Stacking up the MacBook Air and a Sony Vaio

As my colleague Dan Frakes discussed, the MacBook Air is all about tradeoffs, even if Apple doesn’t present it as such. As Dan explained, it’s just that the MacBook Air’s tradeoffs are different than those other manufacturers have chose for their subnotebooks. Basically, Apple opted to focus on thickness (or thinness), weight, performance, and screen and keyboard size in the MacBook Air.

In his Macworld Expo keynote presentation, Steve Jobs used the Sony TZ series as a point of comparison in some charts showing how the MacBook Air compared to the TZ in many areas. I thought it might be interesting to take that comparison deeper, examining all of the major features of a Sony TZ-series laptop against those same features in the MacBook Pro.

Unlike Apple’s site, Sony’s site presents each TZ Vaio configuration as a different machine, ranging in price from a high of $4,000 (the solid-state hard drive versions) to a low of $2,200. Note that these prices ignore any specials which may be listed on Sony’s site—as I write this, for instance, certain machines had a $100 discount. Deciding which to machine to use as a comparison is a bit tricky, as none match the MacBook Air perfectly, but I decided to pick the cheapest machine that offered 2GB of RAM, to match the installed memory of the MacBook Air. That machine turns out to be the Sony Vaio VGN-TZ170N/B (now there’s a name that just rolls off the tongue), which lists for $2,500. For that extra $700 in cost over the list price of the MacBook Air, what exactly do you get? And in what areas did Sony choose to make its tradeoffs?

To answer these questions, I listed every key feature on both machines, lumped those features into somewhat-arbitrary categories, compared the elements within each category, and finally declared a winner in each category. I also included what I would consider to be an ideal machine for my needs in each of the categories—in other words, if Apple builds the machine I describe, I would order one as soon as it was announced.

Performance

In this category, I’ve included the processor, bus speed, cache, installed/maximum RAM, hard drive size, and graphics chipset:

Sony Vaio TZMacBook Air
ProcessorCore2Duo 1.06GhzCore2Duo 1.60GHz
Bus Speed533MHz800MHz
Cache2MB L24MB L2
Installed RAM - Max RAM2GB - 2GB2GB - 2GB
Hard drive100GB 1.8-inch80GB 1.8-inch
Graphics ChipsetIntel GMA950Intel GMA X3100

Clearly, the MacBook Air destroys the Vaio here, in all features other than RAM and hard drive space. It’s a bit odd that the Sony has a higher-capacity 1.8-inch hard drive, but perhaps that drive is thicker than what will fit in Apple’s design. Overall, the winner in this category isn’t surprising, given that it was one of the Air’s focus areas. It really is impressive, though, how much power Apple has packed into such a thin chassis. Winner: MacBook Air.

Ideal version: For my ideal machine, I think the Air’s setup is basically fine, though I would swap in the 100GB drive.

Portability

The factors that make a machine portable include weight, thickness, footprint (width times depth, measured in square inches), screen size and resolution, battery life, and whether or not that battery is removable. Relative to portability, it’s important to note that the MacBook Air has a footprint that’s basically identical to that of the MacBook. So while the Air is a very light and thin laptop, it’s no more usable in confined spaces such as a coach airline seat than is the MacBook.

Here’s how the MacBook Air and Sony offering compare:

Sony Vaio TZMacBook Air
Weight2.7lbs3.0lbs
Thickness range0.8 to 1.17 inches0.16 inches to 0.76 inches
Footprint (width x depth)85.02 square inches (10.9-by-7.8 inches)113.92 square inches (12.-by-8.9 inches)
Screen size - resolution11.1-inch LED - 1,366-by-76813.3-inch LED - 1,280-by-800
Battery life / removable4.0 - 7.5 hours / Yes5.0 hours / No

The Vaio is a physically smaller machine than the Air, occupying only 75 percent of the footprint space and weighing .3 pounds less. Its screen has a very high density, as it’s two inches smaller but contains more pixels than does the Air’s 13-inch screen. This may actually be too dense for many people, myself included, as objects on the screen will appear quite small—and something displayed in a small font will be extra extra small. Battery life, for now at least, is a toss-up, because we can’t test the Air’s five-hour battery life claim until we get a unit in for testing. The removability of the Vaio battery, however, is a plus.

