“No compromises”, is Sony’s new tag-line to describe their latest Core i7-2620M (2.7GHz) processor based Sony Vaio Z. On paper, the Sony Vaio Z is perfect. It’s lightweight, it’s decked with the latest components other manufacturers only dream about (full HD screen on a 13-inch screen, high-end quad-core processor, etc.) and packaged in a compact form factor. It even has designer touches lurking in every corner, but most of all it has a Power Media Dock.
What’s that you ask? Well we’re glad you asked, because It’s actually the biggest compromise (depending on how you choose to look at it) that Sony had to make to keep the Sony Vaio Z so sleek. But at the same time, this extra piece of companion hardware that comes with every new Vaio Z is what makes it the most powerful 13.1-inch, 1.17kg consumer/business notebook you can find in the world right now. We've first touched on this when we attended the notebook's launch in July, but we'll get to the details in this article soon enough. Here's a video preview straight from the launch event on this beauty's highlights:-
Looks-wise, the Sony Vaio Z doesn’t lag behind anyone else in the market. It doesn’t really come with minimalist aesthetics, and you can tell immediately from the flamboyant gold option (the other option is black) and it sports a unique hexa-shell design, which describes its hexagonal shaped edges. The hexagon is one of the strongest natural occurring shapes (think honeycomb) and when applied to the notebook, should theoretically reinforce the strength of the notebook’s body to withstand some battering. It also makes the Sony Vaio Z look much more interesting than other notebooks, but on account of it being so expensive, we’d really advise against subjecting it to abuse.
The machine itself does feel light enough to be held comfortably for a long time without your arms aching (again, it’s only 1.16kg!). However we felt that build quality could be (much) better. Sure it uses one of the strongest organic shapes out there for its basic structure, but the weakest link here could be the materials used.
The Sony Vaio Z uses carbon fiber, the same stuff used in F1 cars and has a whole bunch of interesting physical properties. One of those properties however seems to put the Vaio Z in a bad spot. It’s supposed to be light, strong and flexible (or stiff depending on the mix of materials used to produce it).
If you ask us, flexible isn’t exactly how we like our notebooks. Why? Because it’s full of expensive components for one. Parts like the extremely fragile screen could benefit from stiffer lids for sure, so we’re not exactly sure where Sony is coming from because this is a compromise of sorts.
One reason we can think in Sony’s defense is that the more flexible body works like a shock absorber, soaking up knocks and shocks. Having said that, we’ve also come across reports that Apple has monopolized most aluminum suppliers, and that manufacturers have to turn to carbon fiber as the next best thing for their Ultrabooks.
Connectivity-wise, the Sony Vaio doesn’t really stand out from other machines until you realize it’s got a trump card on the right side of the machine. Located just beside the power port, is a seemingly benign USB 3.0 port, that is, until you realize it’s actually a Thunderbolt port working double shift as a USB 3.0 port!
This Thunderbolt / USB 3.0 port is part of the reason why the Vaio Z is as powerful as it claims to be, which leads us to the star of the show - the Power Media Dock (PMD) that uses this interface. It has the same general design philosophy as the laptop itself, and actually reminds us of mini PlayStation 3 when propped up.
This dock gives the notebook much more connectivity options, including HDMI, VGA, dual USB 2.0 ports, one more USB 3.0 port and another LAN port just to name a few. On top of these various connectivity options, the PMD acts as a Blu-ray drive via its slot-in loading mechanism. But, the one most interesting specification that makes the Sony Vaio Z such a dangerous beast, is the discrete graphics processing unit hidden in the PMD that enables much of the visual output options. It’s not a top tier discrete graphics unit, but the mid-tier AMD Radeon HD 6650M is more than enough to power almost all scenarios you can envision in a corporate environment (that also includes the latest PC games *wink wink*).
Just to be sure, we’re not talking about multiple spreadsheets all open at the same time, which it can do without breaking a sweat thanks to its Core i7 processor. We’re talking about engineering applications like AutoCad, powering multiple monitors (four screens simultaneously when counting the notebook's own), tackling photo and video editing programs and so on. In essence, the Sony Vaio Z has a credible processing platform on its own but its multimedia and gaming capabilities are further boosted by using the Power Media Dock. This presents two broad usage scenarios:-
With the PMD, the new Sony Vaio Z is as almost as good as a gaming-grade machine, without the bulk. Sony isn’t the first to come up with an elegant solution to juice-up machines with limited capabilities. In essence, the concept is an evolution of port replicators and docking mechanism that have added features like more connectivity options, an extra integrated battery pack and more graphics processing power. One of these examples is from Gigabyte's Booktop series. The Booktops have been using docks for added connectivity to convert netbooks to a nettop, but the latest edition in Computex 2011 even incorporated a GeForce GT440 graphics. Not as powerful nor as elegant as what Sony's PMD packs, but you get the idea - it's not a new concept and it has been seen from time to time.
The only real implementation of a standardized external graphics connectivity technology was by Fujitsu Siemens in 2008, courtesy of ATI's eXternal Graphics Platform (XGP). Formerly codenamed AMD Lasso, the ATI XGP is as per the name suggests, an external solution to address space and size limitations for mobile platforms to house credible graphics power. The key to this solution was using a special external PCIe 2.0 x16 interface from the notebook to the XGP box housing the powerful discrete graphics. It's too bad that the concept never took off when the specifications had been ironed out, but we figured its due to implementation costs and perhaps high-speed signal control in an external box over a distance.
Sony's latest Vaio Z just revisited this concept of using an external unit for discrete graphics and with the advent of Thunderbolt technology (codenamed Light Peak) riding on the serial PCIe bus implementation, it's able to preserve high-speed data transfer externally. Sony's take however is a little more different as it uses a USB 3.0 electrical connector instead of the Mini DisplayPort established on the 2011 MacBook products.