by Alexander Britvin
02/07/2006 | 10:12 AM
The terms “restyling” and “tuning” make one think about cars, but why not about computers? There is always something new in the PC industry, the materials and hardware parts are being constantly improved and replaced with better ones to achieve the highest performance and usability. Following these changes, the end-products are updated, too. And new series of products appear to reflect the rapid changes in technology.
This review serves to illustrate the point. We are going to talk about Sony’s new VAIO TX series of notebooks which has come to replace the popular VAIO T2 (not so long ago we tested the VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S notebook from the latter series on our site, for details see our article called Small but Stylish: SONY VAIO VGN-T2XRP-S Notebook Review).
The new series was introduced in the wake of Intel’s announcement of the new mobile platform Sonoma. Like the first-generation mobile platform from Intel, the Sonoma included a Pentium M processor, a 915 series chipset, and a new dual-band wireless network adapter PRO/Wireless 2200BG. As you know from our earlier reviews, the new chipset incorporates almost all modern interfaces and controllers, previously unavailable to users of notebooks based on the Centrino platform, particularly PCI Express and Serial ATA. Processors on the Dothan core had been announced a few months before the Sonoma, and were used in the first-generation Centrino already.
The VAIO VGN-TX1XRP model features the 915GMS chipset (specifically designed for use in ultra-portable notebooks and expected to work in pair with Pentium M processors of LV and ULV modifications) and the Intel Pentium M Ultra Low Voltage 753 processor (Dothan core, 1.2GHz clock rate).
The developers’ goal when creating this notebook was to employ cutting-edge technologies to produce a thinnest and lightest, portable and ergonomic device. The case of the notebook is made of a special carbon plastic material which is light, yet very robust. The new LED-based backlighting helped to make the display thinner, larger and more economical. As a result, the weight of the Sony VAIO VGN-TX1XRP is a mere 1.25kg!
These are the main points of interest in the new notebook. Let’s now examine it in more detail and compare its performance with that of the previous model, Sony VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S.
We received a test sample of the notebook rather than an off-the-shelf product. The Sony VAIO VGN-TX1XRP began to sell in December of 2005, however, so we can give you a snapshot of its retail package:
When you hold this computer in your hands, you get the feeling it is a pocket-book or a small black folder, so tiny it is. This VAIO measures a mere 23 millimeters in its thinnest point (the manufacturer even claims it is the thinnest 2-spindle notebook in the world).
The new TX series is available in 3 colors: black (as the sample we got for our tests), white and a Sony-style Premium Blue. In the standard black color scheme the black panels envelop the silver interior to create an illusionary slimming effect. The white color scheme imparts a clean, light and gentle image, and is suggested for use by both men and women. Contrary to the sandwich-like coloring of the black model, this model is white on the exterior as well as interior of the machine. The limited Sony-style Premium Blue edition is designed in such a way that the carbon fibers are visible at close view. The carbon texture is finished with a clear blue pearl coating, so the model changes its color up to violet depending on the angle of view.
Sony’s engineers managed to create a case that not only looks superb, but is also robust and durable. The case of the TX series VAIO notebook is the result of two years of research and testing. The special carbon fiber material is more robust than a magnesium alloy.
This aviation industry material is flexible and robust at the same time, thin and hard, and also light. On the outside is a carbon-fiber film (used in aviation and sport cars) and inside is a carbon compound (employed in Tour de France bicycles): the result is the most durable of all VAIO notebooks, according to Sony’s tests.
The chromium letters VAIO are in the center of the notebook’s lid. At the edge of the lid you can see the name of the manufacturer in small letters. It was somewhat confusing to see the screws that fasten the display to the joints – Sony says the off-the-shelf notebook has them, too – but it’s a matter of personal taste, after all.
The front angles of the case are a bit rounded to give it an air of lightness. The lid curves a little where it is fastened to the joints and then smoothly transitions into the lifted cylindrical bottom on which a group of system indicators, a block of playback buttons, and a Power-On button are located. All of this is visible even when the lid is down.
