by Jerry Jackson
The Sony VAIO CR is the latest family of stylish, colorful, consumer friendly notebooks from Sony. Available in colors with names like "sangria" and "cosmopolitan," the CR series is clearly aimed at college students looking for a fun and functional notebook. You can configure a VAIO CR online at SonyStyle.com in a variety of colors or buy a stock configuration from various retailers.
The VAIO CR is available with a full range of Core 2 Duo processors (from the Intel T7100 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo up to the T7700 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo). The only screen offering is the 14.1" WXGA but the notebook can take up to 4GB of RAM. Built-in wireless 802.11 a/b/g/n is standard.
We reviewed Sony's "dove" (white) version of the CR, priced starting at $1,140.00. Following are the specs for the notebook as reviewed:
- Screen: 14.1-inch screen WXGA (1280 x 800) with XBRITE-ECO (glossy finish)
- Color: Dove white
- Processor: 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100
- Hard Drive: 120 GB hard drive (SATA, 5400RPM)
- Memory: 1GB RAM (PC5300, 667 MHz, DDR2 SDRAM, 2 x 512 MB) -- 4GB max memory
- Optical Drive: DVD+-R Double layer / DVD+-RW Drive
- Ports and Slots: Three USB 2.0, one FireWire 400 port, one ExpressCard 34, one S-Video, one VGA, one MemoryStick Pro reader, one SD card reader, headphone / line-out, microphone-in, modem, 10/100 Ethernet
- Wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
- Graphics: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 (965 Express chipset with up to 358MB of shared RAM)
- Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium
- Dimensions: 13.2" x 1.67" x 9.8"
- Weight: 5.5 pounds
(view large image)
Build and Design
The overall first impression that one has when looking at the CR series is that this notebook was designed to look nice. From the range of available colors to the polished metal-like accents the CR is a design that gets your attention. The dove white version in particular looks vaguely similar to a MacBook in some ways … something which was likely intentional given that Sony wants college students to buy the CR.
The lid of the VAIO CR also has a nice glossy finish with the VAIO lettering in a polished silver material. Overall the look is very clean. After opening the lid and seeing the white plastic interior of the CR I expected a cheap plastic case with a significant amount of flex to it. Surprisingly the case is very sturdy with relatively thick plastic and metal interior reinforcement in just the right places.
(view large image)
The VAIO CR lid does not have a latch to hold it closed, but the hinge mechanism works well and firmly holds the lid in place. There is some flex to the screen lid but it's just enough to keep the LCD from being too rigid. There certainly isn't enough screen flex to worry about.
Sony officially classifies the VAIO CR as a "thin-and-light" notebook. However, at 1.67" at its thickest point and a weight of 5.5 pounds, the CR is neither "thin" nor "light" by today's standards. Given the fact that the CR will most likely serve as a popular media center for college students, the issue of size and weight probably won't be a major issue to potential buyers. That said, it's just downright false advertising to call this notebook "thin-and-light" when most notebooks in that category are less than 1.2 inches thick and weigh less than three pounds.
Performance and Benchmarks
The Core 2 Duo processors that come with the VAIO CR-series provide more than enough performance, even at the 1.8GHz low-end configured in our test unit. Those consumers willing to pay for the 2.4GHz T7700 processor will find the CR packs an impressive punch … despite the fact that the CR doesn't offer a dedicated graphics option. The 3DMark05 benchmarks are surprisingly low, but this is due to the fact that the CR uses the Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100 which shares the notebook's system RAM and Sony decided to send us a review unit with only 1GB of system RAM. If the CR was equipped with 2GB or more these benchmarks would have been slightly more impressive.
