What the Vaio Z says about Sony's little design problem

Sony's latest ultraportable laptop is stunning. It's beautiful and lightweight, with a classy metal chassis and impeccably tasteful trim. It has a powerful i7 CPU, 1600x900 13.1" display and a lightning-fast SSD. It's half a pound lighter than the competition. And it exemplifies everything that is wrong with its creator.

Unfortunately, it also costs much more than the Mac and, as reviewed by Christopher Null for Wired, has "disastrous" design flaws. The trackpad's in an odd spot. It's got a loud fan. It's loaded with junkware, because paying two grand for a laptop doesn't get you a system that hasn't been sold to someone else. It's sold as the VPCZ214GX/B — alcohol must have been banned at the ad agency's resulting all-nighters just to ensure everyone could say each model's full name.

These characteristics may reduce the appeal of the laptop, but the most interesting flaw--the one that is so telling about its designer!--is one that many users won't even notice: the keyboard. As described by Null, it has "almost no travel". This is hardly trenchant criticism, especially if you're used to island-style keys. I'm sure I'd be OK with it. The Vaio Z's is just a new design.

And yet this is it. The criticisms leveled at Acer and Asus—that their ultrabooks are imitations of the Air—aren't leveled at Sony, because it pioneered the form factor and the keyboard that goes with it. Behold the Vaio X505, a laptop released in 2005:

Now, this was not a great computer, with poor performance and battery life. But it got a lot right, especially in how it dealt with the ultraportable-laptop keyboard problem. Before then, chiclet keyboards were evil, rubbery things. But that changed at about that time, and Sony was in the vanguard.

Since then, the X505's island-style keyboard's been so successful that you can walk a store and not see a machine that doesn't have one. Apple even uses them on its desktop keyboards.

But now, for some reason, Sony found the spec sheet that said "laptops: fix big keys" and set out to solve the problem it already solved 6 years ago.

The computer keyboard isn't a place where radical UI design changes are desirable. To extend the marketing metaphor, it's like the typeface of a book. You're stuck with the same old alphabet, in the same configuration, and your job is to preserve its usefulness while investing the work with with a certain character. The smart choice is to design something good and stick with it.

But Sony does not. The changes to the chiclet keys in the Vaio Z, however slight, show that it can't even refine its own winning ideas. It's as if Sony was using Helvetica before almost everyone else, then switched to Arial when the world followed suit.

Years ago, it nailed a good balance of size and resistance, minimizing protrusion from the bed without losing the tactile sensation of travel. Then it forgot.

These are just a few of its ultraportables from recent years. Though all of them retained elements from it, none of them were really iterations from the original X505. Even the newer X from 2009 (right), which was that year's "response" to the Air, was completely different to the 2005 original in respects other than weight and form: it was plastic, had a very fast SSD, and was reasonably-priced.

All of these were nice, high-end computers that could have become great designs if they'd stuck with them. But Sony rarely iterates, even when it's onto something good. Everything is a one-off. It treats a billion-dollar business the way a microbrewery treats ales with silly names.

Instead, Apple iterated the original design, then kept at it, even though the original MacBook Air was a poor performer. (It's easy to imagine Steve Jobs having to be argued down from launching the MacBook Air at $2500 with the high-end solid-state configuration as the only option -- If we launch the cheap one, it'll be no better than the junk from Sony.)

But persisting with the Air, even if it was slow and expensive, yielded dividends as the price of high-end configurations fell. By 2011, Apple ditched the hard-drive models entirely, reduced the solid state option to $899, and turned the Air into one of the most successful laptops going.

Apple isn't the only company that persists with a good design, either. If you want an ultraportable laptop that's Windows or Linux-friendly which works better than the Z and isn't outrageously expensive, look no further than the Lenovo X series.

Sticking with it

At a recent event I attended, someone involved in marketing said that Apple's success is founded on it creating substantially new designs every year to keep everyone keeping up. In his view, Apple ownership is about getting the latest thing to impress people.

This was intended as criticism of the iPhone 4S, which is indistinguishable by sight from the previous model. His belief was echoed by others: the unchanged design was obviously going to fail, was a sign of internal paralysis at Apple, Tim Cook not being a visionary, and so forth.

Earlier, one columnist offered similar thoughts following the product announcement, suggesting that the iPhone 4S's unchanged design would cause Apple's stock to tank. Over the coming days, however, it outperformed the market.

It's weird that a company under such constant scrutiny is misunderstood like this, often by people who have been watching it for years. Isn't it obvious that Apple rarely changes its designs?

Check out these two iMacs. The one on the left is from 2007, and the other is the latest model. They're more than four years apart.

Here's the first and the latest iPod. While they're not identical, bear in mind that nine years passed in the interval, and Creative Labs' MP3 players don't look much like this anymore.

Here's a Mac from 1984 and one from 1994. Though Apple made all sorts of other desktop towers and pizza boxes in this period, this popular design saw more than a decade of refinement.

I imagine that Apple is delighted to see rivals convinced that every year's model is different to the last one; talk about a reality distortion field. Companies like Dell and HP will chance across good design every so often, but companies like Sony make good designs then abandon them intentionally because they're blind to their own good design choices.

