The keyboard itself is excellent, with a tactile feel to each keystroke that’s rarely experienced outside of a Lenovo ThinkPad. Despite the fact that Andy isn’t a fan of the somewhat flat design of Sony keyboards, it doesn’t bother me in the slightest, which highlights the fact that input devices are a very personal thing. There’s a good degree of travel on each key and a solid break, which springs your fingers back, ready for the next keystroke. The layout is also great with the Ctrl key in the bottom left where it should be – ideal for keyboard shortcuts. Also, the Tab, Caps Lock, Shift, Return and Backspace keys are all large and easy to strike.
Unfortunately the touchpad isn’t quite as much of a joy to use. Bizarrely Sony has mounted it way below the keyboard, which results in the buttons being mounted on the edge of the case, rather than on the wrist rest. I don’t have a problem with this design on Sony’s T series notebooks, because the ultra-portable form factor means that there isn’t room for proper buttons, but on the AR series there is a huge amount of room, but Sony has just decided not to use it. I suppose it stops you from inadvertently brushing the touchpad when typing, but positioning the pointing device several inches below the Spacebar doesn’t seem like the best solution to such a minor issue. The placement of the touchpad also means that you have to move your hand a long way every time you want to move the pointer – yes I know that you have the same situation with a keyboard and mouse, but a notebook is supposed to create a compact working environment.
To the left of the keyboard you’ll find two programmable soft buttons, volume controls, a mute button and an eject button for the integrated Blu-ray drive. Above the keyboard is a full array of multimedia and TV controls – Play/Pause, Stop, Skip Forward/Backward, TV Record, Channel Up/Down and a button to launch Sony’s AV shell. The latter is a little moot, considering that the AR61ZU runs Vista Ultimate, complete with Media Center.
Despite the AR61ZU looking identical to the AR11S on the outside, things are very different inside. This latest AR model is equipped with one of Intel’s new Penryn mobile chips, based on a 45nm manufacturing process. The T8300 is a dual core processor running at 2.4GHz, with 3GB of Smart Cache shared across the cores. Sony has also employed Intel’s PM965 chipset, allowing for an 800MHz front side bus, although the FSB is dynamically clockable.