This article is made up of my impressions of the Sony Vaio TZ11MN/N laptop, one month after I started using it in a daily basis. I have already written some random notes on how well the hardware is supported by the Linux kernel, so this time I will try to focus on hardware.
The laptop comes very well packaged in a slim black box which made me remember about the design of Apple product boxes. It includes the laptop itself, one battery, printed quickstart guides a dust cleaner for the TFT and the AC adaptor. Unlike other non-Apple laptops, the AC adapter is small and sleek, but you won’t get the retractable hooks for the wire; at least it has a belt to tidy them up. The first impression: the thing is damn small (remember: 11 inches), and it is extremely light without the battery… and it is light even with it attached (the manual says 1.2 kg). This is a great plus for people which travels regularly like me.
The case is thinner in the front side because the battery is placed at the rear, ocuppying some of the place of the screen hinge. The black plastic used for the case has a good touch and looks solid. The only thing I don’t like about it is that there is a grille below which can be obstaculized by putting the machine on the knees. Fortunately, there is a second one at the left side, and even covering the one below the laptop does not get heatened easily (my test was about two hours). The only element which may look a bit weak is the tray of the optical unit… but all laptops with tray-loading units I have seen look like that. Having a slot-in drive would be a good improvement, but I suspect that the machinery needed for the slot-in to work would make the computer thicker. I consider the tray issue not too much important, because I use it very seldom. The lid surely looks somewhat weak, but the Sony folks claim that the case and lid are carbon fiber re-enforced. I do not know if the carbon fiber is really there, but the fact is that on weekends I carry my TZ11 in a backpack while traveling by train, and it received some hits: only two scratches can be seen on back of the lid but the TFT works, indeed. I am not sure how well the machine would be after a big crash, but I am not willing to test drive it… just in case.
One of the best things of the Vaio TZ11MN/N is the keyboard: it has a totally predictable QWERTY layout: all keys are where they are supposed to be. When I bought the Vaio I discarded other laptops only because of their weird keyboard layout. The keys are similar to the ones in the MacBook keyboard, and they have a fabulous feel (at least for me!). Keys do look small, but even having big hands you can type comfortably without touching the neighbours when pressing a particular key. As I mainly use the laptop for development I do a lot of typing, but the keyboard feels just like the first day, so I suspect it is quite well built. Bear in mind that I am used to laptop keyboards, so I tap the keys softly (in fact I feel very uncomfortable with “standard” desktop keyboards). One more thing about the keyboard: it is very easy to clean-up and it is difficult that the dust gets inside the keyboard.
I always prefer display with a matte finish, but the TFT has an amazing sharpness and contrast. The display of my old iBook looks crappy compared to it. The only downside of the shiny display is that the dust and fingerprint marks are easier to see when dark colors are shown. Cleaning up the display from time to time is a good idea. One thing which is very well done: when the lid is closed the keys do not touch the TFT, because the area of the case containing the keys is lowered. A small webcam and an ambient microphone are placed on the lid, too. The camera is enough for videoconferencing and the such (and it does work under Linux); the microphone has a decent response and introduces very little noise. They work great for me with Ekiga in conjunction with a pair of earbuddies.
The majority of the external plugs (USB, AC adapter, modem jack, Firewire, Ethernet) are on the left side of the case, which is great if you are right-handed, because cables won’t interfere with a mouse placed at the right side of the laptop. A standard 15-pin VGA connector is placed on the right side, as well as the tray of the optical unit, which is okay for me because I use them very seldom. At the front side of the case you will find a headphones jack and a line-in one, as well as the card reader (which do not for me work under Linux yet) and a hardware switch which drives the bluetooth and wireless adapters. I really like the ability of disabling radio devices in hardware as this makes battery life longer when the devices are not in use. The AC adaptor plug seemed to fit a bit loose, but a closer inspection revealed that it is designed that way: it looks that you can pull the cable (up to some degree) without breaking the connector.
Regarding integrated devices, the wireless ones both work great under Linux. Bluetooth does Just Work™ (tested with Nokia, Ericsson and Motorola cell phones). The Pro Wireless 3945ABG chipset always obtains better signal strength than the Airport card of my iBook. You can even choose between two drivers, ipw3945 or iwlwifi, either one has its own benefits and drawbacks. The only reason why I am still using the old ipw3945 driver is because the Kismet passive wireless scanner works like a charm. The optical drive had no problems reading any of my DVDs and CDs, and burning is well done even when performing “delicate” tasks like making “backup” copies of PlayStation games. An interesting feature is that you can selectively disable and enable devices under Linux, a set of special files under /sys/devices/platform/sony-laptop may be used e.g. for disabling the optical drive:
# echo 0 > /sys/devices/platform/sony-laptop/cdpower
In order to re-enable the device, just write a non-zero value to the corresponding file.
The trackpad is quite comfortable, but tapping on it does not work very well with the current Synaptics driver (surprisingly, it works for the root user, but not for non-root users, and I am pretty confident it has nothing to do with permissions). Things which do work include vertical and horizontal scrolling using the sides of the trackpad, circular scroll and adjusting device sensitivity. Make sure you read the README.alps file included with the driver and copy the example configuration section to your xorg.conf. Once the device driver is configured for first time, it is possible (and easier) using the great GSynaptics tool to easily tune-up its behaviour.
Even with the tricky bits I consider that the TZ11MN/N was a very good acquisition. Finally, remember that you can drop me a comment if you’d like to ask something. I hope this information will be useful for people considering buying one of these 😉