Sony VAIO Z Series £2699
26th Jul 2011 | 16:51
Incredible performance from Sony's latest ultraportable laptop
Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E: Overview
The old cliché states that good things come in small packages, which means that chicken nuggets, dead hedgehogs and Peter Andre's head are all apparently 'good things'. However, we have to agree with this logic when it's applied to Sony's latest VAIO Z Series ultra-portable laptop, the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E.
Despite being cursed by a name that's less catchy than an N-Dubz tune, this is an excellent little 13.1-inch PC laptop that we'd happily use as our everyday computer.
That is, if we happened to have a spare couple of grand knocking around, priced as it is at £2,699.
We've seen a lot of ultra-portables lately, from the sleek and sexy Samsung 900XSA to the business-oriented Lenovo ThinkPad X1. It's impressive how much power you can now cram into a tiny frame, ably demonstrated by the new Apple MacBook Air 2011, which squeezes Intel's Sandy Bridge technology into something as thin as your finger.
The 13.1-inch Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E also manages this feat. It's a little chunkier than the Apple MacBook Air 2011 and Samsung 9 Series, but at 20mm it's still a slender machine. Best of all, it weighs just 1.18kg – less than most netbooks we've used.
Sony has stuck with its traditional all-black design, which is a shame. We definitely prefer the brushed chrome body of the Samsung 900XSA, and the glossy white design of the Apple MacBook Air. The carbon fibre build is solid at least, although the lid does feel rather fragile, a problem we've noticed with a few VAIOs lately. We wouldn't recommend placing anything on top of the VAIO VPC-Z21V9E, just in case.
We initially had mixed feelings over the keyboard, which has the shallowest travel we've ever experienced. When the keys are hit they barely move, akin to typing on a virtual keyboard on a tablet. However, we were used to it after just a few minutes. The board is tilted slightly when the lid is lifted, as the rear is pushed upwards. This makes typing comfortable, even over prolonged periods.
Each key protrudes through its own hole cut in the chassis, isolation-style. The distance between keys makes it easier to touch type, but there are no open gaps for crumbs to infiltrate the VAIO Z Series laptop's precious innards. A subtle backlighting effect makes the keys glow in the dark, so you can bash out that novel at 3am when inspiration strikes without having to turn on the lights.
Despite the compact body, the keys are generally well sized. Even the arrow keys (often the first casualties) haven't suffered, although the Shift keys are rather thin. This didn't bother us too much, because we have tiny girl fingers anyway.
However, the VAIO VPC-Z21V9E's touchpad is cramped, meaning you'll be lifting your finger often when sweeping the cursor across the screen. We like the textured surface, and the mouse buttons are firm.
Above the keyboard, you'll find a wireless networking on/off switch, as well as the usual Assist, VAIO and Web shortcut buttons. These allow you to surf the web, diagnose issues and fiddle with power settings in an instant.
Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E: Specifications
One thing we always expect from Sony's VAIO laptops is a gorgeous screen, and the VAIO VPC-Z21V9E doesn't disappoint. The 13.1-inch screen has a matt TFT finish, so there are no pesky reflections when you're working outside.
Despite the lack of gloss, we were struck by how realistic our photos appeared. Colours are rich and vibrant, helped by the excellent brightness levels.
On a display this size, we'd hope for a 1366 x 768 (WXGA) resolution as the minimum. Sony has gone one further, and the VAIO VPC-Z21V9E has a crisp 1600 x 900 (WXGA++) resolution, with images looking super sharp. Even the tiniest fonts are easy to make out, if your eyesight can cope.
A 256GB solid state drive (SSD) gives you reasonable space for carrying around files and media, but there's no built-in DVD drive.
However, one of the funky new features of this VAIO Z Series is the docking station, which plugs into the laptop's power and USB port, and is propped upright by the included stand. This not only adds an optical drive, it also gives you two more USB ports (one of them USB 3.0), extra VGA and HDMI ports, and another Ethernet port. Sony has also squeezed in a dedicated GPU – but more on that later.
