Walt Mossberg

Sony, Lenovo Laptops Are Pricey, but Offer Lots of Features, Power

Sony and Lenovo, the Chinese company that took over IBM’s personal computer line, are rare among Windows laptop makers. In contrast to many competitors, they exhibit lots of creativity and distinctiveness in their laptop designs, much like Apple Computer.

I’ve been testing two new small and light laptops from these companies: the Sony Vaio SZ160, and the Lenovo ThinkPad X60s. Both weigh in at under four pounds, so they won’t break your back when you tote them on the road. But each has plenty of power, decent battery life and a rich set of features. And, despite their small size, these machines are capable of serious work, partly because both use Intel’s new Dual Core processor, which packs the equivalent of two processors into one.

I like both machines, but they have different benefits and downsides. The ThinkPad is the latest entry in a long line of small, rugged laptops with great keyboards and strong battery life. It has a speedy, optional, internal cellphone modem for connecting to the Internet over a cellphone network. But it lacks an internal optical (CD or DVD) drive.

At the cost of just a little more weight and size, the Sony I tested includes an optical drive and a bigger screen, but it lacks a cellphone modem and has weaker battery life than the Lenovo configuration I tested. For enhanced security, both laptops have built-in fingerprint readers that can bolster or replace typed passwords. Neither is a bargain-basement laptop. The Sony SZ series starts at $2,000, and the ThinkPad X60 series starts at $1,900. They come in many different configurations, and thus many different prices. The ThinkPad X60s I tested, which included a cellphone modem, an extra-strength battery and a dock with an optical drive, costs $2,300. The Sony SZ I tested, which didn’t include a dock, an extended battery or a cellphone modem — but did have that internal optical drive — costs $2,500.

lenovo thinkpad
The Lenovo ThinkPad X60s

The Thinkpad X60S I tested weighed 3.46 pounds, while my Sony SZ160 test model weighed just 3.72 pounds, even with the bigger screen and optical drive. The ThinkPad is 10.5 inches wide by 8.3 inches deep, and it’s between 0.8 inch and 1.11 inches thick. The Sony is 12.5 inches wide by 9.3 inches deep, and it’s between 0.9 inch and 1.3 inches thick. The Sony’s larger dimensions are mainly a result of its bigger screen — 13.3 inches, versus 12.1 inches for the Lenovo. The Sony screen is also higher resolution.

I put both laptops through my usual tough battery test, wherein I turn off all power-saving software, crank up the screen brightness to the max, turn on the wireless networking, and then play an endless loop of music.

My test ThinkPad, with its double-capacity battery, lasted a very impressive four hours and 49 minutes. In normal use, with power-saving turned on and a more typical work pattern, I’d expect it to last six hours or more, which is excellent. My test Sony, which had a normal-size battery, lasted just three hours and two minutes, even though the machine was running on its so-called Stamina setting. In normal use, the Sony would likely top four hours. Presumably, a Lenovo with a standard battery would do worse, and a Sony with an extended battery would do better.

Neither can match Apple when it comes to the quality of its built-in software. Lenovo’s is too geeky and is aimed more at corporate than consumer customers. Sony’s is more consumer-oriented, but it’s inconsistent and confusing.

The ThinkPad X60s, like its predecessors from IBM, is compact and rugged, with strong hinges and the best keyboard in any laptop. It has both built-in Wi-Fi wireless networking and a built-in cellphone modem that works on Verizon’s speedy EV-DO network.

My test machine worked well on all the typical computing tasks most people do, but there was one small defect in a Lenovo-supplied wireless software program that kept turning off the Wi-Fi. The company says this problem appeared only in early models like mine and has been fixed. Overall, the quality seemed as good as when IBM was making the machines.

sony vaio
The Sony Vaio SZ160

But the Thinkpad X series really should have an internal optical drive by now. When it was introduced, few ultra-small laptops had them, but since then Sony and others have figured out how to install optical drives in even smaller boxes.

The Sony SZ series is interesting because, while it’s not Sony’s smallest or lightest line, it packs a larger screen and an optical drive into a package that’s under four pounds. Like the Lenovo, it worked well at all typical tasks.

The SZ’s biggest innovation is that it has two graphics systems and the aforementioned “Stamina” mode, controlled by a switch, which allows you to use the weaker graphics hardware to save battery power. Its biggest downside is that its optional cellphone modem (available this summer in a pricier premium model I didn’t test) works on Cingular’s EDGE network, which is only about a seventh as fast as the Verizon network Lenovo uses.

You won’t go wrong with either of these well-designed laptops. For road warriors, they are worth their hefty price tags.

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