Hands-On: Sony Vaio VPC-F21Z1E/BI 3D-Ready in Review
Third dimension. Sony implements its Bravia 3D technology in a notebook. Because of the decent viewing angels the picture you see through active shutter glasses is even good along the horizontal plane. Is this sufficient to justify the high list price of 1.999 euro? Sony invited to Munich on 23rd of March and introduced its new F-model.
At the IFA 2010 the manufacturer announced its first 3D-notebook based on the high-quality F-series for pros. Now, we hold a 16-incher in our hands, which does not look like a F-model at all. Haptics and optics clearly remind on the consumer, multimedia market as can be seen in the pictures.
Read on to learn about our first impression of the Vaio VPC-F21Z1E/BI. Does it continue the qualities of the former F-models, e.g., a matte WUXGA-display with enhanced color space? Please consider that the test device is just a prototype and so some details and properties might change before it is actually launched. We will provide a final review at that time.
Case & Design
Because of its wedge-shape the rear of the barebones looks bulky. The huge display hinge isn't hidden in any way. So, it is able to hold the thick and big lid firmly in place. Not all parts of the case are flexural rigid. Although it does not give way anywhere (keyboard, base plate, palm rests), it twists to a certain extend upon picking it up at the corners.
The palm rests looks like a plate levitating two millimeters above the base unit. This longish rectangle, in which the touchpad is incorporated, is slightly rubberized. According to Sony the plate is meant to improve the optics. In addition it prevents some finger prints in front of the keyboard.
Many colleagues criticize the high-gloss surfaces of the lid, the screen bezel and the input area. The supplied polishing cloth has to be used quite often. In the prototype the middle of the lid gives way already under light pressure. We hope that this is improved before launch time.
Two USB 3.0 ports are available besides standard ports like HDMI and VGA, but they are not new in the series (VPC-F13L8E/H already had USB 3.0). The front houses an iLink-S400 port (FireWire). ExpressCard or 7.1 audio outs are not on-board of the multimedia F-series. I.e, an ExpressCard34 slot is no longer available.
The keyboard layout is the same as in the Vaio EB-series and that's nice. The available space is efficiently used, the arrow keys are somewhat separated and the keys have a concave head to improve typing. The key stroke is firm everywhere. However, the feedback is no longer that crisps as, e.g. in the last EB-model, the VPC-EB3E4E/WI, but softer.
You can feel the mouse pad without looking, because it is covered in small bumps. Due to its rather high friction compared to napless surfaces, the haptics might need some time of getting used to. The mouse buttons are implemented as rocker switches below the whole pad. They have a short stroke. A 3D-key above the keyboard toggles the emitter of the shutter glasses. You should only push it while running a 3D game. Otherwise just a message pops up.
Sony keeps up with the tradition of the F-series and installs a matte display with strong colors and wide viewing angles (Vaio Premium Display). If we do not run a 3D-game and use the shutter glasses, the viewing angles are stable up to 90 degrees in horizontal direction. Vertically the stable range is, as usually, clearly smaller, but a deviation of up to 30 degrees is still possible.
So, the F21Z's display is ready for games, multimedia and pros. In our detailed review we will also provide measurements of brightness and color space. But, Sony already explained that it is a high-quality screen, such as in the Vaio VPC-Z13Z9E subnotebook during the introduction. The later proved to be a color expert covering sRGB and AdobeRGB in our test.
Being equipped with a Core i7-2630QM (Quadcore, Sandy Bridge) and an Nvidia Geforce GT 540M the system can achieve upper range multimedia performance. According to Sony the graphics card is not going to be changed, although the cooling system would also suffice a higher TDP (see large vent grille). Regarding processor, we think that the laptop will also be upgraded by higher clocked quad cores just as the processors of the F12/F13 were upgraded step-by-step.
We could not test the performance of current games on-site, but, we already had the same CPU/GPU combination under review in the Acer Aspire 5750G and the Schenker XMG A501. Please refer to these reviews for details about the gaming performance of the Core i7-2630QM and the Geforce GT 540M. Shortly we will also publish a review of the Packard Bell TS11 with the same configuration.
The performance of the old ATI HD 5650 and the Radeon HD 6550M is sometimes exceeded in games. If a game profits from the faster CPU (Turbo Boost 2.0) the fps can be even better than of the HD 6550M. Should Sony built-in GDDR5-memory, which is supported in principle, the performance could particularly improve in in higher resolutions. Nevertheless, the Vaio VPC-F21Z1E won't turn into a gaming machine.
The three-dimensional look through active 3D-shutter glasses, TDG-BR100, (same glasses also supplied with the Bravia 3D TV) can convince us. Compared to former 3D-notebooks with weak viewing angles, the user is no longer forced to look at the screen from a frontal point of view. Along the horizontal plane the 3D-vision stays stable up to 45 degrees (vertically the stable range is smaller). So, two or three pairs of eyes have a stable view. The radio emitter, which is integrated in the TFT's bezel and can synchronize one of more shutter glasses, is not visible.
How is the 3D-picture created? Alike in the Bravia TVs pictures for the right and the left eye follow in a fast refresh rate of 240/200 hertz (@1080p, High Frame Rate-technology from Sony). The active shutter glasses synchronously black out the left or right glass. So, the picture reaches the appropriate eye at exactly the right time.
Sony save neither on the display nor on the "3D generator" and demonstrate how 3D (gaming) has to look like on a laptop: Wide viewing angles with and without glasses, contrast-rich colors and likely an enhanced color space (measurements in a review to come).
Once again we do not like the high-gloss look of the whole case. The look differs from the conservative looking F-series of 2010 and tries to attract fans of multimedia. Wheter this is successful is a matter of taste.
If you want to run current games in highest resolutions, you'll be disappointed. The Geforce GT 540M is targeted on smooth gaming in WXGA. Don't even think about a game in WUXGA. According to our existing GPU tests, it is simply not powerful enough. Please also refer to the data sheet of the Geforce GT 540M for further information. Only a GDDR5 video memory (1.024 MB) might bring about some surprises.
Sony intends to charge a high price for good 3D. Although the Vaio VPC-F21Z1E/BI is not yet in stock of shops, it is already listed starting at 1.930 euro. A rather steep price, considering that the same CPU+GPU hardware (Core i7-2630QM and Geforce GT 540M) is already available in the Packard Bell EASYNOTE TS11-HR-158GE for 899 euro. Admittedly, the TS11-HR is a low-cost gaming-notebook, but a difference of 1.000 euro is too high for impulse buying.