Sony VAIO TZ Ultraportable Laptop IRL Review

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VAIO TZ IRL Review-The Sony VAIO TZ was Sony’s premiere ultraportable laptop, before the term Ultrabook came into existence. At this point in time, the netbook was all the rage- netbooks were tiny, very portable, and extremely cheap. They were also totally underpowered. They were so underpowered, that eventually, they died off, and the market replaced them with tablets…..which are also slowly dying off. Prior to this, laptops were big heavy beasts- pentium IV CPUs with gigantic heatsinks, meant most laptops weighed 6lbs plus, were two inches plus thick, and had terrible batteyr runtimes, so you add another pound for the AC adaptor to murder your back. Ultraportables were the answer- they were a premium segment line that offered super portable use, at the cost of being slower, cramped, and extremely expensive. The Sony TZ weighs 2.65 lbs! Sony had a string of ultraportables at this point- beginning with the extreme Picturebook (later succeeded by the VAIO P), the VAIO Extreme X505 (later succeeded by the VAIO X), and the T series. The T series was expensive as hell, but managed to be more affordable due to the incredibly high price commands that the Picturebook and X505 commanded (X505 was nearly 3500 USDto 5000 USD!). Meanwhile, the T series would regularly command around 2000 CDN to 3000 CDN. Not cheap at all, but definitely cheaper than Sony’s statement laptops (note the distinction between statement and flagship- I consider statement to be on the lines of its Qualia branding- make it by any means possible, regardless of price).

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Starting with the VAIO TR, Sony made something incredibly mind blowing- 10.4 inch laptop, super thin chassis, decent battery run time, and a distinctly memorable white chassis. I lusted over that laptop for years! I read about it constantly in Laptop Mag, as it consistently made the top ultraportable list, for having great power and style. It was then succeeded by the VAIO TX, and then the TZ. The last generation was the VAIO TT, a personal favorite of mine style wise, that I hope to nab one day. The TZ was featured in one of the Bond movies, and Sony being the production company, marketed it as such. Something super svelte that a man licensed to kill would use! That did little to impact the market though. The TZ was wildly out of touch with the netbook crowd, and the enthusiast/premium segment wanted something more.  The TT hit the ground hard afterwards, and the line eventually was closed out. The T series would later be resurrected as an ultrabook line (t13/t15) but it was a completely different lineage at that point. There simply was no need for the ultraportable line up anymore, because the Ultrabook did everything the ultraportable line up did, by being just as lightweight, but offering far more power and greater screen sizes (jumping from the 10-11 inch screen to 13 -14 inches). Murdered by the power of the ultrabooks, and the cheapness of the netbook, the ultraportable lineage died out soon after. It was a shame to see it go. However, as a notebook enthusiast, I always had a special place in my heart for the ultraportable, and seeing a decent price for the TZ on the used market lead me to the following IRL review. Also, I shot this review with the DSC-V3- if you read my review, you know that this camera is pretty meh, but I figured since I dont have a macro lens, it would be a fun exercise to do so. It wasn’t fun.

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Design- The TZ is a looker- despite having drab black, I think it looks great- in my seasoned/biased eyes, it doesn’t look at all in the same class as a netbook. I remember even in Sony’s own stable, the Sony W class was distinctly cheaper looking. From the top we can see it has a tiny tiny cramped keyboard surrounded by glossy black plastic (the whole laptop is plastic). From the front, there’s some nice LED indicators (big fan of the bright blue BT/Wifi lights!), controls for the wifi card, and a memory card reader. There’s also media control buttons which is nice. On the left is the only two USB ports, LAN port (pretty awesome since most small laptops lose this), s400 port that I have never used in my life, and the telephone wire thing, that I also have never used in my life, except when I was using dial up in 2002. There’s also a heat sink and a kensington lock. That heat sink is FREAKING SMALL. That will play out in heat later on. I don’t think the kensington lock is as useful as it appears. If you had to leave the laptop for a place for a long period of time like an office, that would sort of make sense. I would rather just lock it up ion a cabinet. On the go, I would not risk locking it up while I run to the washroom in a coffee shop- I would bring it with me.  On the right, its an optical drive! This was unusual in this class of laptop to have, as it was difficult to fit a drive in such a small laptop. So maybe that was a bit of the claim to fame, but the optical drive was already starting to be on its way out at that point. Surpisingly, the V3 struggled with focusing on a bright bright light in macro mode here. Its super iconic of the VAIO line and one part I am particularly proud of.

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I’m a big fan of the LCD in particular- its incredibly thin. That’s one of the distinctions in Sony’s premium segment that stands out- tiny tiny screens. I also love love love the glowing green power button- that was a staple on a few of Sony’s premium line up (including the super stylish VAIO Z1, and my fave VAIO Z 2010). The battery intigrates itself in the hinge to contrast a square block with a round cynlindrical butt. I like it.

So to sum up design, Sony took the approach of having a small surface area, thick design, whereas the incoming Macbook Air, and later ultrabooks, took a large surface area, thin design. That enabled a larger screen, and larger keyboard. The Macbook Air was actually benchmarked against the TZ specifically, and used in the Air’s introduction by Steve Jobs! Swoon. That’s cool. But it was an end of an era. Few ultraportables survived the onslaught. In particular, the Lenovo X series has been able to live on, although its really an ultrabook at this point with a 12-13 inch screen size.

