Sony isn't shy about charging premium prices for its laptops, and the cost of the ultra-portable Vaio VGN-Z11WN/B is fairly eye-watering, at about £1,500. To justify this level of expense, the laptop needs to be truly superb. Fortunately, it is.
The Z11WN/B has a carbon-fibre casing, which makes for a light, yet strong, chassis. It's an ultra-portable, weighing just 1.5kg. There's no clasp to hold the upper and lower sections together in transit, though. To be safe, you should use a carrying pouch or ensure the machine has its own pocket in your travel bag.
The Z11WN/B measures 31.4cm by 21cm by 3.3cm. This rather large footprint (for an ultra-portable) is due to the display.
This laptop's screen simply bowled us over. It's a 13.1-inch unit with LED backlighting and Sony's X-Black image-enhancing technology. The screen's surface is semi-reflective, which we much prefer to the over-reflective screens on some other laptops.
Even better is the 1,600x900-pixel native resolution. This widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio means it's easy to work with two document windows open side by side.
Ultra-portables need to strike a balance between portability and screen size. We think Sony has got it just right with this laptop.
The Z11WN/B shares some key design elements with its recent stablemates, including the cylindrical hinge, one end of which houses the on/off switch and the other the power input. The hinge gives the system a distinctive look and, when the laptop is powered up, the on/off switch area is attractively backlit.
Another design element shared with other Vaios is the Apple-like keyboard. The keys protrude from a backplate made from a single sheet of aluminium that runs down the wrist rest and into the front of the casing. This forms what Sony calls an 'isolation keyboard'. The keys are well spaced -- indeed, touch typists with smaller hands may find they are too far apart. The keys give good feedback and feel well-built, though.
The wrist-rest area houses a large touchpad. Although it takes almost two full sweeps to move the cursor right across the screen, we like the wide-aspect touchpad. It has vertical and horizontal scrolling built into the bottom and right edges, and, underneath, there's a pair of wide mouse buttons flanking a fingerprint scanner.
To the right, above the row of function keys, is an eject button for the optical drive caddy. It's unusual to find a physical button for this task, and we're not sure why Sony bothered with it, particularly as there's a button on the caddy itself.
Above and to the left of the function keys are buttons marked 'S1' and 'S2'. These can be configured to launch applications of your choice. By default, one switches between display types (normal, mirror and extended desktop), while the other opens up a 'Vaio guide' that walks you through using the laptop.
There are several Z-series models, including one with a 128GB solid-state drive. You can further configure some of the models, altering their hard-drive size and other components, should you choose to.
Our review sample had a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 processor and the maximum 4GB of RAM installed. The operating system is Windows Vista Business with Service Pack 1, but the box includes an install CD for Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 2, should you wish to downgrade.
The graphics sub-system is a dual-mode affair, comprising a discrete Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS GPU with 256MB of dedicated video memory and the integrated GMA 4500MHD module in the Intel GM45 Express chipset. A slider button on the keyboard area lets you switch between 'stamina' (integrated) and 'speed' (discrete) modes, depending on whether you need to conserve battery life or maximise graphics performance respectively.
As befits an ultra-portable aimed at mobile professionals, communications features are exemplary. Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g and Draft-N) and Bluetooth are present, as expected, along with Gigabit Ethernet and a V.92 modem. More excitingly, the Z11WN/B also has integrated 3G/HSDPA connectivity (up to 7.2Mbps download) courtesy of T-Mobile. You get a 30-day trial of T-Mobile's service, so you can judge whether it's for you.