Sony stakes its claim for the ultraportable crown (August 12th, 2013)
Product Manufacturer: Sony
- - Strong battery life, option for external battery - Outstanding Triluminos display - Ultra light carbon fiber body - Compact, stylish design - Well constructed
- - Carbon fiber can flex - Noticeable fan noise - Graphics performance relatively weak - Keyboard keys on the small side
If you are looking for one of the lightest 11-inch notebooks on the market with one of the best displays in the segment, then you might want to take a look at the Sony Vaio Pro 11 with its 11.6-inch Triluminos display. In addition to running the latest Intel 'Haswell' Core-series processors, which help to extend battery life, you will also a good helping of Sony's trademark product style on show. Its form factor is also very compact, much more so than the class leading Apple 11-inch MacBook Air, which we recently reviewed in full. This makes the 11-inch MacBook Air an ideal reference point for our full review of the Vaio Pro 11. So is the Sony Vaio Pro the new must-have notebook in the ultraportable segment?
Design and build quality
The Sony Vaio Pro 11 is a very attractive looking notebook, and includes some interesting angular design touches. It is very slim and light, tipping the scales at just 1.92 pounds, which compares very favorably with the 11-inch Apple MacBook Air, which is noticeably heavier at 2.34 pounds. Sony gets the weight down by using a uni-direction carbon fiber chassis incorporating a hexa-shell design for additional strength. It also reduces the overall footprint of the notebook against the MacBook Air by having a design that centers on an edge-to-edge display.
However, while the carbon fiber shell might be quite resilient to knocks and is quite sturdy overall, there is a feeling of chassis flex when typing that is noticeable. This is something that is simply not an issue with the aluminum chassis used on the MacBook Air, or is even noticeable on many notebooks made from hard plastics. Flex is also noticeable in the lid of the Vaio Pro, when lifting it open. Apple has been known to have experimented with carbon fiber materials in prototype notebooks and iPads, however these have yet to see the light of day. It is quite possible that this is the reason why.
Overall, the Sony Vaio Pro, like most of Sony's notebooks, is well put together with some interesting and thoughtful design touches. For example, the display has an in-built fulcrum built into the bottom that levers the keyboard on to an angle when typing on hard surfaces like a desktop or airplane tray. However, the same fulcrum can cut into your lap when trying to use it while commuting on a train or bus for example. In most usage scenarios, it works well and helps to make for a more comfortable typing experience.
The Sony Vaio Pro 11 packs in a 1080p (1920x1080) multi-touch Triluminos IPS display, which is one of the best looking displays that we have seen in the 11-inch ultra-portable class. By comparison, the tired, lower resolution TN panel in the MacBook Air really looks below par. The Vaio Pro 11 offers rich colors and maintains excellent color accuracy from wide viewing angles. Sony's Triluminos display tech offers a far wider color pallet than most displays, displaying a wider color gamut in reds, blues and greens. It is a good example of how the new Sony under Kaz Hirai is leveraging the technology from various divisions within the company and integrating them into its mobile products.
The multi-touch nature of the panel is something that we can easily live without, however, in the age of Windows 8 and its tile-based start screen, it is something that you might find yourself using from time to time. The only drawback with the display that we noted is the anti-glare layer that Sony has built into the panel. It does give a slightly mottled appearance up close, but is no deal killer. While the Sony Vaio Pro 11 display easily has it over the MacBook Air display, the Retina display in our 13-inch MacBook Pro is a rung above it.
If you plan on editing photos, or watching movies with your notebook, the Vaio Pro 11 could be just what you are looking for. It offers the most satisfying viewing experience on a notebook in its class, which may help to sway users towards it.
Our Vaio Pro 11 review unit is the entry-level model, and is fitted with a fourth-generation Core-i5 (4200U) dual-core chip clocked at 1.6GHz and matched with 4GB of RAM. It can also Turbo Boost to 2.6GHz, but on the downside, it uses Intel's integrated HD 4400 GPU. For reference, Apple's 11-inch MacBook Air also uses a fourth-generation Core-i5 chip clocked at 1.3GHz, but incorporates the much more power Intel HD 5000 GPU. Apple is able to offset the lower CPU clock speed on the MacBook Air by switching from a SATA connection for the SSD to a PCI Express port. The HD 4400 offers a slight performance upgrade over the older HD 4000 GPU, but it is not substantial.