Taste and Design

Taste and Design: the two words distinguish consumers from producers. We taste, they design. But designers also have taste in their own work, and what the Vaio Z's designer doesn't get is the difference between good taste and good design.

Taste often describes flavors, appearances and forms; it blends into fashion, which spins as fast as people can spend their money. Even the classics shift as priorities change; something may be tasteful but irrelevant. Design, however, also concerns itself with function. If a design fails to encompass good taste, the result will be ugly. But if taste fails to encompass good design, it'll be useless.

Talking about another Sony laptop that buries functionality under tasteful appearances and spec sheets, it's not hard to see the point in all this.

Together with the marketer's remarks, however, this got me thinking about how little Apple cares about taste, a quality almost universally attributed to it.

It will even embrace tastelessness in pursuit of what it regards as good design: if you assume otherwise, perhaps you're forgetting about all that brushed metal, pleather and baize stretched over iOS. Some of its most heavily-marketed user-interfaces are almost as tasteful as those in games you can buy in jewel cases at Wal-Mart.

Unlike the menu system of 1001 Card Games, however, this is not to say they are badly designed. Bad taste can illustrate great art and design, even in the most mundane contexts. Cheesy textures, for example, can make an app's function clearer in screenshots, without having harmed the functionality of the apps.

The ThinkPad, from IBM and Lenovo, is another good example, with gaudy purple and red trim serving a design so durable that even a complete change in corporate ownership couldn't change it.

On the other hand, Sony's not alone in proving that good taste is no guarantee of good design. See Windows Phone 7, for example. It's beautiful. It's in excellent taste: minimalist, smoothly-animated, yet bold and experimental. But when we ask why something so well "designed" is failing to catch on, we've already pulled the wool over our eyes.

Apple competitors are obsessed with copying Apple's tastes without copying its central design habit, which is solving a problem and then refining the solution until the problem changes.

And that's the difference between the Vaio ultraportables and the Air: Apple stuck with Sony's solution and refined it, whereas Sony threw it the trashcan in 2005, 2008, 2010, and (spoiler!) 2012.


  1. It would have been nice if your review of the Sony laptop had included more than just a photograph of the top of the laptop.  Or was that all that Sony supplied?

  2. The Color Classic from 94 was hardly an example of refinement over the original design. I had one of those ugly ducklings, and believe me, Jobs wouldn’t have let the thing out the door.  The original Mac, from 1984, while a bit beige, is still a thing of beauty, despite its hardware limitations and propensity to blow out its power supply.  And I was still running across them in service as recently as 10 years ago.  Fixing those power supplies became a minor industry for a while.

    1. While I’m mostly down with this article, I must admit that I cringed when I saw the hideously ugly Color Classic used as an example. The Mac SE/30 was the best, and last, classic Mac in the original form factor. It’s also, ISTR, faster than the Color Classic.

  3. Generally a great article – spoiled by a few disastrous design flaws;
    The resolution is 1920 x 1080 13.3″ display (and worth mentioning supports 3 more external monitors at the same resolution)
    The only fan that is remotely audible is that in the docking station – which only kicks in when the 2nd graphics card needs cooling (OK – so if you’re playing games then that will be most of the time – but then you’re going to be wearing headphones – and given the noise cancelling headphones it ships with…)

    But missing details like that hardly seems remarkable given a tech writer that has missed the fact that the trend is for desktop keyboards to have less travel – in fact there isn’t much difference in travel or tactile feel between the Z itself and the Logitech I’m writing this on.

    Overall though I agree – just wishing Sony would iterate more and put the world out of its Apple obsessed misery.

      1. Maybe the models are slightly different in NZ than US – but here the only screen available is 1920*1080.
        Apologies for my own typo that its a 13.1 not 13.3 (but also not 13.0 as per original review)…

        1. Different configurations available in US – here there is only the 1920*1080 screen with i7, 8GB, Windows Professional 7; so didn’t even bring the “low end” Z’s into the country

          Either way its what I use for my contracting and its brilliant – portable enough and great battery for trans-tasman (NZ to Australia) flights while happy crunching Java development.  And main thing that makes my mac book brethren in the office envious – the 3 external full HD LCD’s attached…

      1. Primarily my distaste comes from the bend me over attitude taken by most Apple users that they wouldn’t take with any other provider.
        You think  most PC manufacturers went through the pain of keeping both PS/2 ports and USB for so long because they wanted to?

  4. Man, that was good analysis, Rob.  I’m no huge fan of Apple products from a “taste” perspective because I’ve usually been left cold by their aesthetic appeal. But yeah, I never could find much fault with their design vis-a-vis functionality, especially with OSX and iPods.

