by Alexander Britvin
08/10/2006 | 02:24 PM
You know, twins look alike but may have completely different tempers, behaviors, thoughts. It’s the same with twin computer products. Sony’s VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C models from the new SZ notebook series, which has come as a replacement to the older S series, resemble one another visually, but there is a price difference of almost $500 US between them. How can this be explained? It’s just that the similar appearance conceals great differences in the “tempers” of these two notebooks.
Well, they do have somewhat different color schemes because the manufacturer is offering them in many colors, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. It is impossible to see how the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B differs from the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C unless you check this out with special programs or by opening them up. All the discrepancies will be discussed throughout this review, though, but right now I’d like to draw your attention to one special innovation from Sony.
Mobile users have long wanted to have the option of choosing high performance at the expense of battery life and vice versa, and now Sony offers a solution. There are two graphics processors inside the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C: a discrete GeForce Go 7400 GPU from Nvidia and an integrated GMA 950 core from Intel. This two-in-one solution offers you the opportunity to flexibly choose between high performance and long battery life.
The switching between the two graphics cores is done by means of a special slider. You are asked to reboot the system, and then the selected graphics core starts working. The discrete Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 GPU with support of TurboCache technology and with 128 megabytes of dedicated memory gives you high performance in 3D gaming and graphical applications whereas the integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 is just fast enough for office applications but consumes much less power than the discrete core. So, the choice between performance and battery life is now just a matter of moving a slider.
Now I will proceed to give you a more detailed description of the exterior and the internal configuration of Sony’s VGN-SZ1HRP/B and VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C notebooks and will test them with both their graphics cores.
We received Sony’s VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C notebooks as test samples, without their regular packages and accessories, with a single power adapter for the two and with a card-reader installed into the VGN-SZ1XRP/C. But both these models are already selling, so you’ll see all the necessary photographs in this article.
Even the packages of these twin models resemble one another. The difference is that there is the word Premium on the front of the package with the senior model (VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C). The model names are printed on the side panels of the packages.
The notebooks look cute, like thin A4-format folders. By the way, the manufacturer deliberately chose this form-factor because a majority of folders, briefcases, etc. are designed for this paper format as the most frequently used one in office. Notebooks from the new SZ series will readily slip into your briefcase without requiring a separate bag.
The design is Sony-style exquisite: the notebook is very slim at the front, but grows thicker towards the rear. There is a difference in height of almost 1 centimeter between the notebook’s front and rear panels. The two reviewed models have different color schemes: they chose light silver for the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and a darker silver tone for the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C. If you take a look at the notebooks’ lids in the photographs, you can hardly tell them apart, but the materials employed are absolutely different, which is one of the reasons for the difference in price. The case of the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B resembles the VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S to the touch because both are manufactured out of a durable magnesium alloy with a coarse coating of the lid so that the notebook wouldn’t slip out even if your hands were wet (for details see our article called Small but Stylish: SONY VAIO VGN-T2XRP-S Notebook Review). The material the case of the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C is made from is much more durable than the magnesium alloy and is used in Sony’s exclusive solutions only, e.g. in the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP (for details see our review called SONY VAIO VGN-TX1XRP Review: New Look of the Popular Laptop Family). It is carbon fiber, the same as they use in Formula 1 cars and in the flight industry. This material feels odd to the touch, but it is not coarse. The lid is smooth and is thus much easier to clean from your own dirty fingerprints than the other model’s lid.
The large letters “VAIO” are traditionally placed in the middle of the lid; a small Sony logotype is near the edge and close to the user when the lid is closed. The notebooks’ front panels are free from connectors, which is not very typical of Sony’s products.
There is no lid latch here; the display is held down by means of spring-loaded locks in the hinges. The VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B can be unfolded by a little less than 180 degrees and the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C, by a little more than that.
The color scheme of each notebook continues inside. The touchpad of the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C with its light silver coloring doesn’t match the rest of the case, though. There are rubber pads around the black screen bezels; the word “VAIO” in white letters is under the display.
The top model has an integrated camera in the middle of the bezel above the screen (the manufacturer calls it the Motion Eye); a single-channel microphone is located on the left of it.
There is a first group of system indicators right under the word VAIO on the screen bezel. They are designed as notches with labels (you can’t see the labels when the lid is down, but the indicators themselves always remain visible). This group includes (from right to left):
There is an oval panel in between the first group of indicators and the keyboard. The following buttons are placed within it:
The current status is displayed by one of the indicators located on both sides of the performance mode selector.
