Sony has announced an updated Vaio Z lineup today. Vaio Z is Sony’s premium 13” laptop series which essentially packs performance of a 15” laptop into a smaller form factor. As expected, the updated lineup includes new Sandy Bridge CPUs but what really makes it interesting is the support for Light Peak and a BTO option for external Power Media Dock with a discrete GPU. 

Sony Vaio Z specifications
  Standard Built-to-order options
Screen 13.1" (anti-glare) N/A
Resolution 1600x900 1920x1080
Processor Intel Core i5-2410M (2.3GHz, 3MB L3) i5-2540M (2.6GHz, 3MB L3), i7-2620M (2.7GHz, 4MB L3)
Graphics Intel HD 3000 Power Media Dock with AMD 6650M
Storage (SSD) 128GB 256GB, 512GB; 128GB, 256GB, 512GB (SATA 6Gb/s)
Memory 4GB 1333MHz DDR3 8GB 1333MHz DDR3
Connectivity WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n), 3G, Bluetooth Wireless WAN
Ports USB 2.0, docking station/USB 3.0, HDMI out N/A
Battery Up to 7 hours Up to 14 hours (external)
Dimensions(DxHxW) 8.3" x 0.66" x 13.0" N/A
Weight 2.6lb N/A
Price £1195 (~$1914) Varies

Gallery: Sony Vaio Z

Unfortunately Sony has yet to update their USA page to include the updated Vaio Z. The European page has already been updated, thus the usage of pounds in the table. The Dollar pricing is an exact transfer of the VAT-less UK price but it gives us a hint that the standard Vaio could be around $1900 in the US. Sony's UK page says ships in 3-4 weeks so expect late July availability. 

The new Vaio Z is significantly thinner and lighter than the old Vaio Z: It weighs in just 2.6lbs and has height of 0.66” compared to its 3.04lbs and 1.3” predecessor. It’s actually slightly thinner than the MacBook Air (0.66” vs 0.68”). MacBook Air’s design is slanted though so at its thinnest point, it’s much thinner than the new Vaio Z. Vaio Z is also quite noticeably lighter than 13” MacBook Air or Samsung 9 Series, which weigh 2.9lbs and 2.88lbs respectively. 

The main reason why the new Vaio Z is so much lighter and thinner than its predecessor is the lack of a discrete GPU. It comes with Intel HD 3000 which is integrated into the CPU die, whereas the old Vaio Z came with a discrete NVIDIA GT 330M. However, Sony has provided an interesting solution to this. They have announced a Power Media Dock (PMD) which is basically a souped up external optical drive. The external dock has an AMD Radeon HD 6650M with 1GB of DDR3 in it as well. The AMD 6650M allows you to connect up to two displays to the PMD so you can have a total four displays: two attached to the PMD, one attached to the laptop’s HDMI port and obviously the laptop’s integrated LCD. 

AMD 6650M specifications
Shaders 480
GPU frequency 600MHz
Memory 1GB DDR3
Memory frequency 900MHz
Memory bus width 128-bit

To make this worthwhile, Sony uses Intel’s Light Peak technology (yes, Sony calls it Light Peak, not Thunderbolt) which provides up to 10Gb/s of bandwidth in each direction. A GPU requires lots of bandwidth which is why USB, especially 2.0, is not suitable for powerful external GPUs. There are plenty of USB video adapters which are fundamentally external GPUs but they are not suitable for gaming or other GPU heavy tasks by any means. What makes Sony’s implementation different from Apple’s is the fact that Sony uses a combo-port that combines USB and Light Peak into one, instead of Mini DisplayPort connector like Apple. Sony actually calls the port a docking station/USB port. It can function as a regular USB 3.0 port as well. 

The Power Media Dock comes in three flavors. The cheapest one is a normal DVD drive. The second option is a Blu-Ray player. The most expensive option is a Blu-Ray writer as you might have guessed. PMDs with Blu-Ray are only available from Sony’s online store whereas the DVD PMD will be available through resellers as well. The PMD supports up to two external monitors: one via HDMI and one via VGA. There is also a Gigabit Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port. 

One issue with the PMD is its price. The cheapest one is £400 which translates to $640. Take away UK’s VAT which is 20% and we get $512, so the cheapest PMD will most likely retail for $500. That sounds pretty expensive, considering that AMD 6650M is an underclocked AMD 6570 (our review) which goes for around $70. Combine that with $20 DVD drive and you get what Sony calls Power Media Dock. 

Then there's the concern about performance. Sony must be running PCIe over Light Peak, but you only get a maximum of 1.25GB/s of bandwidth to/from the GPU - assuming no additional overhead. While the 6650M is likely much faster than Sandy Bridge's intergrated GPU, it's potentially slower than an on-board 6650M would have been because of the Light Peak bottleneck.