While Sony could have built an optical drive into the VAIO VPC-Z21V9E's body, as it did with previous models, this would have bulked up the laptop. By separating it, you can carry the drive around only when needed. The extra ports are a great addition, especially as there are only two USB ports on the actual machine.
Like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1, this laptop also has a built-in fingerprint scanner for extra security. If you're carrying around confidential documents and want to protect them with more than a password, this is a great alternative.
Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E: Performance
Many of the ultra-portable laptops we've seen lately are powered by Intel's latest Sandy Bridge Core i5 processors. Compared to the low-voltage ultra-portables of yesteryear, these things will last you a long time, which is just what you want when you're splashing out over a grand on a new laptop.
Sony has upped the game with an Intel Core i7 2620M processor, running at 2.7GHz, backed up by a whopping 8GB of RAM. In our benchmark tests, the VAIO VPC-Z21V9E ruled over all of its brethren.
This laptop can run anything you throw at it, and response times are almost instant. We rarely waited more than a couple of seconds for a piece of software to load up, which is perfect for the more impatient user.
As with many ultra-portables, the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E has no built-in dedicated graphics. The Sandy Bridge chipset is used to render images instead.
Thankfully, Intel's latest processors are far more adept at graphical wizardry than the older models, and you can comfortably enjoy HD films, edit your photos and even mess around with home movies using basic video editing software. Of course, the latest games will either struggle a lot or be completely unplayable.
However, plug the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E into the docking station and you can make full use of the dock's AMD Radeon HD 6650M GPU. With the docking station connected, our benchmark scores using 3D Mark doubled. We found that even the newest computer games ran smoothly, with no frame rate issues at all.
Unfortunately, we did notice that the cooling fans went into overdrive when we started playing. A constant blast of hot air shoots out of the left side, and the noise is intrusive if you're in a quiet environment.
Using these high-powered Intel processors has killed the battery life of recent ultra-portables, with the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 surviving for just 107 minutes in our tests, and the HP ProBook 5330m managing a slightly more respectable 139 minutes.
We ran the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E through the same process, firing up an HD video and seeing how long it could last on a single charge. Our expectations were low, yet the VAIO lasted an impressive 225 minutes before dying. Stick to word processing and you get almost five hours.
Cinebench – 11457
3D Mark '06 – 8626 / 4958
Battery Eater '05 – 225 minutes
Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E: Verdict
As big fans of Sony's previous VAIO Z Series models, such as the VPC-Z13M9E, we had high hopes for the VAIO VPC-Z21V9E.
With its Sandy Bridge Core i7 processor, ultra-thin body and unique docking station, it does everything right on paper. But did it meet expectations, and how does it compare to the competition?
As expected, the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E smashed the competition when it came to performance. You've got enough power to run any software you can think of, and you certainly won't need to upgrade any time soon.
Thankfully, portability doesn't suffer. Almost four hours of battery life when watching movies is a tremendous result, while the slim and ridiculously light frame will slip into almost any bag.
If you're not on the move, you can connect the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E to its docking station. This gives you loads more ports, a slot-loading DVD drive and a dedicated AMD graphics card, so you can play the latest games.
Both games and movies look incredible on the 13.3-inch TFT screen, which is sharp, bright and vibrant. The lack of gloss means you can work outside, without being hampered by reflections.
The keyboard has the shallowest travel of any laptop we've tested, with the keys barely moving when hit. However, aside from this it's a well-designed board that's comfortable to use. The touchpad is cramped, but sensitive.
Our only other gripe is the design. After using glamorous portables such as the Samsung 9 Series and Apple MacBook Air, we were uninspired by the plain black design of the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E. The lid is also rather flimsy.
With its incredible combination of power and portability, this is the best ultra-portable laptop of recent times. It may lack the glamour of some of its rivals, but the Sony VAIO VPC-Z21V9E is worth its high pricetag.