We ran the Vaio Pro 11 through the same set of Geekbench and Cinebench tests as we did for our full review of the Mid-2013 Apple MacBook Air 11-inch. However on that occasion, our test unit of the MacBook Air was using a higher-specification 1.7GHz fourth-generation Core-i7 chip on Mac OS X. In the Geekbench test, the Vaio Pro 11 running Windows 8 scored a respectable 5606 points. By comparison, the MacBook Air scored a significantly higher score of 7489. For everyday computing using Office, email, web browsing and watching videos, you are not going to experience any noticeable system lag running Windows 8 on the Vaio Pro 11.
The Cinebench score highlighted the benefits of Apple's decision to go with Intel's new integrated HD 5000 GPU in all of its MacBook Air models, over the HD 4400 that Sony has opted for in the entry-level Vaio Pro 11. The Cinebench R 11.5 test score for the Vaio Pro 11 returned 14.92fps, which is going to be good enough for a strategy game like StarCraft II, but nothing requiring any kind of 3D acceleration. The HD 5000 in our MacBook Air returned a much more gamer-friendly result of 26.86fps. It's not going to threaten most discrete GPUs for performance, but casual 3D gaming is definitely on the cards.
When you factor in the 128SSD that Sony has incorporated into the Vaio Pro 11, it makes it a very competitive package overall. Upgrading to the faster Core-i7 Vaio Pro 11 with a faster CPU may be useful for those who heavily multitask, or who just want the fastest speeds possible. However, the upgrade to the faster CPU doesn't bring you any joy on the graphics front, with Sony still sticking with the HD 4440 integrated GPU, which is certainly disappointing given its weak performance. Another downside of the Vaio Pro 11 from a performance perspective is that any kind of processing load results in fan noise, something that Apple, for example, has worked hard to banish from its machines. This is one of the other downsides of choosing carbon fiber over aluminum, as it can have the effect of keeping the heat in, rather than conducting it away as does an aluminum body.
Sony's 128GB SSD on the Vaio Pro 11 is a good performer when it comes to an SSD connected over a SATA connection. It is much faster and more responsive than a spinning hard drive and makes for a snappy user experience. Windows 8 may get a bad rap for aspects of its controversial user interface, but there is no denying that it is the fastest and most stable OS that Microsoft has yet to ship. Start up and shutdown times on the Vaio Pro are fast, as is the overall system speed. However, as previously mentioned, Apple has now switched to a PCI Express for its flash storage interface, dramatically boosting system speed and performance in the process. If you want a PCIe connection on the Vaio Pro, you will have to opt for the 13-inch model, which drops the SATA connector for the faster PCIe connection.
Another piece of hardware worth mentioning is the built-in HD webcam of the Vaio Pro, which is powered by Sony's Exmor R for PC technology. It makes for better video calls in low light situations, coming in handy for use in a study, for example. It certainly provides for a clearer video chat experience. As for audio, although Sony has stuck with Intel's High Definition Audio circuitry, it has added its array of software-based audio tweaks to improve sound performance. Enhancements include, ClearAudio+, S-Force Front Surround 3D, Clear Phase, xLoud, VPT, Voice Zoom and Sound Optimizer, all of which make for a good listening experience from what is a small notebook.
The Sony Vaio Pro 11 is fitted with two USB 3.0 ports, one of which includes a charging function. It also includes a microSD card port, tucked in under the front of the notebook. There is also a stereo mini jack out for audio, and an HDMI port for video out - thankfully, from the perspective of pure design aesthetics, Sony has finally dropped backwards compatibility with the older VGA standard. This can be addressed with an included adapter if needed. The MacBook Air, by comparison, also includes a Thunderbolt port, creating a much more flexible and expandable notebook than one that relies only on USB 3.0 for expansion.
Wireless connectivity is solid and comes with support for Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, but omits support for the new 802.11ac standard that offers three times the transfer speeds of the older 'n' standard. If you want this, you will have to resort to a dongle, while Apple has built this in as standard on the new MacBook Air lineup. One thing missing on the MacBook Air line, and Apple products generally, is support for NFC. Sony is pushing NFC connectivity in a big way with its devices in 2013 and the Vaio Pro 11 is no exception. Coupled with Bluetooth 4.0, the Vaio Pro 11 quickly and easily pairs with other NFC devices in one touch.
