Macworld Looks at the MacBook Air vs. Sony Vaio VGN-TZ170N/B.

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There’s been so much written about the MacBook Air since it was introduced that you can’t swing a dead cat on the Internet without running into some commentary on it.

A lot of what’s written is pretty silly. Seems like only now are some people getting a handle on its dimensions, etc. that should have been obvious from day 1.

Still other articles make ridiculous comparisons, like those comparing it to an ASUS Eee (nicely blasted by Apple Matters). And of course there’s the usual Apple-bashers comparing it to some hypothetical notebook consisting of features they’ve pulled from multiple machines, blithely ignoring that the laptop they’ve just constructed doesn’t exist.

But today, Macworld published an article by Rob Griffiths pitting the MBA against a Sony Vaio. I consider this article the most sensible of comparisons to date. No phantom machines, no super cheap Fisher-Price models, no feature tables filled with a half-dozen laptops with few details (essentially marketing checklists). Rather, a specific model in the MBA’s target market, chosen for a specific reason, and then compared one on one to the MBA. Even if you disagree with the machine chosen for the comparison (I don’t), the article makes a good template for future comparisons.

I like the article because Griffiths makes a rational attempt to compare and contrast the two machines, and also the philosophies used in building these sub-notebooks: the more traditional approach used by Sony; and the newer (not to say better) approach used by Apple. I also like that he graded each category and threw in his ideal for each.

Oddly, though, what I most like is that the article drills home the point that what some (including Griffiths) consider the ideal sub-notebook is not possible at present, though Griffiths doesn’t ultimately draw that conclusion. The whole article is worth a read, but I’d like to piggy-back on some of the observations and conclusions drawn.

Performance.

In the performance category, the Sony’s 1.06 GHz processor, smaller cache and old-generation graphics make it laughable against the better powered MBA. It’s a no-brainer that the MBA clubs this machine:

Clearly, the MacBook Air destroys the Vaio here, in all features other than RAM and hard drive space.

What Griffiths doesn’t mention is that, since Vista’s inability to run well on older hardware is one of the reasons it’s not taking off, does anyone really want to run it on a 1 GHZ mobile processor with older graphics? I’m not talking about whether you like Vista or not, or whether it’s better or worse than Mac OS X. I’m talking about it being worth a darn on such lowly hardware no matter what your opinion of it.

Portability.

In the portability category, Griffiths sensibly looks at the footprint of the machine, as well as thickness and weight, and overall gives the nod to the Sony:

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.

Bingo. Make no mistake, there are a lot of MacBooks used on airplanes, so it’s not like the MBA is not usable on a plane as well. However, when one thinks of a sub-notebook in terms of portability, clearly the Sony gets the edge here.

Audio-Video.

Moving on to audio and video, Griffiths gives it to the Sony because it has stereo speakers.

On the Air, however, the sound from the one speaker probably won’t be sufficient for such tasks. Winner: Sony Vaio.

The idea that you’re getting any “stereo” out of two tiny speakers positioned perhaps nine inches apart is kind of laughable. It could just as easily be that the one speaker sounds a lot better than the two. Will the weak Sony even be able to decode and play back a WMV or H.264 movie without stuttering, skipping, etc.? I don’t think you can do the audio-video thing from specs alone.

On the other hand, no one would be buying these machines as A/V powerhouses, so if he wants to give it to the Sony, fine. I’d give it to the MBA because I know I’d at least be able to play flicks on it.

Data In/Out.

The author then looks at Data in and out:

This section was the first one that really made me go “wow” and not in a good way for the MacBook Air.

The MBA’s lack of inputs is well-known, yet the Sony comes with a DVD, Ethernet, modem, and even a Sprint broadband card. He points out that you can get an external DVD, Ethernet adapter, modem, etc. for the MBA, but of course it adds to the cost and there’s more to carry.

