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Scott's Column
Sony's Laptop Line Up and 13" Laptops

May 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis

Introductory paragraph goes here.

Current Topics:

Gaming


I completed Half Life 2, as part of The Orange Box. I started Half Life 2: Episode One. It picked up exactly where Half Life 2 finished. It's all the same, simple puzzles to get past some areas and lots of shooting bad guys (or bad things). But this is what I like. I get a kick out of figuring out the best way to wipe out the enemy with as little ammo as possible.

The graphics for Half Life 2: Episode One do seem a little sharper than Half Life 2, but I was hoping for more. I completed Episode One in a few hours of game play. I think I finished it in three sessions at the computer. It was very short.

So one to Half Life 2: Episode Two. Once again Episode Two picks up exactly where Episode One left off. And again the graphics could be a tiny bit better, but it looks all the same to me. I was hoping for a bigger improvement in graphics between the three version. Oh well. I am liking Episode Two less than the others. There are white spider like creatures that spit on you and wipe out you health. They are very annoying. They are not as much fun as previous creatures. Oh well.

My son is almost finished with Portal, also included in The Orange Box. Game play in all the games I have played are very well done. I wish the graphics were better in the later version. Otherwise I have to recommend this game to anyone that likes the FPS (First Person Shooter) genre of computer games.

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Sony's Laptop Line Up

Last month while taking my son shopping for my wife's birthday we had the opportunity to stop in to an Apple store and a Sony Style store. I was interested in seeing what they had to offer in the way of laptops. I know the Apple line, and I would get either the MacBook for $1,299 or the MacBook Air. If I get an Apple product I will most likely get one from the refurbished section of their web site. On the day I wrote this paragraph they had a MacBook Air for $1,099 with the 1.8 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2 GB of memory and an 80 GB hard drive.

There really isn't that much to learn at an Apple store. But Sony... that's where things get interesting. I mentioned last month that I either want a lightweight notebook with a 13-14" screen, but with higher resolution than 1280 x 800. Or I want something with HDMI and possibly Blu-Ray. Well, Sony is the place for Blu-Ray. I saw a number of different models. It was a bit overwhelming. But here are the basic products I saw that day.

FW Series - I saw two FW laptops. These each have a 16.4" screen, which is a bit larger than I want. The first was $1,429 and came with an absolutely gorgeous 1920 x 1080 full HD display, a Blu-Ray burner and HDMI output. At about 7 lbs. it is not uncomfortable for a laptop that will not travel much, but road warriors need look elsewhere.

The second FW they had on display was priced at $1,129. What you step down to with this model is a 2.0 GHz processor (down from 2.4 GHz), 1600 x 900 display and a Blu-Ray player. You still get the HDMI output, and the laptop supports 1920 x 1080 output through the HDMI port. This means that you can use this laptop as a Blu-Ray player connected to a 1080p HDTV. If size is not an issue this may be good enough. However, looking at the two displays side by side shows how must nicer 1920 x 1080 is over 1600 x 900. It will be hard to "settle" for less than 1080p after seeing the $1,429 FW laptop.

I could not help myself from looking up the FW on Sony's web site. To see the least expensive version with the Full HD 1080p screen I configured one with a 2.0 GHz processor, 2 GB memory, 160 GB hard drive, a Blu-Ray Read Only drive and the XBRITE-FullHD screen. It came in at $939.99. That means I could get a really nice multi-media laptop for less than a grand. Not bad. I would probably spring the extra $100 for the large capacity battery if I went this route.

SR Series - Next up was the SR laptops with a 13.3" screen. This would compete directly with the Apple MacBook. I don't remember the price of the SR I saw at the Sony Style store, but I have already configured one for my Laptop Comparison Spreadsheet (LINK). I noted that my spreadsheet listed an SR290, but their web site showed a model SR390. The salesman said they didn't have higher resolution than 1280 x 800 in the SR model line. Sure enough their web site makes the same claim, a maximum resolution of 1280 x 800. I did a quick configure with the usual 2.0 GHz CPU, 2 GB RAM and 160 GB hard drive. I also upped the graphics to the optional ATI Radeon HD 3470 with HDMI. The total was $1149.99. Unfortunately, the SR series only has an option for a Blu-Ray burner as a $500 option. I am assuming the HDMI output could provide 1080p resolution, but that would need to be answered. It doesn't matter when the price jumps over $1,600 with that Blu-Ray drive.