And right below this oval panel there is a second group of indicators:
Two stereo speakers are located on both sides of the second group of indicators under the screen hinges. These are typical notebook’s speakers with a rather low maximum loudness.
The touchpads of the two notebooks are different but are placed in the same location – under the keyboard, a little to the left. What’s rather unusual for Sony’s products, the two touchpad buttons are the same width as the slightly sunken sensitive panel. The VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C also features a small fingerprint scanner which is in between the two buttons. This original innovation saves you the trouble of memorizing one more password your memory may already be overloaded with. And unlike with a password, your fingerprint is unique and cannot be “cracked” or forgotten. So, fingerprint scanning is an ideal method to secure your notebook against unauthorized access. It may also be used for Internet access (this feature is already supposed by certain ISPs).
There is no additional scrolling joystick and no scrolling zone here.
The keyboards of the notebooks are identical and have 86 keys painted black. The Enter key is smaller than the classic L shape, which is not very convenient. The block of arrows is on the same level with the keyboard’s baseline, so there’s a bigger risk of your pressing them unintentionally. The Fn key is conveniently placed the second button in the bottom row, to the right of Ctrl: people who often use shortcuts like “Ctrl+C” and “Ctrl+V” won’t hit the wrong button. There are also numerical keys and two Windows-related keys here: the Context Menu button is over the Alt key to the right of the spacebar. The Windows key is over the left Alt. The functional keys have a reduced size. Home, PgUp, PgDn and End are placed in a vertical column on the right. Num Lock, Print Screen, Insert and Delete are located in the same row with the functional keys. The letters are painted black; the functional keys are gray (press and hold Fn to use their additional functions); the numeric keys and the Num Lock button are painted dark red.
The SZ series succeeding to the S series, the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C notebooks are equipped with widescreen displays, just like their predecessors. The 13.3” matrix has a max resolution of 1280x800 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA). To my subjective eye, the viewing angles of the displays are wide enough both horizontally and vertically. The matrix is manufactured using Sony X-BLACK LCD technology which improves image brightness, contrast and saturation. The wideness of the display allows having several application windows open and visible at the same time, which may help you improve your work efficiency. The displays of both notebooks are “glassy”, so you should take care about proper lighting when you sit down to work unless you want to see the objects behind you reflect in the screen.
I measured the brightness and contrast of the displays using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. I selected the maximum brightness setting and launched the test, but the display parameters changed when I switched to the notebooks’ batteries. I performed the test with both graphics cores of each notebook:
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B:
Intel GMA 950
Nvidia GeForce Go 7400
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C:
Intel GMA 950
Nvidia GeForce Go 7400
I wouldn’t say the notebooks offer an abundance of interfaces and ports, but you do have everything necessary here.
The left panel of each of the reviewed models has the following connectors (from left to right):
The right panels of the notebooks are identical, too. They offer you the following:
The LAN and modem ports are hidden under a plastic cover.
The disc eject button is small and hard to find by touch. Besides that, the engineers wanted to make as thin a notebook as possible while gravity pulls the disc tray down: when it is fully out, it touches the surface the notebook is standing on, which is not good.
The rear panels of the notebooks are identical, too, except for the color of the case. They carry the following:
The battery the described notebooks are equipped with has a capacity of 5200mAh and precisely matches the dimensions of the case. This is not typical of Sony, but the notebooks do look better as the result.
Sony’s engineers have tweaked the battery, too. Instead of traditional locks on the case they put both the locks (a spring-loaded and a manual one) on the battery itself. This is indeed a very convenient solution.
At the notebook’s bottom there are memory and CPU compartments, a port replicator connector, vent holes, and stickers with information about the model.
There are two slots in the memory compartment – they are covered with special shutters to safeguard the memory modules from damage and dust. The notebooks come with one memory module installed: a 512MB one in the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and a 1GB one in the Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C. The maximum amount of system memory the notebooks support is 2048 megabytes, so you can easily add more RAM to them. Just open the compartment and insert another module.
As I mentioned above, we received test samples of the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C models with a minimum of accessories: one power adapter for the two and a card-reader in the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C. The card-reader supports almost all the existing memory card formats (Secure Digital, Multi Media Card, xD-Picture Card, SmartMedia Card, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, and Memory Stick Duo) and looks like this:
Besides that, the following items are included with the serial versions of the products:
Besides Microsoft Windows XP Professional Edition Service Pack 2, you get a very large software bundle with these notebooks:
Video and TV:
Regrettably, Sony does not include Recovery discs with its notebooks. The recovery system is placed on a hidden partition on the hard drive, and the user can create his/her own recovery kit, but it is not very convenient and is often just too late.
The Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and the Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C are based on Intel Core Duo processors with ratings of T2300 and T2400 and clock rates of 1.66GHz and 1.83GHz (65nm Yonah core, 2MB shared L2 cache). Besides the time-tested Enhanced Intel SpeedStep technology (it allows lowering the CPU clock rate at low loads by reducing the CPU frequency multiplier), the Core Duo processor supports Dynamic Power Coordination (the power consumption of the execution cores can be varied separately depending on the current load; one core can even enter the Deep Sleep state and consume the lowest possible amount of power) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused cache segments are turned off to save power). For more information about the new processor refer to our Centrino Duo Mobile Platform Review or to our article called ASUS V6J Notebook on Intel Dual-Core Processor.
Being an implementation of the Napa platform, the notebooks are equipped with an Intel Calistoga 945PM chipset and an Intel Pro/Wireless 3945ABG wireless adapter. This chipset supports DDR2 SO-DIMMs, thus offering more memory bandwidth at lower power consumption. The ICH7-M chip is used as the chipset’s South Bridge and is connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface. The South Bridge 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.
The i945GM chipset features the integrated graphics core Intel Media Accelerator 950 that supports a higher operating frequency (400MHz) and more of dynamically allotted memory (up to 224MB) than GMA 900. GMA 950 has 4 pixel pipelines and can map 4 textures per cycle. Like GMA 900, this core supports Pixel Shader 2.0 on the hardware level and Vertex Shader 3.0 and T&L on the software level (i.e. on the CPU). However, GMA 950 and GMA 900 are both fully DirectX 9 compatible. The specification of the Intel Calistoga 945GM chipset can be found at the manufacturer’s website. For detailed information about GMA 950 follow this link.
But as I wrote at the beginning of the review, Sony’s engineers added a discrete graphics core to the integrated one. The Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 GPU supports TurboCache technology and 128MB of dedicated memory. TurboCache technology enables the graphics processor to use the dedicated graphics memory along with a portion of dynamically allotted system RAM for higher overall performance. There is 512MB of system memory in the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B, and the GeForce Go 7400 can be allotted up to 256 megabytes of it. The VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C comes with 1 gigabyte of memory and can give out up to 512MB to the discrete graphics core. Nvidia’s GPU also features PureVideo technology for high-quality HD video playback and PowerMizer 6.0 for efficient power management. Detailed specifications of the Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 are listed in the following table; you can also refer to the manufacturer’s website.
The notebooks each has a 2.5” hard disk drive with a spindle rotation speed of 5400rpm and SATA interface: a 80GB Seagate Momentus ST98823AS in the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and a 100GB Fujitsu MHV2100BH in the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C. The same optical drive is installed in each of the notebooks. It is Matshita UJ-842D with the following speed formula:
The maximum amount of memory the notebooks support is 2048 megabytes. Both come with one memory module installed: a 512MB one in the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and a 1GB one in the Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C. If necessary, you can add more memory by opening the compartment and installing one more memory module.
The computers are both rather quiet at work. The optical drive was the only component that produced some noise when being accessed. I measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebooks’ surfaces with an infrared thermometer after they had worked for half an hour in the Classic test mode of Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 24°C during this test) and got the following numbers:
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C
The following table compares the specifications of the Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and the Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C notebooks:
The notebooks’ hard drives were formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then I installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c (the power management system in Windows XP Service Pack 1 doesn’t work normally with dual-core processors: the CPU frequency is not reduced when the notebook works on its battery), system drivers (from the manufacturer’s website), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0.
The following settings were used for the tests:
Two power modes were used. First, I selected the Always On power mode for the maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then I switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.
There are three test modes in Battery Eater 2.60:
I 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) I played a DVD movie.
Each of the tested notebooks has two graphics cores (an integrated and a discrete one), so there are two cycles of tests: first, on the integrated Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950, and then I moved the Stamina slider into the Speed position to activate the discrete Nvidia GeForce Go 7400.
As usual, I will first run synthetic benchmarks.
SiSoftware Sandra 2004 measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark 2004 benchmarks the computer performance in office and multimedia applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).