Conclusions

Vaio Z is definitely the most portable of the current 13" ultraportables and it packs in a nice amount of power. However, its pricing makes it too expensive compared to most of its competitiors. 13" MacBook Air starts at $1199 so the cheapest Vaio Z will be at least $700 more expensive if UK's pricing is comparable to US's. Even the Lenovo X1 starts at $1199 nowadays and it features exactly the same CPUs. The biggest market for Vaio Z seems to be in the high-end ultraportable market. No other brand offers 512GB SSD or 1080p screen at the moment for example. 

Power Media Dock sounds interesting but the price tag is everything else but attractive. For the same amount of money, you could grab for instance NVIDIA GTX 580, which is the fastest single chip GPU as of today. With PMD, you will be limited to AMD 6650M which isn't exactly a great GPU for gaming in the first place. At $500, you would hope for something much, much better than a DVD+GPU combo that struggles to play games at decent quality. We have seen external GPUs before but they have always failed miserably. Sony's attempt doesn't seem too promising either but at least we now have a port that is capable of external GPUs: Thunderbolt/Light Peak. There is hope that third parties will release cheaper and faster solutions, the most promising being Sonnet's Echo Express, which supports full size PCIe cards (though no word on GPU support). 

As the world becomes increasingly more mobile, external GPUs may be a solution to the problem of balancing portability with performance. Light Peak is a great way to get data out of a system however we may need to see a next-generation version of the interface, with higher bandwidth to really make sense for high performance external GPU solutions.

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  • TrackSmart - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    My wife has the Z with the 1080p screen (work-purchased computer). The resolution is not usually a problem in Windows (you can adjust the dpi settings), but some programs don't scale properly even with the setting adjusted. Still, the display is beautiful. It makes the screen on my Toshiba R705 look like crap - which it is. Here's my outlook on this new model:

    Good Moves:
    - Removing the optical drive, which is rarely used
    - Dumping the GeForce 330m, which is barely faster than Sandy Bridge integrated graphics.
    - Making it thinner and lighter due to the above.

    Bad Moves:
    - Making the screen bezel 4 times as large in their quest to make it thinner.
    - Making the external GPU so overpriced. It's not worth consideration unless you absolutely need support for three external monitors, since it won't be powerful enough for seriously GPU intensive tasks anyway.
    Reply
  • ImSpartacus - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    Damn, where does your wife work? I wouldn't mind getting a Vaio Z from my employer... Reply
  • Zoomer - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    It's not that uncommon. Even universities would buy them. A few grand for a computer is nothing. Reply
  • TrackSmart - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    Very true. $2000 for a laptop is not a large sum of money for many places of employment. And needless to say, I'm also jealous of her machine! I have the poor-man's version, the Toshiba R705, which cost $699 at the time. Speed-wise, it does everything I need (core i3 + 4 GB of RAM). And it weighs a similar 3 lbs. But the screen is total crap. I couldn't justify spending triple the money for the Vaio Z for my own personal use.

    Plus, she's had a nightmare of a time dealing with Sony support. An unworldly awful experience. As I've said before, stop staring at the shiny Sony laptop and RUN, run away. Your hard earned cash will only buy you grief if anything should go wrong with it.
    Reply
  • vicbdn - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    Not sure where you got the idea that the 330M is barely faster than HD3000. It scores quite a bit higher in benchmarks according to notebook check. The 330M did come underclocked on Z but it seems people have had no problems with keeping it at manufacturer or overclocked levels on the Z forums.

    http://www.notebookcheck.net/NVIDIA-GeForce-GT-330...

    http://www.notebookcheck.net/Intel-HD-Graphics-300...

    The 6650M is what's barely faster than the 330M, if anything.
    http://www.notebookcheck.net/AMD-Radeon-HD-6650M.4...

    The new Z is quite a disappointment imo. At this rate, my next laptop upgrade will have to be Apple. Seems windows manufacturers can't get it right.
    Reply
  • TrackSmart - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    I stand corrected. I was thinking of the 320M, which Anandtech reviewed against Intel's HD3000 graphics. Indeed, it looks like this laptop has lost about 1/2 of it's GPU muscle with this new iteration. Reply
  • SlyNine - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    I was about to say. I have a 330M and I can play a good game of Bad Company 2 on it. low to med settings. It looks better then the PS3 or Xbox 360 versions.

    However the 5650 in my girlfriends dell is noticably more powerful.
    Reply
  • zoubido - Tuesday, August 2, 2011 - link

    unfortunately the apples have their quirks too.
    the 15" are extremely hot heavy and noisy

    the MBA are very sexy but the screen resolution and connectivity is just bad.

    if it wasnt for the resolution and the little pluses of the Z i guess i'd go for the mba or even the asus that's going to be out in sept.

    the i7 ulv seems pretty good these days
    Reply
  • Wieland - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    I had a virtual boy growing up; what is this eye strain you speak of?

    Seriously though, you can just bump the scale to 125 or 150% if your eyes aren't good enough for the future. I'm sick and tired of 1366x768 screens.
    Reply
  • Broheim - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    I'm really looking forward to seeing what kind of performance we're going to see with a eGPU over thunderbolt (and light peak in the future). Reply

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