That leaves the thickness issue. There’s no doubt that the Vaio is a thick small laptop—on average, it’s nearly as thick as a 15-inch MacBook Pro. But as we’ll see, that’s not necessarily all bad. The Air, on the other hand, is in danger of vanishing if not fed a regular diet of e-mails to digest and numbers to crunch.

So who wins this category? To me, the Vaio is clearly the more portable laptop. Not only is it lighter, but it takes up much less space on a tray table, and could easily be opened and used even when the person in front of you reclines their seat. The battery is removable, meaning you don’t need to find a power outlet every five hours. Yes, the screen is a bit small, but that’s the tradeoff Sony chose to make to keep the size and weight down. Winner: Sony Vaio

Ideal version: For my ideal machine, I’d want to keep a smaller footprint, but increase the screen size a bit. So I’d put a 12-inch 1,280-by-800 screen on the machine, offering a bit of the best of both worlds—physically smaller, but still legible. Also, the battery would have to be removable, which means I’m willing to compromise on the thickness. I’m fine with a laptop that’s somewhere around an inch thick—after all, thickness doesn’t really affect your ability to open the machine on the plane. (Also, with a thicker case, perhaps the 160GB Toshiba 1.8-inch hard drive would fit.) And as Sony has shown, thicker doesn’t necessarily mean heavier.

Audio and video

Just a few things in this category—speakers, microphone, camera, and headphone jack.

Sony Vaio TZMacBook Air
CameraYesYes
MicrophoneYesyes
Speakers/headphone jack2 stereo / Yes1 mono / Yes

Basically, this is a tie…except the Vaio comes with two speakers, not one. In a pinch, you could use it to listen to a movie or music without resorting to headphones or external speakers. On the Air, however, the sound from the one speaker probably won’t be sufficient for such tasks. Winner: Sony Vaio.

Ideal version: While I typically use my MacBook Pro using headphones, it’s certainly nice being able to use the built-in speakers on occasion. My ideal machine would have two speakers.

Data input and output

With this category, I attempted to look at the various ways one can get data into and out of the machine. As such, I looked at the optical drive, wired networking, wireless networking, and modem features.

Sony Vaio TZMacBook Air
Optical DriveDual-layer DVD ROptional external
Ethernet10/100/1000Base-TOptional USB/Ethernet
ModemV.92 built-inOptional USB external
Wireless802.11n + Sprint Broadband802.11n

This section was the first one that really made me go “wow,” and not in a good way for the MacBook Air. By using a thicker case, Sony was able to find room for a ton of stuff inside this machine. A dual-layer DVD burner, Gigabit Ethernet, built-in modem, and not just 802.11n but a Sprint Wireless Broadband card are all inside the case. By comparison, the MacBook Air only offers an optical drive, modem, and USB to Ethernet adapter as external, extra-cost options. In addition, there’s no broadband wireless option for the Air. Winner: Sony Vaio.

Ideal machine: My ideal machine would pretty much mimic the Vaio, though I believe the modem could be optional—I haven’t used one in probably five years, and they’re really only useful to me on those very rare cases when someone wants to send me a fax.

Other ports

Beyond anything that’s been described already, and not including the power jack, what other ports does each machine offer?

Sony Vaio TZMacBook Air
Other portsTwo USB 2.0, FireWire, MemoryStick, SecureDigital,
mic input, port replicator, VGA output
ExpressCard /34
One USB 2.0, Micro-DVI

This was the second “wow” section I ran into. The number of ports on the Sony is simply astounding—and a bit of overkill, honestly. But there’s no denying which machine has more flexibility here—the Sony has nine assorted ports on it, against just two on the Air. The Air does offer a better video out option, as it uses DVI versus the VGA of the Sony. Winner: Sony Vaio.