The high results of the CPU performance tests are very pleasing. They are lower when the notebooks switch to their batteries and begin to deliver almost the same performance because their CPU clock rates go down to 1GHz in the Max Battery mode to save power. Otherwise the results are roughly similar, except for the graphics subsystem test. The VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C is a little faster in 3D applications because its graphics core can get a bigger portion of the system RAM.
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 determines the 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 results are tabled and diagrammed below:
It is the CPU that largely determines the outcome of the Winstone tests, so it is expectable that the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B is a little slower than its elder brother. When the notebooks work on their batteries, their performance is similar again due to the CPU throttling and enabled power-saving services. The CPU clock rates of both notebooks are 1GHz in this mode.
I tested the integrated graphics cores of the notebooks (Graphics Media Accelerator 950) in 3DMark 2001 SE Pro and then in 3DMark 2003 3.60.
3DMark uses a set of 3D scenes rendered by its own graphics engine to load the graphics subsystem of a computer in various ways.
The VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C is superior in this test due to its higher CPU clock rate and a larger amount of system RAM. The performance isn’t much lower when the notebooks switch to their batteries. So, the integrated graphics cores of these computers suit but little for playing games, but are fast enough for running office applications.
Next, I tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3 :
The VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B is a little slower due to the reasons mentioned above. The last graphics test is going to produce a similar picture, I guess.
Yes, the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C is ahead of the junior SZ series model. So again, the notebooks do not suit for playing games on their GMA 950 cores unless you like slideshows. :)
The Stamina mode promises a long battery life time due to the use of the integrated graphics core. Let’s check it out with Battery Eater Pro 2.60.
The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:
The Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C has a more powerful configuration and thus requires more juice to run. But it’s only in the Reader’s mode that there is a noticeable difference. The results of both notebooks are quite impressive considering their rather advanced configurations. About three hours of autonomous work under a high load is good (but we’d like to have even more, of course).
Here are the battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes:
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C
And now we switch to the maximum-performance Speed mode in which the VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and the VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C use their discrete Nvidia GeForce Go 7400 graphics processors.
The synthetic SiSoftware Sandra 2004 and PCMark 2004 benchmarks open this section of the test session, too.
We have the same results in the CPU tests because the notebooks’ configurations haven’t changed in this respect. But the graphics subsystems have got stronger, leading to higher graphics scores.
The results of the Business Winstone 2004 and the Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 tests have remained the same since they mostly depend on the CPU performance.
It is now in the series of graphics tests that we are going to see some dramatic differences. I am now going to benchmark the discrete GeForce Go 7400 graphics processors installed in the reviewed notebooks, so I will use only one test, 3DMark 2003 3.60.
Some of the results have grown four or fivefold. When powered by the battery, the notebooks’ graphics performance is lower, but not too much. Let’s see now what we have in other tests.
Now you can see that the SZ series with Nvidia’s GeForce Go 7400 GPU is good enough for gaming, even when working on the battery, as is indicated by the performance of the two notebooks in the 3D games. So, it’s a matter of changing the position of the slider to transform an office applications oriented notebook into a quite powerful gaming station.
But how much power does this performance growth require? Let’s check it out.
Well, the battery life isn’t too much shorter when the discrete graphics core is activated (but the notebooks couldn’t last for more than 3 hours in the Classic mode). So, the owner of a VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B or a VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C can choose between extra half an hour of battery life or higher performance in 3D applications.
Here are the battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes:
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B
Sony VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C
I think Sony’s designers and engineers should enjoy a deserved and long applaud from all of us. The company’s VAIO VGN-SZ1HRP/B and VAIO VGN-SZ1XRP/C notebooks are not just impressive products as they are, but also offer an innovative solution of the long-standing problem the users have had to solve by themselves, i.e. which graphics core to choose. These two models from the SZ series each offer you two graphics solutions at once. If you don’t need high 3D graphics performance, you can switch the notebook into an economical mode with a touch of your finger. Switching back to the max performance mode is that easy, too.
The VAIO SZ series notebooks also bring the A4 paper format to the computer industry, offering you an optimal balance between compactness and functionality. Most briefcases are designed for folders and documents of A4 format, and an SZ notebook will easily fit into them, too, which means you don’t have to wear an extra bag for your notebook.
Thus, the reviewed notebooks are well-balanced machines designed for demanding professionals, just as they are positioned by the manufacturer. I’m now looking forward to seeing what Sony will come up with after the next-generation Merom-core Centrino is released. More surprises to come?
The two models reviewed in this article share many common features, so here’s a common list of highs and lows for them.