My company just bought me a new laptop, and they let me choose which model I wanted, as long as the price didn’t get too insane. I had two main goals while shopping:
I do a fair amount of traveling, so I wanted something small. As the former owner of a 12″ PowerBook, as well as an 11″ Acer netbook, I also knew I loved the small form factor even for daily, non-travel use. It’s nice to have a laptop small and light enough to browse the Internet during commercials while watching TV (well, if I didn’t use a DVR and fast-forward through commercials…). So I knew I wanted something in the 13″ form factor range.
- High Resolution Display
As someone who has spent the last 4 years using 3, 24″ monitors, I knew I wouldn’t be happy downgrading to a typical laptop display. My old laptop display (15″ wide screen, 1280×800) was painfully low-resolution for me. I was always scrolling to see everything. The typical choice for the 13″ target form factor I was looking for was a 1440×800 display, which was not my ideal. Then I found the Sony Vaio Z, with optional “full-HD” (1920×1080) display.
The model I settled for was the “customizable” Sony Vaio Z VPC-Z2290X (Available here, although I suspect the link will be broken in a few months). The cheapest configuration with the high-resolution screen came to around $2000, and my company opted to go for 8gb RAM (rather than 4gb) for an additional $150 or so (as the RAM is soldered to the mainboard, and non-upgradeable). These are the configurable specs of the unit I received:
- IntelÂ® Coreâ„¢ i5-2435M processor (2.40GHz / 3.00GHz with Turbo Boost)
- 8GB (4GB x2 fixed onboard) DDR3-SDRAM-1333
- 13.1″ LED backlit Full HD display (1920 x 1080)
- 128GB (64GB x2) solid state drive with RAID 0
- Power Media Dock with AMD Radeon HD 6650M (1GB) graphics and CD/DVD player / burner
- Total price (before tax): $2209.99 (order date 01/16/2012)
It also came with Windows 7 64-bit, and a bunch of other worthless software that I don’t really care about. If you want a review of the pre-installed software on this laptop, I’m sure google can help you with that.
I’ve had the laptop a week now, and finally have Debian Linux (mostly) configured the way I like it, so I think it’s a good time to write about my first impressions. Later I’ll write more after a longer break-in period.
My first impression immediately after taking the system out of the box was that it feels very flimsy. I still have this impression after a week. I think only time will tell if it’s really a problem. The laptop is very light. This alone is a good thing, as every ultra-portable ought to be light. But it doesn’t feel like I’m really holding a laptop. And the LCD screen can be easily bent out of shape. My main concern is with packing this device in my luggage–will it survive baggage handling (either by me, or by airline personnel)? Time will tell.
The first thing I noticed when I turned the machine on was a bright green pixel, about mid-screen, and an inch inside the left border. I tried the online customer service chat, which confirmed, after about 30 minutes, that this was indeed covered by my warranty, and that I had to call customer service to do anything about it. Why bother with chat customer service if they can’t actually provide me with customer service?
So I called their customer service, and with little hassle was promised a tech would be calling me within 24 hours to schedule an in-home repair in the next 3-5 days. Yesterday (a full week later) I called them back, as I had yet to receive any notification whatsoever from a tech. I was told that the replacement part had been ordered, and should be with my Wichita tech soon, and that my issue was being escalated and I would receive a guaranteed call from my tech, or someone in a supervisory role. I wasn’t told a specific time line. I have not yet received a call (it’s been less than 24 hours though).
My biggest impression of Sony’s customer service and tech support, however, has not been their lack of responsiveness, but how when I talk to them, the reps all seem completely incompetent. And I don’t mean in the normal tech support way, where they tell you to click on the start button after you’ve told them 18 times that you’re using Linux and not Windows. I mean in the “Well, Mr. Hall, what I see is that your service ticket says, well wait… uhm… hold on.
Okay, as I said, what I see is Can I put you on hold please?”
In other words, it feels like it’s everyone’s first day, and I’m the guinea pig they use in training class.
Once I have my LCD replaced, I’ll be able to write more on this whole customer service experience.
I read before buying this laptop that most, but not all, of the hardware was supported out of the box. The two notable unsupported items were the webcam and the finger print reader. I don’t care about either of these, and thus have not even tried to use either one, so will make no further comment on them.
It should be noted that all of these observations are based on my installation of Debian squeeze. If you’re using Ubuntu, you’ll probably have fewer (or at least different) bumps than I did, as it’s often more up-to-date. If you’re using any other distribution, YMMV accordingly.
Getting Windows 7 to play nicely with Linux was a bit of a challenge. But it was doable. I now have Windows 7 running on the first 64gb SSD “drive”, and Linux on the second. I’ll write more about the hairy details later.