It’s hard to argue with his conclusions here, and it comes down to preference. For me, the difference doesn’t mean much. I only use my DVD to install software (which I do at home, and the MBA has a solution for that) and to rip CDs. This is meant as a second machine, so I simply wouldn’t be hindered by the lack of DVD. Modem? Haven’t used one in many years (literally). Ethernet? I agree with this one, but that just means I’d pop for the $29 adapter.

It is worth nothing that while a user can add much of the “missing” I/O to the MBA, he cannot add the missing performance or a better screen to the Sony.

Griffiths also looks at other ports, and again notes the big differences. For example, the Sony has firewire, a card reader, and express card, while the MBA has… mini-DVI.

The number of ports on the Sony is simply astounding, and a bit of overkill, honestly.

Again, hard to argue with him, but the overkill is spot on. All this I/O on a machine struggling under the weight of Vista on a 1 GHz processor? Still, the I/O winner has to be seen as the Sony, and that’s fair enough.

Price and Conclusion.

When it comes to cost, the Sony at $2,500 is a $700 premium over the MBA. Are all the ports worth it for the flaccid performance and smaller screen? That’s basically the same thing the author asks:

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 …

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.

He than goes on to say there’s no clear “winner”, and I agree. He correctly specifies the completely different design goals for the machines and that, as such, they both meet the requirements they set out to obtain.

Ideal Sub-Notebook.

Griffith then describes his “ideal sub-notebook”, and this is where the elephant in the room seems to have been missed. He wants the processor and graphics of the MBA, the ports, etc. of the Sony, and a screen that more or less splits the difference. Clearly, no such machine exists in sub-notebook form, but the fact is that no such machine can exist in sub-notebook form. This is essentially what Jobs was trying to say at Macworld, and what Sony and others are saying with their designs as well.

The questions are simple:

  • Did Sony really want a machine with such pathetic performance?
  • Did Apple really want to leave out so much I/O (the DVD, yes, in my opinion, but all else, maybe not)?

If you believe the answers to those questions is no, then the fundamental problems become clear:

  • You cannot stuff a tiny box with all those ports and drives and then put in a decent processor. The thermal envelope is too small; it won’t work. Sony stuffed the box and then put in the best CPU they could, which in my opinion is nowhere near enough.
  • You cannot put in a decent processor (even a custom-built, small and lower-powered one) and not give it space to remain at safe operating temperatures. There’s no room for much of anything else. Apple went with performance, and left out I/O while devising workarounds that are clever, though will not satisfy many people.

Someone could argue the Sony’s performance would be “good enough” because it’s meant as a second machine, used for email, writing, web browsing, etc. But I would counter that if that’s the case there’s absolutely no need for all that I/O (card reader? firewire?, DVD?), and that they’re there only because Sony couldn’t think to do without them. The processor suffered as a result. Maybe it’s better to toss them all and provide a decent processor instead? Hence, the MBA.

The author’s ideal machine (except for weight) is right in line with what I had expressed in an article a while ago. Basically, think of a MacBook with a 12 inch widescreen display and footprint reduced accordingly. But that’s a full-featured notebook, not a sub-notebook.

Alas, if Apple didn’t move to special 12 inch widescreens for the MBA, they may never do so. Still, perhaps they can reduce the large “lip” around the current MacBook. If a re-design makes the case hug the 13 inch screen, it would reduce an inch or more from the width and shave some depth as well. Perhaps better, maybe the next MacBook Pro re-designs will include a small but full-featured model.

Finally, in case you’re curious, neither of the compared machines is for me. I considered the MBA but bought a MacBook. However, if I had to choose between the MBA and Sony there is no way it would be the Sony. Not even close.

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11 thoughts on “Macworld Looks at the MacBook Air vs. Sony Vaio VGN-TZ170N/B.

  1. I am a huge mac fan and I love what apple is doing. Even though I am just 12, I know so much about MacBooks… I know the MBA has multi-touch gestures and amazing LED display. My dad has a Sony vaio and it’s okay, but I still can’t believe that for once the MB is cheaper than the other computer. Still, The vaio is the only PC I give credit for.