    And I’m typing this on a Sony VAIO that’s barely two years old.  It’s a VGN-NW160J, which won’t go down in history with other alphanumeric monikers like XJ6, F16, M1, or THX-1138.  Two years old, and I can’t get a new battery for it… just aftermarket rebuilt ones.  I bought it because it was pretty, had a Blu-Ray drive and HDMI output, and otherwise met my not-too-demanding standards.  Plus I’d gotten good service out of my last two VAIO computers, though they were desktops from nearly ten years ago and weren’t laden with useless bloatware.  So I took the bait and bought this VAIO a couple months before Windows 7 came out (since the packaging assured me I’d get a free upgrade to Win7 when it actually did come out), and after three months of Vista hell and Win7 showed up, I actually liked this laptop for most of a year.  But then Sony went and abandoned me.  I can’t find support for the mechanical issues (which are so far minor), and the Sony VAIO support website is spectacularly unhelpful.  They seem allergic to good ideas and once they find themselves coming down with one, they scramble to rid themselves of it.  I miss my ThinkPad, though I don’t think I’ll get another.  I know I won’t get another Sony.

    FWIW, my VGN-NW160J has a perfectly comfortable keyboard for me.  But then it’s not an ultraportable, and I type with two fingers.

    1. “I miss my ThinkPad, though I don’t think I’ll get another.  I know I won’t get another Sony.”

      I’ve never said that about a Mac. I’m sure I’ll be recognized as ‘just another fanboy’, but w/e. They do exactly what I want them to do, in a way that lets me enjoy the experience. I never found that experience on any other computer.

      1. I never found that experience on any other computer.

        Closest I came was on the second of my two VAIO desktops.  That sucker did everything without complaint.  I only had to leave it behind when I changed jobs; though I’d spec’d it, researched it, and bought it, NBC paid for it so I couldn’t keep it.  And predictably enough, Sony never made another machine remotely like it again.

        I understand why Mac people love their Macs, but they’ve never managed to do what I want them to do in a way I could enjoy, though in recent years they’ve come much closer than they used to be.  And they’ve certainly gotten more stable, as far as I can tell.  My wife’s family all love theirs dearly, and my brother’s quite an outspoken convert.

      2. Obviously, you’ve never built your own machine. The case that I’ve used for the past 6 years has housed a 450 watt PS and a 700 watt PS, three motherboards and processors. Currently I have 4 TB in 3 drives and another 3 TB in enclosures. The motherboard as 6 GB RAM and a quad-core processor. The set-up cost me about $300 and I’ve been elated with it for about 2 years.

        Trust me, my ‘puter does exactly what I want, fanboy and Apple isn’t telling me what I can and can’t do with my machine.

        1. Trust me, my ‘puter does exactly what I want, fanboy and Apple isn’t telling me what I can and can’t do with my machine.

          I think the point was that the Mac does exactly what the OP wants, not that it is the only machine capable of doing what everyone wants. With computers having become as complex and powerful and as widely adopted as they are today, there is no longer a single objective way to rank all of the machines one can buy or build. Instead, it has become all about multilateral tradeoffs – what combination of things do you most wish to get and what combination of things are you willing to sacrifice to get it. It is the same even with the very consideration of building a machine from scratch – I have built four for myself, for instance, but I would never recommend to my father to try to do it.

          From this perspective, then, Apple has indeed stood unique for a long time now. Apple has a pretty single-minded focus on usage, while every other major manufacturer I can think of focuses on customisability and specs. Apple appeals to those who love to use technology, while everyone else appeals to those who love technology itself. While neither approach is inherently superior to the other, it is pretty easy to see why Apple fans remain Apple fans (and also why some people viscerally despise Apple) and why they cannot see themselves switching to any alternatives – it is not out of loyalty to Apple as a company, it is out of loyalty to an approach that only Apple takes (god knows why none of the other manufacturers try it, but none currently do).

        2. I’m happy for you.  No really, I am.  You’ve got a computer that you like and I have a computer that I like.  My 5 year old macbook does what I need it to and I am quite pleased with it.

          You have different priorities than I do so what’s the big deal about having different computers? Is it a case of “Everyone else must think like I do” or do you think your arguments will somehow change a mac fan over to pc?

    2. Weirdly, I have exactly the same computer. I’ve been using it constantly for two years too and I’ve never had a problem with it. The screen’s fine, the keyboard’s comfortable and having Blu-Ray and HDMI-out are both big advantages. I dread to think what would happen if it went wrong, though.

    1. Dude, the triggers on the Dualshock 3 are as rubbish as the keyboard on this laptop.

      And when the internal battery starts to go, you have to bin it. As I have with my first PS3 one. Great design?

      The one they released without rumble because that was ‘last gen’. That great piece of design.

  5. “Instead, Apple iterated the original design”

    Isn’t that exactly the rationale Apple has for suing . . . well, nearly everyone?

    1. I wouldn’t have said Apple copied the DESIGN of the Sony, but they did copy the FORM FACTOR (or whatever you want to call it), which is different. They fill the same roles but put them side by side and they are very different.

      Apple made a new design based on the niche product type Sony developed and iterated that.

      Look at Sonys new tablet, clearly an answer to the iPad but it’s design is suitably different. But that can’t be said about all of the smartphone/tablet marker.

      1. But copying the form factor was exactly what they sued Samsung for in Europe. They even photoshopped the Galaxy Tab to improve the match.

  6. I just think it’s sad how far the computer has fallen into the world of consumer electronics – slim, sleek, and sexy above all else.

