Sony Vaio VPC-F21Z1E review

Sony's monster Vaio F is a hefty beast, weighing in at a knee-crunching 3.1kg. It's a Sandy Bridge Core i7 multimedia powerhouse that'll handle pretty much anything you can throw at it. Nvidia graphics give it 3D video, and the large screen is ready for 1080p Blu-ray video. Could this be the ultimate multimedia laptop?

Design

This is what we’d call extreme design. The glossy black plastic lid (embossed with a metallic VAIO logo) lifts up to reveal a similarly glossy screen bezel and a sculpted keyboard tray. Behind the keys a narrow grille hides the speakers, while a solid looking matte black base at a definite angle gives the whole machine a wedge shape, making the keyboard ergonomic. Oddly, the lid is shorter than the main body of the laptop, giving it an attractive asymmetric look. Open the screen and the dropped hinge brings the screen down to the level of the keyboard and hides the lower part of the bezel.

The backlit chiclet keyboard is comfortable, with nicely clicky keys that have plenty of travel. They're a good shape, with plenty of space around them to reduce the risk of typos. Our only real quibble is the size of the Caps Lock key, which is easy to hit when aiming for Shift or A; with a machine this size, there’s plenty of room to lay the keyboard out well. Start to type and the backlight comes on, slowly fading out when you stop. It's a nice effect, and works well - and makes sure you're not burning power lighting keys when you're not using them. Sony has taken advantage of the VAIO's size to give you a full numeric keypad for gaming (or really exciting spreadsheets).

The wide keyboard bezel has touch-sensitive media keys for quick control of your favourite media player, with LED indicators so you know you’ve got the right button. There are also three buttons that launch the Vaio Care support tools, turn on 3D support, and act as a shortcut to your favourite application (the default is the Vaio Media Gallery). Additional indicators for power, storage and wireless are under the wrist rest, where they're a little hard to see. Other control keys, for volume and brightness as well as zoom and sleep, are on the function keys.

The raised wrist rest in a matte plastic contains an integrated widescreen touch pad with a pattern of raised dots to give your fingers traction. The size and shape go well with the large screen, and overall response is good, with just the right amount of sensitivity. The single button can be a little confusing at first, but it's easy to get used to. Sony provides some basic multi-touch gestures: flick for navigation, the always familiar pinch zoom, and a pivot rotation. The bottom and right of the pad are used to provide basic scrolling capability, with an on-screen icon that replaces the mouse pointer when you're in the scroll area.

The case size leaves room for plenty of ports. Like most Sandy Bridge laptops there are USB 3.0 ports, along with one USB 2.0 port for older hardware or for a mouse. A gigabit Ethernet port gets you online for low-latency gaming, while VGA and HDMI ports handle connecting the Vaio F to monitors and multimedia systems, along with a with a small FireWire port for working with video cameras. The dual mode audio connectors mean the headset port is also an optical out for connections to high-end audio systems. If you're using a digital camera, there's a combined SD and Memory Stick card slot, so you can read both Sony's and more common flash memory.

Performance 

Streamed 1080p video quality was good, displaying crisply and cleanly, as did local 720p video sources. The Vaio F has one of the best screens we've seen in a long time, responsive and with plenty of contrast - and it’s especially good at displaying blacks. The 16.4-inch screen and 1920 x 1080 resolution is high enough for true 1080p HD video (although it makes fonts a little small for day-to-day work, so you may want to change the Windows dpi settings for larger icons and display fonts).

To keep up with 3D video, the screen has an impressive 240Hz refresh rate (120Hz for each eye), and you get active shutter glasses for playing 3D games or watching 3D Blu-ray video. That high refresh rate means that 3D games get good frame rates, just right for immersive gaming. The large bright screen stops 3D content looking too dark, as it does on some systems, and the size means there's less to distract you from what's on screen. We did find the glasses a little uncomfortable, and you'll need to keep an eye on battery life, as they're not rechargeable.

Sound quality is good but not quite as good as we'd expected. The recessed speaker grille projects stereo sound directly at anyone at the keyboard, and while it's crisp and clear there's not much bass response. If you're using the Vaio F for video and audio, we'd recommend using the HDMI port to hook it up to an external amplifier and a 5:1 speaker system. 

We expect good performance with Sandy Bridge Core i7 machines, and we weren't disappointed with the Vaio F. There's plenty of power here, for everything from gaming to video editing. The addition of an Nvidia card for extra GPU power and hardware acceleration means you're going to get out of a lot of tools like Photoshop - which can also take advantage of the large, clear screen. That power and the large screen do mean you're going to get a lower battery life; with mixed usage of web browsing and multimedia streaming we saw 2 hours 19 minutes on balanced power settings with Wi-Fi on. 

Sony bundles a lot of software with the VAIO F. Google's Chrome replaces Internet Explorer as the default web browser, while Adobe's Photoshop Elements 9 and Premiere Elements 9 give you most of what you need to edit images and videos, along with Microsoft's Live Essentials bundle. If that’s not enough image software there are tools for importing and displaying images, with Picture Motion Browser to import and export content, and Sony's own Vaio Gallery (along with Nvidia's 3D photo tools). Corel's WinDVD gives you Blu-ray player software and Roxio's Easy Media Creator lets you burn your own disks. Something a little different, there’s a Sony utility to link your Vaio to a PlayStation 3, using the laptop as a PlayStation keyboard and your console to display video and images from your laptop on a big screen over a wireless connection.

It's not all fun and games, there’s Office 2010 Starter for word processing and spreadsheets, as well as the Evernote cloud note-taking tools and Skype for VOIP. You can use Norton Online Backup free for 60 days, and McAfee Internet Security should help protect you from viruses and malware if you can handle the nagging interface.

Verdict

There's a lot to like about the Vaio F, and very little to dislike. It's a powerful laptop that'll handle just about anything you'll throw at it, from video to games to 3D, to day-to-day work. There's more than enough power, and the 1080p screen is one of the best we've seen. Even Sony's idiosyncratic design makes sense, with the Vaio F a striking example of PC design. While it is a little on the heavy side that's only to be expected and you're likely to keep a machine like this on a desk rather than on your lap.