Z Series - Looking toward the smaller size and still hoping to find a high resolution screen I stumbled across the Z Series. They had 2 Z690 models on hand. One was priced at $2,899.99 and the other at $2,279.99. What do you get for almost 3 grand. You get a 2.66 GHz processor, a 13.1" screen with a resolution of 1600 x 900, HDMI output, Blu-Ray burner, 320 GB hard drive spinning at 7,200 RPM and 4 GB memory all in a package that weighs less than 3-1/2 pounds. Some impressive hardware, but at a heck of a premium. The $2,279.99 version drops you down to a CD/DVD burner and a 128 GB solid state drive.

Time to check Sony's web site. The least expensive Z series was $1739.99 and included a 2.4 GHz CPU, 2 GB of memory, 160 GB hard drive and a CD/DVD burner. A Blu-Ray burner is the only optical drive option at $500 pushing the little laptop back over 2 grand. Just too expensive for my tastes. Remember, I said if I got the MacBook Air I would get a refurbished model. I am not going to spend over $1,500 for a laptop.

CS Series - After looking at all the TVs I saw the CS Series laptops on the way out. It caught my eye because I saw a Blu-Ray logo on the laptop with a 14.1" screen priced at $1069. Hmmm. Unfortunately the 14.1" screen is the same lackluster 1280 x 800. And even though you get a Blu-Ray Read Only drive you don't get HDMI with the CS Series. That kind of sucks, and doesn't make much sense since you can't fully appreciate Blu-Ray at such a low resolution. You do get 4 GB of memory and a 250 GB hard drive to go with a 2.0 GHz processor in a 5.7 lbs. package. A bit heavy, but to be expected since this is not priced like a slim and light notebook. My overall impression is that this is a basic notebook that happens to have a Blu-Ray player that will not be able to live up to its potential. Sorry.

Conclusion - I really liked the 16.4" FW laptop with the full HD screen at 1920 x 1080. I could live with this laptop. I would probably custom configure one to save a few bucks in the areas I think are worth cutting corners. The FW is the least expensive way to get a Blu-Ray player with HDMI in a Sony laptop. I really like the look of the SR Series. If it had a Blu-Ray Read Only drive as an inexpensive option or a high resolution screen I would consider it over the Apple MacBook. But as it is the HDMI output would only be good for downloaded HD content. I was hoping to get Blu-Ray with a Sony.

If I do go with a Sony it will most likely be if I decide to get a full size multi-media laptop. Otherwise Sony is just a few ticks short in all their other offerings.

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13" Laptop Reviews

SInce I will be in the market for a laptop in the near (or not so near) future, I thought I should read some reviews. This month I am going to link to a few reviews of some 13.3" laptops. I will provide my own comments I gleaned from the reviews and how they influence my purchase decision.

All of these laptops have relatively low resolution, most are 1280 x 800. However, for the units with HDMI ports can we need to research whether they can be set to 1920 x 1080 when attached to a 1080p monitor. If so I would hope to be impressed watching HD video content on a big screen. Unfortunately, this is something that will need to be answered on a case by case basis. I will do that level of scrutiny when it is time to buy.

Apple MacBook Air, Reviewed by Laptop, February 6, 2008
3 out of 5 stars

"Apple’s MacBook Air holds the title of the world’s thinnest notebook, but that would be meaningless without two very important features: a full-size keyboard and a brilliant 13.3-inch display. And the multitouch trackpad isn’t just surprisingly large, it also brings some of the iPhone’s mojo along for the ride by letting you use gestures. Investing in this $1,799 machine does involve significant trade-offs, but it’s a remarkable piece of engineering that offers the productivity performance users on the go need without weighing them down."

Apple MacBook Air (2009), Reviewed by Laptop, February 27, 2009
2.5 out of 5 stars

"One of the thinnest, sexiest ultraportables ever makes its return in grand style. The updated Apple MacBook Air may keep the same svelte appearance and sturdy aluminum unibody build as its predecessor, but under the hood lies a faster processor, a powerful new Nvidia GeForce 9400 discrete graphics card, and a 128GB solid state drive. Priced at a hefty $2,499 as configured (and starting at $1,799), the MacBook Air may be worth the investment for those on the hunt for a premium ultraportable, but only if they can live with short battery life and the same design trade-offs of the first model."

Apple MacBook Air, Reviewed by PCMag, January 16, 2008
3.5 out of 5

"The MacBook Air is officially the thinnest laptop, and the lightest of those with a 13-inch screen. But there were compromises that had to be made."

