First impressions of Linux on the Sony Vaio Z

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:

  1. Ultra-portable

    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.

  2. 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.

Hardware Specs

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:

  • Intel® 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.

  • Build Quality

    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.

  • Customer Service

    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.

  • Linux Support

    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.

    • Dual-booting

      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.

    • Bluetooth

      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.

  • Display

    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.

  • Power plug

    Power plug is in a seemingly fragile location.

    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.

  • Keyboard

    • 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

      Placement of Fn, PgUp, PgDn, Home, and End 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.

  • Media Dock

    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!

  • Touch pad

    Main textured area above; button area (also touch-sensitive) below. Fingerprint reader at bottom center.

    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:


    Section "InputClass"
            Identifier      "Touchpad"
            MatchIsTouchpad "yes"
            Driver          "synaptics"
            option          "AreaBottomEdge" "3800"
    EndSection

    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.

Conclusions

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.

11 Comments

  1. Did you manage to get a satisfactory config for your Z22? I came across this post while attempting to resolve the same touchpad issue for a recently purchased Z21.

  2. No, Geoff, I never found a solution. The closest I came was to use the patch I linked to, along with “AreaBottomEdge 3800” to keep the button areas from acting as part of the touchpad, along with TapAndDragGesture turned on, so that I could tap-and-drag on the main touchpad area. I was never able to get the actual button+drag to work.

    I also gave up on Sony after 2 failed repair attempts on the keyboard, and sent the laptop back for a refund. I’ll be trying my luck with another company…

  3. I am considering to buy the new Sony VAIO Z3 that just been released.

    But after reading this post i really have doubts whether to pursue or not.
    My plan was to install Ubuntu on it and keep it as my Linux laptop as i already have a Windows Laptop.

    I can live without a working webcam and a printer but getting Support is very imported to me.
    Its wasted money if you don’t get a proper support for your product specially concede ring that Sony VAIO Z3 does not come cheap.

  4. Just a note about Sony customer support – my experience is exactly as yours, only for a far longer period and with far, far more trouble as a result. I cannot put into words how mind-bogglingly incompetent customer support were. As an example; after sending my laptop to them to replace the fan, it came back with no sound, windows messed up and thinking it had an optical drive installed. In the end, after an enourmous amount of completely futile email and contact, I sent it back to them for another try. Now, I have an SSD in my unit. It cost about 700 UKP at the time of purchase, I fitted it myself. The problem was that sound no longer worked. The response from the repair center? a quote for replacing the SSD with their standard HD, so they could put their standard Windows image onto to machine.

    No, really. I mean, really. I’m not kidding.

    Sony customer support are very quick to respond but it’s no good, because what they come back with is *utter* rubbish.

  5. I got the touchpad to work by setting all zones on a recent xorg (even middle button works)

    my only issue atm is the weak space bar, it doesn’t always register hits (or double registers them)
    its 1 year old

  6. i have debian testing running on my Z3 i7, 8gb ram, 2x128GB ssds. everything is running great with software raid0 and encrypted volumes (haven’t tested the memory card readers and i don’t think the fingerprint reader has drivers). didn’t have to do anything special to configure my system other than during installation i needed to provide some firmware files and i think i had to install a package to get cpu scaling to work (i think it was cpu freq utils, not 100% sure anymore). i mostly use an external keyboard and monitor. i would recommend using a 3.4 or higher kernel because the system would freeze with the default 3.2 kernel installed in debian (ivy bridge/ HD4000 issues apparently). with the liquorix kernel (3.5 now) things are stable and working beautifully. all in all i’m very pleased with the machine.

  7. You mentioned the power dock, does it actually work under Linux? If so what functionality in the pmd does or does not work?

  8. One more question, you mentioned the display was a bit hard to read for text due to the large resolution coupled with the small screen size. I’m a software consultant that travels so the laptop display is my primary display, I only have access to external monitors when at home.

    Do you send any DPI text scaling, Such as through the gnome tweak tool, and if so how well does it work with the various Linux apps? Also have you found you have gotten more used to the small text the more you use it or do you find it a strain to use it for long periods?

  9. I like small text; far more than the average person. I constantly have friends and coworkers (before I worked at home) saying “How can you read that tiny text?!” But the default size was still too small on the Vaio.

    I didn’t do much tweaking with increasing font sizes in KDE (which I prefer over gnome), but I know that can be done. I ultimately sent the computer back for a refund, and am now using a Lenovo T420s, which is a much more reliable system for me, and the lower-res screen results in larger text that I have no problem reading.

    I didn’t have the Vaio long enough to get used to the small text.

  10. Just a note on the power adapter for the media dock: Sony provides two, but you only need to use the big one with the media dock combo. To power the laptop alone, you can use either the big one or the smaller one (which outputs few amps). The small power adapter is designed to not physically connect to the media dock so you don’t mix them up accidentally.

    So if you’re traveling with the media dock, you only need to pack the big power adapter. But if you’re traveling with just the laptop, you can save a little space by using the smaller, weaker power adapter instead.

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