The big story from a battery perspective is provided courtesy of the Intel 'Haswell' processor embedded at the heart of the Vaio Pro 11. Although not as impressive as the 9 hours that Apple is able to squeeze out of its 11-inch MacBook Air, the Vaio Pro 11 still pushes out a claimed 7.5 hours of use from its standard 4-cell battery. The reason for the shortfall compared to the MacBook Air is likely due to the higher resolution screen that Sony has employed, as well as the fact that it has opted for a slightly higher clock speed on its CPU than Apple. Its traditional SSD set up also likely chews up more battery than Apple's use of flash-based storage, but it is still much more efficient than spinning drive. We managed to achieve up to 7 hours on the go in our testing, with the display set at 50 percent and wireless connectivity switched on.
Sony, however, has a solution for extending battery life when on the go; but it comes with a weight and price penalty. Like many of its other notebook offerings, Sony also offers a sheet battery that connects to the front underside of the Vaio Pro 11. This has the effect of doubling its claimed battery life up to an impressive 15 hours, which should be more than sufficient for getting work done on a long haul flight to anywhere in the world. It's a useful accessory to have, but it also comes at an additional cost of $150. However, it does help to highlight the trade-offs that are made in the design process how the choice of system components affects the overall user experience. It's hard to imagine Apple ever offering an external battery that users would tack on to the underside of a MacBook.
Keyboard and trackpad
The typing experience on the Sony Vaio Pro 11 is quite satisfying for the most part. It uses the popular chiclet style keyboard layout, which also incorporates a very effective keyboard backlighting system that is bright and highly legible in low light situations. Key travel is relatively long for a notebook, which helps with its overall comfort, with adequate spacing between the keys for this reviewers hands.
However, the keys themselves are slightly smaller than those on the 11-inch MacBook Air, which is due in part to the very compact footprint of the Vaio Pro 11. Although the MacBook Air is equipped with a display of very similar dimensions the Sony Vaio Pro 11, it has a much wider bezel, which is the result of Apple's decision to incorporate a 100 percent full-size notebook keyboard on the device. The keyboard on the Vaio Pro 11 is close to full size, but appears to have been reduced to around 95 percent of a full size notebook keyboard, which is the result of its design decision to have a much narrower bezel around the display.
The keys on the Vaio Pro 11, while slightly scalloped to help minimize finger slip when typing, are not quite as scalloped as the keys on the MacBook Air. This means that you will need to be fairly accurate with your aim when typing, but it is likely something that you will quickly adjust to overtime. The only other drawback to speak of is the noticeable chassis flex around the keyboard when typing. It is more something that you see, rather than feel when typing. It does not mean that the notebook isn't as strong as aluminum one - it is just not quite as reassuring aluminum, and is one of the results of opting for carbon fiber which is more prone to flex.
The trackpad on the Vaio Pro is also not quite as reassuring to the touch as the large, oversize trackpad on the MacBook Air. This is again due to Sony's decision to make the notebook as compact it possibly could. Portability and looks are enhanced, but it does compromise its overall functionality to some extent, leaving less space for a larger trackpad. Regardless, the trackpad on the Vaio Pro 11 is very good trackpad in practice and its multitouch functionality works very well with Windows 8. Plus, when it suits, you can also opt to utilize touchscreen input for interface navigation. Apple still has the edge overall for its trackpad multitouch performance, with an accuracy and feel that Windows notebooks have yet to fully replicate.
In the PC world, the Sony Vaio Pro 11 is definitely one of the best ultraportables that you can buy. It is extremely light, yet offers the power of Intel 'Haswell' Core-i5 performance and battery longevity. It has an attractive design and is well constructed, despite some impressions to the contrary that comes with utilizing carbon fiber extensively throughout its body. This is the trade-off that you will have to make if you want the compactness and portability that the Vaio Pro 11 offers.
Less forgivable, perhaps is the fan noise that is produced by the Vaio Pro, even in apparent in light usage scenarios. It is a distinct point of difference in the overall build quality and design edge that Apple has achieved with its MacBook Air range, although the Airs too are not without their compromises. If you want an outstanding display on an 11-inch notebook, you won't currently find that on a MacBook Air. You will find it on the Vaio Pro 11, with its Triluminos technology producing a much more satisfying viewing experience. Shame then, that its graphics performance is off the pace, as you can't take full advantage of the view.
Overall, the Sony Vaio Pro 11 is an excellent ultraportable notebook. It's definitely worth a look and offers very good overall value and performance for your money.