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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  • JarredWalton - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    Original post deleted for spam-like content. Thanks!
  • DoctorG - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    Usually I read AnandTech's reviews and hold them in high regard, but this time I feel the quality was not quite up to par. And so, like any good Internetizen, I felt I must complain. ;)

    I purchased the Z2 after being unable to find any other notebook that met all of my requirements -- no optical drive, full voltage processor, good screen, USB3, SSD, very light weight, etc. The Vaio piqued my interest because of the innovative LightPeak dock and thin design, which is very important for me as I carry my laptop around for usually more than 8 hours per day.

    I just typed a 24-page report using the Z's built-in keyboard, because I was on the go and couldn't use my ergonomic keyboard attached to the dock and my 24" monitor at my desk. The Z's keyboard is not the best, of course, but definitely not as horrible as it sounded in the review. And that whole "sweet spot for both typing and visual comfort" thing is sheer bull. Without the hinge, the keyboard would simply be flat -- like *every other* laptop on the market. So, you're complaining about an adjustable angle, when every other laptop's keyboard angle is fixed? Wow. Plus, the design of the hing means the keyboard angle only changes slightly when the screen angle is changed significantly, so that "sweet spot" is pretty easy to find. I can understand being particular, but to me, this sounded like nit-picking an innovative design simply for the sake of complaining.

    If it helps, I ordered the Z without all of Sony's bloatware on it -- a *free* option you neglected to mention in the review. It came installed with only the Sony utilities necessary to access everything on the Z, like fan speed controls, which you also forgot to mention in the review. I set the "Viao" button to change the fan profile, so if I want the laptop to be quiet, I tap the button and the fan noise is decreased, even under load.

    For just about everything else that I have to say, see MarkColby's comment above -- props on that. Pretty much sums it up. I have enjoyed using this computer, and while there are definitely things about it that aren't perfect (the USB ports being too close together, for example, is a problem with larger USB dongles).

    P.S. I've had this laptop since August. And now it's February . . . hmmmm . . .
  • JarredWalton - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    I wouldn't call the hinge "innovative" -- it's different from what others have done, and in this case we feel it is a step backwards. You're welcome to disagree, naturally, which goes for the keyboard as well. How a keyboard feels is quite subjective, but most reviews of the Z2 have complained about the keyboard to various degrees. Dustin really disliked it. I played with it a bit at CES and found it to be flexy and shallow, and my overall impression of build quality was not good. For a $1600+ laptop, that's a pretty serious concern. As for the "lateness" of this review, see my comment above. We have only just started getting Sony laptops for review, and hopefully we can get new models around the time of launch going forward. Of course, if we aren't particularly enamored with a product, that may not happen, but we'll see.
  • joel4565 - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    When you design a product, isn't the first thing you do is to decide a market for the product?

    With that in mind, who exactly is Sony making this laptop for? The screen is beautiful, but with the keyboard being horrible, no one will want to use it for long period of typing.

    The external graphics card is cute, but borderline useless. You will never have up to date drivers and it is no where near powerful enough to drive anywhere near native resolution on any modern game.

    The CPU power is nice except it kills the battery life (when running on one battery) and makes the laptop loud & hot. I personally think we have reached the point where the performance of the 17 watt CPU is probably good enough for most people while mobile.

    The worst part is the price. For the cost of this laptop you could probably buy a ultrabook or 13 mac book air and build a desktop computer for gaming.

    As configured: $2,499
    So you could get a 13" macbook air for $1,299.00 and have 1,200 left over to build a very nice desktop.
  • Metaluna - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    I agree about the confusing design decisions. The inclusion of an analog VGA port seems to argue that this is aimed at businesses where you are giving presentations and hooking up to projectors, which is one of the few places where VGA still seems to be common (that and multi-way KVM switches in server racks). But why would someone like that need an external GPU (with yet another analog port)?

    And the lack of a decent keyboard is simply mind-boggling on a premium-priced product.

