Sony Vaio FW Series: A Developer’s Review

For the past three months or so I haven’t had a computer of my own. This is not as bad as it sounds, because I’ve had work hardware, but such computers are intended to be used for work purposes only. Now that DB2 on Mac has been released, I’m waiting on the new 17″ MacBook Pro, which will be added to the setup as well, but again, that’s a work machine and it won’t arrive for at least a month due to delays on Apple’s side. Long story short, I grew tired of being without a personal laptop after my own MacBook Pro died numerous weeks ago, so I decided to take the plunge and purchase a moderately priced replacement. What follows is a review of the laptop I ended up purchasing as my day-to-day personal model, after a lot of careful consideration, and a list of features I required (in order of priority).

My requirements

  • My main operating system needs to be Ubuntu, so most components should work with Linux.
  • A relatively fast machine for development. It should be able to handle Aptana Studio, NetBeans and even Visual Studio occasionally (without breaking a sweat).
  • An entertainment laptop. I want to be able to watch hi-definition movies from the comfort of my bed at night. To do this a large, wide screen, high resolution, and a Blue-Ray reader were paramount.
  • It needed to be able to facilitate backups for several gigabytes of data, which means it needed to have a combo drive that’s able to burn DVDs.
  • Sturdy overall construction.
  • Look sleek and be relatively ergonomic.
  • It had to be affordable (my budget was roughly $1500/1600 CND).

My choice

Believe it or not, there weren’t too many available choices that were able to satisfy my requirements and my budget. For a while I had a crush on the Dell XPS 16, but unfortunately the Full HD option and the Blue-Ray/DVD Burner combo jacked the cost up several hundred dollars over my budget. This model is also well known for its tendency to become extremely hot (e.g., 115ยฐ F) while on your lap, and after the problems with heat that my old MacBook Pro had, I decided that this model was definitely a no-go.

After researching numerous models, I finally came across the perfect match: the Sony Vaio VGN-FW285D/H for $1600 CND (listed price $1650 CND). The exact model names and configurations change from country to country, and even in Canada, several lower end models exist (and there’s also a “configure to order” option which ends up being slightly more expensive spec-by-spec).

Sony Vaio FW285D/H

The titanium gray model I purchased has the following specifications:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo Processor P8400, 2.26GHz FSB 1066MHz, 3MB L2 Cache
  • 4GB RAM PC2-6400 (2GBx2) (Max 4GB)
  • 320GB SATA disk (7200RPM)
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3650 with 512MB dedicated VRAM (incorrectly listed as 256MB on the Canadian site)
  • 16.4″ Screen, XBRITE-Full HD (1920 x 1080), HDMI and VGA out with Smart Display Sensor
  • Blue-Ray Burner (Burns CDs, DVDs, and BDs, including dual layer)
  • Intel WiFi Link 5100AGN (802.11a/b/g/n)
  • Windows Vista Home Premium 64bit SP1

And of course it comes with the usual yadda-yadda: 1.3MPix Motion Eye camera, Dolby Sound (pretty good), a bunch of media cards readers, 3 USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port (IEEE 1394), Gigabit Ethernet, modem, Bluetooth, etcetera. If you are purchasing this laptop in the States, you can get the same model on Amazon.com for only $1295.

What I like about this computer

There are many things that appeal to me about this laptop:

  • Performance: Talk about a fast laptop! Faster than my previous MacBook Pro. There are speedier processors on the market, but the P8400 is plenty quick as far as I can tell. This Vaio is also very snappy thanks to its large 7200rpm hard drive – something that I really appreciate as a developer and photography enthusiast. Despite Vista being Vista, it’s a very fast computer which boots up in a few seconds and can run heavy IDEs no questions asked. On Ubuntu (more on this later) it’s extremely fast. Finally, not being a heavy gamer, I find the ATI HD 3650 with 512MB VRAM more than adequate for everything I need to do.
  • Full HD Screen: I find the screen on this laptop to be spectacular. Colors are crisp and vivid, with excellent antiglare control. The view angle is remarkable too, you could easily seat four people around the laptop and they would all see a nice, crisp picture. It’s ideal for presentations and demos when a projector isn’t on hand. The 16:9 aspect ratio is amazing for watching movies, and very useful when trying to have more than one window open on the screen simultaneously. My wife and I watched a blue-ray movie on it and were both blown away by how awesome the whole full-hd experience (on this laptop) was. As I switched from the notebook to a desktop that’s hooked up to a Samsung SyncMaster 275t, the external monitor felt dull all of a sudden.
  • Blue-Ray burner: This is overkill – good overkill, that is. I would have been happy with a Blue-Ray reader and a DVD writer, but the presence of a Blue-Ray recorder really makes this laptop shine. Yes, blank Blue-Ray media is still expensive, but prices are coming down, and the ability to backup 25 or 50GB on a single disk is an extremely welcome bonus.
  • Cool and quiet: Despite the size and processing power, this laptop is definitely on the quiet side and I must say that even under stress, it remains relatively cool. The heat exhaust is on the left side, so you can safely place the laptop on your lap or on a table, without experiencing a huge deal of heat or having it shut down like some laptops are prone to doing.
  • Construction and Ergonomics: I find the notebook to be very well constructed. It’s sturdy and feels very solid, though it doesn’t feel quite as solid as a unibody MacBook Pro. I believe the lid chassis is made of metal, while the rest is constructed from durable plastic. The area where your wrists rest is made of plastic but almost feels like aluminium. There is also a slight slope between the touchpad and keyboard that makes typing very comfortable. Overall, despite the large screen, this laptop is not cumbersome, and it definitely packs a sleek, modern design which is likely to appeal to many. It sits comfortably on my laps and isn’t particularly heavy either. Sure, it’s not an ultra-portable sized computer, but considering its 16.4″ screen, I think it’s still fairly easy to tote around. The keyboard is Mac-like, even though to be fair, this style of keyboard (wherein the keys are neatly separated from each other) was first adopted by Sony and later implemented by Apple. The touchpad is nice too with very smooth scrolling (always a plus).
  • Reliable wi-fi: So far the wi-fi connection seems to be working very reliably. It has been connected with full signal since the first moment I provided credentials to my wireless network, and the speed appears to be great. Other laptops I’ve tried in my house have been far less reliable.
  • Compatible with Linux: More on this topic below.
  • HDMI Output: Having a single HDMI output (for both audio and video) made connecting the laptop to my HDTV a breeze.
  • Free Blue-Ray movies: In Canada the laptop came with three Blue-Ray movies. This isn’t a big selling point, but it’s a nice bonus. In my case, I received Casino Royale, Hitch, and Surf’s Up.

