Hardware: Excellent and Well Designed
It's a shame that the name VPCZ21V9E isn't a bit catchier, as behind it lies a very sleek, very stylish little laptop. The casing is made from carbon fibre, which, as well as setting the product off nicely, makes it feel sturdy and hard-wearing. The finish is impeccable too.
The laptop is supplied with an external docking station—the Power Media Dock—which brings extra functions to the device (Blu-ray player, high-performance graphics card, etc.). More on that later, however. The dock's design matches the laptop perfectly and you certainly won't be ashamed of having it on your desk.
We found the keyboard nice to use. Although key strokes are a little short, the keys are responsive and very quiet (although the space bar is nosier than the rest).
The multitouch touchpad can be used to zoom or scroll with two fingers, and is smooth to use with little resistance in spite of its slightly textured finish. It is, however, a little on the small side, especially given the amount of space available on the wrist-rest. You'll therefore need to give three full strokes over the pad to move the cursor diagonally from one corner of the screen to the other ... unless you adjust the sensitivity settings in Windows, but you could lose some precision as a result.
The webcam (720p) gives good-quality results. Movement is reproduced well and there's plenty of detail in the image, both in good light and in lower-light conditions. We're happy to see a built-in webcam that can be more than a fall-back solution for once.
Although the product comes with an external docking station, the VPCZ21V9E still has enough connections on the laptop itself to cover most day-to-day uses. On the edges of the laptop you'll find a VGA connection, an HDMI output, two USB ports (1 x 2.0 and 1 x 3.0), as well as a headphones socket and an Ethernet port (RJ45) hidden under a slide-down cover. At the front, there are SD and Memory Stick card readers.
The dock connects via the USB 3.0 port, and offers an additional two USB 2.0 ports and one USB 3.0 port, not to mention an extra pair of video outputs (VGA and HDMI) and a Blu-ray player/DVD burner. You can therefore connect all kinds of accessories to the dock on your desk at home (keyboard, mouse, external HDD, network cable, monitor) and unhook the laptop when you need to take it out without having to hook it all back up again when you get home.
There are no problems with noise or heat when this 13.3-inch laptop is idle, but you probably won't want to have it on your lap when working the components hard (with power-hungry applications). As the temperature rises, the fan inevitably starts up, making a kind of whirring noise that it's hard to mask. In fact, it sounds a bit like an electric shaver.
Card reader slots
Headphones, Ethernet, HDMI, USB 2.0, USB 3.0, power connector
Processing Power: Dual-Core for Power, RAID 0 SSD for Speed
Sony has equipped this laptop with an Intel Core i7-2620M, one of the rare CPUs with only two physical cores, compared with the four cores seen in the likes of the Intel Core i7-2630QM (used in the Samsung NP700G7A). That penalises it slightly when working with applications designed for multitasking (3D modelling etc.), but doesn't stop it being fast (processor index:148). Day-to-day programs like Office applications and web browsing are perfectly within reach for this machine, as are those requiring a little more power.
Using a RAID 0 SSD flash drive (2 x 128 GB) and 8 GB of memory help make this computer very fast. For example, it starts up in under 30 seconds and shuts down in just 8 seconds.
Games and Movies: Reach for the DockWithout the Power Media Dock, this 13-inch laptop can only rely on the Intel HD 3000 chipset. That said, this can still decode glitch-free HD video with no trouble at all. For games, you'll have to stick to older or low-power titles (e.g. Left for Dead), otherwise you'll need to turn down the graphics and resolution a lot.
With the dock connected, however, the VPCZ21V9E can count on the AMD Radeon HD 6550M graphics card for a helping hand. Our various tests showed that the extra graphics card makes a wider selection of games playable on this Vaio Z-Series laptop. It can, for example, boot games like FIFA 11 and Mafi 2 in the native resolution (1600 x 900 pixels) and maintain a good level of graphics detail.
For other games, the basic rule is: the more power-hungry the game, the more you'll have to compromise on graphics and resolution. The most heavyweight titles will have to be whittled down to 800 x 600 pixels with all the options deactivated or at their minimum settings.
Audio: Back to the Drawing BoardAudio quality isn't up to much on this PC. For starters, the speakers are pretty poor. These lack power and soon become saturated, even at low volumes (in any case, high volume isn't something this laptop is capable of!). The audio in/out sockets are no better either—the signal is too weak and isn't particularly clean. Similarly, the mic entry port is plagued by a hissing noise.
This PC uses Dolby audio processing, which is designed to modify the output in relation to the source (film, game, music). In practice, a certain variation can be heard, but the audio quality is so mediocre that it's difficult to tell just how effective these changes are.