Sony VAIO VGN-Z21MN/B review

29 Oct 2008

Sony's 13.1in Z-series redefines the ultraportable template, and justifies every single penny of its sizable price tag

Price when reviewed 
1,467
5

It wasn't long ago that we looked at Sony's gorgeous, if pricey, VGN-Z11WN/B ultraportable, but now we've sneaked an exclusive first glance at its forthcoming replacement.

The VGN-Z21MN/B is, to all intents and purposes, the big brother of Sony's 11.1in VGN-TT11WN/B. The 314 x 210 x 33mm dimensions conceal a generous 13.1in display and belie a headline grabbing weight of just 1.43kg. Factor in the power brick and the Z-series still weighs in at a highly portable 1.88kg.

If you've not seen or heard of Sony's Z-series, then you're missing out. Visually, it's fairly unassuming, with a matte black lid complimented by a silver hinge and a dark grey interior, but its subtle curves scream luxury in a way that eludes other laptops. There is the slightest hint of the Spectrum 48k in the workmanlike curves and scrabble-tile keyboard - but the lack of pretension and useless glowing lights is definitely a good thing in our book.

Built to last

Just like its supremely expensive stablemate, the VGN-TT11WN/B, the VGN-Z21MN/B boasts a carbon-fibre reinforced chassis. The keyboard surround is moulded from a single piece of aluminium, and it's neat design touches such as this which allows the Z-series to tout such outstandingly low weight without feeling delicate and insubstantial. Indeed, grab the chassis with both hands and the build is surprisingly taut.

The 13.1in display is outstandingly slim, measuring mere millimetres thick, but while this makes it worryingly flexible, the delicate components inside seem well protected. We had to really twist and jab at its rear before any force was transmitted to the display itself in the form of image distortion or ripples. As ever, though, the lack of ruggedisation means that frequent travellers would be advised to make sure their laptop bag is a well-padded one.

The build is top-notch, and usability is beyond reproach too. It takes a little while to acclimatise to the scrabble-tile keyboard after traditional designs, but the widely-spaced keys have a surprising depth of travel and the positive break at the end of each stroke makes for supremely comfortable typing.

The display is another fine example from Sony. As one of the lower models in the Z-series the resolution is limited to 1,366 x 768 pixels, rather than the 1,600 x 900 found higher up the range, but what it lacks in resolution it more than makes up for with quality. LED backlighting makes for squint-inducing brightness, but the sheer vibrancy of the images it creates is jaw-dropping.

Power and portability

But, where many ultraportables, Sony's own VGN-TT11WN/B included, sacrifice power for long battery life, the VGN-Z21MN/B has it all. The Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 processor is a powerful mid-range option, and with 4GB of DDR3 to back it up it scythed through our benchmarks with a sterling 1.31 in our benchmarks.

Graphically, the Z-series has a neat party trick - flick the button above the keyboard's top edge from Stamina to Speed, and Intel's weedy GMA X4500MHD graphics are supplanted by the more capable Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS chipset. Impressively, you don't even have to reboot Windows to do it - just log off and log on again, and the graphics chipsets exchange places.

The GeForce 9300M GS still isn't a thoroughbred gaming chipset, but a result of 24 frames per second in Crysis at 1,024 x 768 and low detail does at least prove that it has a little gaming capability. Task it with less demanding titles, such as Half Life 2 or Call of Duty 4, and it'll help while away those interminable transatlantic flights.

Details

Price ex VAT £1,276
Price inc VAT £1,467
Overall rating 5 stars

Warranty

Warranty 1 year(s) collect and return

Physical specifications

Dimensions 314 x 210 x 33mm (WDH)
Weight 1.4kg

Processor and memory

Processor Intel Core 2 Duo P8600
Motherboard chipset Intel PM45 Express
RAM capacity 4GB
Memory type DDR3
SODIMM sockets free 0
SODIMM sockets total 2

Screen and video

Screen size 13.1in
Resolution screen horizontal 1,366
Resolution screen vertical 768
Resolution 1366 x 768
Graphics chipset Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS
Graphics card RAM 256MB
VGA (D-SUB) outputs 1
HDMI outputs 1
S-Video outputs 0
DVI-I outputs 0
DVI-D outputs 0
DisplayPort outputs 0

Drives

Capacity 200GB
Hard disk usable capacity 175GB
Spindle speed 5,400RPM
Internal disk interface SATA 300
Hard disk Toshiba MK2546GSX
Optical disc technology DVD writer
Optical drive Matshita UJ862AS
Battery capacity 5,400mAh
Replacement battery price ex VAT £114
Replacement battery price inc VAT £131

Networking

Wired adapter speed 1,000Mbits/sec
802.11a support yes
802.11b support yes
802.11g support yes
802.11 draft-n support yes
Integrated 3G adapter no

Other Features

Wireless hardware on/off switch yes
Wireless key-combination switch no
Modem yes
ExpressCard34 slots 0
ExpressCard54 slots 0
PC Card slots 0
USB ports (downstream) 2
FireWire ports 1
PS/2 mouse port no
9-pin serial ports 0
Parallel ports 0
Optical S/PDIF audio output ports 0
Electrical S/PDIF audio ports 0
3.5mm audio jacks 2
SD card reader yes
Memory Stick reader yes
MMC (multimedia card) reader yes
Smart Media reader no
Compact Flash reader no
xD-card reader no
Pointing device type Touchpad
Audio chipset Realtek HD Audio
Speaker location Above keyboard
Hardware volume control? no
Integrated microphone? yes
Integrated webcam? yes
Camera megapixel rating N/A
TPM no
Fingerprint reader no
Smartcard reader no
Carry case no

Battery and performance tests

Battery life, light use 572
Battery life, heavy use 105
Overall application benchmark score 1.31
3D performance (crysis) low settings 24fps
3D performance setting Low

Operating system and software

Operating system Windows Vista Business
OS family Windows Vista
Recovery method Recovery partition
Software supplied Adobe Photoshop Elements 6, Roxio Easy Media Creator 10, InterVideo WinDVD 8