Sony Vaio FW285D/H

What I dislike about this laptop

It is hard to find negative things to say about the FW285D/H, especially if you consider the wealth of features and its affordable price tag. But I’m going to nitpick a bit, so as to make the review more informative:

  • The high resolution implies that fonts tend to be on the smaller side of things. This, depending on the user, can be a pro or a con, but be aware of it beforehand if you tend to like your font size on the hefty side.
  • On Windows the current drivers seem to only offer the spectacular 1920×1080 resolution and two other very low resolutions. I don’t see intermediary resolutions like 1366ร—768, which would make the font larger for whenever you don’t need that extra bit of space on the screen. Update: I have blogged about a solution for this here.
  • A fair number of Sony software/utilities are preinstalled on the system. There is also a trial version of Microsoft Office and Windows Live OneCare, which I uninstalled and replaced with the home version of Avast instead.
  • Media for Windows Vista (or a recovery DVD) is not provided. The user is expected to burn their own recovery DVDs (3 regular DVDs or 2 double layers) through a Sony utility. These are copied from an EISA hidden partition (10.2GB) which can be deleted afterwards. To delete the partition you will need diskpart, as explained here.
  • The Canadian version came with a keyboard that has both English and French labels. The bi-lingual layout is slightly different than a regular US keyboard, so it takes a little while to get your mind used to having keys like this if you want touch type at full speed. Of course, if you are a French Canadian (or anyone else who types French), you’ll enjoy the bilingual nature of the keyboard. If you purchase the laptop from the States, you won’t encounter the dual language keyboard, of course.
  • Sony disables Intel VT support on most Vaios (I think it’s unbelievably stupid of them). This means that if you were to use a virtualization program like vmware, you’d obtain a 20/30% slower VM. This is not a huge deal for me (I run my VMs on a Quad-Core desktop) but it’s definitely something that has the potential to be annoying and which seems to be in place for no good reason (and, lastly, may or not be a deal breaker for you). I believe it can be enabled by patching a BIOS ROM dump, but it’s the kind of tinkering I’m not personally eager to do on the first day after my laptop purchase, especially since this point doesn’t really affect me. Should I develop an actual need for this, I will look into it and report my findings in this blog.

Sony Vaio FW285D/H vs MacBook Pro

Linux compatibility

On my laptop I have Vista and Ubuntu in dual boot. Ubuntu compatibility was very important to me because I intend to use Ubuntu as my main OS (particularly for development) and only use Vista when needed – or for entertainment purposes (e.g., playing Blue-Ray movies). The great news is that everything worked out of the box with Ubuntu 8.10 x64. And I mean everything that I could possibly test. Video, audio, wireless connection, bluetooth, hibernating, putting the laptop to sleep, you name it. Everything worked out of the box, which speaks volumes for both the compatibility of the Sony Vaio FW Series and the progress level of Ubuntu as a desktop operating system.

If you buy this laptop, and plan to dual boot Ubuntu, you can save yourself a lot of headaches by paritioning your hard drive during the Ubuntu installation, from a live CD. You could use the hidden partition that you deleted as a swap partition, reduce the size of the Windows boot partition, and with all the free space left over create a partition for Ubuntu or add an extra Windows partition and an Ubuntu one. For example, I have a 60GB Windows Vista partition, a 190GB “media” NTFS partition which is accessed by both Windows and Linux, and then about 45GB allocated for Ubuntu. The first partition on the disk, which replaces the unallocated space created by deleting the EISA hidden partition, is a swap partition. Yes, with 4GB of RAM, I didn’t need such a big swap partition, but I had the free space all in one place and decided to go for it.

A word of caution for dual booters who are planning on having the Windows Vista partition as their second partition. You need to edit your menu.lst to change the Vista section from root (hd0, 0) to root (hd0, 1). This correctly indicates where to find Vista when you select Windows from GRUB at boot time. If you don’t go through this step, you may face an Error 12: Invalid Disk Requested or similar messages.

Conclusion

The final verdict is more than positive. This is a very solid laptop with amazing features, for a reasonable price. Unless your budget is significantly larger than mine or your requirements wildly different, I think that the Sony Vaio FW Series won’t leave you disappointed. In particular, if you are looking for a development and entertainment laptop that will work with Ubuntu Linux, without any hassle, then this could be the answer for you, provided that the lack of virtualization is not a major issue (or you are willing to figure out how to enable it).

If you own this computer or end up buying it as well, definitely feel free to share your thoughts on it in the comment section.

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