    I’ll give you my parallel port when you pry it from my cold, dead hands!

    1. Hear, hear! 

      Yeah, my CF-29’s heavier, slower, etc.   Fan?  What’s that?  If I drop it, it still works.  If someone spills their coffee on it, I’ll just hose it off, wipe it down, and keep working.

      And I don’t need a carrying case.    So there at least two or three kilos I don’t need to schleppp around.

  7. If you want a much better example of an iterative design, particularly where keyboards are concerned, the IBM / Lenovo Thinkpad is probably as good as any you’ll find. The first Thinkpad T-series was released in 2000: we’ve since had 11 years of the exact same keyboard, except for the introduction of winkeys with the T60 in 2006 or so.

    Here’s what it looked like in 2000:  http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a7/ThinkPad_T20.jpg

    What I have sitting in front of me today is basically the same, and still hands-down the best keyboard you can get on a laptop. Actually, you can trace the design back to 1995 or so.

    And yes, Sony is completely schizophrenic.

    1. I got a Lenovo IdeaPad after the first of the year. I came to Lenovo after being disgusted with my last few laptop keyboards and being sickened by the ones I’d play with at the stores. All of the reviews lead me to Lenovo and I couldn’t be happier. (Hadn’t been this happy with a  laptop keyboard since the late 1990s.) It’s only problem is a large touchpad that my palm always hits to reset the cursor. Wish I didn’t have to turn off the full functionality of the touchpad to do some typing.

      Have all PC manufacturers of laptops forgotten the need of a good keyboard? I can see why Lenovo it the top seller in China & other parts of Asia.

  8. I wouldn’t buy this thing, either.  But the Wired reviewer mistakes for “design flaws” things that simply place him outside the target audience: road warriors who want rocking graphics performance at their home base without the hassle and expense of a separate workstation machine.  A user who, it’s worth noting, would need a MacBook Air and an iMac to accomplish the same feat with Apple hardware.

    It’s an exotic, and is priced accordingly.  No big deal.

    1. So “road warriors who want rocking graphics performance at their home base without the hassle and expense of a separate workstation machine” are looking for crappy keyboards and touchpads that are too small and located poorly?

      I’m pretty sure those things are design flaws in any users books.

  9. Apple didn’t copy the form factor from Sony alone.  Contemporaneous with the original Vaios were the Panasonic Toughbooks in small form factor – so the smallness thing was in vogue at the time and not simply a Sony/Apple smashup.  People have been designing tiny computers since before the Epson Sinclair and it’s been on everyone’s mind *constantly*.

    The thing I’ve always hated about Sony is their poor tech support. It’s been a few years since I’ve called them, so perhaps it’s changed. But talk about a nightmare trying to get any help for stuff that broke.  Much easier to call Dell or Apple or Lenovo and actually get help.

  10. The problem of forgetting everything that every happened in the past is hardly restricted to SONY: it’s endemic to the whole software industry due to its widespread ageism.  The standard hiring practice is to hire children with no experience for all positions since “kids know about computers”- at least according to late-night TV showings of “Wargame” which is HR’s sole source of IT knowledge.  Due to the noxious myth of “onwards and upwards” it it is generally forbidden to talk about anything that actually exists; let alone anything that existed in the past.  All things must be developed anew from scratch as the History of the World started when the developer in question entered the room.

    This, of course, results in buildings full of people wasting their lives reliving the dead past step by step.  I saw a guy spend 6 weeks infuriating an important client by failing to cook up a way to reliably transfer a file over the client’s unreliable network to the accounting mainframe*.   After he quit I solved the problem using Kermit in an hour.  More recently I see that a lot of the SEO people have been spending hundreds of man years trying to duplicate Whitehead’s Victorian “Principa Mathematica” in HTML so that they can tag all possible things on a web page.  Eventually, someone told them how Goedel proved mathematically that this can’t be done.  Ooops.

    * Of course, we no longer have mainframes in remote data centres.  We have servers in the cloud.  That’s totally different since they changed the dymo-tape labels on the machines in question.

  11. I had a sony kp51ws520 tv.  Three years after purchase a diode on the g-board died.  Not only was the TV no longer supported, but replacement parts were unavailable.  I spent a year looking for repair people.  This nearly 2000 tv, which was massive, ended up trashed due to lack of support or parts.  I am not buying another sony product.  I do not see the sony corporation lasting for another 50 years.

    1. Sadly I think this is true of almost all consumer electronics.  Even if the parts are available when you add in labor it generally costs less to toss it in the trash and buy a new one.  So you are forced to give up a model you may have liked for a new one that you may not as much, tossed an item that was 99% functional, and you added a little more junk to the planet.

  12. Some Mac fanboi should at least get the laptop before “reviewing”.
    You can’t review something you’ve never touched.

    I have a Z21 and the flaws are none of which you listed. The only real flaw are the speakers. It’s an amazing laptop. Eats my MBA for breakfast.

  13. It’s worth noting that the high-end Vaios (like the Z) are still manufactured in Japan, which must account for some of the price premium.

