Accessories to a Crime

On paper, the Sony VAIO Z2 is an amazing ultraportable and promises just about everything a mobile professional could possibly want. It's less than three pounds, but get it hooked up to the wall with the docking station and suddenly it's a full featured notebook complete with DVD burner and dedicated graphics performance. Unfortunately, in many ways the Z2 fails to live up to its real potential.

Gallery: Sony Vaio Z2

The external design of the Z2 is attractive, as Sony employs a black carbon fiber shell over an aluminum frame for the notebook with glossy plastic used only for the VAIO logo on the lid. You can order it in gold or silver, but the matte black is beautiful enough on its own. There's also a silver accent along the hinge, and the inside and bottom of the notebook retain that sleek black carbon fiber design. This is a uniform, solid-looking notebook, and I have a hard time believing anyone will complain too much about it aesthetically.

So what's wrong with the shell design? It's utterly impractical. We'll start with the hinge, a design decision so atrocious I can't believe it actually made it to production. If you don't have the battery slice installed, the back of the hinge actually lifts the notebook off of whatever surface it's on, producing an incline for the keyboard. This is exactly the intended functionality, but the problem is that the only feet that provide any traction are the front two, causing the notebook to potentially slide during use. More than that, tilting the screen changes the entire incline of the notebook, making it that much harder to find a sweet spot for both typing and visual comfort. Using the battery slice alleviates this problem, but it's insane that you'd have to buy a $150 accessory just to improve ergonomics that should've been correct from the get go.

The Z2's problems don't really stop there, either. While keyboards are often a matter of some contention amongst you, the readership, the Z2's keyboard is a poster child for why so many people revile chiclet-style keyboards. Many of you don't have problems adjusting to notebook keyboards since there's so much variation between vendors, but this keyboard may very well put some of you over the edge. I have tiny, spidery fingers, and I couldn't keep from fat-fingering the keyboard. Depth and travel for the keyboard is horrendous, and key action is incredibly mushy.

The touchpad should fare better: it's dedicated as opposed to being a part of the rest of the shell, and has a fingerprint reader tucked away at the bottom. Unfortunately it's also smaller than you might like, and the touchpad and buttons are one piece of plastic instead of having a pair of dedicated mouse buttons. There isn't even a rocker switch, it's all just one piece. Once again, style over practicality.

Where the Z2 should redeem itself is the dock. While connectivity of the notebook on its own is quite good, the dock is undoubtedly where the action is. For what it's worth, Sony's Power Media Dock is a fantastic idea: it plugs into the AC adapter port and USB 3.0/dock port (it's not strictly USB 3.0, so don't try to use it with another notebook—it actually uses Intel's Light Peak technology for connectivity), and there's a pass-through for plugging in the AC adapter. Once it's hooked up, the Z2 detects it and asks you if you want the Radeon to power the interior screen or external monitors. This should be the feature that makes the Z2 alongside the stunning 1080p screen. Except there are major drawbacks.

The AMD Radeon HD 6650M inside the dock is limited to a PCI Express 2.1 x4 link instead of x8 or x16, and the performance hit is a noticeable one. Worse still, the only drivers you're going to find for the Radeon are on Sony's site: they don't use the publicly available drivers on AMD's site. You could argue that there's some secret sauce going on here, but the VAIO is using AMD's XGP standard, and either way you have yet another front where the 6650M is being hamstrung. I had to reboot the Z2 the first time I plugged the dock in just to get it to properly accelerate the internal monitor, and after that I still ran into the occasional problem during game testing; DiRT 3, for example, would only run windowed, and would only run on the Intel IGP.

Is the dock still better than nothing at all? Abso-freakin'-lutely. The 6650M is still a major upgrade on the Sandy Bridge IGP, and the added functionality (including the slimline optical drive) is appreciated. Unfortunately you're at Sony's mercy for driver updates, and we all know how reliable notebook manufacturers are at keeping video drivers current. We could also say that as long as you're going external, something a bit more potent than the 6650M would have been welcome; a 6770M would have boosted the clocks another 20%, and making the dock slightly bulkier shouldn't be too much of a problem.

Finally, there's the battery slice. Unlike the slice included with the VAIO S series we reviewed recently, this one actually requires you to screw the battery in to the bottom of the notebook. You rotate the outside edges with your thumbs and tighten the hold at the top. This seems like a sound idea, except the slice doesn't actually feel any more secure than the old latch-style locking system did. It's just a bit of added hassle. Thankfully the slice improves the ergonomics of the Z2 substantially without adding too much to the weight; the Z2 was already under three pounds, and the slice puts it a touch under four. It's an acceptable compromise for what the slice brings to the table.

