Sony VAIO F Series £1799
21st Jun 2011 | 16:01
A heavy hulk that's capable of stunning 3D visuals
Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E review: Overview
Alright, fancypants. You want a laptop of luxury, but you don't want an Apple MacBook? Not even a 17-inch MacBook Pro? You want 3D but a Zalman 3D monitor isn't for you? Fancy the sort of black plastic slab that your friends can only dream of owning? You want a machine so heavy and precious that taking it out of the house is about as easy as taking a cat for a walk? You've got it in the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E.
You've also got an empty wallet and, as we'll discover, a vague sense of disappointment. Clearly you can't have everything.
Let's set this up, though: the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E, in culinary terms, is a burger with all the toppings. It's got a Blu-ray drive, it's got USB 3.0 support, it's got a light-up chiclet keyboard and, most importantly, it's got a 16-inch screen capable of stereoscopic 3D – as long as you don the appropriate goggles.
That thick, heavy screen is responsible for many of the protective – and odd – design decisions Sony made when piecing together the VAIO VPC-F21Z1E. There's a big rubber strip along the top of the monitor and a raised wrist-rest area at the base of the keyboard, for example, but these can't seem to work out if they're interacting or not.
Close the screen normally and the strip touches the bottom of the wrist rest, but press slightly on the lid and the strip oozes over. Our review Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E model had a pair of suspicious wrist rest-shaped scratches by the screen; we'd speculate that a few misplaced knocks could make a dent in that panel. Or it might if the lid itself – which is nigh on an inch thick and quite resistant to flex – didn't do such a good job of protecting its progeny.
Credit where it's due though. Despite all the awkward design, it is a brilliant screen. With a 16:9 widescreen ratio and full HD 1920 x 1080 resolution, its colour clarity and wide viewing angle are a credit to the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E, as they should be in a notebook of this price.
Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E review: Specifications
The Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E is an odd mix, that's for sure. Looking inside the mammoth case – and beyond the 3D screen that makes it that way – there's a 2GHz Intel Core i7. This is... well, it's just not right. A high-end i5 would have done a better job at a lesser price. A high-end i3 might have given this machine just enough muscle (and only just) for pennies. True, neither would fit the steroid-fuelled ethos of this desktop replacement machine, but a mid-range i7 is a confusing choice, at least in theory.
Then there are the graphics, provided by an Nvidia GeForce 540GT. Now this is a reasonable mobile chipset, but only reasonable. It's good enough for everything HD, and with the stereoscopic 3D switched off it's a veritable powerhouse of gaming. But it's not high end, and it's certainly not what we would have chosen to push the pixels in a machine of this price. It's another corner cut in what seems, deep down, to be a rather slapdash package.
Yes, it's a Sony. So there's a layer of design style that makes the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E look like a machine of a much higher calibre. This mostly manifests itself in glossy dust/ fingerprint attracting black plastic in this case, but it's hard to deny that Sony has done its best to dress this package up.
But even with 8GB RAM and a turbo boosted CPU, that mid-range graphics card and chunky screen mean it can't match up to the price which has been put on it.
Even the inclusion of a 3D-capable Blu-ray setup isn't enough to rescue the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E from the doldrums, particularly because you're given one set of glasses and frankly, at 16 inches, the screen isn't going to be big enough to share. The battery isn't up to much either, so taking this on the road and watching your favourite films in the third dimension isn't a hobby that can be relied on.
Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E review: Performance
Glance at the benchmark results and you'll see the big problem with the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E: 3D. The numbers don't lie: the GeForce 540GT just doesn't have the brawn to handle stereoscopic 3D work. In games it doesn't quite cut the frame rate in half as it did with 3DMark, but 3D is certainly a detriment to quality. Frame rates drop significantly, anti-aliasing switches off and, honestly, you start noticing the edges. It's not the quality experience we were hoping it would be.
Blu-ray movies are great, of course, but again we felt underwhelmed by their fancy 3D effects, no matter where we put the software 3D slider. At its recommended point, the depth was shallow and almost felt pointless. Meanwhile, higher up the scale our brains took over, which made the 3D image on the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E quite difficult to look at, even with the shuttered 3D goggles.
Switch off the stereoscopic view and things get significantly better. The 540GT can handle itself, even if it's not the highest end card. You're unlikely to be too disappointed by the combination of CPU, GPU and RAM on offer, and the screen has an impressive dot pitch.
It does get a bit fine and fiddly for desktop use, but you can tweak Windows' settings to get past this if it's an issue.
Desktop performance is predictably unfaultable. The Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E is a machine that stands up to every mundane task without even the tiniest complaint, and it will stand up for a long time.
The real issue isn't with its ability to handle everyday use – that's something a low-end Core i3 can manage without much trouble – but with its inability to act like a £1500+ notebook.
The Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E's many slick features – the environment-sensitive backlight on the full-size keyboard, the pair of USB 3.0 ports, the touch-sensitive media playback buttons, for example – are very nice, but not over-£1500 nice. We feel like we're being ungrateful (this is a very first-world review, certainly) but that's a lot of money to spend on something that might leave you cold.
It won't leave your legs cold, mind; dial it up and the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E could fry an egg on its underside (figuratively, at least), and it has the desktop-esque fan noise to match.
Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E review: Verdict
For a laptop with a 16-inch screen, the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E has the thickness and heft of a much bigger machine, such as the 17.3-inch Samsung RC710 or the 17-inch MacBook Pro. This is partly a design limitation because of the special 3D panel in the lid, and partly because the internals need a little space to breathe.
The Core i7 processor on the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E runs at a stock 2GHz, but when it turbo boosts up to 2.9GHz its massive power comes to the fore. It's an absolute stormer of a chip – look forward to many years of high-end processing.
It's hard to ignore that screen. It's capable of some stunning 3D visuals if you're willing to don the requisite goggles, and its 2D appearance is sharp and bright. It's almost worth the sacrifice you'll make in aesthetics to get it.
The little luxurious extras on the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E are pleasant as well. The light up keyboard, especially, makes us feel all fuzzy inside, but it's one of a suite of straightforward upgrades that just seem to have been piled in to justify the price.
Whoa, the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E is expensive. Too expensive. It's powerful and it's fancy, but it's not world beating, and that's a problem. Its ability to push polygons is severely restricted in stereoscopic 3D mode – for the price, we'd have preferred something that really could do it all.
It's a clunky old laptop, too – that screen needs a good thick lid in which to live, and the components get super-hot, which means the base of the Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E is pretty hefty too. Svelte it is not.
A hot, heavy hunk of a machine, which sadly disappoints when it comes to the crunch. The Sony VAIO VPC-F21Z1E's probably one of your best choices if you want a 3D laptop, but ask yourself if that's something you really need. Is it worth over £1500 to you now when £1000 will get you something better in a year?