  14. This is what happens when the bosses at a company constantly churn.  Even if you retain the same President or CEO unless they are closely involved in the design like Jobs was you won’t have anyone driving consistency.  When you have management churn every new generation of bosses seeks to make their mark by tossing out what the previous ones did, or they simply change things to create the illusion of meaningful action.

    I suspect Sony has top executives who are solely interested in financial minutiae and division heads who are coming and going.

    1. Mark, you totally nailed it.  One thing I’d add — if hardware designers are anything like software designers, they hate reading legacy “code”, I assume in their case that would be old design docs and schematics.  They wind up constantly reinventing the wheel because the last “inventor” screwed it up in some way, or the new guy has a peccadillo about something the old designer did.  I imagine the concept of constant refinement is built into the way Apple designs its hardware.  That is if its anything like software.  In software, if the code writers don’t consider the future of the code, and have no respect for design principles and clearly written code, it makes refinement almost impossible, meaning the wheel will be reinvented by necessity.  Could it be that way in hardware as well?

  15. I would prefer a laptop with the keyboard on the edge with a mouse pad that pops or flips out to the side, so my hands don’t have to learn a whole new set of placement patterns. I hate having to plug in an external mouse just to use a laptop like a normal computer.

  16. Someone on my LUG mailing list kept on saying that the iPod was a waste of money when you could get a Sony Walkman MP3 player for way cheaper.  I looked at the pictures and it looks like the iPod, but does anyone know if the spinning wheel works on the Sony?  It looks like someone copied an iPod from a picture without ever trying one.

  17. Nice piece, Rob. One thing that the Apple haters/fans seem to miss is that a monopoly, even one from such a clever company, is inherently unhealthy – Sony could just be the firm to give Apple some serious opposition in the top end of the market, thereby driving both on to even better things and offering a wider choice to consumers. If only Sony would get its head out of its corporate bottom and actually produce the well-specced, well thought-out, well-designed machine we all know it’s capable of. And not call it the VZX-G7846P either. It’s incredibly frustrating watching them miss the mark so consistently for so long. 

  18. Really nice write up. I recently had to buy a new Windows laptop and was completely blown away by the crap available. For starters, every single one of them had a numpad if it was big enough, making the entire front surface a cluttered mess where it could so easily have been spacious and beautiful. There were no exceptions that I could find: if there was space, there would be a numpad, across all brands. Its as if Apple hadn’t shown the world how beautiful a laptop could be, and how nice a little empty space is.  Nevermind the fact that a USB numpad costs $10 if for some reason I happen to want to use a laptop for data entry.

    But none of the problems were so bad that they couldn’t be solved by concentrating on the design for awhile and honestly asking themselves what could be improved. “Well obviously that touchpad is in the wrong place and has a crappy feel, lets fix that”. Stuff like that. Which you’d think would be so obvious, but they all get so caught up in being an “all new model for the new year!!!111!!”.

    Sometimes I think Apple secretly makes every other computer and OS too, just to make themselves look good.

  19. Has the author actually used one?  I suspect not.  The machine isn’t loaded with Junk ware as Sonys used to be.  The keyboard is fine, the fan isn’t noisy and to be frank can’t be heard at all unless you put the machine under load for quite a period of time. The only thing i would suggest isn’t great are the speakers.

    Yep it is expensive but the Zs have always been marketed as high end machines for people who need both power but also a compact machine.  Compared to lugging around the Macbook pro i know which one i would plump for.  In a business which owns quite a few computers the Sony Z is one of the best that we have.

  20. I’m actually wondering, Jamie Mutton, if the original reviewer on Wired even gave it more than a 5-minute ‘it’s not a Mac so therefore I’m going to hate it’ workout. I very much doubt it.

    Take the excessive noise comment – the Z can run in balanced, performance and silent profiles, and you can control this by the button conveniently placed there on the top of the keyboard. In silent, it is actually silent – and when you run it in performance mode, you get enhanced cooling (and therefore the noisy fan) which allows you to run heavier-duty apps without e.g. it threatening to catch fire as on the Macs.  The reviewer undoubtedly hadn’t tried prodding the VAIO button yet.

    The only bloatware on the Z is the Norton antivirus. Pretty much everything else deals with VAIO specific (and in most cases actually useful – something the author clearly didn’t realise because he didn’t bother to delve into them) utilities.

    I get the comments about the keyboard, and the non-optimal placement of the touchpad. This was undoubtedly for battery reasons. And by the way, the battery allows this machine to eke out a 7-real-hour runtime in Windows. Something the Air – either version – can’t do in OS X. No mention of that I see.

    I have other complaints about the Z, but these are borne of actual experience, and none of them are in the review.  All in all, that was a complete travesty of a review by – and I’m sorry to say this – a Mactard. Of such people are the vast majority of what passes for the tech press made of these days.

    The same goes for this ‘x company doesn’t do things like the company I have a religious affiliation with’ article. The tech world will be a much duller place if everyone also acted in the one-size-fits-all-soccer-moms way that Apple does. Sony may be greatly diminished, but they still push real technology envelopes.

    1. yeah, i don’t think the Z is perfect either, but i’m very happy with it.  Performance is great and the ability to drop on another battery means i can truly go all day without worrying about charging.  The trackpad on our Macs is better but i wouldn’t want to trade down on things like the screen resolution.

