Sony Vaio PCG-Z1A Review

When you hear the phrase, “Curves that captivate,” you probably don’t think immediately of a notebook PC. But that’s what Sony Electronics’ Web site promises for the new Vaio Z series portables — Sony’s first built around Intel’s new Centrino bundle of a battery-thrifty chipset, Pro/Wireless 2100 WiFi (11Mbps 802.11b) wireless network adapter, and Pentium M processor.

Actually, svelte-design-wise, the Vaio PCG-Z1A tested here is fractionally thicker than the long-popular Vaio 505 models with older mobile Pentium 4 CPUs. But the Z1A has a bigger 14.1- rather than 12.1-inch screen, with 1,400 by 1,050-pixel SXGA+ resolution. And it has those curves — notches carved out on either side of a recessed keyboard and covered when the screen is closed.

The notch on the left holds microphone, headphone, i.Link (Sony’s name for IEEE 1394 FireWire) and two USB 2.0 ports; the right recess holds the 56Kbps modem (Ethernet and VGA ports are at the back) and a light-up power button. Along with an elegantly thin LCD, the design follows Sony’s tradition of offering the closest thing to a conversation piece or status symbol you can get in this even-school-kids-have-laptops age … and charging a premium for it. With a 1.3GHz Pentium M chip, 512MB of DDR266 memory, a 60GB hard disk, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, the sleek Z1A costs $2,400.

If you want Windows XP Professional instead of Home Edition, add $100. If you’d like to step up to the 1.5GHz Pentium M and 1GB of memory, you’ll pay a hefty $3,000; a model with a 1.6GHz processor and double-capacity battery is a positively painful $4,000. (Note that the two upscale models use 512MB PC2100 modules; the Z1A comes with one fixed and one plug-in 256MB module, so its system ceiling is 768MB.)

But if you have a $2,400 budget and a busy travel schedule, the Vaio Z1A offers more than just a pretty face: It’s slim and light enough to spoil you for more portly portables, at 9.7 by 12.4 by 1.5 inches and 4.7 pounds (even its AC adapter is trim at 12 ounces).

Its 1.3GHz Pentium M processor isn’t the fastest in the portable class, but performs very well, thank you — at least as fast as 1.7GHz or 1.8GHz mobile Pentium 4 systems. Battery life is a bit above average, too, if not the marathon run that Intel’s Centrino advertising blitz boasts (let’s remember this is a lightweight laptop with a relatively small lithium-ion pack). The 60GB Hitachi hard disk and Matsushita 8X DVD-ROM/8/4/24X CD-RW combo drive work swiftly and quietly.

Add an appealing software bundle — with Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, InterVideo WinDVD 4, the security service, Microsoft Works, and both Microsoft Money and Quicken New User Edition as well as Sony’s high-quality, house-brand image, video, and audio-file managers — and you have a capable contender. Even with some minor gripes about its keyboard, touchpad, and screen, we find the Z1A’s combination of capability, style, and slimness, well, captivating.

Perky Performance, But Bring Your Bifocals

Not only does the new Pentium M reverse Intel’s recent mania for higher clock speed as the holy grail of CPU performance, but the highest-clock-speed 1.6GHz Pentium M chip bears such a high price that most vendors seem to be settling for lesser models. So we were pleasantly surprised to see the 1.3GHz Vaio post a BAPco SysMark 2002 application-suite score of 140, mixing a 153 in Internet Content Creation with 129 in Office Productivity. The latter figure, it’s worth noting, is on par with at least one 2.2GHz Pentium 4-M laptop and even a couple of 2.4GHz and 2.53GHz Pentium 4 desktops we’ve tested over the past year.

The slimline’s FutureMark PCMark 2002 scores were an equally respectable 4,270 (CPU); 4,095 (memory); and 597 (hard disk). Sony shortchanged its reputation for image and video excellence, however, by opting for an economy-model 16MB ATI Mobility Radeon graphics controller (not to be confused with the latest Mobility Radeon 7500 and 9000 chips): The Z1A puttered to a lackadaisical 1,701 in FutureMark’s 3DMark 2001 SE Pro and managed only a limping 30 frames per second when playing Quake III Arena in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode.

That said, the 14.1-inch LCD looks sharp — especially for widescreen DVD viewing, though the stereo speakers are typically small and tinny and only the top two or three of the nine brightness settings were clear enough for our middle-aged eyes. Even then, we sometimes found ourselves squinting at tiny text and icons on the 1,400 by 1,050-pixel display — we’ve enjoyed SXGA+ resolution on 15.0-inch and larger laptop screens, but frankly would have been just as happy if Sony had stuck with trusty old XGA (1,024 by 768) for the 14.1-inch viewing area.

In fact, there is a Vaio Z1A1 model with just such a screen, priced at $2,200, but it also skimps with a 40GB rather than 60GB hard disk and 256MB rather than 512MB of standard memory — one compromise too many, we think, for its $200 savings over our Z1A. Naturally, you can use Windows’ Control Panel or ATI’s taskbar-tray utility to set the system’s screen resolution to 1,024 by 768 instead of its native mode, but the results look too pixilated to please the eye.

Pick It Up and Go
As long as we’re grumbling, the Z1A’s keyboard offers a flat but reasonable typing feel and full-sized arrangement of alphanumerics, but gets a little cramped around the edges — the right Shift key is small, and Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn get doubled up on the cursor arrows via a Fn key, as with many downsized laptops. The color-coordinated touchpad is attractive, but felt slightly more scratchy or prone to occasional skips than most we’ve tried.

Handy switches at the top right let you turn the WiFi radio on or off (the latter helps save battery life) and use two buttons that can be customized from a limited range of functions (the defaults are audio mute and maximum screen brightness). In addition to the abovementioned USB 2.0, FireWire, audio, Ethernet, VGA, and modem ports, you’ll find slots for a single Type II PC Card and one of Sony’s Memory Stick flash modules. An external USB floppy drive is an $80 option.

You’ll also find fairly impressive battery life for a lightweight: While we never came close to Sony’s “up to 6.5 hours” claim, our test unit lasted two and a half hours in the PCMark 2002 (CPU, hard disk, memory, and video playback) test loop and averaged an even three hours in our real-world work sessions, even those skewed toward battery-draining software installation and multimedia play rather than idle word processing. If you don’t mind adding some extra weight, a double-capacity (8,800 versus 4,400 mAh) lithium-ion pack is a $500 option; a spare regular battery is $300, and a high-speed 802.11a wireless networking PC Card is $160.

All told, the Vaio Z1A lives up to both Intel’s Centrino hype and Sony’s slimline-chic heritage; it’s a great-looking, good-performing, slightly pricey portable for upscale business users. Next time your coworker shows off her new Tablet PC, you can strike back for old-school notebook style.

Adapted from

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