Sony VAIO VGN-FZ21S review
With Blu-ray and one of the clearest screens we've seen on a laptop, the VAIO is a great-value option.
Up until recently, buying an HD drive was risky. Early adopters were forced to choose between HD DVD and Blu-ray without knowing which would eventually go on to replace DVD. Things got a little clearer last month, though, when Warner Bros announced it would be dropping HD DVD in favour of Blu-ray later this year. While the format war may not officially be over, this news should make you more confident about choosing a Blu-ray-equipped laptop, such as Sony's VAIO VGN-FZ21S.
Importantly for a laptop with an HD drive, the VAIO's 15.4in 1,280 x 800 resolution screen is very good quality. In fact, it's one of the best we've seen on a laptop at this price, and it displays HD resolutions up to 720p crisply and cleanly. Colours are intense and the glossy screen has great contrast, although its reflective nature can be annoying in brightly lit environments. The inclusion of an HDCP-compliant HDMI output is also a sensible addition, giving you the option of using the VAIO as a Blu-ray player for your living room, hooked up to an HDTV.
The extra resolution provided by Blu-ray may be a joy to watch, but it's more intensive on the processor than DVD is. We found that with the laptop in Vista's Power saver mode, the CPU struggled to render frames fast enough, resulting in a slightly jerky picture. That rules out watching films on the move, as to boost the frame rate back to acceptable levels you have to put the laptop back in High performance mode, which drops the battery life down to around an hour.
It isn't just while playing optical discs where battery life takes a hit. The VAIO managed only 1hr 45mins in our intensive test, and 2hr 51mins under light use. We'd have liked a little longer, especially as the FZ21S is fairly portable at 2.8kg, but we'd hesitate to take it for trips away from base without bringing the power supply along for peace of mind.
We've no complaints when it comes to usability. Although some keys have been shrunk, such as the left Shift and Caps Lock, the VAIO's MacBook-style keys are very easy to type on. Below it, the trackpad is smooth and accurate, and small enough to avoid accidentally tapping it when typing. And this sensible design extends to the laptop's media controls, which are above the keyboard where they're safe from accidental activation.
Moving to the side of the chassis, there are three USB ports, shared on both sides - which means you won't block access to all the ports when you plug in one bulky flash drive.
The chassis is well built, and the screen protected by a sturdy bezel and backing - there's virtually no flex and everything feels very robust. As you'd expect from Sony, it's a very attractive design. The silver and black colour scheme looks fresh and modern.
There are a couple of flaws, though. The built-in speakers lack volume and they can also become tinny and slightly distorted if you push them too far, plus there's no S/PDIF output (the HDMI output can also handle audio, so this can be forgiven if you have a compatible TV). Also beware the optical drive only reads Blu-ray discs; it doesn't burn them.
However, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise impressive laptop. The specification is particularly good for the price: note the 200GB hard disk, 2GB of RAM and the 2.2GHz Core 2 Duo T7500 processor. These core components powered the VAIO to a highly respectable 1.15 in our application benchmarks.
There's even potential for some gaming. Nvidia's GeForce 8600M isn't the very top of its range, but it's enough for most games on the market today. You shouldn't expect blistering speed - in Call of Duty 2, at our Low settings, it managed 25fps - but it's nice to have the option for some after-hours blasting.