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Sony VAIO Z – Two months on review

Sony VAIO ZIt’s been two months now since I replaced my dead MacBook Pro with a Sony VAIO Z, so was it the right choice? Well for a start it’s currently working, so that’s one up on the MacBook right there.

Before I start, I should note that the MacBook Pro was a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo 2008 refresh model (click for specs) costing £1300 when new, with a 4GB RAM and 7200 RPM hard drive upgrade. The VAIO Z is a custom build from the Sony Style Store, the VAIO Z V series missing the DVD drive and with a regular hard drive instead of the quad SSD of its more expensive X series brethren. On top of this model I added a £30 (since increased to £50) upgrade to from 2.4 GHz to 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and the £50 (since increased to £70) 1920×1080 pixel screen instead of the standard 1600×900. This brought the smaller VAIO to £1400, an increase of £100.

I’ll break the comparison between the two up into categories:


I opted for the £50 upgrade to the 1920×1080 (Full HD) display on the 13.1″ VAIO Z, and while the gamut is admittedly much better than the 15″ MacBook Pro (on par with or maybe even slightly better than my HP LP2475w monitor you see it with to the left), the full HD resolution is just too much for a 13.1″ screen. By comparison, the 2 inches larger MacBook Pro only had a  1440×900 screen, and that felt a high pixel density at the time! The DPI settings in Windows 7 do alleviate the problem somewhat, but setting a higher DPI comes with its own toll – incompatibility with some software, Dreamweaver CS4 to call one out. As you can see from the screenshot, for most of Dreamweaver’s interface, the DPI settings have no effect (they should make UI elements and text bigger) but in the properties bar at the bottom the larger size causes some of the options to be cut off the screen. Other programs have smaller issues such as pixellated icons and UI elements.


The 2.53 GHz Intel Core i5-520M processor in the VAIO definitely is a slight boost over the 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo of the MacBook, but that’s to be expected, two years have passed since the MacBook was brought out. To be honest, it’s difficult to compare performance as the MacBook was running Snow Leopard and the VAIO of course is running Windows 7, so the operating system probably has more of an influence on perceived performance than the processor.

The slightly quicker 7200 RPM drive in the MacBook helped the snappiness no end, so I’m quite sure an upgrade from the 5400 RPM drive to an SSD would help the VAIO no end.

Both laptops were fitted with 4GB RAM, which never seemed enough in the MacBook and seems to be even more of a burden on Windows 7. With Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver and Firefox open, the machine slows to a crawl.

The VAIO Z has a clever little switch to swap between the Intel integrated graphics (okay for web browsing) and the onboard NVIDIA  GT 330M 1GB graphics, and an ‘Auto’ position that switches to the integrated graphics when on battery power. It’s with some trepidation that I bought another laptop with NVIDIA graphics, since it’s their fault my MacBook died, but whatever. They’ve probably fixed that issue now. I’m not a gaming person, so I’ve not given the NVIDIA chip a massive workout, but for some reason Photoshop CS4 seems to lag on the VAIO. Even with nothing else open (to eliminate RAM as the cause), simple stuff like scrolling around an image or zooming has a pretty nasty delay. The same actions used to be buttery smooth on the MacBook, and aren’t nearly so bad on my desktop. Odd. Another pretty huge problem is that with the graphics switch to auto, the computer holds off switching the graphics if anything is using it that could be affected by the swap. Sometimes this cutoff comes into action with no apparent reason, refusing to switch graphics, and sometimes the cutoff fails to work, causing the computer to crash and bluescreen, or at the least, force close whatever program was using the graphics. I’m getting a bit fed up of Photoshop crashing and losing all my work just because I unplugged the laptop, so now the switch is pretty much permanently set to NVIDIA only mode. Great idea, and the battery life is a bit better when using the integrated graphics, but the implementation within the OS is my no means seamless.


The major selling point (and the reason it was so dear compared to its competitors) of the VAIO  is its weight. at a claimed 1.3 kilos instead of the 2.6 of the MacBook, it’s much more pleasant to carry around in a bag. Slipped in a satchel, you barely notice it’s there (unless you also throw in the bulky power supply and its three pin lead). By comparison, the carrying the MacBook around lead to some pretty stiff shoulders.

The chicklet keyboard on the VAIO is ace – very sturdy with well spaced and positioned keys. The feel is very similar to an Apple desktop  keyboard. The trackpad, however, is not. It’s a bit too small,  the clicking buttons are too close, making your thumb cramp, and the actual pointing action – terrible. The cursor jumps around seemingly at random. Multitouch zooming via pinch exists, but only in some software (not Creative Suite) and with a very jerky motion. It’s hard to be kind about the MacBook’s keyboard and trackpad since they only worked intermittently after about a year (the ribbon cable wouldn’t stay in its connector), but when they worked, the trackpad was a pleasure. Pinching and scrolling around Photoshop documents was better than a mouse, and I should imagine it to be even better in newer MacBooks due to their larger glass trackpads.

