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With the FS-115Z and their range of Vaio computers equipped with the new X-Black display screens, Sony have gone a long way towards dispelling the myth that you can't replace a desktop system with a laptop. The only reasons laptops have failed to completely eliminate desktops has been the woefully poor display technology they have been saddled with and their poor upgrade ability.
I've had very many laptops through the years and have always had to resort to using a desktop with a quality monitor attached if I needed to get a lot of work done. Well now there's no real excuse for sticking with that enormous box you have stuffed under your desk, get yourself a Vaio.
I did. So what did I get for my money? £1105 inc VAT.
Technically most of the hardware is pretty middle-of-the-road fare.
This Vaio model is powered by an Intel Pentium M740 1.73Ghz Mobile (Dothan Core) Processor equipped with 2Mb of onboard cache. It sits on an Intel 915PM-based motherboard with a 533MHz bus. While easily fast enough for most applications the M740 does struggle a little with the latest generation games, you will need to sacrifice quite a few of the clever effects to make them run at a useful speed. Being a mobile processor though, means it runs cooler than a desktop equivalent, making it possible to reduce the noise generated by having a cooling fan running constantly.
Sony supply 512MB of RAM with the FS115Z, which is a tad mean when you consider it has to share up to 128MB of it with the graphics processor. There are two memory slots and both are populated by a 256MB DDR333 PC2700 SO-DIMM. A clever trick this one, from Sony's point of view, as it allows them to sell the gullible amongst us two replacement 512MB chips if we opt to upgrade the laptop to its maximum of 1GB of RAM. If you go to the SonyStyle website you will find they sell that 1GB of RAM for approx £300 (No that's not a typo, it really will cost you £300). However don't despair, despite the Sony site's dire warnings of impending disaster, you do not need to use their RAM. In fact Sony don't use their RAM either, they supplied my machine with Infineon memory, which I quickly discovered was bulk standard, "buy it by the bucketful for tuppence" DDR memory, 1GB of which will set you back about £90.
I have read a lot lately about memory issues with Sony Vaios. The complaints seem to centre on failing memory slots and incompatibility problems with RAM other than Sony's. It is likely that the former problem is causing the later and that third party memory is fine to use. If that were not so, I would imagine Sony's repairs department would be knee deep in new Vaios and third party vendors such as Kingston would not be advertising RAM for these machines.
GRAPHICS PROCESSOR (GPU)
Sony has outfitted this series of Vaios with the all-new nVidia GeoForce GO6200 GPU, a PCI-Express processor. The 6200 supports DirectX 9.0c's Shader Model 3 and Nvidia's UltraShadow II enhancements and also boasts a TurboCache T system that allows the processor to dynamically use available system memory when its own dedicated memory is not adequate to the task. This works a treat in the desktop version where system memory is plentiful and the GPU has quite a lot of its own to start with. In the Vaio implementation the GPU has only 16Mb dedicated to it, so it almost always needs to tap into to the system RAM. The GPU can access up to 128Mb of the available memory, so if it's trying to run a graphically challenging application at the higher resolutions it can seriously deplete the 512Mb the laptop comes with.
As a practical test I used Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell to challenge the GPU and discovered that trying to use resolutions or effects at any of the higher settings has
a very odd effect on the system, it goes into slow motion mode. Rather than refuse to work, or crash, the game simply slows right down, so much so it's like watching a scene from The Matrix. I would surmise this is caused by the lag the CPU experiences as it tries to recover the free memory from the GPU and vice versa. I have read that you need at least another 256Mb of RAM on board before the GPU TurboCache behaves seamlessly. It is useful to note that I started my TCSC trial at a resolution of 1280 x 800 x 32bit and with all the effects up at maximum, so I didn't expect miracles. As soon as I lowered my expectations and came down to 800 x 600 x 32bit with more moderate effects settings things improved markedly. All in all the GPU is excellent at rendering images to the screen at a reasonable speed. Its handling of DVD video is outstanding and I have experienced absolutely no artefacts or stuttering while watching movies in full screen mode.