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Build Quality- its really good but not perfect. At this point, you should know that I value magnesium above everything. There is ziltch on the VAIO TZ. Instead, its primarily plastics and carbon fiber. Its not super clear where the carbon fiber is – its likely on the screen itself, in order to give a thin but strong protection layer. Carbon fiber is a bit of an oddity in some products (including the Sony MDR-SA3000). Its not immediately clear, like the typical carbon fiber pattern seen on racing cars, and every ugly adhesive sticker (I really am not a fan of it anymore because its overused). Instead, its woven in rather subtlety- a few scratches on my unit’s screen show a different damage pattern than typical plastic would show. Sony also markets carbon reinforced plastic (especially on the SA3000)- I really don’t know what that means. I certainly don’t think any part feels cheap plastic at all- I can see that on the VAIO E series quite easily, and its not on the TZ series. I just think that they could have done more to make it premium feeling- more metal! Maybe that would have hurt weight, but solid unibody metal designs exist (i.e. 11 inch Macbook Air) with light weight. That’s kind of Sony’s choice typically though- lightweight, but flexible. Its meant to bend rather than snap. While I get their intentions, a Thinkpad/Apple unibody easily feels more durable in my hands. Oh well.

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Typing- I typed the entire review of the Nikon D90 on the VAIO TZ. It was…interesting. It didn’t necessarily cramp me, and I think I got the hang of typing on its tiny tiny island chiclet keyboard, but it was not a favorite of mine. For instance, I am typing this review on the Thinkpad X301, and its mile mile miles light years ahead. This is one of the reasons the  ultraportable lineage died- while the small body was novel, a wider body enabled a larger keyboard, and the same weight by spreading the electronics out a bigger surface area, All in all, its definitely preferable to use this keyboard over an electronic touch keyboard, but its not my fave by any means. Later on, the Surface line up would provide type keyboards for similar footprints, and yet provide a much more comfortable typing experience (forget about that awful touch keyboard though).

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Speed- wow. This is a tough laptop to use. So far, I am running Windows 10 anniversary edition on it, and its a patience tester. First issue off the bat is the awfully slow 4200 RPM 1.8 inch HDD. Sony had the option of giving an SSD for this model, but only the ultra premium trims came with the SSD (you could even get it in SSD plus HDD! minus the optical drive). That HDD is the same used in the iPod classic. Its just too slow to read/write. Windows also has a crappy feature that seems to have fixed itself in the Anniversary edition, where the drive is constantly at high usage. This means that even if the CPU and RAM aren’t being taxed, it can still be awful slow. Great. So far though, its working with the newest OS. The RAM is also annoying – it only has one slot of DDR2 RAM, so its difficult to upgrade. The CPU is an ultra low voltage CPU too- 1.1Ghz dual core if I recall correctly. So tie all that together…and you have limited power. Not surprising for an ultraportable, but difficult to justify the massive premium from a netbook to an ultraportable, given that speeds aren’t that much better than an Intel Atom. Its also hampered by many many custom parts for this model, so upgrading the primary drive is next to impossible in particular. I’m not even going to try at this point. I do have to give it credit for gaining a dual core ULV CPU, over the single core ULV CPU on the TX model. I’m also aware I am using an OS that it was not designed for, so optimization is not exactly fair here. A quick look at CPU boss shows that the core 2 duo CPU in the TZ is moderately faster than the Intel Atoms typically in netbooks. Not a lot mind you. UPDATE- after trying out Windows 10 anniversary edition, some issues have resolved- the constant 100% Disc usage is now more seldom seen. That’s good, because it wasn’t the CPU that was being taxed when the TZ ground to a halt, it was the freaking disc. ……EDIT January 2017- its a no go, the bloody thing runs 100% all the time and I have given up on it. 

UPDATE January 2017– I managed to snag a TZ150N (the reviewed model here is the TZ170N, which defers by having more RAM 2GB vs 1GB I believe) with upgraded internals (2GB RAM and an SSD!). I never thought about putting an SSD into the TZ because its a royal pain in the butt- the disassembly is nearly a full tear down of the laptop to get the drive unit. The drive unit itself is a proprietary drive connector, ontop of it being a rare 1.8 inch sized unit. There’s only a select few drives that can work on this unit, and I just didn’t care enough to want to go through the hassle. Furthermore, this laptop no longer has enthusiasts modding it anymore, so support even on forums is pretty meek. Anyways, I managed to snag one with a 32GB SSD (HA! so small), for super hella cheap. The owner had a tech sibling that installed all of this and installed Chrome OS on it (smart idea to put a barebones OS on a super old ULV computer). I of course did not want that OS because I am stubborn and don’t like using Chrome OS, so I installed Windows 10 on it. With the SSD, the computer is super snappy- its obviously not a powerhouse, but it just FLIES compared to the TZ170N with the spinning drive, and my VAIO X, which is also SSD based, but limited to a Intel Atom 2.0Ghz single core CPU. Pretty happy with the performance of the TZ now, and its certainly useable for productivity (although Youtube HD can be a bit hit and miss, which was not a problem on the Chrome OS if I recall correctly). So far so good. That SSD is a huge boost in performance for this laptop. I’m also running a 64 bit version of Windows on here, which I was surprised about, because I read that it was an actual hardware limitation that prevented 64 bit OS from being installed. I am definitely curious to see if 4GB of RAM can be installed on here- since it only has one RAM slot, and its DDR2, its pretty expensive to get a single chip DDR2 4GB card, so I might wait on it. So the end result is that the standard HDD sucks on this laptop. A lot. At least for certain with Windows 10.

