Sony VAio Z (2010) IRL Review- The Vaio Z11 was the second last generation of the iconic Z lineup before the line was folded into the newer Vaio Pro line up…and then subsequently sold off to Japan Industrial Partners when VAIO was sold off….sadface. Anyways, its an iconic line up that started off with the original VAIO Z1 somwhere back in the early 2000s (I’m thinking 2004) that was the pinnacle of Sony’s VAIO division- the ultimate computer for the CEO of a company. It was meant to be as thin and light as possible but still able to have tremendous horse power underneath. In particular, you would see full powered Intel processors (no low voltage equivalents), dedicated graphics cards instead of integrated cards, and the sleekness of a well tuned sports car, vs. a Hummer sized gaming laptop. The Z series evolved over time and in 2010, it came out with a look that was partially Macbook Pro looking….and actually more expensive at it too. The black chiclet keys and the silverblack scheme hit the Macbook Pro design right in the face (despite the chiclet keys being first on the VAIO line up on the X505 and not on the Mac). Despite this similar design philosophy, I died a little inside when I first saw it, and knew that it was one of those designs that would take my heart away. And it did. But so did the price tag. I remember looking at it in the Sony Store (I certainly miss this store!) and thinking how impossible it would be to have this. At this point, the 2000 CDN dollar plus cost was way out of my league- remembering that laptops had come down a lot in price at that point and that for a student, an 800 dollar laptop was more than capable. You wouldn’t get the complete package, but you would get most of it. Years later, I managed to find a dead Z11 for a song on local classifieds and I went for it. After having it up and running for two months, I have now compiled my IRL review for this beast.
Design- This is undeniably my most favorite aspect of this machine- I am not sure what it is about this design but it just evokes a sense of desire in me. This in spite of the fact that it does not nail the prestige build quality that I think it should have gunned for. The overall design is a black and silver combo. Most of the laptop is plastic, with the lid being a silver paint on black plastic style. The keyboard base is a metal that feels like an aluminum rather than magneisum build. The wrist rests are plastic. And despite all this plastic, the black and silver still jump out to me. I love the contrast. I do not know what is different about this black and silver design vs. the already incorporated black and silver design in the Macbook Pro line, but I love it. Not to mention that this is not the first time black and silver has been used in a laptop (I remember my Toshiba M45 had a silver and black scheme and that was fairly typical for laptops). Combining the pink and green lettering and this makes this seem exotic to me. Also, this was remarkably thin and light for a device holding an optical drive- it was marginally heavier than the Macbook Air 13, but it had a full voltage i5, dedicated GPU and optical drive. It probably sacrificed battery capacity for that, as you will see later.
I LOVE the iconic green power button. This was a big deal on the original Z1 and its lovely to see it here. Other model lines also incorporated this, like the Vaio FW. Its pretty to me. You see a nice spread of ports on both sides- I like this because you do not know when a cable will get in the way – i.e. on the Macbook Pro line, the whole port selection is on the left- a pain in the butt with wired peripherals especially. You get two memory card slots for SD and MS in the front. There is an express card slot I have never used in my life. I remember older Vaios had an accessory subwoofer card you could slide in the PC card slot- I wish they made peripherals like that still. No ports on the back- its all screen hinge. On the left you have the heat sink that you will never forget about. I am glad its on the left side, given that I am right handed and would be on fire using my mouse.
Screen- This is a standard 1600×900 res base model- you could upgrade ti to a 1080p panel as well. I do not mind the lower res of the 1600×900 screen. Its sharp enough for me to do work on with multiple windows. I believe this is a 13.3 inch panel but I could be wrong. Back in its day, 1600×900 was pretty high res, compared to now, where having a 1080 panel will result in exasperation of it not being 4K. I am pretty sure this is just a TN panel too- and despite that, the viewing angles are very good- particularly with vertical viewing where TN tends to die. It reminds me of the Macbook Pro line where I thought it was an IPS panel but it was actually a very high quality TN panel. Nice. I find the colors are very rich and saturated on this- its a clear step above a lot of the faded screens I see on mainstream laptops, or even higher end ones like the HP Envy series. Its actually much more vibrant than the Vaio SZ. Nice. Another thing I really like about this screen is that it balances anti glare with glossy screen (honestly don’t know the name of this- every company came up with a different name- Sony I think used ecobrite). The issue with anti glare is that it typically made colors very dull, and in some cases, sparkly. There was a hint of a fine layer of dust that took away from the details on the screen in some antiglare models- however, it did what it was suppsoed to do- block glare. Glossy went the other way and gave up fighting glare, in favor of making a very colorful screen. There was not a good balance for awhile, and glossy was the more popular model for a time because the colors looked less washed out. Sony made an excellent balance here with both, and it blocks enough glare so it is not distracting, but provides a very vibrant screen at the same time. Nice.
Heat- this is probably one of the biggest boons of this model-putting a full voltage i5 inside meant that heat needed to get out. In a pre-Haswell era, that meant a lot of heat needed to get out. There will be heat running out regardless of how taxed your CPU is at the moment. It runs hot and it definitely shows it. CoreTemp says this IDLES at 85 degrees Celsius. That is insane. This is a laptop that deserves a laptop cooler pad. The good thing is that the heat sink is big- its much bigger than the Vaio S15. This means that heat actually can leave the system and you will not have to worry if its just building up inside (like in the S15 where I am worried its just cooking in there). I actualyl throttle the CPU when I do not need it to run full speed because I do not need all the heat. I find it annoying that it ports the heat out to the side- if I was left handed this laptop would be a no go absolutely because of the use of a mouse would kill my hand. I can appreciate the hinge design a little bit, but really, other laptops including Sonys own Vaio S15 have this hinge design with a rear heat sink. I do think that it is an inefficient design though- even if they could fit the heat sink in the rear with this hinge, there is not sufficient space to make the radiator port big, meaning that it would have been difficult to shunt heat out, as it is on my Vaio S15. I guess I would rather have a big heat sink port rather than a tiny closed off one, so that I know heat can actually efficiently escape the laptop.