Super Pi comparison results:
Sony VAIO CR (1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100)
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300)
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300)
HP dv2500t (1.80GHz Intel 7100)
Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo T7200)
Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (1.73 GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T5300)
Toshiba Satellite A205 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo)
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52)
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T2400)
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo)
PCMark05 comparison results:
Sony VAIO CR (1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100, Intel X3100)
Lenovo ThinkPad X61 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)
Lenovo 3000 V200 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)
Lenovo T60 Widescreen (2.0GHz Intel T7200, ATI X1400 128MB)
HP dv6000t (2.16GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)
Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX)
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400)
3DMark05 comparison results:
3D Mark 05 Results
Sony VAIO CR (1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7100, Intel X3100)
HP Compaq 6510b (2.20GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, Intel X3100)
HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270)
HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)
2,013 3D Marks
Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)
1,791 3D Marks
Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)
Alienware Aurora M-7700(AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB)
7,078 3D Marks
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)
2,092 3D Marks
Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI x700 128 MB)
2,530 3D Marks
Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)
Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB)
2,090 3D Marks
The 14.1" glossy screen is a WXGA 1280 x 800 beauty with excellent color and contrast. The display features fairly bright and even backlighting with eight levels of brightness. Horizontal viewing angles are excellent, making the screen an ideal choice for two or more people to watch a DVD or streaming video. However, vertical viewing angles are among the worst I've seen on a notebook in this price range. If the screen is tilted just slightly forward the entire screen "washes out" making it all but impossible to see low contrast details.
The 14.1" screen highlighting the "AV Mode" photo viewer. (view large image)
Keyboard, Touchpad and Other Input Buttons
The keyboard on the VAIO CR is perhaps the most unique feature of this notebook when you first open it. Unlike most traditional PC notebook keyboards the CR keyboard looks more like a MacBook than a PC. The keys are well cushioned and responsive to light touch though there is a somewhat noticeable degree of travel. If you prefer the traditional "indented" shape of keys then you might not like the flat surface of the keys on the CR. The keyboard is quite solid with no flex whatsoever. Overall, if you can get used to the lack of dedicated keys and the shape of the keys themselves then you will find this keyboard a genuine joy to use.
The very MacBook-like keyboard, touchpad, and nice speakers. (view large image)
The touchpad is nice and large with a very usable and responsive surface. The mouse buttons are likewise nicely sized, but the buttons have a very shallow feedback with noisy clicks which makes them uncomfortable to use.
The VAIO CR also features dedicated media buttons at the front of the notebook beneath the touchpad buttons. When a DVD is inserted these controls make the CR as convenient as a VCR or DVD player. Along the top of the keyboard is a dedicated "AV Mode" quicklauch button that lets you activate the media player functions without booting Windows. Next to the AV Mode key is a mute button, volume down and up, web camera "capture" button, and display backlight on/off.
(view large image)
Input and Output Ports
Let's take a quick tour around the port offerings of the VAIO CR:
Front side: Nothing here except the media buttons beneath the trackpad. (view large image)
Back side: Nothing except the battery, DC power jack, and the modem port. (view large image)
Bottom view: Here you'll find access to the memory slots, some well-placed vents, the battery release switch, and the battery lock switch ... which is important later in this review. (view large image)
Left side: Kensington lock slot, heat vent, VGA-Out, S-Video, two USB 2.0 ports, FireWire 400, microphone and headphone jacks, and wireless on/off. (view large image)
Right side: Ethernet port, USB port, optical drive, SD card reader, MemoryStick Pro reader, and ExpressCard 34 slot. (view large image)
Why Sony included a separate reader for the MemoryStick Pro card and another reader for the SD card is likely one of those mysteries that will never be solved. Many notebooks save space and weight by providing a single 5-in-1 memory card slot that reads SD/xD/MMC/MemoryStick type cards. I can only guess that Sony wants to draw attention to their proprietary memory card format.
The VAIO CR has stereo sound via speakers located on the left side and right sides of the keyboard. With the speakers located on the top of the interior in this way they tend to direct the sound at you and make for a surprisingly enjoyable listening experience. While the built-in speakers aren't the best that I've heard in a notebook of this size, they are certainly better than most notebooks of this size. The headphone jack is located on the left side (an excellent location for people who like to plug in external speakers).