The first group of indicators includes (from left to right):
The block of buttons to launch and control your software DVD player includes the following (from left to right):
The notebook’s bottom is black, except for the narrow silvery band around the perimeter. Icons explaining the meaning of the ports and connectors are easily readable on the light background.
Like on many other notebooks of that size, there is no latch to keep the lid closed. When closed, the lid is held with a spring-loaded lock. A mechanism for fixing the lid in any position is built into the screen hinges.
The inside of the notebook is silvery, except for the screen bezel which is black and narrower than in the previous T2 series. White letters “VAIO” are at the bottom of the bezel, the model name is written on its right, and there are rubber pads all around the screen. The notebook’s bottom part is all silvery, including the keyboard. The grid above the keyboard protects two stereo speakers.
The touchpad of the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP is designed in a curious fashion, too. The sensor panel, which is located right below the spacebar, visually and tangibly seems to have a dotted surface. There’s no bezel around the touchpad; it is on the same level with the bottom part of the case. On the very edge of the notebook, there are two buttons that serve instead of the mouse’s ones. The two buttons taken together are a little wider than the sensor panel. There is no joystick for scrolling and no scrolling zones here.
The notebook’s keyboard is painted silvery and consists of 83 keys. The layout is the same as on the VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S. The block of arrows is shifted below the keyboard’s baseline to avoid accidental presses. 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 available: 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 combined with the arrow keys. 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 dark gray and smaller than the others (press and hold Fn to use their additional functions).
The Sony VAIO VGN-TX1XRP is equipped with a widescreen 11.1” display with a native resolution of 1366x768 pixels and a WXGA HDAR aspect ratio of 16:9. Subjectively, the viewing angles are sufficiently wide both horizontally and vertically. Like the previous model’s display, the new matrix features Sony X-BLACK LCD technology for better brightness, contrast and saturation of the image. The wideness of the screen allows having several windows conveniently visible at the same time. What’s important, Sony’s engineers have stretched the display out leaving the notebook’s base the same as in the T2 series.
The display is two times thinner than the one in the VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S. In conventional LCDs the electronics PCB is located behind the liquid crystal module, making the panel thicker. So, this part was relocated to the bottom of the panel and other measures were taken to redistribute the LSI packaging as well as to optimize the layout of all parts. The resulting PCB is 30% the size of conventional items!
Instead of ordinary fluorescent backlighting, the developer team employed white LED-based backlighting. White LED technology is not new, but has been around for a long time. However, it was only a popular choice for small displays of cell phones, PDAs and other small products because the light emitting efficiency of previous white LEDs were far lower than that of the fluorescent tube. Recent technological developments have overcome this setback, offering white LEDs with superb light emitting efficiency to the level that it successfully rivals the fluorescent tube. The new technology makes the display thinner and lighter, more economical, and improves its color range. The glass in the LCD matrix of the new notebook is also thinner and flexible and, as a consequence, is more resistant to cracks. As a side effect, the TX series doesn’t use mercury in the backlight lamps, so the new notebook is more environment-friendly.
As for drawbacks, the screen acts as a mirror under certain lighting, showing you the reflection of your own face even when the notebook is on. Keep this fact in mind when you’re choosing a place to work with your VAIO VGN-TX1XRP.
We measured the brightness and contrast of the screen using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. These parameters don’t depend much on the power source as you can see:
The brightness seems to be low, but you don’t feel so subjectively when looking at the screen (the Spyder may have been wrong due to the LED-based backlighting; Sony’s measurements gave somewhat higher results; click here for details). The contrast ratio is quite normal.
The notebook has enough of I/O interfaces, even though without any extras. Two card-readers are on the left of the front panel: the upper slot is for Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro and Memory Stick Duo formats (the Media Access indicator on the left of it shines up when the memory card is being accessed) and the lower slot (it was not present in the T2 series) is for Secure Digital and MultiMediaCard.
A few connectors, indicators and additional buttons are on the right of the front panel:
Above them, Bluetooth, WLAN and Sound Off indicators are located that are invisible when the display is closed.
And these connectors are on the VAIO’s left panel:
The modem port and one USB port on the right can be closed with a plastic plug to prevent dust from getting in.