Keyboard- Man I love this keyboard- I really thought my favorite keyboard would be the one on the Vaio SZ carbon, but this one is definitely up there. It just seems to be spaced out right with the keys- I have not had any issues typing on it. No flex on the keys either- one of my huge pet peeves that I had with quite a few laptops like the Toshiba M45. Key travel is also really great- something I cannot say about the Vaio Duo 13. However, I must admit, that I still prefer typing on the Macbook Pro. Just a little bit. I am not sure what it is, but it just works well on the MBP. It feels a bit more roomier on the MBP 13. Finally, I hate the touchpad- it is sooo small. Compared to the MBP glass touchpad, its just a shadow of what it could have been like. Size wise, its super small to use. Tactile wise, it just does not compare to the glass surface of the MBP trackpad. That is nothing new- the MBP trackpad is considered the best laptop trackpad by quite a few reviewers. This is why I always use a mouse with any of my Vaios, Z1 or not.
Power- This thing can fly when it wants to – the great thing about the i5 is how much power it provides (and heat!). I have not run into any hiccups, save for the stupid annoying Microsoft office cache and upload center processes running at 100% (on all my comps running Office 365!). The RAM is also upgradeable, so that is nice- Im ok with it being at 4GB right now though. Generally I dont see any problems with graphics either- but I am not running games on this. Mostly just HD videos. While that is not impressive in 2016, it is impressive for a laptop that is 6 years old to be running HD videos with no hiccups. You will hear it though! With the fans spinning. Also, I didn’t find teh switchable graphics to make a big difference here- the intel graphics did not make the battery life immediately better. A shame really. If this had the battery sipping of Haswell in integrated mode that would have been awesome. Another issue is that this was not an official Nvidia Optimus option, and so its proprietary design means that it is EXTREMELY difficult to get driver support for the Nvidia 330m in Windows 10. I think its totally ridiculous that I got my Nvidia 7400 GPU in my 2004 VAIO SZ to work for Windows 10, but not my 2010 VAIO Z1- its only 5 years old for goodness sakes Sony!
Build Quality- this is one of my gripes with this computer- for a premium laptop meant to dethrone any flagship thin and light out there, it really misses the mark with build quality. They certainly made a few choices to cut down on weight, and one of those was with the use of plastics. Going over the design portion again, the majority of this machines exterior is plastic. Even the keyboard portions metal does not feel great- it feels like easily chipped and dented aluminum and not something premium like magnesium. The lid in particular feels flimsy- while I understand Sonys decision in making their laptop lids thing and flexible so they will bend rather than snap (on the majority of their premium laptops, plastic, magnesium or carbon fiber), it is much more reassuring to hold the firm unflexible lid of a Macbook. I would rather have that Macbook lid protecting the laptop in my bag, than a flexible plastic. Its not even carbon fiber. I am surprised about this, because the previous SZ lineup used eithr magnesium (which was actually very firm) or carbon fiber (which was firm but flexible). This Z11 is definitely a bit chintzy feeling to me. The SZ (both magnesium and carbon fiber) models actually feel like a step up in build quality over the Z11. That is too bad. There are lots of creaks in the laptop too- certainly something I would not expect from a 2000 dollar plus machine. You can feel the laptop bend when you pick it up from the corner- something the SZ, S15 , Duo 13 and MBP do not do. A shame. Also one last thing- the power cord connector is the infamous wiggly Sony connector- plugging it into the laptop gives a very unsatisfactory push, no good click, and then lots of wiggles like its about to break off. I’ve read this was Sony’s method of having the AC adaptor plug rip out if you trip on the cord, so it doesn’t yank the laptop with it. Its definitely no MagSafe – with Apple’s solution, I feel very comfortable with the cord a bit haphazardly out there because it works well (really not sure why they took it out with the newest Macbook). With the Sony plug….it just feels underengineered. And there are plenty of “fix Vaio power plug” videos/tutorials out there for me to believe that the idea doesn’t work well.
Conclusion- I feel very very lucky that I managed to land this for such a slick price (somewhere in the 1/50th of the original MSRP). Basically that means any conclusions I make are off the insanely low price I originally got it at. At its original MSRP, I think it was still very impressive. It gave the Macbook Pro a run for its money, by being much lighter with a great set of specs and design. It beat out a lot of the ThinkPads just by pure design alone. It had the power with an i5 full voltage CPU and a dedicated GPU with switchable graphics before Nvidia Optimus was a thing. However, it struggled with just above average build quality, something I cannot accept at this price point, especially with the rock hard builds of the Thinkpad and Macbook Pro line up. It was a total battery hog and switchable graphics really didn’t do enough to help it maintain a long enough time away from the plug. Its a shame that a design like this was pre-Haswell. It would have been an amazing tie up- later generations of Z laptops would focus on integrated graphics or stand alone GPUs that were neat, but nothing like an all in one package like the Z1. I also cannot get over the fact that Sony dropped the fricking ball and didn’t support Windows 10 for the Z1- it was a flagship laptop and its not that old. For me, this laptop is a hesitant buy at its original MSRP. There is good enough competition at its original MSRP that it was not an immediately easy choice. For the used market, its an instant buy for me- I can’t get over its design.
TLDR- Pros- design, power, dedicated GPU, lightweight, keyboard; Cons- just above average build quality, tiny trackpad, heat HEAT HEAT, poor battery life