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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  • claytontullos - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    The GTX 590 is the fastest card available.

    I agree though that for $500+ dollars the dock should have come with a better GPU.
    Reply
  • claytontullos - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    The dock as is has to be at least 50% profit given it's other components.

    Dvd drives go for about $20-$30 these days.
    Reply
  • Kristian Vättö - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    Changed it to single chip GPU, as GF110 is the fastest. Reply
  • joer80 - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    Yeah, pretty disappointing... maybe they thought putting the 1 gig number on it would trick people. Reply
  • claytontullos - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    nevermind... Reply
  • melgross - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    While it's true that Thunderbolt is 10Gb/s, Apple implements two channels, each at 10Gb/s. I thought that was the standard implementation. If so, can't both be used for these external GPu solutions? That would give more bandwidth than needed. Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    1 of the channels is a PCIe channel and 1 of the channels is for display data usage (the actual DisplayPort). Presumably Sony is using both already. PCIe to get data to the external GPU, the DP channel to get the image back. Reply
  • repoman27 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    Ummm... no. TB specifies two 10 Gbps channels per port and one or two ports per controller. Apple used two ports on the 27-inch iMacs and one port on all the other TB equipped Macs, but all of the ports provide two channels at 10 Gbps, full-duplex.

    Also, according to Intel, the TB transport layer is designed specifically to support the multiplexing of PCIe and DP packets on the same link. The two protocols are not necessarily on separate channels.

    The problem is that I don't believe you can create a TB compliant device that uses all the bandwidth of both channels (i.e. effectively all of the TB host controller's PCIe 4x connection), because the dual-channel architecture is designed to always allow a path for downstream devices. So you can really only expect PCIe x2 type bandwidth (equivalent to AGP 4x) for external GPU applications from the first generation of Thunderbolt.
    Reply
  • melgross - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    That's too bad. If both channels could be combined the way Express lanes can be, that would open up a number of higher speed devices. Reply
  • LiamC - Tuesday, June 28, 2011 - link

    I'd check what stepping of the Cougar Point chipset Sony are using before buying. I just bought (end of May) a Vaio S (similar form factor as the Z) and it's using a B2 stepping chipset with devices connected to SATA ports 3 and 4.

    When I contacted Sony about this, they at first denied there was an issue. Then when presented with documents from Intel about the issue, they have said they pointed me to a FAQ on their site which says that it is not an issue. Unfortunately, my model is not listed as being unaffected. Sony then said that that document needs updating. Sony said that someone would contact me in three to five working days. It's day 4.

    Be very careful.
    Reply

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