On the right, the notebook carries a 15-pin D-Sub connector for an external monitor. It also has an optical drive with an activity indicator, a tiny Disc Eject button (the main Eject button is in the group of buttons under the screen) and an emergency ejection hole.
Here’s what you can find at the back of the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP:
Unlike with the T2 model, the battery doesn’t stick out of the case. The battery is now inside the notebook, making it even smaller visually.
At the notebook’s bottom you can find a cover of the memory compartment, a port replicator connector, a battery latch, vent holes, and a sticker with the model specs. There are two memory slots in the compartment. One is easily accessible and is occupied with a 512MB module. The other slot is harder to get to as it is on the back side of the mainboard and is free. One more 512MB module is soldered directly on the mainboard. Considering that the maximum supported memory amount is 1536MB with this model, it is easy to replace the 512MB module with a 1GB one. You can also plug a third module into the free slot by following the instruction enclosed with the notebook or downloaded from the manufacturer’s website . Of course, you can also get the module installed at an authorized service center.
Besides the main 7800mAh battery (the T2 model used to come with a 7650mAh battery), we received an extended-capacity 13000mAh VGP-BPL5 battery and a VGP-PRTX1 port replicator with our sample of the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP.
The extended-capacity battery (you’ll see its test results in the appropriate section of the review) is rather large, and the notebook’s rear part is lifted up a little when you use it. If you use the port replicator, the battery fits into it perfectly. The dock station has its own power connector, three High-Speed USB ports, a network connector (RJ-45), and a 15-pin D-Sub port for an external monitor.
The port replicator and the notebook with the replicator and extended-life battery installed are shown in the next snapshots:
Our sample of the notebook came to us with only an external power adapter and a battery. The retail version of the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP ships with the following accessories, besides the adapter and battery:
Besides the preinstalled copy of Microsoft Windows XP operating system with Service Pack 2, you also receive a large software bundle.
Like the previous T2 series model, the Sony VAIO VGN-TX1XRP uses the most power-economical processor from Intel, Pentium M Ultra Low Voltage 753 (Dothan core, 1.2GHz clock rate), but contrary to the VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S, the new TX series feature the Sonoma platform. The 915GMS chipset is designed specifically for small form-factor notebooks and supports a number of new-generation technologies including DDR2 SDRAM, Serial ATA hard disk drives, PCI Express bus, Intel High-Definition Audio, and Express Card. The chipset’s North Bridge incorporates Intel’s Graphics Media Accelerator 900. This new integrated graphics core is faster, has four pixel pipelines, and supports DirectX 9, Pixel Shader 2.0, core frequencies from 133 to 200MHz and up to 214 megabytes of graphics memory.
The hard drive is the same as in the T2 series: it is a 1.8” Toshiba MK6006GAH model (4200rpm, 60GB capacity).
The optical drive is a little different, but like the one employed in the T2 series it can burn dual-layer media. The speed characteristics of the Matshita UJ-832D are as follows:
As for the memory subsystem, the notebook’s mainboard carries one 512MB module and there are also two memory slots on board one of which is occupied with another 512MB module and another is empty (it is located on the reverse side of the mainboard). So you can upgrade the memory subsystem at an authorized service center or with your own hands, following the instructions included with the notebook or downloaded from the manufacturer’s website .
The communicational options offered by the VGN-TX1XRP are extensive enough: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth (TX Bluetooth features a lower power consumption and a triple speed increase over the previous version of the standard) modules are implemented in every VAIO TX notebook.
The notebook is silent and cool at work. 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 at 22°C during this test) and got the following numbers:
The next table summarizes the technical characteristics of the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP and compares them to those of the VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S.
The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then we installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (downloaded from the manufacturer’s website), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0.
The following settings were used in the tests:
Two power modes were used. First, we selected the Always On power mode for the maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then we switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.
There are three test modes in Battery Eater:
In my tests 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.
As usual, we will first run the synthetic benchmarks SiSoftware Sandra 2004 and PCMark 2004. The former benchmark measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark 2004 measures the performance of the computer in office and multimedia applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).