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Heat- the TZ gets warm at times- idle is a bit too warm for me- around upper 50 C, to upper 60 C. Taxing the engines brings it to 70 Cs easily. It has a tiny tiny heatsink on the left, with a fan that never seems to spin up enough. The TZ also has a recall for some power issues that makes me wary about heat. It came out at a time when the only way to have a tiny laptop was to severely underclock the CPU. Even with that, there was still lots of heat generated. Its nothing crazy like my VAIO Z 2010, but its definitely a little toasty- consider the X301 I am typing on idles at 40 degreesish, with a ULV CPU as well.

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Screen- awesomeeeeeeeeee! Its got the signature Sony quality in the premium segment- despite not being an IPS screen, its got great viewing angles, nice constrast colors, and just a great balance of gloss/glare management. Its a step above mainstream LCDs for sure. It blows the X301’s screen absolutely. I love how Sony balances the glare- it gives enough punch with the gloss, but doesn’t make the screen disappear in a bright room. It also has a higher res than most netbooks- 1366×768- whereas most netbooks were at 1024×600. Its sharp, but not mind blowing sharp. 1080P on a 10 inch screen is sharp, like the Surface 2. I also found it confusing that Sony put 1080 FULL HD stickers on the T series when none of them have that resolution- unless they are saying it can output that on VGA. That’s misleading.

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In use- I find the screen too small to use for regular work without getting frustrated- that’s a key area where ultrabooks have got ultraportables beat. OK for the short 1-2 hour work assignment, but nothing I would want to do an entire day’s work on. I also am finding the speed to be super limiting- doing multiple tweaks everywhere to ensure the computer doesn’t die from disc reads or the CPU being overwhelmed can get annoying. Surprisingly, the CPU doesn’t get overwhelmed as much as I thought it would- its the disc reads that cause the issue, but the newest OS updates seems to have helped. I also find the optical drive maddening- knowing that it has the space for TWO drives, but they are so difficult to access/service means that I am stuck with a sonofabitch 1.8 4200 RPM HDD as a primary drive just makes me so mad. Hint, even if you changed out the primary drive with an SSD, the BIOS must be hacked in order to ensure the interface speeds are not bottlenecked. That’s too much work for me. I also find the single RAM slot under this cover to be annoying. Single DDR2 is expensive, and this was a 32 bit limited processor, so all in all, it means I can’t upgrade the RAM all that much. I think 3 GB might be the max, by putting in a 4GB chip and having it only read a third of that. Guh!

I also find the lack of any backlighting super annoying- the Macbook Pro line had backlighting for some time, and for a premium model not to have it….drives me nuts. Its not a deal breaker, but it should have been available- every little bit distinguishes the model as a premium offering, and the TZ just doesn’t have it.

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Battery – I must admit that I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to test the battery of the TZ, as I tend to work anchored to a desk these days. Using a battery sipping ULV CPU certainly helps extend the battery life. Furthermore, it also has the option of using either a standard fitted battery, or a larger capacity battery that adds an extra chunk on the bottom and elevates the laptop to a slightly better typing angle. Nice. I only have the standard battery, and I have no idea what the battery capacity is at now, given its age, and the fact that the VAIO batteyr care function does not work (it lets you know how much capacity remains/how much battery capacity has degraded). Generally, most reviews state its quite decent for battery and I will leave it ambiguously like that.

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Conclusion- The TZ series was a really neat concept in its time, but it was simply at the end of its line. It didn’t provide a whole heck of a lot more power than a netbook, and it didn’t have a comfortable typing experience/viewing experience as the incoming ultrabooks/Macbook Airs.  The keyboard was useable, but cramped, the HDD was ridiculously slow, and the CPU meh. Battery life was good, and an upsell point. Build quality was good, but not spectacular. Design was good, and it looked premium, for those that have a careful eye for quality. It should have been built with magnesium though. :P. Screen was awesome. I would not replace this model though, if it broke down. It simply has not survived the test of time – the slower speeds and limited upgradeability mean that it has almost nothing to make me tolerate its POS HDD and cramped keyboard. Its mostly just a piece of history for me, in the now defunct ultraportable segment.

TLDR- Pros- design looks alright, battery life, certainly more features than a similar sized netbook. Cons- cramped keyboard, limited upgradeability, slow HDD, single memory slot, slow CPU, limited feature set compared to ultrabooks, expensive compared to netbooks, no backlighting

 

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