Sony VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B Notebook: Perfect Mix of Performance and Ergonomics

Once again Sony’s design team has come up with a well-balanced combination of style, performance and superb ergonomics. And today we are going to talk about this notebook series in our new review.

by Alexander Britvin
08/06/2007 | 06:08 PM

People who say “size doesn’t matter” know nothing about notebooks. The notebook’s form-factor is the parameter that largely determines the scope of its capabilities and usability. Tiny sub-notebooks can travel long distances together with their owner but their ergonomic properties and performance are sacrificed for the sake of the ultimate mobility. Desknotes can rival desktop PCs in terms of performance but are poor travelers as a rule.

 

There is a golden mean, however. I’m talking about notebooks the size of an A4 paper sheet, within 2 kilos of mass, with superb ergonomics and high enough performance. Having a screen diagonal of 13-14 inches, they provide a large enough display area while not becoming a burden on long trips.

The Sony VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B represents such a reasonable compromise between optimal size/weight parameters and high performance delivered by the refresh Napa platform with a 1.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5500 processor and an Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 discrete graphics core. The notebook is equipped with all the widespread wireless interfaces, thus being doubly mobile. It comes in strikingly different colors, from black (the version we tested) to green, blue and pink, targeting different user audiences.

One color scheme will suit a businessman while another may match the color of your car or even of your blouse. The color is indicated by the last letter of the model name (e.g. B stands for Black).

The VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B will be opposed in today’s tests by the VAIO VGN-FE31HR, a representative of another notebook series from Sony that has a very similar configuration.

Package and Accessories

Elegant black boxes with Sony notebooks do not change over time and the VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B carries this tradition on. The name of the series is printed on the blue band on the larger sides of the box; the manufacturer’s name and the VAIO logo can be seen everywhere on it. Only the top and bottom of the box have the color of ordinary cardboard.

Sony has never included too many accessories with its notebooks. It’s hard to tell if it’s good or bad for the end-user. It’s nice to find the accessories you need already in the box, yet it’s no good to pay extra for accessories you won’t ever use. Anyway, the box is not exactly empty, containing, besides the notebook proper, a 5200mAh battery, a power adapter with an indicator, a card-reader, and a heap of paper booklets:

The card-reader goes into the ExpressCard slot instead of the plastic panel and supports nearly every existing flash memory format: Secure Digital, Multi Media Card, xD-Picture Card, SmartMedia Card, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, and Memory Stick Duo.

There are no system recovery discs in the box. The system prompts you to create them on your turning the notebook on for the first time. Just follow the step-by-step instructions that appear.

Besides the preinstalled operating system Windows Vista Home Premium, Sony offers a traditionally extensive software pack:

Audio:

Video and TV:

Image processing:

Burning CD-DVD:

Office applications:

Security etc:

Exterior Design and Ergonomics

Most manufacturers of notebooks prefer rounded-off and curvy shapes but Sony’s machines often have an angular outline which doesn’t make them less elegant, though. The VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B carries on this design tradition of the Japanese brand. The display seems very narrow like in most other Sony notebooks. Instead of a silvery line that usually separates the lid and the bottom in other notebooks, the VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B has a brown molding there (it goes around the touchpad as well).

The chrome VAIO wave is in the center of the lid; the manufacturer’s logo is near its edge.

There are two things that catch one’s eye on the front panel: a Wireless switch designed like a silvery slider and a Memory Stick Pro/Duo slot on the right.

The screen lock is missing but the stiff hinges keep the lid steady and firm in both closed and open positions. The lid fastening mechanism is designed in Sony’s style: the hinges go out of the screen bezel, making it impossible to unfold the notebook by a full 180 degrees.

The color scheme is continued inside and matches the notebook’s exterior. The brown edging of the body adds some originality to this design without making it too frivolous. This computer is all classic inside and out. I’m talking about the black color scheme, of course. The other schemes aren’t serious at all.

There is a built-in single-channel microphone in the bottom part of the screen bezel, to the left of the Sony logo.

The VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B is equipped with a widescreen 13.3” matrix with a max resolution of 1280x800 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA). The matrix is manufactured using the exclusive dual-lamp Sony X-black LCD technology that ensures higher contrast, wider viewing angles and better image brightness and sharpness. The point of X-black LCD technology is in replacing the traditional anti-flare coating of the screen with a special anti-flare filter and a brightening coating. There are four layers in the filter, each with a thickness equaling one fourth of the light wavelength. According to the manufacturer, the reflection is eliminated even before the light falls on the screen, which ensures high image sharpness. Image brightness is improved by a number of optical inserts between the backlight and the LCD screen. They focus and intensify the light, thus increasing the overall brightness.

