Back to the past: The word “retro” is inadequate to describe the appearance of the X-Tube AS301DTS. The USB dongle looks like a refugee from a museum. The gadget is intended to provide a decent impression of DTS surround sound on laptop computers. Using a VIA VT1610 chip set, the dongle plugs into a USB port and delivers a simulated five-speaker surround-sound system through any pair of stereo headphones plugged into it. It is also capable of recording sound via any microphone connected to it. Measuring 45 × 23 mm, it weighs a mere 12 grams. It supports 16Bit 16KHz / 32KHz / 48KHz in both playback and recording modes. The dongle also has a choice of movie and music modes to specialize its audio- enhancing abilities. Interestingly, it not only works with Windows (being compatible with XP, Vista and 7), but also with Macs and Linux systems. It is available now in Japan through Rakuten.

Although it comes with a pair of earphones, the maker pushes the need to acquire a pair of matching AH-516 headphones to enjoy the full promise of DTS. Moreover, the simulated nature of the sound experience suggests a lowering of expectations is in order; faking it is never as good as the real deal. Still, at only ¥3,980 it is both a conversation piece and a cheap way of addressing the audio deficiencies of portable computers. www.edio21.com/prod_as301dts.asp

Viable option: Cutting down on substance, both literally and philosophically, seems to exist at the core of making lightweight laptop computers.

Sony for one is known for draping its machines in style, but in the form of its new Vaio Z series the famed maker isn’t making light of the feature set. The VPCZ119FJ/S features a gruntish Intel Core i5-520M processor, running at 2.4 gigahertz, a minimum memory of 4 gigabytes that is expandable to 8 gigabytes, and a roomy 13.1-inch screen. Despite the hardware, the unit only weighs 1.36 kg. A reason for the surprisingly minimal weight is the use of carbon fiber in the computer’s body. Also helping in achieving its svelte dimensions is the use of a pair of solid state drives for the memory, although at just 128 gigabytes the capacity is hardly roomy. However, the use of SSD units makes for a faster computing experience than if a traditional hard disk was used, and a more robust one.

While ditching the optical drive is a standard practice in such slim laptops, the fact that Sony opted for a DVD burner instead of a Blu-ray drive is disappointing in a pricey model. Nonetheless, the company doesn’t neglect the visual too much, with the screen having 1920 × 1080 resolution and a NVIDIA graphics card. The outside looks aren’t neglected either, with the decently roomy keyboard set in a stylish silver finish. The dimensions of a width of 314 mm and depth of 210 mm help in not skimping on the typing space but it still manages a minimum thickness of just 23.8 mm. The VPCZ119FJ/S comes loaded with Windows 7 Home Premium. Apart from the standard b/g/n trifecta of wireless it also comes with the WiMax wireless system and Bluetooth. The built-in webcam is nothing unusual. The battery is claimed to last 7 1/2 hours at standard settings, but drops to 3 1/2 hours with DVD playback. Use of an optional larger- capacity battery is supposed to push the maximum usage time to 11 hours.

The Z might not be the last word in laptops but it offers more than some of its rivals in this class of slimmed-down computing. The price is also not outlandish for this type of machine, with the Sony device to cost ¥239,800 when it comes on the market March 6. www.sony.jp/CorporateCruise/Press/201002/10-0216/

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