VAIO Z underneathThe carbon fibre lid on the VAIO is fairly sturdy considering its thickness, and impressively thin, and the thick aluminium block that forms the chassis gives no flex. It’s a shame about the plastic shell underneath the aluminium block which forms the base, as this is very cheap feeling compared the the full metal shell of the MacBook. It’s full of holes, vents and stickers like a cheap laptop, and seems really out of place on something costing £1400. The wireless switch on the bottom front is a stupid addition – you bump it to off every time you move the laptop, then have to wait for it to reconnect. Why would you even need to turn off the wireless anyway?


I’ve got a bit of a love-hate relationship with the VAIO Z. It could be so much better if these little niggles were sorted, and I’m still not sure it feels worth the £1400. I think it would benefit greatly from 8GB RAM and a SSD, so I’ll have to look into it when the prices for DDR3 come back down. I’m also planning to upgrade with Creative suite CS5 in the very near future, so hopefully that will sort many of the problems there. I don’t feel comfortable working on such a small screen, I much prefer my desktop with its gargantuan power and plenty of desktop space so I can’t help wondering if I could have made do with a cheaper laptop. I bought the VAIO online without ever having seen one, which was probably a big mistake, but with the MacBook dead, I needed a laptop – fast. That didn’t even work out so well – it took Sony nearly a month from ordering to build the custom laptop and get it to me. At least they kept me well informed as to the progress, and I never have to go to a pretentious Apple ‘Genius bar’ again.

Should I use Dreamweaver to write PHP code?

That’s a question I was asking myself about a year ago now, when I was approached to write a database system for a betting tipster. The concept was fairly simple, the employees of this business need an online form to add tips for each betting system the company runs, and later update these tips with the result of the race.  Then a paying customer can access this information as a nice table, with the ability to filter a specific date and/or betting system. He can also choose to download the data to process in his own Excel spreadsheet, for example. Pretty simple, no?

Edit Screen

This was, however, the first project I’d ever chosen to write in PHP, so I had to learn to adapt my knowledge of  Visual Basic and Access via ODBC, a client-side language, to the server-side nature of PHP and MySQL. The cient didn’t really want to hang around forever, so I thought I could speed up the whole process by using Dreamweaver’s ability to ‘build applications visually’, then tweak and add to the resultant code to add the custom features they requested. These included automatically defaulting to editing today’s date, a rich text editor for notes, easily editable drop down menus for the betting system, automatically moving to the next tip once saving, and some other stuff. It still sounded pretty easy, even for a PHP novice.

After some initial confusion regarding using phpMyAdmin to create the database (solved by the hosting provider,) I was amazed at how quickly and easily I could piece together the bones of this program in Dreamweaver without even touching the code. It seemed a great way to work, letting Dreamweaver do the hard work and then tweaking the result. I was getting paid to click and drag! However, I soon ran into problems. Once I had a few server behaviours on the page, they started to clash, as they were all trying to use the same variables. This took a few hours to hunt down, and even more to correct the problems I caused (Coming from my VB background, I kept forgetting that lines had to be ended with a semicolon.) The biggest problems arose when I finished the structure and came to tweaking Dreamweaver’s generated code. What seemed to happen when I made a change to the code, is that Dreamweaver would no longer recognise its own code, the server behaviour would disappear from the side panel, and then it would decide that the code was ‘wrong’ or redundant and try automatically correcting it or even deleting it. I can’t remember the specific problems now, but it really felt that it was me versus Dreamweaver, with it battling to keep its code and me trying to hack it up with my keyboard. In the end, I got a working system presented to the client, and thought that was it.

TinyMCE (The text editor) was really easy to integrate, and has options for every scenario

Now, a year or so later, I’ve been asked to add some more features to the code. Since then, I’ve moved from CS3 to CS4, and immediately I ran into problems with Dreamweaver not recognising the spry tabbed panels I used to separate the different actions the user can take (see the screenshots). From there I ran into the same sort of problems as last time, but I was now better prepared to deal with them. Last night I got the extra features finished, and saved the files ready to deliver to the client on Monday. This morning I had a quick check of the finished page, and spotted a line of text that could be better worded. I changed the text, which involved no changes to the PHP code, uploaded to the server to test once more, and what?! Suddenly the save button is broken! The code goes through all the motions of saving to the database, the page refreshes, the confirmation message shows, but the change has not stuck. But this was working last night, and I haven’t even changed the PHP code! Now I remember last time, Dreamweaver played this game with me, and it took ages to find that it had automatically added a closing tag or something where I didn’t want one. For some reason the update record server behaviour has disappeared from the panel. Now I’m going to have to look through all the code to find something I didn’t even cause. This sort of thing adds loads of time to a project that can otherwise be complete, and I can’t even imagine a timescale that I can find this bug in. It’s really frustrating, Adobe.

Why didn’t I just stop using Dreamweaver for this project and code manually? I’m a stubborn guy, and I really believe the concept of building applications visually, then adding on custom features can speed things along, if only Dreamweaver could keep its nose out!