However, the “glassy” matrix isn’t as good as the manufacturer claims and there are flares on it under sunlight or from a bright light source behind your back. It means you still have to take care about proper ambient lighting when you sit down to work with this notebook.

We measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. We selected the highest brightness setting before this test and it remained almost the same when the notebook switched to its battery. The contrast ratio changed more.

AC power source:

DC power source:

The notebook is equipped with a black keyboard whose 86 keys move softly and do not rattle. The movement keys are on the same level with the keyboard’s baseline, so there’s a higher risk of your pressing them accidentally. Shift and End are placed above the Arrow keys. The Fn button is located in the bottom left corner, second after the Control. This should be convenient for people who are used to shortcuts involving the Control key. Numeric buttons and two Windows keys are available: the Context Menu button is placed over one key to the right of the spacebar; the Windows Logo button is over one key to the left of the spacebar. The functional keys are smaller than others. Home, PgUp, PgDn and End form a column on the right. Num Lock, Print Screen, Insert and Delete end the row of the functional keys (you should press them in combination with Fn to access their additional functions). The letters are painted white and the functional buttons are blue. The numeric pad is painted brown.

The touchpad is a typical Sony design. The rough-textured touch-sensitive panel is sunken into the case but this is not visible due to the brown bezel. Anyway, the low level of the panel prevents your fingers from straying out of the touch-sensitive area.

There is a group of system indicators on the notebook’s front panel under the touchpad buttons. These are visible even when the lid is closed. Their labels are pressed out in the case above the LEDs and are hidden by a closed lid.

The group of indicators under the touchpad includes (from left to right):

The second group of indicators is placed above the keyboard on the right together with the Power button:

The following components can be found on the notebook’s left panel (from left to right):

The following is to be found on the notebook’s right panel:

If there was no help from the user manual, you would only find the stereo speakers by putting your ear next to various areas of the notebook case. The speakers are concealed with narrow silvery grids on both sides of the notebook and are placed closer to the rear panel (the right speaker’s output hole is considerably larger than the left speaker’s, by the way).

The rear panel of the notebook accommodates the battery module.

The VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B is equipped with a 5200mAh battery.

Just like with the VAIO VGN-FE31HR, the battery of this VAIO carries its manual and spring-loaded locks right on its own body, freeing the notebook’s case from all these things.

 

There are only two compartments on the notebook’s bottom, for the CPU and memory. There are also stickers with model info and the OS serial number here.

 

If the ports and connectors available on the notebook’s body seem too few to you, you can use the connector you will find on the bottom panel to attach a port-replicator. The connector is protected from mechanical damage with a movable shutter.

There are two slots in the memory compartment, each occupied by a 1024MB module. This equals the maximum amount of system memory the notebook can support.

Configuration

The Sony VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B is based on an Intel Core 2 Duo T5500 processor with a clock rate of 1.66GHz (65nm Merom core with 2 megabytes of shared L2 cache).

The Core 2 Duo T5500 supports Intel’s 64-bit extensions to the x86 architecture and also features Intel Wide Dynamic Execution technology which means more decoders and execution units in the CPU core. The speed of processing SSE and floating-point instructions has been increased, too.

 

Besides Intel’s traditional Enhanced SpeedStep technology that gives the notebook’s software and BIOS the control over the CPU frequency multiplier (to reduce it under low loads), this CPU supports Dynamic Power Coordination (the power consumption of the cores can be independently adjusted depending on the current load; one core may even slip into Deep Sleep mode with the lowest power consumption possible) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused segments of the CPU cache can be turned off to save power). For more information about Intel’s Core 2 Duo processors refer to our article called Intel Core 2 Duo in Notebooks: Centrino Duo Platform Refreshed.

 

This implementation of the refresh version of the Napa platform also incorporates an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG adapter and an Intel Calistoga 945PM chipset. This chipset supports DDR2 SO-DIMMs, thus offering more memory bandwidth at lower power consumption, and a PCI Express x16 interface for an external graphics card. Connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface, the South Bridge (ICH7-M) supports one Parallel ATA port, two Serial ATA ports, eight USB 2.0 ports and Intel High Definition Audio. It also offers six PCI Express x1 lanes to connect external devices. For more information about the platform, visit the manufacturer’s website.

The VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B is also equipped with an Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 graphics processor and 335 megabytes of dedicated video memory (as specified by the manufacturer; none of our test utilities could report the amount of graphics memory). This 0.09-micron GPU consumes little power and features Nvidia PureVideo technology for high-quality HD video playback and PowerMizer 6.0 technology for optimal power management. For more information on the Nvidia GeForce Go 7400, visit the manufacturer’s website. Here’s a brief summary of its characteristics:

The notebook comes with a Toshiba MK1234GSX hard disk drive (2.5” form-factor, 5400rpm spindle rotation speed, 120GB capacity, ATA-7 interface) and a Pioneer DVR-K17 DVD-burner with the following speed formula:

Writing:

Reading :

The notebook uses DDR2-667MHz SDRAM. You shouldn’t worry about the accessibility of the memory slots because the notebook is already equipped with the maximum amount of memory it can support, which is 2048MB.

We measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebook’s surfaces with an infrared thermometer after it had worked for half an hour in the Classic test mode of Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 23°C during this test) and got the following numbers:

The next table lists the technical specs of the tested notebook in comparison with its opponent Sony VAIO VGN-FE31HR:

Test Methods

The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then we installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (from the manufacturer’s website; we downloaded the drivers for the C1 series which has almost the same configuration but comes with Windows XP; moreover, no other graphics card driver would work with our notebook which indicates that the graphics core is really different from the standard GeForce Go 7400), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0. We also installed Windows Media Player 10.0 for such tests as PCMark 2005.

The following settings were used for the tests:

There were two exceptions: we returned to the Windows XP desktop theme for PCMark 2005 since the program required that. And for SYSMark 2004 SE to work normally, we had to roll each parameter back to its default (as they are set right after you install Windows).

Two power modes were used. First, we selected the Always On power mode for maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then we switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.

Our tests:

  1. Performance benchmarks: synthetic (SiSoftware Sandra 2005, SiSoftware Sandra 2007, PCMark 2004 1.3.0, PCMark 2005 1.2.0), office and multimedia (SYSMark 2004 SE, Business Winstone 2004, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004), and games (3DMark 2001SE Pro, 3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0, 3DMark 2006 1.0.2, Quake 3, Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2003)
  2. Battery life tests (Battery Eater Pro 2.60)

There are three test modes in Battery Eater:

We used the first two modes as they are in Battery Eater, but in the Idle mode (when the test utility doesn’t put any load of its own on the notebook) we played a DVD movie.

Performance

As usual, we will first run our synthetic benchmarks.

The SiSoftware 2007 suite features an updated enhanced-functionality interface, runs on three platforms (Win32 x86, Win64 x64, WinCE ARM), contains 13 tests and 34 informational modules, and supports a large range of devices thanks to the developer’s collaboration with Intel, AMD, ATI, SiS and VIA. The program is supported in six languages and has a free Lite version for personal and educational purposes. SiSoftware Sandra measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems.

PCMark benchmarks the computer performance in office and office-related applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem). PCMark 2005 carries on the tradition of complex benchmarks of the series and uses fragments of real-life applications as tests. This makes it somewhat more relevant for end-users as opposed to fully synthetic benchmarks. After running a series of 11 tests on the different components of the system, the program calculates an overall performance score in units called PCMarks. PCMark 2005 can check a computer out at processing HD video and encoding audio, and offers enhanced tests of the CPU and hard disk under multi-threaded load. The overall score is calculated by the formula: PCMark Score = 87 x (the geometric mean of the basic tests), where the geometric mean is calculated as (Result 1 x Result 2 x…) divided by the number of results.

Being equipped with identical Intel Core 2 Duo CPUs, the notebooks have very similar results in the CPU tests. The numbers are lower in the battery mode because the CPU clock rate is then reduced from 1.66GHz to 1.0GHz to save power. Strangely enough, the two memory subsystems differing in the frequency and amount of memory produce similar results irrespective of the power mode.

As for the graphics subsystems, the NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 installed in the VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B is claimed by the manufacturer to be somewhat faster than its namesake installed in the VAIO VGN-FE31HR and this is confirmed by the test results. The exclusive graphics solution behaves differently when powered by the battery. It tries to save more power and slows down dramatically in the battery mode, resembling ATI’s mobile solutions in this respect. We’ll see this in the graphics tests below as well.

In the disk subsystem tests the SATA drive enjoys an obvious advantage over the ATA model.

The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time to simulate multi-tasking: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint, FrontPage, WinZip, and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition.

The Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 test evaluates performance of a computer in the following multimedia applications: Windows Media Encoder, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Micromedia Dreamweaver MX, and Micromedia Director MX.

The following table and diagrams show the outcome of these tests:

The Winstone benchmarks show a small advantage of the VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B over the FE series model because the former has more system memory. The results are lower in the battery mode proportionally to the CPU frequency reduction.

SYSMark 2004 SE is intended to reveal a system’s performance under different types of load. It simulates a user who is solving practical tasks in a few popular applications. Multi-threading is taken into account. The benchmark issues a few ratings that are indicative of the system performance under different loads. SYSMark 2004 SE is mainly positioned as a tool for testing desktop systems and includes applications that are not often run on mobile computers. That’s why the results for each test load are shown separately:

This test wouldn’t run at first but we solved the problem by replacing the chipset driver with a newer version.

