Backlit keyboard. Quad-core processor. Blu-ray included. Great user experience. 2 year Costco warranty. Lightweight, for a media center.
Plain design. Basic graphics card for the price. Need bigger battery.
Earlier this year, Sony made the VAIO F-Series—of which we reviewed the Sony VAIO VPC-F1190X ($1,645 direct, )—its fastest laptop. It did so by putting in an Intel quad-core processor and all the trimmings, including a wireless transfer technology called TransferJet. Like all of Sony's laptops, there are variations to this media center laptop. The Sony VAIO VPC-F121GX ($1,199 list), available at Costco, is basically the entry-level version and the more subdued of the bunch, lacking TransferJet and taking performance down a notch. Still, it's currently the fastest laptop in Sony's arsenal, but it's not the same caliber as the Dell Studio 17 (Multitouch) ($1,411 direct, ).
Sony hasn't done much trail blazing with laptop designs beyond ultraportables (i.e. the Sony VAIO Z116GSX ($1,800 direct, )). Aside from two color options (black and gray), the F121GX is basically a big chunk of plastic that lacks any kind of design appeal. You could argue that design appeal isn't in the best interest of an oversized laptop, but that didn't stop the Acer Aspire AS8943G-6782 ($1,599 street, ) and HP Pavilion dv7-4071nr ($1,029.98 list, ) from using sleek aluminum, or the Dell Studio 17 from offering over 200 different lid designs. To its credit, though, the F121FX (6.5 lbs) travels lighter than the Dell 17 (8.6 lbs), Acer AS8943G (8.2 lbs), and HP dv7-4071nr (8 lbs)—albeit with the smallest screen in this group.
Its 16.4-inch widescreen is not as common as the 17-inch and 18-inch one found in the Dell Studio 17 and Acer AS8943G. This particular one has a 1,600-by-900 resolution, whereas if you buy it through Sony's Website, a 1,920 by 1,080 (1080p) option is available. Systems like the Dell Studio 17 and Acer AS8943G also have 1080p resolutions, while the HP dv7-4071nr maxes out at 1,600 by 900.
Most of Sony's laptops have transitioned over to an isolated keyboard layout made popular by companies like Apple and Acer, and the F121GX is no exception. It offers a great typing experience, enhanced further by the backlit function (for dimly lit rooms) and an adjacent numeric keypad. The Dell Studio 17 has a traditional-style keyboard (and a more comfortable one at that), and it, too, has a backlit keyboard.
There isn't anything fancy about the touchpad or mouse buttons, like the all-in-one "clickpads" found in the HP dv7-4071nr and Apple MacBook Pro 17-inch (Unibody) ($2,799 direct, ); the ones that come with the F121GX simply works and works well with any combination of fingers.
The F121GX doesn't include Sony's Transfer Jet, a proprietary, short-range wireless technology that works in tandem with Sony devices such as digital cameras and printers. So far, this technology is limited to several CyberShot digital cameras (a USB solution will also be available and plugs into supported Sony HDTVs and digital photo frames). It's one of those technologies that you can add to the F-Series from Sony's Website, but you won't find it on this particular model.
A Blu-ray reader is a Sony specialty, but it's not limited to the F121GX: The Dell Studio 17 and Acer AS8943G have them as well. With it, you can watch all the latest flicks in full 1080p glory, whether it's on the laptop screen or transmitted to an HDTV, via the included HDMI port. The included 500GB hard drive is spacious, but a faster one (7,200rpm) can be had if you ordered through Sony's Website. The rest of the connectivity ports—eSATA (doubles as a USB port), FireWire, separate Memory Stick and SD slots, optical audio out, and ExpressCard—are all standard Sony features.
A 2-year warranty is the best part about buying a laptop from Costco, given that many retailers and parent companies only offer a year's worth. The F121GX includes Costco's Concierge Services, a free service to Costco members who purchase electronics at the store. The service gives you access to technicians who can walk you through system setup and troubleshoot any problems. Lastly, the store accepts returns within 90 days, and there's no need to bring your receipt; just present your Costco Club card, since all your purchases are stored there.
Performance trumps all else, since the F121GX is built around speedy parts. Like its predecessor, it runs a mobile quad-core processor—in this case, a 1.73GHz Intel Core i7-740QM. It's a grade better than the 1.6GHz Intel Core i7-720QM processor found in the Dell Studio 17, Acer AS8943G, and HP dv7-4071nr. Combined with 4GB of RAM, the F121GX topped its rivals in tests that measure pure speed, such as Windows Media Encoder (46 seconds) and Cinebench R10 (10,851).
Its graphics chip, however, wasn't as powerful. In fact, it's the kind you would find in lower-cost desktop replacements like the Samsung R580 ($850 list, ), so it fell short in gaming tests like 3DMark06 (4,252), Crysis (20.6 fps), and World in Conflict (20 fps). PCMark Vantage results (5,916) were also in the bottom two, since there is a 3D component in this test.
It gets worse with battery life. Poor battery stamina was forgivable a year ago when every other media center laptop didn't bother with big batteries (they were confined to a desk anyway). These days, more media centers are hitting the road despite their colossal footprints. Systems like the Dell Studio 17 (which scored 4 hours 23 minutes on MobileMark 2007), Acer AS8943G (4:09), and HP dv7-4071nr (3:42) include huge batteries (>85WH). The F121GX, on the other hand, ships with a 54WH (6-cell). So it was no surprise that its 3 hours 33 minutes on MobileMark 2007 was the worst score in this group.
There is really only one reason why the Sony VAIO VPC-F121GX might be your next media center laptop: It's one of the lightest ones available if you absolutely need quad-core processing on the road. Otherwise, the drab design, subpar graphics, and small battery aren't worth the $1,200 Costco special. You're better off customizing a Dell Studio 17 to your specific needs or go all out with the Acer Aspire AS8943G-6782.
BENCHMARK TEST RESULTS
Check out the test scores for the Sony VAIO VPC-F121GX