Sony VAIO VGN-NR11Z/S review
A well-built budget notebook that's fast and relatively stylish, but there are some signs of compromise.
Sony's website proudly proclaims that the new NR series is "simple, casual and smart" and, for a budget laptop, we're pleased to say that it isn't far off the mark. The NR11Z is a good-looking machine; considering the price, extraordinarily so.
Squint a bit, or just step back a metre, and the silver dimpled lid looks rather like machined aluminium, with the smoothly contoured edges making for a sleek first impression. As you might expect from a sub-£600 laptop, though, it's actually just patterned silver plastic. Should silver be far too everyday a colour for your tastes, Sony also provides a VGN-NR11Z/T model in a bronze-ish shade dubbed "Wenge".
Lay hands on the NR11Z's silvery frame for a few minutes and any initial worries about build quality soon fade. The somewhat creaky lid doesn't immediately inspire confidence, but it needs substantial pressure applied before it makes contact with the display itself. It's a similar story with the main chassis - it may feel plastic, but it doesn't flex unduly under pressure. However, the omission of any catches to keep the lid closed could put the screen at risk - a stray coin or a paperclip in a bag could leave the display with some serious cosmetic damage.
Building a budget laptop is all about compromise, but there's little to criticise where the VGN-NR11Z's specification is concerned. The three-strong range starts with the VGN-NR11M/S at a street price of £460 exc VAT. That makes do with a budget Pentium Dual-Core processor running at a modest 1.46GHz and 1GB of RAM, while our top-of-the-range VGN-NR11Z/S boasts an Intel Core 2 Duo T7250 replete with a generous 2GB of RAM to keep Vista Home Premium happy.
The resulting performance is better than we'd expect, given the price. The highest-scoring machine in our recent roundup of budget laptops, the otherwise excellent Advent 8212 (web ID: 128726), managed a score of only 0.88 to the Sony's 0.93. With some models in that test struggling around the 0.65 mark, the Sony's performance is highly impressive for the price.
Sitting down in front of the NR11Z and tapping out a few long emails, as well as navigating through our usual roster of day-to-day jobs, revealed some less positive traits. While the Scrabble-tile-look of the keys is pleasing to the eye, they're less impressive once you start typing. Each key has plenty of travel, but the indistinct action often leaves you pausing to wonder whether you've successfully hit a key or not.
The sponginess is compounded by the typing position - place the Sony on a desk and the keyboard is just too flat for comfortable typing, so you'll need a laptop stand, or perhaps a couple of issues of PC Pro wedged at the rear, to help matters. It's some consolation that the wide aspect trackpad is far more usable and accurate.
The quality of Sony's 15.4in display is similarly variable. With the adequate if not exceptional resolution of 1,280 x 800 pixels, there's a big enough Windows desktop area to work comfortably with a couple of applications at once, and it's bright, too. But, vertical viewing angles are poor - tilt the screen just a little too far back and colours take on a negative hue; too far forward and everything looks washed out. There's a sweet spot, but it's small and we soon became tired of levering the display to and fro and trying to hold our head in the "perfect" position. It's a shame, as the glossy display is superb when it comes to vibrancy and colour reproduction.
The big display is partially responsible for the VAIO's 2.8kg weight, which is enough to make most people think twice before throwing it in a bag. However, if you do take it on your travels, you can expect reasonable battery life - it lasted four hours in our light-use test.