Sony VAIO VGN-Z31VN/X review

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The Sony VAIO VGN-Z31VN/X is the second-smallest laptop on test this month, beaten on size and weight only by Apple’s slender MacBook Air – although the difference between the two is measured in mere millimetres and grams. Because of this slender frame, the VAIO looks initially out of its depth in a month where most of the contenders are gargantuan desktop replacements.

Sony VAIO VGN-Z31VN/X review

The modest size of the VAIO does bring several advantages, though. Its 1.47kg weight is less than half the heft of most of its competitors, and it’s light enough to be barely noticeable when slung in a bag. The 33mm thickness is another reason why the VGN-Z31VN/X is ideal for frequent travellers, as long as you’ve got a well-padded bag for added protection.

The VAIO’s chassis should be able to withstand regular transport, too. The thin screen lid flexed easily, but there was no sign of distortion on the Windows desktop when we prodded and twisted it. And the build quality elsewhere is beyond reproach. There was less flex in the wristrest than we’ve seen in laptops two or three times the size.

Sony’s now-familiar Scrabble-tile keyboard layout is excellent and proves more comfortable than the same style of keyboard on the MacBook Air, while the 13.1in screen with its native resolution of 1,600 x 900 offers plenty of desktop space. The audio output is surprisingly good, too, for such a diminutive notebook, with the pair of small stereo speakers sounding better than the single drive unit of the otherwise-impressive Alienware M17.

What’s most surprising, however, is the sheer grunt this seemingly lightweight machine is able to deliver. It’s equipped with a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo P9600 instead of the low-power model favoured by the two other ultraportables on test this month. The result, not surprisingly, is far more capable performance: the VGN-Z31VN/X scored 1.45 in our benchmarks – twice as quick as its main rivals, the MacBook Air and Lenovo ThinkPad X301.

And, thanks to dual graphics chips, this power doesn’t come at the cost of battery life and, therefore, portability. Using the Speed/Stamina switch above the keyboard, you can quickly swap between the Intel integrated graphics and the more powerful Nvidia GeForce 9300M GS chip. Don’t expect mind-blowing gaming with the latter: in our medium-quality Crysis benchmark, it achieved only 6fps.

Even in Speed mode you can expect great battery life. The VAIO lasted two hours in our heavy-use test and 7hrs 4mins in our light-use benchmark. Flick over to the Stamina settings, and you can extend its life away from the mains even further. In this mode, we saw the VAIO last for a remarkable 9hrs 10mins in our light-use test – a time that beats every other laptop in this Labs hands down. In the heavy-use benchmark, thanks to the powerful processor, this time dropped to two hours.

The Sony’s tiny frame manages to pack in plenty of decent components besides the CPU and pair of graphics chips. First up is 320GB of hard disk storage, which is more than double the 128GB SSD drives offered by the Apple and Lenovo ultraportables, but it’s a trade-off: the smaller SSD drives are more robust and less prone to failure than the mechanical disk here. But you can specify this model with an SSDs if you’d rather have the reliability, and the speedier access times of SSDs should also boost boot times and application launch times.

The Sony has a decent complement of connections too: it’s kitted out with draft-n wireless, Bluetooth and an HSDPA modem, ensuring that it’s possible to stay connected wherever you happen to be, and a TPM module coupled with a fingerprint reader will be a welcome addition for business users.

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