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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  • repoman27 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    It's a very small connector, that. I doubt there are any extra pins. And the plan is to support both optical and electrical over a dual mode port in future implementations. Optical and electrical can be combined on a port without conflict. In fact, the audio line in/out jacks on pretty much all Macs shipped in the last few years have been hybrid electrical/optical stereo mini jacks. Reply
  • MobiusStrip - Friday, July 1, 2011 - link

    They pulled the same BS with their bastardized Firewire connector, which was a four-pin version that didn't carry power.

    Sony attempts to undermine pretty much any standard that they can.
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    I continue to not fully grasp the nature of Thunderbolt’s “dual-channel” architecture. If TB ports are electrically the same as mDP, and Intel is still only using the four differential pairs of the DP main link for data, that would in turn equal two sets of send/receive pairs for full-duplex operation. Are these the two “channels” (akin to PCIe lanes), or are the channels implemented in the transport layer and striped across physical link lanes (a la DP)?

    If the point of the dual-channel architecture is to provide a way to ensure bandwidth for devices further down the chain, can one even build a TB device that is intentionally an end node that uses bandwidth from both channels?

    Also, if my theory were correct about there only being two sets of send/receive pairs, what in the heck is the signaling rate on the cable in order to provide a full 10 Gbps of usable bandwidth to the upper layers? It would have to be something like 1080 MHz or double the rate of DP 1.2!?

    In any event, both the PCI and DP transport protocols use 8b/10b encoding, so even if TB provides them a full 10 Gbps of bandwidth per channel, you’re still down to 1 GBps of throughput before you factor in any other type of overhead. For graphics applications that would equate to AGP 4x speeds.
    Reply
  • joer80 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    AGP 4x speeds? So 1000x intel graphics? Reply
  • repoman27 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    More like 2x in the case of Intel HD 3000. As underpowered as it may seem compared to the current crop of GPUs, I'd reckon the HD 3000 could be bottlenecked if connected to an AGP 2x bus. Of course it's on die with the processor, though, so bus bandwidth is never really an issue. Reply
  • joer80 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    People are getting more than double HD 3000 out of the express cards... Reply
  • Brad4 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    If you're going to compare with the mba 13", then I think it is important to show that the mba has a 16:10 resolution. For this reason alone I would choose the macbook air. Reply
  • joer80 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    and more pixels to fit in that better proportion... I feel like they should bring the air screen over to the 13" and let the customer decide what body they prefer. Reply
  • Gondorff - Sunday, July 3, 2011 - link

    Umm... read the article? The Z has far more pixels: 1600x900 standard, 1920x1080 optional. No other laptop brand will get you that.

    I would also definitely prefer 16:10, but the extra resolution is a reasonable compromise.
    Reply
  • beginner99 - Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - link

    ... a very nice product. No useless dedicated GPU. nice resolution. light + ssd.
    Can't say much about it. But the price is just sick.
    I'm also considering a Thinkpad t420s which would cost about the same but with better specs and I woudl get it with about 30% rebate...
    Reply

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