Heat and Noise
The VAIO CR runs extremely quiet with the 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo processor. I suspect the faster 2.4GHz configuration runs much hotter, but our review unit kept heat under control. The bottom left side gets a bit warm, but temperatures remained comfortable enough to keep the CR on the lap. Temperatures are likely kept within acceptable limits thanks to a rather large copper heatsink visible through the vent on the left side of the CR. Though the CR is thicker and heavier than anything in the "thin-and-light" category it remains remarkably cool.
The system fan is quiet when running. You have to put your ear down at desk level to hear it over any other ambient noise in the room. Despite the lack of noise the fan pushes out a significant amount of heat … enough to make your hand uncomfortable if you put your left hand next to the vent during benchmarking.
The hard disk drive was noticeably loud in our test unit. While this may not be indicative of all production CR notebooks, it is something I felt obligated to mention. Even though I am not particularly sensitive to background noise I found the constant grind of the hard disk to be quite distracting.
Sony claims the battery life of the standard 6-cell battery at 2.0-3.5 hours of use depending on how you use the notebook. During my test I obtained 3 hours and 2 minutes of battery life using the notebook at half screen brightness, wireless off, and a mixture of Word usage and idling. Clearly you would need to have the screen brightness turned even lower and do little more than let the notebook idle if you want to obtain the full 3.5 hours that Sony claims. You can get a large capacity battery for an advertised 3-6 hours of usage time unplugged, but the larger battery will stick out from the back and add weight to the notebook.
One issue of note regarding the battery is the unusual amount of "battery wiggle" in our test unit. Even with the lock switch in the "locked" position the battery is loose in the back of the CR and makes an audible shaking sound as it moves inside the battery compartment. If the locking switch is set to the unlocked position the battery is so loose that you can accidentally disconnect the battery from the power connectors just by picking the notebook up and tilting it backward. This is an unacceptable design flaw because it means users can unintentionally power off the notebook while using it. The last thing you want is for your notebook to shutdown while you're in the middle of typing a term paper.
Below is a video tour of the VAIO CR (hosted by Andrew Baxter) which demonstrates the battery problem.
Sony includes some useful and not so useful bloatware with the VAIO CR. Here's a short list of some of the highlights:
- Click to DVD - Sony DVD Creation software
- Sony SonicStage Media Player
- 30-Day Trial Version of Corel Paint Shop Pro Photo XI
- Microsoft Works 8.5
- 60-Day Trial Version of Microsoft Office 2003
- Norton Internet Security 60-Day Trial
- VAIO Security Center
- VAIO Productivity Center
- VAIO Entertainment Center
While none of these applications are horrible and some are even helpful, many of these applications are hogging system resources when you startup the CR for the first time and experienced users will likely want to uninstall most of this bloatware.
The Sony VAIO CR is nice looking notebook with a solid set of features that are sure to be appealing to college students. It features an impressive multimedia AV Mode that can be launched without the need for Windows. However, the CR is cheaper and not quite as powerful as some other notebooks in the $1,000+ range due to the integrated graphics. The CR clearly stacks up well against the MacBook both in terms of features and appearance. Still, given the price point, the lack of dedicated graphics, and what can only be called a "design flaw" regarding the battery, college students might consider purchasing the Sony VAIO N series notebook. While the 15.4" N series only offers up to a 1.86GHz Intel Core Duo T2350 processor and up to 2GB of RAM, the performance is on par with the entry-level CR model and the N series costs several hundred dollars less.
- Very nice looks with a variety of colors you can choose
- Fast Core 2 Duo processors and up to 4GB of RAM provide plenty of system performance
- Screen has excellent horizontal viewing angles
- Solid build quality and sturdiness (with the exception of the battery)
- Stays cool and makes little noise
- Good keyboard with some exceptions (see below)
- Unacceptable amount of battery wiggle (design flaw)
- Too much bloatware installed
- Screen has bad vertical viewing angles
- Flat keyboard keys and lack of some dedicated keys
- Touchpad buttons have shallow feedback