Sony Vaio PCG-Z1A - Page 2

By Eric Grevstad

April 17, 2003

Not only does the new Pentium M reverse Intel's recent mania for higher clock speed as the holy grail of CPU performance, but the highest-clock-speed 1.6GHz Pentium M chip bears such a high price that most vendors seem to be settling for lesser models. So we were pleasantly surprised to see the 1.3GHz Vaio post a BAPco SysMark 2002 application-suite score of 140, mixing a 153 in Internet Content Creation with 129 in Office Productivity. The latter figure, it's worth noting, is on par with at least one 2.2GHz Pentium 4-M laptop and even a couple of 2.4GHz and 2.53GHz Pentium 4 desktops we've tested over the past year.

The slimline's FutureMark PCMark 2002 scores were an equally respectable 4,270 (CPU); 4,095 (memory); and 597 (hard disk). Sony shortchanged its reputation for image and video excellence, however, by opting for an economy-model 16MB ATI Mobility Radeon graphics controller (not to be confused with the latest Mobility Radeon 7500 and 9000 chips): The Z1A puttered to a lackadaisical 1,701 in FutureMark's 3DMark 2001 SE Pro and managed only a limping 30 frames per second when playing Quake III Arena in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode.

That said, the 14.1-inch LCD looks sharp -- especially for widescreen DVD viewing, though the stereo speakers are typically small and tinny and only the top two or three of the nine brightness settings were clear enough for our middle-aged eyes. Even then, we sometimes found ourselves squinting at tiny text and icons on the 1,400 by 1,050-pixel display -- we've enjoyed SXGA+ resolution on 15.0-inch and larger laptop screens, but frankly would have been just as happy if Sony had stuck with trusty old XGA (1,024 by 768) for the 14.1-inch viewing area.

In fact, there is a Vaio Z1A1 model with just such a screen, priced at $2,200, but it also skimps with a 40GB rather than 60GB hard disk and 256MB rather than 512MB of standard memory -- one compromise too many, we think, for its $200 savings over our Z1A. Naturally, you can use Windows' Control Panel or ATI's taskbar-tray utility to set the system's screen resolution to 1,024 by 768 instead of its native mode, but the results look too pixilated to please the eye.

Pick It Up and Go

As long as we're grumbling, the Z1A's keyboard offers a flat but reasonable typing feel and full-sized arrangement of alphanumerics, but gets a little cramped around the edges -- the right Shift key is small, and Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn get doubled up on the cursor arrows via a Fn key, as with many downsized laptops. The color-coordinated touchpad is attractive, but felt slightly more scratchy or prone to occasional skips than most we've tried.

Handy switches at the top right let you turn the WiFi radio on or off (the latter helps save battery life) and use two buttons that can be customized from a limited range of functions (the defaults are audio mute and maximum screen brightness). In addition to the abovementioned USB 2.0, FireWire, audio, Ethernet, VGA, and modem ports, you'll find slots for a single Type II PC Card and one of Sony's Memory Stick flash modules. An external USB floppy drive is an $80 option.

You'll also find fairly impressive battery life for a lightweight: While we never came close to Sony's "up to 6.5 hours" claim, our test unit lasted two and a half hours in the PCMark 2002 (CPU, hard disk, memory, and video playback) test loop and averaged an even three hours in our real-world work sessions, even those skewed toward battery-draining software installation and multimedia play rather than idle word processing. If you don't mind adding some extra weight, a double-capacity (8,800 versus 4,400 mAh) lithium-ion pack is a $500 option; a spare regular battery is $30, and a high-speed 802.11a wireless networking PC Card is $160.

All told, the Vaio Z1A lives up to both Intel's Centrino hype and Sony's slimline-chic heritage; it's a great-looking, good-performing, slightly pricey portable for upscale business users. Next time your coworker shows off her new Tablet PC, you can strike back for old-school notebook style.

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