The FS115Z is equipped with a more than generous Toshiba 100Gb 4200rpm ATA Hard Disk, that is very quick thanks to its 8MB buffer and absolutely silent. My only quibble here is the way Sony have partitioned the drive. To save themselves the expense of providing a proper set of restoration discs they have borrowed 7Gb of the drive to store their recovery, application and setup files, and the technical documentation. This is a specially formatted partition that the Windows file system can't see. Presumably this has been done to prevent hapless users from deleting the partition before they've have had a chance to discover that it contains the only copy of the operating system and supplied applications. The remaining disc space is partitioned in to a C: (28Gb) and D: (58Gb) drive configuration. This allows the user to store data they don't want erasing during restoration on a partition that won't be affected by the process. For obvious reasons using multiple partitions like this is always a good idea, but I would have preferred it if Sony had provided a DVD with the setup files etc. on it and a hard disk with just the one partition that I can divide up as I see fit.
Removable disc storage is provided in the shape of a Dual Layer DVD ± RW Rewriter that will read and write to almost any DVD/CD format except DVD-RAM. It's fast and quiet, so it plays DVD movies effortlessly without the usual intrusive whining. The DVD's tray is accessed via a rather fiddly LED lit button that doubles as an activity indicator. I've found that pressing this button with a fingernail rather than the end of my finger works best.
Sorry folks, no floppy drive with this model so you'll have to go out and get a USB external drive if you really need one.
Also provided are a couple of solid-state storage alternatives in the shape of ports for Sony's own Memory Stick (Stick, Stick Pro & Stick Duo) technology and a Type I/II PC-Card slot. If you own any other manufacturer's digital cameras etc., you will need to by a separate memory card reader if you want access to other solid-state memory types.
The DVD drives speeds are as follows:
CD ROM Read 24x CD -R Write 24x CD -RW Read 20x CD -RW Write 10x DVD ROM Read 16x DVD +R Read 8x DVD -R Read 8x DVD +RW Read 4x DVD -RW Read 4x DVD +R Write 8x DVD +RW Write 4x DVD -R Write 4x Double Layer DVD +R Write 2.4x
To date I haven't been able to find any reference to the actual audio hardware used in the FS115Z, even Sony are a bit coy about giving details. That's not very surprising, because Sony hasn't exactly pushed the boat out here. The audio processor seems to be a standard Intel chip that relies on the Realtek ALC260 2-Channel High Definition Audio Codec to provide 3D Surround AC 97 compatible sound. The best you can expect out if this type of system is 2.1 surround sound that only permits a subwoofer to be added to the two stereo speakers. Not that the FS115Z has any S/PDIF or additional jacks to support three speakers. This is a pity because one of this machine's strengths is its ability to play DVD movies really well, so a built in subwoofer or a 5.1 sound system with S/PDIF would have been a great asset.
As for the built in speakers, well I don't know what sort of music the Sony engineers listen to at home, but everything I play on my Vaio sounds like chipmunks are singing it. There is no bass at all in the sound produced, so a set of small external speakers or headphones is definitely needed.
With external speakers fitted the audio output is rich and clear.
This is the icing on the cake. In fact it pretty much is the whole cake. Most Vaios now come with X-Black LCD screens and they are outstanding. The FS115Z is equipped with the next generation WXGA X-Black 2 version with dual backlights and to be honest I would have paid my money out for the screen alone.
At 15.4" this wide screen format display is not huge, but boy does it hit you in the face when it lights up. Sony have put all their effort in to getting as much light to come out of the screen as possible. They succeeded! The first time I opened my Vaio I was impressed by how smooth and black the screen appeared, when it booted into the Windows XP display I was blown away. The brightness setting was at maximum and I literally had to avert my eyes to avoid being blinded. My first act on my new laptop was to turn the brightness down (YES DOWN!!). Never, ever have I had the inclination to reduce the brightness of a laptop screen, quite the opposite in fact.
The display, once set to a comfortable brightness, is a joy to work with. At 1280 x 800 resolution everything on the display is well defined, totally lacking blur and the contrast is spot on. The display is rock solid with no discernible flicker or loss of brightness at any point. Colours are lifelike, strong and precise without appearing false. Motion is pretty much as good as it gets, I can't say that I have observed any shadows or ghosting effects so far. The viewing angles are superb, allowing a number of people to sit around the machine without anyone getting a disappointing view.
The screen itself is mounted on hinges that protrude from the rear of the laptop base, rather than the usual top mounting. In stark contrast with the silver grey base, the bezel around the TFT panel and its mounting is a dark grey. This is an elegant design feature that gives the screen an appearance of being detached and set away from the base when it is open. As a look, this is quite unique and sets the Vaio apart from similar units from other manufacturers.