  2. Jeremy,

    I agree with you completely on widescreens. I would much rather have the vertical space and am no particular fan of the widescreen format. I reference widescreen simply because it’s the reality of the laptop market today, and I don’t see it changing anytime soon.

    I’ve seen the 1920 x 1280 resolution on the MBP 17 inch screen right next to the same screen with 1680 x 1050. The difference in size is nowhere near what I was expecting (I had to verify it myself!). Therefore, I think a 12 inch widescreen could easily show the 13.3 inch resolution.

    Combine that with less of a “lip” around the sides of screen and the resulting laptop would be that much smaller physically. Meanwhile, along the top and bottom there would still be the laptop name and camera so it might not be as “squat” as you envision.

    Still, if I had my way it would be a “square” format at 1280 x 1024. 🙂

  3. I am one of those users still clinging to my 12″ PowerBook G4 and I agree with most of what Tom is saying here with one exception. My take on at least one of the reasons that Apple has not gone to this form factor since, is that it has to do with that widescreen option and their whole involvement with multimedia.

    I don’t see why every single screen on every computer has to be widescreen in order to qualify as a “real” computer nowadays. It’s as if Apple and the entire market has decided that the ability to watch a widescreen movie is now the defining factor for computers. This is crazy IMO.

    I don’t know anyone who has the 12″ G4 (and I know many people who have them), that care a whit about watching the latest Pixar film on it. Where I work, all the techies have them because you can run to someone’s office with it in one hand while you are dragging all the cables and other junk with your other hand. I see Pros using the 12″ as a full-featured Pro computer that is highly portable, not as a multimedia device for airplane trips.

    If the 12″ were re-designed with a wide screen it would be a squat thing along the lines of an ASUS Eee, and pretty ugly by my standards. It would also be an Apple laptop that wouldn’t “fit” in the lineup because using iMovie, or any of the other iLife apps on it would be slightly more awkward than the rest of the line-up. Needless to say, I think this rather trivial “requirement” should not be driving the design.

    A laptop of that (12″) size is more effective with a standard “square” screen. It could even be shrunk to a 10″ screen part and still be fine, as long as Apple is prepared to let go of this idea that all the screens are wide and they all are able to play the latest movie. I think that this is really a blind-spot for Apple, that all of it’s products need to play movies and be multimedia machines. In reality, that segment of the market is not the be-all and end-all of existence and is quite small, (although obviously growing by leaps and bounds), and by focussing so adroitly on the consumer, they are leaving a few geeks behind.

  4. I don’t understand all the fuss about the lack of ports on the MBA.

    As I type this on my 12″ PB I realize I have never used the modem or ethernet ports. The last time I used the optical was to install leopard. The few times that I’ve used both usb ports was when I connect my PB to an external screen with an external mouse and a usb drive. I suppose a bluetooth mouse would solve that problem.

    I do use firewire for backup. But I doubt that I will after I get time capsule.

    Hmm.

  5. David,

    I agree that good performance and a nice screen/keyboard are good trade-offs for lots of ports. But I also believe that a sub-notebook should be, well, sub. The MBA’s footprint doesn’t really put it in that category, in my opinion.

    The MBA and MacBook have the same depth (which becomes their hight when opened). At the hinge, the MBA is .76 inch, the MacBook just over an inch. Both units’ screens move “down and away” as you open it (making it lower), but in opened profile it looks like the MacBook lowers a bit more. It’s safe to assume the MBA will only be maybe a quarter-inch lower when opened. That won’t make much difference in an airline seat.

  6. I think this would definately fit a nitch, though its not mine. If I wanted to save money, I would get a MacBook. If I didnt want to save money, I’d get a MBPro and a Mac Pro Tower.

    I do like the new features of the MBA, however I have never trusted wireless… it often does work when needed – or works to slowly to be useful for, though it can definately be used for a few things, I would hate to rely on it.

