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Sony Vaio TZ298: Style and Usability

Round Up: Five Powerful, Light Ultraportables
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Style

While Asus’ U2E might be perfect for a leather-loving, fancy-pants executive, Sony’s Vaio TZ is also designed for an executive powerhouse, but its elegance is conveyed with a knowing understatement. Perhaps Sony is saying: "real power-brokers and road warriors don’t need leather, they just need good design."

The TZ 298 is one of the highest-end configurations of the ultraportable TZ, and it compromises nearly nothing. Because it includes both a 250 GB hard drive and a 64 GB solid state drive, there’s no room for an optical drive—that’s the reason I said "nearly". Sony does include an external optical drive with this computer, though.

The TZ is dressed in a mix of executive blacks. There’s the matte black shell and underside, the brushed carbon lid-piece that looks almost maroon—and contrasts nicely with the mirrored-silver Vaio logo in the center—and the slightly-indented piano black chassis piece that the keyboard sits upon.

Other than a shockingly slim screen lid and a completely spherical hinge—into which attaches a fairly beefy battery that raises the computer up off its surface about half an inch—there are no notable design flourishes. The machine is available in other colors, like gold and red, for those who need a bit more flash in their computers. Though the screen is just as thin as, if not thinner than, the Toshiba R500, it’s somewhat more stable. The rest of the chassis is far hardier than the R500’s; it is simply made from heavier material.

Size and Weight

The fact that Sony manages to keep the TZ as thin as it is (it ranges from 0.8” to 1.2” thick) using these sturdier materials is an accomplishment, even without the optical drive. These materials also give the computer a tad more weight than the other non-optical drive ultraportables: it weighs 2.7 lbs, where the Lenovo U110 weighs 2.4 lbs. At least the Sony TZ has the smallest power brick (0.6 lbs). In the hand, the TZ feels extremely light, especially since it has a great, grippy handle in the form of that round hinge.

Ports

Starting on the left, Sony hides some of its most delicate and, perhaps least used, ports behind a rubberized covered compartment. Peel back the casing to find the protected Gigabit Ethernet, modem and FireWire ports.

After resealing the hatch, you’ll find a fan vent, and then a subterranean ExpressCard slot and two USB ports. The front of the TZ is covered with ports and buttons: from left you’ll find the headphone jack, microphone jack, "MagicGate" slot for Sony’s proprietary memory formats and SD slot. There are also LED lights indicating whether the "MagicGate" is in use, the status of the battery and status of the hard drive. Further along to the right is a Wi-Fi on/off switch and six metallic bead buttons for multimedia use that we’ll get to in the Usability section below. On the right side is one more USB port, with a VGA port toward the back.

There are no actual buttons or ports on the back of the machine, though at either end of the spherical hinge is a spot for (on the left) the power plug and (on the right) a clear plastic power button that blinks orange or stays a solid green. You can’t see it, but this computer is the only one in the group with a built-in broadband card: Sprint’s EVDO. Unfortunately, Sony didn’t give us access to this feature on our review unit, so we were unable to test it for data speeds.

Style score 4.5

Usability

Display

Sony’s XBRITE screens have a reputation for being reliable and super sharp; even in this incredibly thin incarnation, the lack of glare and the rich colors put it a cut above the average ultraportable screen. Sony’s TZ battery benefits from the LED-backlit screen, too, since it was able to sustain itself the longest in this roundup. The bezel holding the display in place is just as flimsy as the one on the Toshiba R500. It would be a pleasure, however, to watch a movie on this notebook’s screen, as long as the movie was stored on disk (since there is no optical drive).

Keyboard

Sony’s keyboard is smaller than standard laptop size, but for me it was the easiest to type on of all the notebooks. That’s because its keys are of that distinct separated variety that show up in every Apple MacBook made since 2006. My personal notebook happens to be a MacBook, and so I was right at home with the feel of these keys. Though they are situated in a shiny piano black chassis, the keys have a slight grainy feel to them, and make virtually none of the clickety-clackety noise that accompanies nearly all keyboards.

There are tiny speaker slits on the left and right sides, above the keyboard, but out of them comes a surprisingly big sound. In this audio-visual sense, the Fujitsu P8010 and the Sony TZ are unparalleled—the other three notebooks in this roundup can’t compete.

Trackpad and Buttons

The trackpad feels a little bit slimy; it’s just not different enough from the wristpad, and it glides too smoothly. The buttons are about a centimeter below the trackpad, and are of the barely-clicks variety: they feel even in terms of clickability from side to side, but they just don’t depress very much, so you wonder if you’ve hit them correctly. In between the two buttons is a fingerprint scanner—again, I’d rather it be off to the side than between the buttons.

On the edge of the front lip of the computer, just below the mouse buttons, are those six multimedia buttons I mentioned earlier: AV Mode, Play/Pause, Stop, Rewind, Fast Forward, and S. I think the only two that need explanation are the AV Mode button, which allows your computer to launch DVDs, other videos, music, or pictures without booting up the computer, and S, which in this case means "eject."

These buttons would probably be a bit more useful with a built-in optical drive; I found them pretty much ignorable during my use of the machine. On the plus side, they are tiny and relatively flush with the machine, so I did not hit them accidentally.

Noise and Heat

In our testing experience, this machine got rather hot while running benchmarks and battery tests. It also emitted a low hum at all times, regardless of whether the drives were spinning or the computer was active. And here’s some bad news: this computer and 73,000 other units like it were recalled by Sony in September. The culprit? According to the company’s warning to consumers: "Irregularly positioned wires near the computer’s hinge and/or a dislodged screw inside the hinge can cause a short circuit and overheating. This poses a burn hazard to consumers." The good news is that a short-circuit did not occur during our brave testing of this machine. Aren’t you relieved? We were. So while this computer did get hotter than any of the others in the roundup, it didn’t seem unsafe. Even so, we are sending this machine back to Sony post-haste, so that we can receive a newer unit: the Vaio TT.

Usability score: 4

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