Review: Sony's flash-based notebook -- a road warrior's dream

What's notable about this almost-weightless workhorse is that there's no traditional platter-spinning 2.5-in. hard drive

Sony Electronics' Vaio TZ191N notebook proves that good things do come in small packages. Inside the black carbon-fiber case is an Intel Centrino Duo processor (a 945GMS chip running at 1.2 GHz) with a bus speed of 533 MHz, 2GB DDR2 SDRAM and a double-layer DVD writer. The 11.1-in. WXGA active-matrix TFT color LCD screen (1,366 by 768 resolution) is amazingly sharp and drew oohs and ahhs from colleagues. In terms of size and weight, it's a road warrior's dream: It measures 10.9 in. wide by 7.8 in. deep by 1 in. high and weighs in at a mere 2 lb. 10 oz. (with battery) or 3 lb. 6 oz. (if you throw the power cord into your travel bag).

What's notable about this almost-weightless workhorse (and what makes its small size possible, in part) is that there's no traditional platter-spinning 2.5-in. hard drive. Instead, Sony has loaded this laptop with a 32GB Ultra ATA flash drive. Given the drive's lower power demand and its lack of traditional moving parts, I expected cooler and quieter operation, long battery life and faster performance. I got it all.

The machine runs quiet and cool; there is no mechanical whirring (or other noises) when you're saving a file, particularly large Word or PowerPoint files. The only heat comes from the motherboard, and it's released through a small vent on the side of the unit.

Battery life from the lithium-ion battery is also impressive. I ran the benchmarks once for each of three battery-power settings and then connected the system to AC power to make sure the battery setting didn't greatly influence performance. I enjoyed 3.75 hours of battery life when I used "High Performance" power mode. Power Saver mode, as its name implies, was stingy with power: It provided almost 5 hours, 35 minutes use and was acceptably fast for word processing and spreadsheet tasks. I found this mode all right for everyday work, though slightly sluggish (but still perfectly acceptable) when surfing the Web using the built-in 802.11n wireless (there is no Ethernet port).

Sony claims that you can get up to seven hours using the Power Saver mode, but that assumes you'll accept the dim screen display, which I found to be too faint for everyday work. Setting the screen to an acceptably brighter level took a toll on battery life, but overall I was pleased with having more than five and a half hours of uninterrupted use. A word of warning: By default, Power Saver mode also puts the system into sleep mode after just three minutes of inactivity, which then resets the brightness level back to "low" when the system awakes. But you can easily override these settings.

Overall, I preferred the setting that Sony uses as the default. In this "Balanced" mode, the system provided 4.5 hours of battery life with a bright, readable screen that didn't consistently drop into sleep mode.

I wondered what kind of performance I'd get from the flash drive. I was pleasantly surprised. I ran Version 2.54 of HD Tune's hard drive benchmarks, since my favorite hard drive utility (HD Tach) doesn't have a Vista-compatible version. Testing with 32KB blocks (HD Tune's default), the average transfer rate was 33.6 MB/sec. with 0.3msec access time. The drive performed at its best when using 128KB blocks, and there was little difference among the three power settings: I measured transfer rates of 48.7 MB/sec. for Power Saver mode, 49.5MB/sec. for High Performance mode, and 50.2MB/sec for Balanced mode, all with the same 0.3msec access time. These speeds are quite good when you compare them with 6.5MB/sec for my two-year-old HP Pavilion laptop with a traditional 100GB drive (a Toshiba MK1031GAS).

Other benchmark results didn't show such dramatic differences from my traditional hard drive's performance, but they were still good. For example, PassMark's PerformanceTest 6.1 showed 19.8MB/sec. for sequential reads and 10.8MB/sec for sequential writes; the HP measured 16.6MB/sec. and 21MB/sec., respectively.

I settled on Balanced mode and found that the system could always keep up with what I was doing, whether I was checking my Blockbuster online rental queue, sorting a five-page spreadsheet, building charts and presentations, or resizing graphics.

love the size and weight of the Vaio TZ191N. The 82-key keyboard has a good feel. Keys were in the "right" place, and my fingers didn't trip over any of them (though those with larger hands might find it a bit small).

There's a lot to like, but there are only very limited uses for which I'd recommend this system. The best features -- its size and the flash drive -- are also its biggest limitations.

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