Introducing the Sony Vaio Z2 Application and Futuremark Performance
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  • Death666Angel - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    You realize this has launched far before any Ultrabooks? It doesn't try to be an Ultrabook, as the article mentioned as well.
    Also, I'd take a thicker more useful laptop any day of the week over non-upgradeable, small battery Ultrabooks.
  • Zoomer - Tuesday, February 14, 2012 - link

    I wish sony would ignore the stupid apple air and actually design it without compromises. Make the damn thing thicker (esp at the back as they do/did), quieter, and screen not hitting the table.
  • Anonamouse7 - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    I absolutely love my Vaio Z (last gen). For me, it's great: enough gaming punch to play some light games (runs TF2/HL2 on low or lower settings, which is fine by me), enough CPU to render videos in decent time periods and good portability. And I adore the screen, even if it's 'just' 900p :3

    I feel almost compelled to say something though. On the second page of your review you state:
    "Unfortunately you're at Sony's mercy for driver updates..."
    And therein lies my problem. The last GPU driver update from Sony is dated June 2010! For now, I'll just ignore that even getting to that was an uphill struggle, as my Z is a custom one and the Sony website just kept refusing to recognise it, but since then nVIDIA have released quite a few drivers, and, frankly, it's unacceptable that the 'latest' drivers are over 18 months old.
  • wilkinb - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    if its like the 2011 Z, you can just tell the laptop to do more thermal management in the Sony utils. Then it doesnt make much noise at all....

    As the owner mac and a Z, I have to say I like the Z more (both are nice).
  • whalemonster - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    I bought a Z13 December 2010, which I still love in many ways - built-in Blu-Ray writer, discrete graphics, stunning screen, etc. But even when it arrived, the hybrid graphics driver was dated June 2010, i.e. already 6 months out of date, and Sony have not provided an update since. The stock NVIDIA drivers won't work because Sony has built a custom Intel/NVIDIA hybrid package. So customers are at the mercy of Sony for updates.

    Despite repeated heartfelt appeals to Sony, including the president of the UK operation himself, they have refused to update their graphics driver for this top-of-the-line model, evne during the lifetime of the product. This means that by the time my warranty ended in January 2012, I was using a laptop with a graphics driver 18 months out of date, with no support from Sony whatsoever.

    Sony is a company which produces some great hardware, but their abysmal software support does not justify the premium asking price. My lasting impression is one of a company which is all too happy to bank your money quickly then leave you hanging.
  • MarkColby - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    ...and am extremely happy with it. It's interesting how one's usage model affects the impression of the machine. Mine is mainly coding of embedded applications with cross-compilers, coding of desktop applications, FPGA design and simulation, data-analysis, plus all the normal desktop office-type applications with daily travelling and occasional time-pressured work in difficult conditions thrown in. I rarely have time for gaming these days (boo). My requirements for a laptop are primarly maximum screen resolution and quality, followed by good CPU horsepower for compilation and chip simulation. I've typically had Dells and battery life has typically been <3 hours as a result of my higher priority choices.

    The Z2 appeared to give me the chance to get what I need in a smaller package, plus long battery life (with the slice). I chose it for size/weight, screen resolution, CPU, battery life in that order. I got the dock purely as a convenient way to connect power, external monitor (27" 2560x1440 over HDMI) and BD/DVD. Mine has 8GB ram and 256GB SSD (twin 128GB).

    The Z2 has so far been excellent. The keyboard was odd to start with but I've got used to it now (I remapped right ctrl and application buttons to get convenient home and end keys) and am nearly as fast and accurate with it as a good full-size. I had the slice on from day one so I didn't notice the screen hinge issue mentioned in the review at all. Cold boot to Win7 password prompt is 8 seconds; I have a useable desktop in 12. I had a 256GB Vertex 3 in my previous Dell and this is definitely more responsive to date.

    Computational performance has been very good with compilations, chip layouts and simulations taking around half the time of my previous-generation i7 Dell. Fan noise is only noticeable during these high-demand tasks (and yes it does get quite loud then); otherwise the laptop is generally quiet.

    The slice has a significant (for me) benefit not noted in the review - it re-routes the vents to the back rather than underneath, allowing safe use of the laptop directly on a fabric surface - like a lap :-)

    It is definitely more fragile than a latest generation 14" Dell Latitude (for example - these are excellent machines that we use for many field-personnel) and yes it is indeed expensive but the combination of display, cpu power and form factor is so far more than making up for that, and the 10-12 hours battery life is an extremely welcome bonus.

    Just my 2p. Hope it's useful to someone.
  • DoctorG - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    +1. It sounds like my usage model is very similar to yours, and I have enjoyed using the Z2 very much.
  • Zoomer - Tuesday, February 14, 2012 - link

    Here's Sony's target market! Price doesn't matter that much in the grand scheme of corporate budgets.
  • MarkColby - Wednesday, February 15, 2012 - link

    Sorry, wrong. It was a carefully considered personally-funded purchase.
  • dustofnations - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    Planting Amazon affiliate links one someone else's website is bad enough, but riding on their coattails by trying to make money from the hard work of someone else is truly contemptible.

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