Just one minor negative. There is a slight hum that emanates from the lighting tubes if they are pushed up to full brightness for a few minutes, then turned back down again. Fortunately, the hum does dissipate as the tubes settle. Besides, you would need to be blind or working in full sunlight to need this screen turned up to full brightness.
KEYBOARD & MOUSE
The FS115Z has a nice big flat keyboard, which looks well made and has a good feel to it. The keys give a sharp click when pressed and don't wobble about. Considering the width of this laptop I would have liked to see Sony fit a proper full-length keyboard with a numeric pad on it. It could easily accommodate one.
The mouse pad is suitably pale coloured, which helps it blend into the laptop's design. It's surface is slightly rough, a bit like sandpaper, which seem to serve no other purpose than making the end of your finger sore. It does support the on pad scroll features of Windows XP (to emulate the wheel button on a standard mouse), which makes navigating documents and websites less tedious, but also makes your finger even more sore. There's a pair of chrome-topped buttons to accompany the pad.
I must confess at this point, that I have an enduring dislike for mouse pads of any variety. I much prefer to use a desktop mouse.
COMMUNICATION DEVICES, PORTS & CONNECTORS
As standard the FS115Z is fitted with a V.90 56K Modem, along with 10 BASE-T/100 BASE-TX Ethernet and WiFi 802.11b/g wireless LAN adaptors.
I won't ever use the Modem, but if you will then it's a pretty standard one and it works.
The Ethernet adaptor is nice to have handy, there are still a lot of places I have to go that use wired networks. It supports every version I'm likely to encounter, so until the whole world wakes up to wireless I will consider this a useful option to have.
The WiFi adaptor is a good one, but only supports the basic standards of 802.11b and 802.11g. This is fine for all but the rarest of occasions. In use the adaptor found my home network in seconds and started negotiating for a licence immediately. It took only a couple of minutes to set the network options up and off I went. I was surfing the Internet through my proxy server within minutes of opening the box. The aerial is located at the top edge of the screen bezel, so it provides a good clear access point for an incoming signal. Curiously the WiFi card has an ON\OFF switch located on the front edge of the laptop base. I'm not sure if this is entirely necessary, but it does save a lot of messing about in Windows XP if you need to disconnect from a network in a hurry.
The FS115Z is not particularly well equipped when it comes to external connections, Sony have opted for the minimum they believe their core customers will require. In a way this has been forced on them by the positioning of the battery pack, which occupies the whole rear of the laptop.
Ports located on the right side of the base. From the rear:
· 1 x Power connector jack for the AC adaptor. · 1 x 15 pin VGA D-Sub socket for an external monitor. · 3 x USB 2.0 connectors supporting (High\Full\Low) speeds · 1 x Sony Memory Stick port · 1 x 4 Pin i.LINKT (IEEE1394) port · 1 x PC-Card Slot for Type I/II cards
Ports located on the right side of the base. From the rear:
· 1 x Ethernet network connection. · 1 x Modem Connector · 1 x Kensington Security Lock
Ports located on the front side of the base. From the right:
· 1 x Stereo Microphone Jack. · 1 x Stereo Speaker Jack
There are no PS2, Parallel printer or Serial ports although these can probably be added by using a port replicator. There is a high-speed connector for this purpose in the base of the laptop.
OK, so the FS115Zs spec isn't the hottest on the market, but that's not what this machine is about. This machine was designed to look good from every angle, especially the one you as the user have to see. It's also designed to be very quiet and, for such a large device, quite portable.
For the executive with an image to consider, the Vaio will do all the emailing, report writing and Net surfing you could ever wish for and it will look great while it's doing it. It sits on the desk like a great grey tablet of marble, the letters V A I O gleaming in chrome etched in its surface. Open it and everyone knows your there, and they shrink back behind the dull beige and black lumps they call their laptop. This is the MACä the Windows PC user always lusted after, but couldn't buy because MACs don't run Windows.
For the gamer or power PC user it probably offers less, but is still in contention at the lower end of that market.
Aesthetically I really like it, technically I can see its faults but don't really care, practically I worry about the reputation Sony seems to be acquiring for poor reliability and lousy customer service.
Overall I really can't think of a reason for owning this machine instead of one of its more able competitors.