Sony Vaio VGN-SZ791N/X Notes

I just got a new Vaio to replace my dead Toshiba laptop on February 4th, 2008. The following are the installation notes and thoughts about my Sony Vaio VGN-SZ791N/X from someone new to the Sony Vaio family of laptops. Long story short: recent Linux distributions will work, and it has a lot of untapped potential.

Initial Thoughts

In terms of the specifications and looks of the laptop, the SZ791 is really nice. I like the way that it looks, and it weighs at least two or three pounds less than my old Toshiba laptop. I was waiting rather impatiently for NewEgg to stock this laptop, which left enough time for the MacBook Air to be announced. While the SZ791 isn't as thin (at most 1.5" thick), at four pounds it's still rather portable (and certainly more user-serviceable).

For those that cannot be bothered to look up the specifications of the laptop:

Those of you paying attention to the specifications will notice a glaring problem with the initial configuration of this laptop. It comes with a 32-bit operating system pre-installed, but contains 4GB of RAM. Without going into detail, this essentially means the 32-bit OS will not give full access of the 4GB of RAM to programs. To do that, you'll need to use a 64-bit operating system (such as any Linux distribution these days or by purchasing a 64-bit version of XP/Vista). With the default installation, Vista reported a little over 3GB of RAM.

I had access to a free copy of 64-bit Vista Business and was planning on dual-booting the laptop anyway so reinstalling Windows was already on my list of things to do (better to nuke the bloatware from orbit, it's the only way to be sure). I can't really blame Sony for not wanting to ship a 64-bit operating system with new laptops, but I naively thought that this would not really be a problem. Sadly, I was wrong. Sony does not supply 64-bit drivers for this laptop. Other, older Vaio laptops have unofficial 64-bit drivers, so with a bit of luck Sony may supply them for the SZ791.

What Works, What Doesn't

Let's start with Vista. You will not find a Vista recovery CD with your SZ791. Instead, you will find a CD (DVD? I didn't open it.) that will allow you to downgrade to Windows XP. If you want recovery DVDs for Vista, you'll have to make your own. Sony has put drivers, recovery software, and apparently a somewhat clean Vista install on a separate partition on the hard drive which can be copied to two DVD-Rs (using the built-in burner, of course). Those DVDs are important because they will contain most of the drivers which can also be used on 64-bit Vista.

There are a few rather important drivers that will refuse to install which include both video drivers (both the X3100 and the nVidia 8400M GS), the Sony function keys (the programmable buttons and the LCD brightness) and touchpad. The most infuriating of these is the trackpad (no scrolling using the right and bottom parts of the trackpad--it otherwise operates just fine) and the function keys because who knows when Sony will decide to release 64-bit versions. Other drivers, including the X3100 drivers are available from Windows Update, "Problem Reports and Solutions," or manufacturers' web sites.

I won't go through the full list of what works and what doesn't because I don't have an exhaustive list handy. The main features mostly work and a good percentage of the extras work. I haven't tried the webcam (I would assume, though, that it will fall in the same category as the trackpad and function keys), the CDMA modem, the card reader, or anything in the PC Express slot.

Linux is, of course, a much brighter picture. I installed Fedora 8 on the laptop and pretty much everything works out of the box. I have not yet attempted to install the drivers for either video card, but the X3100 deals with Compiz just fine (if you ignore the blacklisting). The wireless network connection also works just fine, however, the wired ethernet driver appears to be misconfigured. I haven't been able to track down the problem (what little attention I've given it so far). Otherwise, audio drivers, all features of the trackpad, controlling the monitor brightness (via the command line) all work without a problem.

Bottom Line

I love this laptop. I love the fact that it dual-boots without a problem. I don't like that Sony has completely shut out anyone that needs or wants to use a 64-bit version of Windows on their laptops, but I suppose that's their prerogative. I'm sure that with time they'll start pushing out more beta drivers and perhaps even support 64-bit Vista on it some day. In the mean time, it works without any major issues with 64-bit operating systems if you can rough it on your own. If 32-bit Vista works for you, then there's really no reason to be afraid of picking this laptop up.

I only have minor nitpicky issues with the keyboard (the size is great, but the key movement is somewhat slushy), the cover over the modem and ethernet ports (connected via a dongle attached to the side of the body), the antenna (another flimsy-feeling plastic piece that seems like it could be accidentally ripped off rather easily), and finally the battery (it's not solidly connected to the body of the laptop, it moves around slightly in the battery bay when you set it down). They're not deal-breaking problems by any stretch of the imagination but they are in the way of what would otherwise be a solid—literally and figuratively—laptop.

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