Ideal machine: I really can’t see using all of those ports on my ideal ultra portable. At a minimum, though, I’d require FireWire, two USB ports, DVI out, and an ExpressCard slot. A card reader would be a nice addition, but certainly not required.

Cost

No need for a table here. The Vaio lists at $2,499, versus a list of $1,799 for the MacBook Air. To be fair, though, you’d need to include the SuperDrive ($99), USB to Ethernet adapter ($29), and USB modem ($49). Throw in $20 for a USB hub, which you’ll need to use the modem and adapter at the same time, and you’re at something just over $2,000.

So is the extra $500 worth it for the Vaio over the Air? That’s where the question of tradeoffs comes back into the picture. If what you need is a full-featured but very small and very light portable, but you’re less concerned about performance and can handle the small screen, then the Vaio is probably well worth the extra $500. For that money, you get more hard drive space, less weight, a disc burner, wireless broadband, and tons of ports.

If, on the other hand, you value performance over size and features, then the MacBook Air is a bargain. It weighs nearly the same as the Sony, has a larger screen and keyboard, and offers a much nicer combination of processor, cache, and graphics card. There’s no clear “winner” in this category then, as the two machines are really aiming at different user types. If it were my money, however, I’d pick the Sony’s feature set, smaller size, and lower weight and fork out the extra $500. That is, I’d do that except for the issue of the final category that follows.

Ideal machine: While I think it could be done for less money, I’ll be conservative here and use the Vaio’s listed price as the target for my ideal machine—$2,500.

Operating system

Ah yes. There is that little matter of which operating system each machine uses.

Sony Vaio TZMacBook Air
Operating SystemWindows Vista BusinessMac OS X 10.5 (Windows-capable, if you insist)

The clear winner here? The MacBook Air, of course. The same would apply to my ideal machine. Unfortunately for Sony (and fortunately for my checkbook), this category is by far the most important one on my shopping list. As nice as some of the features of the Sony are, I simply prefer to work and play in the Mac operating system.

Conclusion

In looking at the two machines, it’s clear Sony and Apple had entirely different design objectives. Apple wanted to build a very thin, very light notebook with a full-size screen and keyboard, and with a focus on performance. Sony, on the other hand, wanted to build a full-featured but very light sub-notebook, with the emphasis going to the features over thinness, screen size, performance, and to a large extent, design. (The MacBook Air has a sleek, alluring shape while the Vaio appears to come from the usual laptop-in-a-box school of design.)

As the specs show, I think both manufacturers achieved their design goals—the MacBook Air is all about thinness and screen size, and the Sony is loaded with every feature one could possibly need, all packed into a very small box. But unless the Sony can run OS X 10.5, it’s simply not a viable option for my needs.

So I’ll have to finish up my little comparison by asking Apple to please build my ideal machine. All configured, here’s what it would look like:

Ideal subnotebook

Ideal specs
Performance1.6GHz Core2Duo, 800MHz bus, 4MB L2 cache, X3100 graphics, 100GB hard drive
Portability12-inch 1,280-by-800 resolution screen, footprint similar to the 12-inch PowerBook G4
Audio and VideoCamera, headphone jack, two speakers
Data Input and Output802.11n, dual-layer DVD burner, 10/100/1000Base Ethernet, wireless broadband
Other portsFireWire, two USB 2.0, ExpressCard /34, microDVI
Cost$2,500
Operating SystemOS X 10.5 Leopard

If Sony can build a 2.7-pound fully-featured machine, I’m positive Apple can do it even better. Call it the MacBook Nano, or whatever you want—its name matters not. Just build it, and I’ll write the check.

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