were either too underpowered, over-power-consuming, too heavy, too glossy-screened or had too little resolution.
I then weighed up my shortlist:
4+ hour battery life
|Expensive with 128GB SSD option
No backlit keyboard
Takes 3-4 weeks to arrive!!!
|HP Envy 14
Good battery life
|Glossy screen ONLY! :(
Takes 3-4 weeks to arrive!!!
|Dell Vostro 3400
Matte screen :)
|Takes 2-3 weeks to arrive!
3 hour battery life :(
|MacBook Pro 15
Matte screen :)
Custom order takes 2-3 DAYS to arrive (if not already in-stock @ store)
Good battery life
Relatively few ports
No MMC (SRSLY? C’mon Steve – you don’t use digital cameras?)
Apple doesn’t enable MBP’s Switchable graphics on Windows :(
So which one did I buy? None of them!
While I liked the Lenovo, I dislike it’s nipple & trackpad button combo and I really did want a backlit keyboard, plus it would take several weeks to arrive. The Dell’s screen was too low-resolution and the battery life was relatively poor.
That left the HP and the Apple. HP’s Envy was almost everything I was looking for – except that damn glossy screen!!! Seriously … I really do hate glossy screens. Heck, even Apple woke up to this and got a standing ovation when they unveiled the updated unibody MacBook Pro’s with matte screens! HP – provide a matte screen option and ship within a week and you’ll gain at least one more customer.
That left the Apple MacBook Pro 15 with matte screen. The plan was to buy an after-market 8GB memory upgrade ($200) and 256GB SSD ($600), putting the overall cost at around $3300 ish all-in.
Then, a funny thing happened on the way to the Apple store (University Village, Seattle) …
I walked past the Sony store to take a look as I'd not been in for over a year.
To my astonishment, I walked out with a Vaio Z Series!
Sony’s Vista issues
I'd sworn never to buy a Vaio after helping my father in law with the Vaio he purchased when Vista was released. To say that he had a dreadful experience doesn't even begin to describe what he went through! It took a complete re-install of Vista to free the laptop from the mountains of crapware Sony had buried it under. Ed Bott did a great write-up on just how bad Sony screwed up back then, their dreadful Out Of Box Experience (OOBE) and what it took to fix the issues.
Sony’s rise from the ashes
Thankfully, Sony have learned their lesson and have significantly trimmed back their pre-installed software and now actually include helpful software (Adobe’s Creative Bundle) and massively improved their OOBE. It also has a great software recovery and OS reinstallation process.
Mark my words, the Vaio Z Series is utterly stunning:
At just 3lbs, it is unbelievably light - it's lighter than most of the books I read! Pick this notebook up and you’ll think it’s a demo box that is missing its innards!
Light usually means slow. Not in this case – the Vaio Z Series is incredibly quick.
The Core i5 540M is a wonderful CPU that is the right balance for processing horsepower and power-consumption. Yesterday I was running two (VirtualBox) Windows XP guests, one Ubuntu guest and an OSX guest atop the Windows7 host ... simultaneously while working on some code in Visual studio on the host! Unless you work at CERN, you're unlikely to push the Z Series' CPU to it's limits and if you do, there's a core i7 option should you want it :)
What really surprised me is that the Vaio Z Series comes with 256GB of SSD space! In fact, it comes with two 128GB SSD’s in RAID0. Why this odd combination?
SSD vendors primarily improve performance by increasing the number of chips they can write to in parallel. Sony have taken the pragmatic and effective approach of installing two SSD's which are striped together into a single volume. This means that all reads and writes are performed in parallel and thus you get a noticeable performance boost vs. writing to a single SSD since each SSD is only having to write half the data they otherwise would!
The result? Blindingly fast disk performance. I mean REALLY quick! Windows boots in around 20s! Applications like Visual Studio that usually takes around 30s to start on my desktop with spinning disks takes less than 4s to start on my Z Series!!! Word, Excel, etc. start almost instantly. Outlook runs like lightning. Even GIMP opens from cold in under 5s!!!
Don’t underestimate the value of saving a few seconds a few hundred times a day!
Keyboard and Screen
Design is one thing, but GREAT design is a hard thing to find.
The Keyboard on the Vaio Z Series is almost perfect! The chicklet keyboard is fabulous. This is my first laptop with a non-traditional keyboard and I am completely sold. They keys are perfectly sized and perfectly pitched.
Better still - the auto-dimming back-lit keyboard is a life-saver for anyone like me who prefers working in dark environments.
What about the screen? It is BEAUTIFUL!
What I love most about this screen is that it is semi-matte, not glossy! Did I mention that I *HATE* glossy screens ;) The Z Series’ semi-matte screen is a tiny bit more reflective than a full-matte screen, but MUCH LESS reflective than your typical glossy screen. The up--side is that the screen image is just as clear as a glossy screen but is as easy to read as a matte screen - even outdoors!
Seriously - whoever made the decision to fit this screen - I owe you a beer!
I opted for the 1600x900 screen - I tried the higher-resolution 1920x1080 screen in the store but you’d need binoculars to use it. Yes, you could bump up the DPI settings, but then the UI often goes a little wonky in many apps which don't honor the DPI settings.
I regularly manage to squeeze 5 hours out of a single charge. This isn't some made-up benchmark - this is actual real continual use - Outlook, browsing, watching a few videos, writing & debugging code and websites, photo and image processing. If I was to work a little less intensively I think I could get 6-7 hours out of a single charge!
What would I change?
First and foremost, Sony needs to fix the firmware and enable TPM. Without TPM, Bitlocker etc., are impractical. This is a big deal - ask anyone who's ever had a laptop stolen! PLEASE FIX THIS SONY!
Honestly, other than that, I had to rack my brains to come up with constructive suggestions:
- Have an option to replace the DVD drive with a battery instead! I almost never need a DVD drive these days, but could always do with more battery life
- Move num-lock and prt-scr keys to buttons above normal keys, make insert = fn+delete. Then add two dedicated keys for page up and down
- At the Z Series’ price point, these machines should come with 8GB as standard
All-in-all, for a machine this beautiful, light, thin and portable, one would never expect so much performance and horsepower. They keyboard and the screen are a DELIGHT and the "real--life" battery life is impressive.
Well done Sony - you've finally won-back a customer! Keep it up!