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.
Above the display, built into the bezel, is a 0.3-megapixel (640x480-pixel) webcam that's suitable for videoconferencing. Unfortunately, this is a fixed-position camera, rather than a more convenient swivel-mounted unit. Still, the bundled ArcSoft WebCam companion software helps you capture stills and video, and includes motion detection. The automatic brightness adjustment is reasonably good too.
Our review sample had a 250GB hard drive with a rotation speed of 5,400rpm. 'G-Sensor' shock protection helps to prevent hard-disk damage when the system is being used on the move. The optical drive is a slimline multi-format DVD rewriter.
Ports and connectors are ranged around three sides. The front carries a hardware switch for Wi-Fi connectivity (there's also an on-screen controller for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Ethernet, modem and 3G) and stacked flash-card readers for Memory Stick and SD-compatible formats. These are quite hard to reach, as they're located beneath a protruding lip on the chassis. We found we had to raise the front of the system off the desk to locate the required slot accurately.
The left side houses microphone and headphone jacks, a FireWire port and a single USB 2.0 connector. Next to this, under a protective cover, is the modem connector and, behind this, an ExpressCard slot. Right at the back, again behind a protective cover, is the Ethernet port.
On the right side, behind the optical drive caddy, are an HDMI port, a second USB 2.0 port and a VGA-out port. The Z11WN/B supports external monitors at up to a 1,920x1,200-pixel resolution.
Because the Z11WN/B supports stamina (integrated graphics) and speed (discrete graphics) modes, we ran the Windows Experience Index twice. In both modes 'processor' (calculations per second) and 'primary hard disk' (disk data-transfer rate) scored 5.3, while 'RAM' (memory operations per second) scored 5.9. All Windows Experience Index scores are out of 5.9.
In speed mode, 'gaming graphics' (3D business and gaming graphics performance) scored 5.1, and 'graphics' (desktop performance for Windows Aero) 4.4. In stamina mode, gaming graphics dropped to 3.8 and graphics to 4.1. Overall, performance -- especially in speed mode -- is excellent.
Sony rates the system's li-ion battery life at 4.5 hours in speed mode and just under 5.5 hours in stamina mode. We ran two battery tests, in each case asking the laptop to play a DVD movie continuously from a full battery charge under the Vaio Optimized power scheme.
In stamina mode we got just under 2.5 hours, while in speed mode the system managed just over 2 hours.
Although these are reasonable battery-life figures, you're not going to get a day's work done on battery power, especially if you're a heavy user of Wi-Fi or HSDPA when on the move. You may, therefore, want to consider buying the optional extended battery, which costs roughly an extra £160.
The Sony Vaio VGN-Z11WN/B is beautifully designed and reassuringly robust. It marries a decently sized 13.1-inch screen with good portability, and has the advantage of integrated 3G/HSDPA support. There are some downsides, though, including a meagre two USB ports. It's also packed with pre-installed software, such as Skype and Google Earth, much of which is eminently removable.
Despite these niggles, however, this is a superb ultra-portable laptop. If you can afford it, you won't be disappointed.
Additional editing by Charles Kloet