    I do think the reviewer's criticism of the hinge design was kind of over the top though. It's unusual to be sure, but I have a hard time getting worked up over slight changes to the keyboard tilt. If the hinge were to, for example, rotate on its own while you were typing or something like that, then that would be much more serious.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    I don't think the problem is so much the tilt but also the "resting on the back of the LCD while the laptop slides around a bit". It's not the worst thing ever, but it's not a great design decision either IMO.
  • MarkColby - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    > with the keyboard being horrible, no one will want to use it for long period of typing.

    Bear in mind that keyboards are a very personal thing and it depends how much you type versus how much you think :-) I have no big issue with it other than the lack of dedicated home, end, page up and page down keys, which there was room for at the side.

    > The external graphics card is cute, but borderline useless. [etc]

    Agreed. the external dock ("PMD") is fine but I could care less about the graphics card in it...

    > The CPU power is nice except it kills the battery life

    Plain wrong unless you're talking about constant load like gaming. My usage model is periods of low load (editing, document referencing etc) and less frequent periods of very high demand (chip simulations etc) where I want maximum performance. I appear to be getting very good battery life even on a single battery (which I have tried once or twice just for comparison). And I'll take the fan noise on those occasions over the alternatives (back ache from a heavy machine or less productivity).

    > The worst part is the price. For the cost of this laptop you could probably buy a ultrabook
    > or 13 mac book air and build a desktop computer for gaming [...] you could get a 13"
    > macbook air for $1,299.00 and have 1,200 left over to build a very nice desktop.

    Except that the macbook and ultrabooks to date won't do what I want and a desktop is no good to me.

    I'm not trying to argure your points - just pointing out that there are some people that Sony's design choices have matched quite well. Yes if I could get this performance and screen and size and weight cheaper I would, but who wouldn't? This is my first Sony, bought entirely based on the configuration of the machine and despite the badge (badges put me off, truth be told) and I'm just hoping my experience will not be as bad as you're all leading me to believe :-)
  • wwwcd - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    Sony Vaio Z2 - sh|t, but expensive sh|t, external and docking shIt? Be different for all peoles horror! Low volume of RAM...Only SSD's significance as a, hmm, good component capable...
    "13.1" LED (Matte -good!) 16:9 1080p(?)"I have like microscope look and I see a pixels ;)
  • AssBall - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    It looks like a hell of a laptop, hardware-wise, and great screen. But a few things don't make sense from my perspective.

    Great screen, but on a 13"??? Can't see jack at high res on them.

    Great processor, but again, why have a i7 in a 13", what are you going to do, CAD?

    The shitty keyboard and pad are deal breakers. Sony tech support also sucks.

    Just my opinion.
  • MarkColby - Monday, February 13, 2012 - link

    Oh come on. Don't complain about the screen size/resolution combination just because you've got poor eyes. I'm absolutely fed up with people dissing my primary requirement as being stupid just because they don't want it or can't cope with it. I mostly bought this laptop *because* it had a 13" 1080 screen and I run 8 point font in editors to see more text at once. Perhaps Sony support will indeed turn out to be awful (here's hoping I never need to find out) but at least they made what I wanted when noone else did.

    > Great processor, but again, why have a i7 in a 13", what are you going to do, CAD?

    Er, yes I am thanks. And matlab calculations. And silicon design simulations. What's your issue exactly? Some of us do technically tough jobs on the move.

    > The shitty keyboard and pad are deal breakers. Sony tech support also sucks.

    The keyboard is not great but it's far from the worst I've had to use. Most of the keys even produce the letters printed on them when you hit them. I carry around a wireless logitech trackman because it's better for work (as opposed to gaming) than a mouse or pad. Some of us are happy with the compromises made here to get the features we really need.

    > Just my opinion.

    Do us a favour - stump up the cash and live with the thing for a bit before being so opinionated.

    By the way someone here said the keyboard was 'flexy' or some such? How the heck hard do you type? The key travel is short for sure but this is one of the most solid laptop keyboards I've owned, and I've had more than my fair share over the years...

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