There’s no difference between the notebooks in the CPU and hard disk drive tests irrespective of the power source because these components are identical in both the models. The new model is, however, better in the memory and graphics subsystem performance tests because it comes with DDR2 SDRAM and features Graphics Media Accelerator 900. The results of the notebooks are almost two times lower when they are powered by the battery because the processor frequency is lowered down to 0.6GHz to save power in this mode. The same thing will be observed in other tests, too.
The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time: 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, Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Dreamweaver MX, and Director MX.
The results of these two tests are presented below:
These tests mostly load the system’s central processor. The notebooks of the T2 and TX series have the same CPU, and the small advantage of the Sony VAIO VGN-TX1XRP over its predecessor is due to a larger amount of memory, higher memory and bus frequencies, and, to some extent, to the improved graphics. The CPU frequency is reduced in two times when the notebook is powered by its battery and the results are accordingly smaller.
The Sony VAIO VGN-TX1XRP is equipped with a new graphics core GMA 900 as opposed to the T2 model’s Extreme Graphics 2. This is why I first tested both the notebooks in 3DMark 2001SE Pro and then also tested the Sony VAIO VGN-TX1XRP in 3DMark03 3.60.
The 3DMark benchmark uses 3D scenes rendered by its own engine to reveal the potential of the computer’s graphics subsystem:
The superiority of the new graphics core is obvious. The older Extreme Graphics 2 couldn’t cope with such tests as Game 4, Environment Bump Mapping, Pixel Shader 2.0 and Advanced Pixel Shader, but the GMA 900 core crunches through them easily, even though the new notebook uses a “light” version of the graphics controller. The VAIO VGN-TX1XRP is also faster than the recently tested Samsung Q30 Plus, having a 0.1GHz higher CPU clock rate.
Next, we tested the sub-notebook in Quake 3 , in two modes:
Here is the same paradox as in our tests of the Samsung Q30 Plus : Graphics Media Accelerator 900 is slower than the older graphics core of the VAIO VGN-T2XRP/S in low resolution. At higher graphics quality settings the newer graphics core proves its superiority, though. The results of this test suggest that the SONY VAIO VGN-TX1XRP is not a gaming platform, but you can still play some 3D games on it – see the results of the next test, too.
GMA 900 is far better than the Extreme Graphics 2 core in Unreal Tournament 2003 . The newer VAIO notebook is more than two times faster than the older one irrespective of the power source.
The manufacturer claims the new notebook has become more economical in terms of power consumption. Let’s check this claim with the help of Battery Eater Pro 2.60. The consumption of such components as the display, memory and other units has been reduced, so the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP is positioned as a traveling companion and must have a long battery life time. We will also check the notebook with the extended-life 13000mAh battery.
The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:
The battery life tests of the VAIO VGN-TX1XRP produce results similar to those of the T2 series: five hours in the Reader’s mode at the maximum screen brightness. That’s an excellent performance considering the overall higher performance of the new notebook. The manufacturer tested the notebook in the VAIO Optimized mode at brightness level 5 and achieved a battery life of a little over 7 hours, which is quite credible.
The extended-life battery did even better, notching an impressive eight hours in the Reader’s mode. So the owner of a VAIO VGN-TX1XRP can be fully autonomous for a whole day using that battery.
The battery discharge graphs for different operational modes are presented below:
The effort of Sony’s developing team has taken the shape of a new notebook that continues the best traditions of the previous model. The T2 series was good, but the greatly improved VAIO VGN-TX1XRP from the TX series is even better. The robust and smaller case now envelops an advanced up-to-date configuration that can also last long on the battery. The newer integrated graphics core makes the notebook more suitable for 3D games, even though it is still not a true gaming station. The only drawback of the new VAIO is its price. On the other hand, the manufacturer just didn’t try to save on anything, but used only the best stuff possible, from the carbon fiber the case is made of, to the hardware parts inside.
Let’s now wait and see what changes in the product line will be made as a response to the recent announcement of the Napa mobile platform which features a dual-core 65nm Yonah processor and 945 series chipsets (Intel’s Ultra Low Voltage CPUs, usually employed in small notebooks, will be single-core processors, however). It seems Sony has something to work upon to once again surprise us all.