Sony VGN-N21M/W review
The VGN-N21M/W is the first laptop we've seen from Sony's new N-Series. The company says that it's a frill-free laptop that's suitable for families and students. With this in mind, you'd imagine that it would be capable of taking a few knocks.
Pluck the Sony from it's packaging and the first thing you'll notice is that it's reasonably light, weighing a modest 3kg. Unfortunately, its build quality is equally lightweight - tap the screen lid with a finger and it sounds plasticky and hollow. The display is fairly flexible too, and gives a rubbery creak as it bends. Put it in any family or student house and we'd want to make sure that it spent all its idle moments in a well-padded laptop bag.
Its specification is, however, much more solid. Windows Vista Home Premium comes pre-installed and processor duties are carried out by an Intel Core Duo T2350, whose two cores run at 1.86GHz. It's quite a bit slower than a newer Core 2 Duo chip running at the same number of megahertz, but with 1GB of memory, it still managed to score 110% in our benchmarks. That's quick enough to keep Vista running smoothly, but dabble with any demanding video or photo editing and you'll be hankering for another gigabyte. As both memory slots are already filled with two 512MB sticks, that'll entail removing them and fitting a new pair.
Gaming is almost entirely out of the question, though. Although Intel's integrated graphics chip lets you run Vista's nifty and very slick-looking Aero theme, our Call of Duty 2 benchmark wouldn't run at all. Older games may be a possibility, but you might just have to settle for Vista's 9 built-in games.
A traditional strong point of Sony laptops is their good-quality screens and the VGN-N21M/W's doesn't disappoint - at least in some regards. Stretching 15.4in from corner to corner and with a native resolution of 1280 x 800, it offers a reasonably spacious Desktop. It's very bright too, so much so that we had to turn the brightness down when using it under more subdued lighting.
While viewing angles are great along a horizontal axis, moving vertically up or down resulted in noticeable shifts in colour tone - Sony's garish orange wallpaper changed from light pink when viewed above to a deep orangey red from below. Despite these foibles, the image quality is great when viewed head on and the incredible brightness made up for any minor imperfections. There's certainly not a hint of the graininess we've experienced with other budget laptop displays.
There is one huge, insurmountable problem with the Sony, though - the frugal provision of just two USB2 ports. You could buy a USB hub, but it's not the most elegant solution and we'd prefer a couple more USB ports to be present in the first place. The FireWire port and ExpressCard/34 slot go a little way towards redressing the balance, but we've seen similarly-priced laptops with a far better array of connections.
It's the other laptops out there that give the Sony a really hard time. In isolation the Sony looks like it has everything going for it, not least the reassuring presence of the Sony logo, but when set against the competition, it has a really tough time. The winner of this month's desktop replacement group test, the Zoostorm 53-7701 Family Laptop, weighs just a third of a kilo more, has a bigger hard disk, faster processor, a graphics chipset capable of gaming and a bigger 17in screen - all for just £90 more. Despite a better quality, albeit smaller screen and a lovely keyboard, the Sony just can't compete.