- Installing Linux
This was a bit tricky for me, since I wanted my root file system to be encrypted. I’ve done this before with a Debian lenny installation, and had no problems. But google seems to think that dm_crypt during squeeze install is a bit buggy (specifically, the version of grub shipped in lenny doesn’t detect a crypted root fs properly, so fails the installation). I solved this problem by installing to a small (~1.5gb) partition on sda1 (the Windows drive) without encryption, then setting up sda2 (the 2nd 64gb SSD drive) with encryption, and moving my Linux installation (except /boot) over. I’ll detail more of this when I write about dual booting.
- Graphics support
Because I initially installed on a 1.5gb partition, I installed only a bare bones installation, thus the installer did not detect my graphics hardware for me. But once I did install X and KDE, I had no problem starting them. I love the way X.org now detects display hardware in most common cases. This sure beats the heck out of editing modelines (anyone else remember that?)
- Wireless networking
I spent a few frustrated hours on this one, until I found that the Intel wireless adapter isn’t supported by Linux until kernel 2.6.36 (squeeze ships with 2.6.32). Adding backports to my sources.list, then installing kernel 3.2.0 solved that problem quite easily.
This laptop only has two USB ports, and one of them is required for the media dock if/when you use it. So I knew right away I wanted a bluetooth mouse, rather than a USB one, to save the precious USB port for something more important. I got a Microsoft Bluetooth Notebook Mouse 5000 bluetooth mouse, which came highly recommended by a number of review sites. Pairing it to the laptop was easy, however getting it to auto-reconnect after waking the laptop, or rebooting is proving difficult. I suspect this has nothing to do with the mouse or the laptop, and everything to do with software configuration.
The 1920×1080 display is beautiful and sharp. One would expect this from such a high-res screen in such a tiny space. As a down side, that means it can be a bit hard to read at times. But that’s a sacrifice I knew I would be making. But then I usually like small typefaces anyway. It’s not uncommon to hear comments like “How can you read that?” when people observe me working.
Also, as observed by some other reviews I’ve read, the viewing angle on this display is not the greatest. But then I wouldn’t expect that from such a tiny laptop display, either. And if you’re not trying to share a movie with a group of people from your laptop (which is annoying even on a 17″ monster laptop), I don’t really understand why viewing angle is that important.
And lastly, the backlighting ins’t perfectly even. Especially at the edges and corners it tapers off a bit. Not a big deal for me, since I’m using this laptop mostly for coding, and not photo editing. If you need a laptop for photo editing, this probably isn’t for you.
And while on the topic of power adapters… the power plugs into the laptop in a place that just looks notoriously fragile. And when sitting with my legs crossed and the laptop on my lap (as I often do when watching TV or in bed), the plug is pushing firmly against my leg. I fear it may break easily. Time will tell if my concern is valid.
- Keys too sensitive
A few keys on the keyboard are too sensitive. Most notably, the “b” key, but a few others have doubbled up as well. I often get two b’s for the price of one. Adjusting the key repeat rate doesn’t have an affect (no surprise). This means the keyboard is registering multiple key presses when I only hit the key once. A bit annoying.
- Fn keys
There are two Fn keys, one at the lower left next to Ctrl, and one at the lower right, near the arrow keys. It takes a little getting used to (as does every new laptop keyboard layout), but I think it’s a pretty reasonable layout. I’ve used some laptops where using PgUp, PgDn, End, and Home keys were a real pain. I can almost use these by touch now. Within a week, I’m sure I’ll be able to.
- Keys too sensitive
One secret to making this system so small was by making it as two systems. The optical drive (DVD in my case, or Blu-Ray is available), GPU, analog VGA port, and a few other ports, are all provided by way of the external “media dock.” I don’t have a lot of need for a GPU, or I’d probably think it was really annoying to have to plug in an external box to play World of Warcraft, or whatever it is kids play these days.
The thing that really annoys me about the media dock, though, is its power adapter. When the media dock is plugged into the laptop, power is provided to the laptop through the media dock. The annoying thing is that the power adapter that plugs into the media dock is a different size than the one that plugs directly into the laptop. This means you must carry two power adapters with you–or commit to always using the dock, or never using the dock. Lame!
The touch pad has two areas. The first, main touch area is textured. Below that is the “button area.” Physically, the entire area is touch-sensitive. This means that when clicking one of the buttons, the mouse often moves. To solve this problem, simply configure the synaptics driver to ignore the lower portion of the touch pad. I did this by creating a configuration file, /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/synaptics.conf as follows:
option "AreaBottomEdge" "3800"
This, however, has the unfortunate side effect of preventing detection of right-clicks. I’m still looking for a solution to this. It also seems to prevent click-and-drag from working.
An alternate solution is to patch the xserver-xorg-input-synaptics package with this patch. This gets left- and right-clicking to work properly, but click-and-drag still doesn’t work.
Well, I’m not sure what my conclusions are yet… I’m aware of some possible issues that I’ll be watching very closely over the next few weeks. Sony assured me I have 30 days in which I can return the product if I’m unhappy. I doubt I’ll be returning it, but I do still have a couple more weeks to make that decision. Stay tuned for more updated info as I break this laptop in further.