  21. The big thing the reviewer is ignoring is that the Vaio is a completely different kind of laptop than the Macbook Air. The Air is a pretty low-end laptop; the latest batch of high-end phones is almost as powerful. The Vaio packs punch comparable to a Macbook Pro, but in a much smaller package. It’s a market that Apple is ignoring: you either get a small, thing low-end laptop or a big, heavy high-end one.

    1. “The Air is a pretty low-end laptop; the latest batch of high-end phones is almost as powerful.”

      There are cellphones with Intel Core i7, 4GB of RAM and 256GB SSDs? I fear you are not in the same universe as the rest of us.

    2. It’s a market that Apple is ignoring…

      The “people who have a lot of money to drop on a laptop but care more about specs than usability” market? Yeah, they probably are. Time will tell which company made the better business decision.

    3. You must be kidding me.   The latest Airs are no slouches, in fact, my dad’s ’10 MB Air feels faster than my ’10 MB Pro.   Both are 13″, his has better resolution, mine has more memory.  His machine feels faster than mine and cost less… oh and it weighs a full pound less.

      Yes, if you’re recompiling kernels or working on 400,000-part AutoCAD drawings, the MB Air may not be fast enough.  But it’s plenty powerful for 99% of uses.

      1. Sorry – don’t think 99% of uses is right; maybe 99% of users would be more accurate?
        Used an MBA for standard development – not kernel – before and but it just doesn’t keep up.  But for 99% of users whose most intensive task is browsing their photo library while playing music – sure. But that was mcv’s point; that’s not the market this laptop is aimed at.

  22. Well, being an actual owner of Sony Z, i7, 8GB RAM, 1920 x1080 screen, let me comment.

    >>Unfortunately, it also costs much more than the Mac
    First, Mac doesn’t even offer full 1920×1080, full 1080 hi-definition resolution on any screen less than 17″, second all Mac’s are proudly made in China, next to the rest of crap. Sony Z is the only laptop you can buy that is actually made in Japan to your specs. In fact when you order Z – it custom built for you in Japan. Third – 13″ Macs are thicker and heavier and slower.
    Hence the price difference.

    >>It’s got a loud fan
    Did you actually use Sony Z? I couldn’t hear any fan noise to speak of. It turns on when needed and I only sense warm air, much less noise. Although I saw a few reviews on internet that copy/pasting each other regarding fan noise nonsense.

    >>It’s loaded with junkware, because paying two grand for a laptop doesn’t
    get you a system that hasn’t been sold to someone else.
    Not sure what you mean by latter statement, but when you order Sony Z you can select “Fresh start”, meaning *no bloatware* or any extra installed. Just pure OS.

    >>As described by Null, it [keyboard] has “almost no travel”.
    Compare to what? To picking a nose?
    Being actual user of Sony Z, the problem with keyboard is not a lack of travel, but rather unusually high pressure you need to apply to key to have it pressed. This is something to compare to previous Z model – and it may take time to get used to. Not a disaster but to my experience is much more noticable that “almost no travel” concern.
    Same with power button – takes kinda too much pressure to press. But you do it only once per session after all.


    1. Fresh Start isn’t available on the Z at Sony’s store. In fact, I was unable to find any laptop there with the option at the moment. They all have “No Fresh Start” listed as fixed specifications. When the option is available, is it still a $50 “upgrade” only offered when you first get the $100 Windows Professional upgrade? I guess it’s hard to know, because they’re not offering it right now!

      “the problem with keyboard is not a lack of travel, but rather unusually high pressure you need to apply to key to have it pressed”

      Yeah, that … sounds great!  The point is that earlier models didn’t have any problems with the keyboard.

  23. Imho, Sony has always had this problem (or strength depending on how one looks at it). They have apparently had the long term corporate culture of not being  ‘evolutionary perfectionists’ (i.e., like Apple) as much as fast prototypers with a deluge of ever-new products in many market categories – iow’s it is just an attribute of their corporate culture, marketing philosophy, etc.  Not that I haven’t been frustrated myself with all the issues Rob brings up. The same things he mentions in his article – very valid points on design intention, execution, evolution – I can remember thinking the very same things about Sony going way back (I am almost 60) regarding all their products. Their marketing, and evident attitude about that relationship between product development and service to consumers –  I can remember having the same issues even as a kid re: their transistor radios; or later, how about same issues with, ‘boom boxes’,  ‘Walkman’ products in the early 80’s? TV sets too. It is not just about ‘Vaio’. This is an old and frustrating story. I have deliberately avoided Sony products for many years because of this, and when I have given in, it has been to my regret.
    Perhaps the only thing that will change this is what is happening now – so much economic contraction that relying on fickle, compliant, accepting, design-naive consumers with mucho disposable dinero will now become a thing of the past – and a move towards less products, but more quality, craft, and thoughful MEANINGFUL design will become more prominent out of economic necessity.
    Meanwhile, regarding deficiencies of keyboards – does anyone think, now that Jobs is dead – Apple will wake up from their own design coma, and discover the ‘delete’ key?