Comments: The MacBook Air is the pedestal laptop. Yes, it is very light and thin. Yes it is very attractive. However, the lack of a user replaceable battery with relatively short battery life is a huge concern. There is also the heavy price to be concerned with. I am NOT bothered by the lack of an optical drive in this 3 lbs machine. If I decide to get a MacBook Air it will be a refurbished unit from Apple's web site.

Apple MacBook (2008), Reviewed by Laptop, October 17, 2008
4 out of 5

"It’s not just beautiful. It breaks the mold for thin-and-light notebooks. The new MacBook’s unibody aluminum construction, one-of-a-kind touchpad, and edge-to-edge glass display draw you in, but what impresses us most about Apple’s overhaul of its most popular portable is that it offers robust productivity and graphics performance without sacrificing endurance. Yes, you can find comparably configured and attractive Windows systems for less money. But in the case of the newest MacBook (and the new MacBook Pro as well), users get impressive style and speed—and a software bundle that’s actually useful and not chock-full of crapware—with very few trade-offs."

Comments: I really like the MacBook. If they would increase the screen resolution I would put it at the top of my list. Otherwise it is perfect, if a bit expensive. I would love to see Apple make a 14.1" laptop with a 1440x900 display. That would be the perfect mid size laptop. This is the most likely Apple laptop on my short list. Everything else must be compared to this model.

HP Pavilion dv3510nr
4 out of 5

"As one of the inaugural notebooks of Best Buy’s Blue Label program, HP’s Pavilion dv3510nr ($1,099) offers features that the big-box retailers’ customers have been asking for, including a thinner and lighter design (this is HP’s first consumer 13-inch notebook) and a backlit keyboard. This system also sports a fast Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 4GB of RAM, discrete Nvidia graphics, and a stylish design. HP even throws in a remote control for music and video playback. Some buyers may be turned off by its below-average battery life, but overall the dv3510nr is one of the most attractively designed and best performing notebooks for the price.

"When we watched a DVD of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, visuals were bright and crisp; when we output the movie to a 46-inch 1080p Samsung TV via the HDMI port, the Nvidia graphics card was easily able to handle it, and both video and audio remained in sync."

Comments: I will be a little concerned with the battery life on this model. The Apple Powerbook reviewed by the same people managed 4 hours and 45 minutes compared to the HP's 3 hours and 41 minutes. That's a big difference if you are looking for two full length movies on a single charge. The HDMI performance stands out for me if I am going to live with a small laptop.

Dell Vostro 1310, Reviewed by Laptop, April 18, 2008
4 out of 5

"The 13.3-inch screen with 1280 x 800-pixel Antiglare resolution (you can also opt for 1440 x 900 on the 1510 model) is perfect for business use. It was plenty bright at the brightest setting, and we saw no glare using it in our office. Viewing angles were excellent both vertically and horizontally. Movies were acceptable but not great. There Will Be Blood looked dark and dingy, but then again, it’s a dark movie. Finding Nemo was plenty colorful, although not as sharp as it should be.

"Mediocre sound quality is an issue with this system. Even turned all the way up, we had trouble deciphering the words in There Will be Blood, and our Melissa Ethridge CD sounded so tinny, we actually just wanted to turn it off."

Comments: When I initially discovered the Vostro 1310 I thought I found a treasure. I read that you could get up to 1440x900 resolution, but I was disappointed to find that higher resolution required stepping up to the 15" version, not the 13. With the lack of HDMI output I can't see buying this laptop over the HP Pavilion dv3510nr.

Dell XPS M1330 (Penryn), Reviewed by Laptop, March 11, 2008
4.5 out of 5

"We heralded the Dell XPS M1330 as one of the best 13.3-inch notebooks when it debuted, and when we see the trade-offs and exorbitant prices that newer entries demand, the M1330 looks even better."

Comments: I found the battery tests disappointing, and really want a higher resolution screen. They went up to a 9 cell battery to get 5.5 hours of normal use, yet only 2.5 hours of DVD playback. Maybe I am being harsh, since I rarely see battery life for DVD playback published anywhere. Compared to the Apple MacBook this is an excellent excuse to stay with Windows. The HDMI port doesn't hurt either. Just as with the MacBook I would put this at the top of the list if the screen resolution was better than 1280 x 800.

As it stands I am considering the Dell XPS M1330 or the MacBook. If I go Mac I will most likely get a refurbished unit to get the price down. Hopefully I will do this same review of reviews for 14.1" laptops.

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Conclusion

That's it for this month. I have a lot of stuff floating around in my head, but can't quite get it out. Hopefully more content is coming soon. Don't hold you breath, I expect to take a few months before getting ramped up on some new topics.

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