    Though a $29 USB=>ENET would fix that issue … and who knows, maybe Apple nailed it?

    Nice performance from a subnote book. I think Microsoft lost it when they started pushing VISTA, Windows XP is not all that bad, MS should stick to what it knows.

  7. I think having a nice usable keyboard and screen are the most important things about this type of laptop, and from what I can see the MacBook Air nailed both.

    I did some extensive traveling a couple of years ago and I would have killed for something that light while trying to fly through Taiwan’s ultra-modern, sadistically designed airport, with the shops on one end and the currency exchange seemingly miles away on the other.

    One point the article made seems a little dubious. I think thickness is important when putting your laptop on an airport tray table, because if you put a 15″ PowerBook there, the top of the seatback hits the top of the computer. If you have a thinner computer you have a lower screen and thus less chance of that happening. I wouldn’t be surprised if the MacBook Air was carefully designed to do well in this scenerio, even though Steve now travels via private jet and I’m sure it’s been a long time since he’s parked himself in a tourist class seat(*).

    D

    (*) If anyone deserves to have a private jet, surely it’s Steve. No class warfare comment intended.

  8. Jared,

    My biggest issue is that one doesn’t require the future for a great full-featured laptop. Apple proved it could be done with the PB G4. And, knowing what we know about what a power pig and heat-generating-device the G4 was, it would be a snap with the Intel C2D.

    Sadly, a 12 inch (yes, widescreen) 2.0GHz C2D with all the usual ports (maybe not a DVD to drop weight and size) would be just too “obvious” for Apple.

    The MBA may very well be a success in its niche, and that’s great. But I don’t understand why Apple is rushing to fill niches when there are holes in its product line.

    Further, I don’t see why Apple has a hard time grasping how to fill those holes. Not every device has to be “stunning”. Their MacBook, MacBook Pro, iMac, and Mac Pro machines are all acknowledged as beautiful, but they don’t break any new ground. Sometimes you don’t have to. Just be elegant and pay attention to details; that’s where most of Apple’s beauty comes from.

    I’ve had my MacBook now for six days and it’s truly a sweet machine. In fact, I’m almost surprised at just how sweet it is. If they made it smaller (even without a DVD) they’d sell millions of them. Of course, a mini-tower Mac would sell millions, too. (*sigh*) Oh well…

  9. It looks like there is only one conclusion: bring back the 12″ Powerbook (or a new 12″ MacBook”). People swear by those things.

    I can solve Apple’s design problems with the Power of Imagination:

    Design-wise, something Aluminum in between the MacBook Air and 12″PB in shape/size. I’d gladly make it a tad thicker to allow a smaller footprint and a few more I/O ports. A redesign would be necessary to make the display widescreen instead of 4×3 (1024×768) so the profile would be different form the MBA or 12″PB. (Will Apple ever make a Mac or display that is not widescreen? I doubt it.) Leave out the DVD drive, replace it with more battery or subtract off some weight/thickness. When the price of Flash drives drop enough, use that instead of a 1.8″ drive, and up the capacity to at least 128GB. I bet using their design skills (and smaller Core 2 Duo) Apple could hit a nice weight (about 3 lbs, maybe 3.5 or 4) with a smaller, slightly thicker footprint.

    Tom, would you buy this hypothetical machine, say, four years from now?

    Getting back to reality, it turns out I was sadly wrong about the battery life, given the reviews:
    http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/08/01/24/first_hdd_based_macbook_air_reviews_hit_the_wires.html
    Apparently Apple is using the same fake battery tests as the MBP numbers: reviewers only got 2.5-4 hours of actual use (admittedly Mossberg stupidly cranked up the brightness to full and turned off the power saving features). So the MBA has decent battery life but not revolutionary “use all day and recharge at night” battery life like I was hoping. Let’s just hope they (or some third party) make an external rechargeable battery that plugs into the power port.

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