  24. Very insightful, Rob, but you missed one very important aspect of design.  Functionality is directly tied to form, which leads to taste.  When is a chair not a chair?  When it is art.  If it doesn’t look like a chair and won’t function as a chair, one can hardly call it that, not matter what title the designer assigns to it.

  25. i see what sony’s is problem here, rob.  thanks for pointing out that in spite of some pretty great innovations, it’s just not an apple product. 

    and you linked that fabulous wired.com article that says the same thing. good for you. good for all of us. one of us might have bought a computer that wasn’t an apple product!

     jobs almighty, to think i even considered looking at a computer that wasn’t an apple product!  what was i thinking?

    thank jobs almighty in heaven for apple products and the perfect geniuses who produce, service and sell them, huh rob?

      1. turn of the century?  please. 

        rob, try to review without comparison to apple products (and without otherwise subtly using apple as the standard) and turn that frown upside down.  it’s a very worn and tired perspective to imply that no one but steve jobs could get it right.

        1. “turn of the century?  please”

          I guess you don’t know an awful lot about the subject! It’s OK. Sony’s been making ultraportables a long, long time.


          “it’s a very worn and tired perspective to imply that no one but steve jobs could get it right.”

          Didn’t you read the post? It’s OK. As I wrote in it, Lenovo gets it right too, with the ThinkPads. Apple’s just a good example here because of the similarities between the Air and the Vaio X and Z.

      2. “I’ve owned practically every Sony ultraportable since the turn of the century.”

        Snap. Then why would you endorse such a piss-poor review? I understand it might be a point you’re trying to make, but it really doesn’t help your argument from the POV of an informed reader.

        I’ve read many of your tech articles and despite this line of defence, it does appear that you’ve been forever predisposed to being an Apple user – the bit about building PC’s and blaming their instabilities on the kit / OS as opposed to the builder’s inability to build a stable machine does indicate a particular giveaway in this regard.

        1. I must be misunderstanding you since your point seems so absurd, but are you saying that Rob’s extensive experience with Sony ultraportables makes him less qualified to comment on their evolution over the years, rather than more?

          And I’m also having trouble understanding how being a fan of Apple laptops makes his opinions on other laptops any less relevant, especially when he’s comparing their evolutionary processes. Are you saying fans of Apple can’t form meaningful opinions about non-Apple products? Even when they’re acting in the capacity of a tech reviewer? Even when they’re users of other laptops? Is technology really that partisan, and is Apple really a wedge issue?

          Apologies if I’ve completely misunderstood you, since it seems like I *must* be misunderstanding you.

        2. “Then why would you endorse such a piss-poor review?”

          Nah, it’s a well-written and mostly approving 7/10 review of a $2,500 laptop. And I’m here to tell you why 7/10 is a serious problem for Sony and its overpriced laptops. 

          it does appear that you’ve been forever predisposed to being an Apple user

          I only bought my first Mac a few years ago and while I’m extremely fond of Apple’s laptops, I’m also fond of lots of other ones, too. I’m not interested in people who want to interpret stuff in terms of what “side” the author is on — it’s just so much confirmation bias and projection and it’s pointless.

          The thing you have to understand about tech writers, is we basically have no sunk cost in any of this. Whether we want it or not, it’s piled upon us. The emotional connections are different. It’s hard to explain, but when commenters come at us talking about predispositions and fanboy this and that, it’s crazy, because you’re the ones buying your own loyalty. When writing about gadgets, our job is to help the undecided make good decisions. Just keep buying $2,500 of happiness, if you already know what makes you happy.

          the bit about building PC’s and blaming their instabilities on the kit / OS as opposed to the builder’s inability to build a stable machine

          What are you referring to? I build myself a new gaming box at least annually. If you think that the kit from, say, Shuttle PC, is always stable, you’re living in a fantasy world.

    1. So the parts where Rob pointed out how Sony consistently made good laptops and he even specifically links to a Lenovo laptop as an example of a great one made no impact on you, then?  His whole point is not ‘Apple is the Way’ but instead ‘stick with a good design and make it great will yield better results than continual redesigns’.

  26. I have the previous-gen Z12, so I can’t comment on the new iteration, except to say that pulling out the graphics adapter is probably a dealbreaker for me. I think what they did was well-motivated — take as much as they can from the previous-gen Z but make it super-thin — but I use my computer at a desk only sporadically, so the new one would have me spending a lot of money on an external dock I don’t need.

    Really, what I think I want my next PC to be is a cross between the Samsung Series 7 tablet and the Asus Transformer Prime — usable in clamshell mode or in tablet mode, finger touch plus active digitizer, high res, Core i5 or better, lots of RAM, good-sized SSD. Hopefully someone will make me one.