The 3D Creation script simulates a user who is rendering an image into a BMP-file in 3ds max 5.1 and is also working on web-pages in Dreamweaver MX. After these operations are done, a 3D animation is created in a vector graphics format.

This test needs high CPU performance, and the Sony VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B notebook wins by a narrow margin. The results are lower in the battery mode due to the CPU frequency reduction.

The 2D Creation script simulates a user creating a video out of a few RAW-format fragments and audio tracks in Premier 6.5. Waiting for the operation to complete, the user is also modifying an image in Photoshop 7.01 and then saves it to the hard disk. When the video clip is ready, the user edits it and adds special effects in After Effects 5.5.

The dual-channel memory subsystem and the slightly overclocked GeForce Go 7400 provide an advantage to the tested notebook. The numbers are lower in the battery mode.

The next test simulates the work routines of a professional web-master. The user unzips the content of a website while using Flash MX to open an exported 3D vector graphics clip. Then the user modifies it by including more pictures and optimizes it for faster animation. The resulting clip with special effects is compressed with Windows Media Encoder 9 to be broadcast via the Internet. Next, the website is compiled in Dreamweaver MX while the system is being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0 in the background.

The notebooks deliver similar performance when powered from the mains.

The next script simulates an ordinary user who’s receiving a letter with a .zip attachment in Outlook 2002. While the received files are being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0, the user looks through his e-mail, enters some comments into the Outlook calendar, and then opens a corporate website and some documents with Internet Explorer 6.0.

The Sony VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B is faster in the Communication test which does not depend so heavily on the CPU alone.

In the Document Creation script the user is editing text in Word 2002 and is also using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to convert an audio file into a text document. This text document is then converted into PDF format with Acrobat 5.0.5. And finally, the document is employed in a PowerPoint 2002 presentation.

The small advantage of the tested notebook is due to its faster memory subsystem and graphics core.

The final script from SYSMark 2004 SE includes the following: the user opens a database in Access 2002 and creates a few queries. Documents are archived with WinZip 8.1. The results of the queries are exported into Excel 2002 and are used to construct a diagram.

The results of the final SYSMark 2004 SE script agree well with those of the previous scripts. This benchmark depends heavily on CPU performance and the change of the power mode affects the results proportionally to the CPU frequency drop.

The notebooks both have discrete graphics cores, NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400, we tested them in three versions of 3DMark: 3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0 and 3DMark 2006 1.1.0.

3DMark uses its own rendering engine to create a set of 3D scenes that load the graphics subsystem in various ways. Compared with the previous version, 3DMark 2005 uses Shader Model 2.0x/3.0 instead of Shader Model 1.x, provides full compatibility with Shader Model 2.0, includes more complex tests (over a million polygons per each frame), and employs normal maps. 3DMark 2006 brings support for HDR, Uniform Shadow Maps, and multi-core CPUs. It is overall oriented at Shader Model 3.0, but two out of its four graphics tests work within the Shader Model 2.0 framework.

The two notebooks are equals in their 3DMark results. The graphics subsystem of the tested notebook seems to be faster in some subtests, but this is far from an overwhelming advantage. When powered by the batteries, the GeForce Go 7400 installed in the VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B slows down as much as ATI’s graphics solutions.

Next, we tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3:

And in one mode in Quake 4:

There was no standard demo record in Quake 4, so we had to create one by ourselves. We will use it in every review of notebooks on our site so that different notebooks could be compared under identical conditions.

We see the same overall picture in these graphics subsystem tests. The VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B with all its megabytes of dedicated memory behaves just like a regular GeForce Go 7400. So, you can indeed play 3D games on this notebook, but its performance is going to be much lower when you switch to the battery.

The notebook’s battery life was measured with Battery Eater Pro 2.60. The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:

The three hours of autonomous operation in the Reader’s mode is a good result for the rather hungry configuration the VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B has. On the other hand, the battery can only last two hours when the notebook is under load, which is not so long considering the “on-the-go” positioning of the product.

Here are battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes.

Conclusion

Once again Sony’s design team has come up with a well-balanced combination of style, performance and superb ergonomics. While the VAIO VGN-C2ZR/B with its sober coloring is going to look good in a businessman’s hands, the other three C series models are sure to attract fascinated glances with their uncommon color schemes.

You can select the color of the notebook to match your car, clothes or mood. Don’t forget that a C series notebook is meant to be changing its whereabouts along with its owner all the time. And there are no compromises here: Sony’s C series combines fine ergonomics with impressive performance.

There is only one downside, typical of almost every notebook from this Japanese brand. The VAIO logo on the lid is a sure indication of a very high price.

Highs:

Lows: