Sony's extensive family of Vaio laptops includes plenty of office-orientated systems. The recently launched BZ series comprises a pair of 15.4-inch Centrino 2 workhorses. We reviewed the most affordable BZ11MN model, which includes a 2.26GHz Core 2 Duo P8400 processor, 2GB of RAM and a 160GB hard drive for around £650. On paper, it sounds like good value for money -- but is it in reality?
As far as design is concerned, the BZ11MN lacks the glamour of some of the company's smaller, more consumer-friendly laptops. The mostly black outer shell is rescued from blandness by the Vaio branding, which stands out in reflective silver on the lid. A row of back-lit status icons along the front long edge add another splash of colour.
The BZ11MN might lack charm, but it feels very solid with its magnesium alloy chassis, which bodes well for its robustness on the road. This is no ultraportable though, and you may balk at carrying its 2.7kg on a day-to-day basis. The laptop's 15.4-inch screen ensures a sizeable footprint, but it's reasonably thin (30-37mm).
The hinge mechanism has plenty of tension except for the last few centimetres of descent, where the lid drops down with a thump. The tension returns when you try to raise the lid, though, and you'll need to hold the keyboard section down to stop it from simply following the lid as you pull it up. This could become irritating over time.
The screen is an anti-glare LCD with a matte finish, which is a welcome change from the shiny screens on Sony's consumer laptops. If you work outdoors, or with a light source to the rear, you'll appreciate the lack of reflectivity.
The display measures 15.4 inches across the diagonal and has a native resolution of 1,280x800 pixels. This should be enough to accommodate two document windows on-screen simultaneously, but it's a disappointingly low resolution.
Among the features in the more expensive BZ model -- the £748 BZ11XN - is a more acceptable 1,440x900-pixel resolution, plus an LED backlight for reduced power consumption. The XN model's screen also uses Sony's X-black layer for improved image clarity, however, which results in a more reflective screen.
The keyboard is very well constructed, with large and well-sprung keys that deliver a satisfying click when pressed. Touch typing at normal speeds is no problem at all.
A full-height row of number keys is topped by a half-height function key row. There's plenty of space for an set of inverted-T cursor controls on the right side of the keyboard. A large inverted-L-shaped Enter key helps boost typing speed too.
The touchpad is a wide-format unit with horizontal and vertical scrolling built into the bottom and right edges respectively. The left and right mouse buttons beneath the touchpad are large and click solidly when pressed.
Above the keyboard is a grille concealing a pair of stereo speakers. To the left of this grille, nestled in the corner, is a slider switch for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, a speaker mute button and a user-configurable shortcut button. Both BZ models include fingerprint reader, which sits on the top right of the keyboard area.
The Vaio VGN-BZ11MN is built around an Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 processor running at 2.26GHz. With 2GB of RAM installed and a maximum of 4GB supported, the laptop is easily powerful enough to run the pre-installed operating system -- Windows Vista Business with Service Pack 1. The more expensive model, the BZ11XN, has the same CPU but comes with 3GB of RAM.
Graphics are handled by Intel's GMA 4500MHD, which is integrated in the Mobile Intel GM45 Express Chipset. Our review sample limits the available graphics memory, which is shared with system RAM, to a maximum of 780MB; the more expensive BZ11XN, which has 3GB of RAM, elevates the graphics complement to 1.3GB.
Intel's WiFi Link 5100 provides 802.11a, b, g and Draft-N wireless networking; Bluetooth (2.0 + EDR) is also integrated, and there's a 56Kbps modem too. There's no native support for 3G data communications, although this is easily added via a USB dongle. Gigabit Ethernet comes courtesy of Intel's 82567LM module.
The hard drive on the BZ11MN is a shock-protected 160GB SATA unit spinning at 5,400rpm; the high-end BZ11XN model has a 200GB drive. There's a good range of ports and connectors around the edges of the laptop.
On the front edge are separate readers for Memory Stick and SD-compatible flash memory cards. The front edge also contains 3.5mm jacks for microphone and headphones. The left edge has a single Type II PC card slot, a USB 2.0 connector and a VGA-out port. On the right edge is a FireWire (IEEE 1394) connector, two further USB 2.0 ports plus the Ethernet (RJ-45) and modem (RJ-11) connectors.
The two USB ports on this edge are very close to each other, and it may be difficult to use them both at once. Our own 3G modem dongle (a Vodafone USB Stick) obscures the port next to it for all but the smallest of connectors, for example.
Both laptops have an optical drive, located on the right-hand side. Our review sample had a fixed-position 1.3-megapixel camera, which is suitable for use in video conferencing -- although we always prefer cameras with a swivel mechanism. The preinstalled ArcSoft WebCam software allows you to capture stills and video, edit media files and use the camera for motion detection.
In typical Sony style, there's an awful lot of preloaded software, including Skype, which can be used for video conferencing as well as audio-only calls over Wi-Fi. Google's Picasa and Adobe's Photoshop Elements 6 are here too, as is Acrobat 8 Standard, Acrobat Distiller, Google Desktop, Google Earth, Google Talk, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office 2007 plus a link to eBay on the desktop and a full copy of Microsoft Works.
Sony claims 3.5 hours of life from the supplied Li-ion battery. Anecdotally, we easily managed half a day's work on battery power, with heavy Internet use over Wi-Fi during that period. A full day's work will almost certainly require access to mains power at some point, which shouldn't generally be a problem for a 2.7kg machine that's likely to spend most of its time on the desktop.
The Windows Experience Index (WEI) rating of 3.4 (out of 5.9) puts the Vaio VGN BZ11MN towards the top end of the Windows Vista laptops we have reviewed to date.
The overall WEI rating corresponds to the lowest component score rather than an average. For the BZ11MN, that is Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero) -- perhaps not surprising given the system's integrated graphics. Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) got 3.6, while the other three elements all scored over 5: RAM (memory operations per second) 5.1, Processor (calculations per second) 5.2 and Primary hard disk (disk data transfer rate) 5.3.
The Vaio VGN-BZ11MN is a cost-effective workhorse of an office laptop, whose integrated webcam could prove to be a boon for professionals who like to keep in touch with a set of distributed contacts. We like the manual switch for wireless networking, and the keyboard is good enough to allow fast touch typing.
There are some definite budget elements to this laptop, however. The screen resolution is lower than we would like, for example, and there aren't enough USB ports.
Build quality is solid, but the design uninspiring -- which is a surprise coming from Sony. And for a laptop aimed squarely at office use, we're puzzled by the enormous amount of preinstalled software. Some of it will be welcome, but many customers would prefer to have it on CD, available to install if it's required.
If you opt for the more expensive £748 BZ11XN model, you'll get a higher-resolution LED-backlit screen, 3GB of RAM and a 200GB hard disk.
Edited by Marian Smith