  27. I love to travel light.

    I’ve been a big fan of the ultraportable. Sony sold me on the format with… Oh, I can’t remember the model number. It was back when VAIO’s were purple, so possibly a decade.  I’ve own a Sony ultraportable ever since then.  The last two I bought had the option when buying to no have it loaded with crapware, and it wasn’t. The last one I bought even came with both XP and Vista restore disks bowing to the then disastrous thing that was Vista.They were workhorses. I carried one and used one as my main work machine every day doing real work, full Adobe suite stuff, not just web browsing. The latest ones I could get 9 hours of battery life out of (With the extended battery.)  And I never once had to take one in for maintenance.The damn things had a few things which drove me crazy. They used the same hard drives as iPods.  They are ridiculously slow.  Fine for music, horrible for load times. Launching Photoshop one could make a sandwich and eat it before it was ready to use. I’m not exaggerating. Yes, they eventually had SSD options but they made something already luxuriously expensive cross the road to luxuriously expensive.  And video performance was crap. The most recent one I bought couldn’t even run an external display at HD rez. Anything the slightest bit 3D died a horrible death.  But damn, I could still get 9 hours of battery life out of the thing.And then this fall Apple came out with the new Air. Affordable even with a decent sized SSHD.  Photoshop now launches in 3 seconds. Vastly better graphics performance—I can even play games. Games!  I run dual monitors at full resolution.   I can’t get 9 hours of battery life out of it, but I can usually get more than 4 if I need them.  Which is usually enough.  It’s not perfect, I can’t buy an extended battery and I’ve always been a big fan of the dock which is again not an option.

    But Apple finally got it right enough to get me across the fence and I’m not going back any time soon. Which means its a sad time for both Apple and Sony because Sony is the only real competition that Apple has on the hardware level.

  28. Don’t buy Sony electronics.  I have a Bravia LCD TV that basically stopped turning on.  A little googling showed that this is a very common problem with several models of the Bravia, some of them breaking down within the first year of ownership (mine made it for about 5 years, but I tend to think a TV should last a little longer).  They just make bad crap.  Ignore them and they’ll go away.

  29. Iterative design isn’t just to create good stand-alone products, it’s also a matter of usability.  People hate change — it’s a fact.  Just look at all the hate Gnome 3 and Unity get on Slashdot on a daily basis if you don’t believe me.

    How do you change without pissing people off?  You have to evolve slowly.  Give people something new, then keep iterating it.  Eventually you’ll wind up with something that’s the same, only better, than the first iteration.  Unless a user goes back to try the first version (hint: no one ever does) they’ll be perfectly content that the latest version is exactly the same as what they’re used to.

    With Sony products, you buy one now and you buy one in 2 years, they’re completely different.  You have to get used to it all over again.

    Apple isn’t the only example of iterative laptop development either.  Look at Lenovo.  They didn’t even create the original ThinkPad, but they’ve kept cranking out new models that don’t rock the boat too much.

    So iterative design isn’t just about creating a “better” product — it’s also about satisfying your users in the long run.

    1. The fact that there are only two brands that DON’T change designs every 1-2 years, and one of them is primarily a business brand (Lenovo), which of necessity must stay consistent, says that the vast majority, over 75%, of the consumer computer models change designs as often as Sony.  Doesn’t make them right and Apple wrong, but the market seems fine with ever-changing designs, 75% of them at least.  Recall, Jobs made it a “religion” to never ask consumers what they wanted – because only he knew (direct quote)!  Just sayin…

  30. What does the phrase “almost no travel” mean, in respect to the keyboard?  What is travel being used to describe?

    1. Distance the key travels from “not pressed” to “pressed.” People who type really hard like keyboards with more travel. Island keys are so bad for my hands I might as well be typing on a desk. The fact that Vaio Z is purported to travel LESS means I’ll probably not even want to try one out.

    1. That’s not it at all.  Sony occasionally puts out something that rocks.  But then they completely reinvent it or stop supporting it even if it’s superior to the comparable alternatives (Betamax, anyone?), and what they put out next does not retain the winning features the previous product did.  They don’t seem to have a coherent progression of improvement, learning from their mistakes and embracing their successes.  They’re consistently inconsistent.

      That’s why I brought up my own VAIO laptop.  Once Win7 was installed and all the updates applied, it did everything I wanted it to.  It is and was a perfectly good machine that met all my needs, except for battery life (never lasted more than 2 hours unless the wireless was off, the screen dimmed, and the BD-ROM drive idle, and then I’d get nearly 2.5 hours).  But now that the 2-year-old battery only lasts 30 minutes on a charge and I need to get a new one, I have no support from Sony.  At all.  It’s as if my 2-year-old computer ($1300 new, so not exactly bottom-of-the-barrel) is a 1960 Edsel Ranger.  And I don’t know how other hardware manufacturers handle such things, but this was the first computer I ever bought that came with no user manual, bound or PDF, at all.  Not even an orientation slideshow.  I know most people never read those things, but I like to have at least a reference card that sums up all my features, catalogs the “bonus” bloatware, or reminds me where all my little-used ports are.

      It’s as if Sony has no attention span, and treats all its products as orphans.

  31. Design versus taste – thought provoking!

    I have a Vaio from 9 years ago and, unlike a couple Dells after that, it still works. Soon will be buying my third Macbook Pro, 
    The corners on Sony’s new model $%^&*( looks painful. Reminds of a DiY to make the MBP feel better – google: “macbook pro sharp edges fix”

    Sony. How sad. I could see buying an X505. 

Comments are closed.