Sony aims for a mix of ultraportability with speed. (May 22nd, 2011)
Truly light notebooks have almost always been sacrifices that either shed the optical drive or use low-power processors that could take them out of the running as desktop replacements. Sony's current VAIO S tosses both ideas aside: at 3.6 pounds, it's nearly a full pound lighter than a 13-inch MacBook Pro yet still has an optical drive, a 2.3GHz Core i5, and even dedicated graphics. But does that necessarily mean it's worth the expense? Our early 2011 VAIO S review finds out.
Product Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $1,000 (2.3GHz Core i5, 4GB RAM, 500GB HD)
- Very light for an optical-equipped notebook.
- Fast for its class.
- Good keyboard.
- (Theoretically) reboot-free graphics switching.
- Understated good looks.
- A minimum of bundled third-party apps.
- Good value for the money.
- Some utility out of the Media Gallery app.
- Disappointing battery life.
- Build feels somewhat fragile.
- Multi-touch trackpad seldom works as promised.
- Sony apps feel superfluous.
Design, keyboard, and the trackpad
Sony hasn't always been known for understated design in recent years. The VAIO S, though, revels in just how minimal it is. The design is nearly all one solid, matte color; it was black on our model, but white is an option. It's referred to as "full flat" by Sony and seems built around making the most use of the available space with very few curves or pieces of frill.
For us, that's largely a winning strategy. Although the black version is prone to showing fingerprints, it's respectable both at home and at work. And while Sony is guilty of making overly flashy designs elsewhere in its lineup (such as the E series), the S resists the urge to add fake chrome, patterns, and other attention getters put on some Windows systems only to help sell in the store but which can snap off or wear out once they're in the home.
And though it's a full-featured notebook, it's light -- very light. The chassis uses a combination of aluminum and magnesium that weighs just 3.6 pounds in standard trim. We mentioned that it feels lighter than the MacBook Pro and other systems with a 13-inch screen, but you really do have to hold it to believe it. Comparatively speaking, it feels almost weightless. If you need a full Windows notebook and you want it to weigh as little as possible, look no further.
That reduced weight does appear to come at a price. As much as we like the savings, the system still feels somewhat cheap. We neither saw nor heard flexing in the main chassis, but the body just doesn't feel like the materials it's supposed to be using; it feels hollow and fragile. Some of the design touches still point to Sony focusing on price over quality. The LCD is on a barrel hinge, which should help its longevity, but it still tends to wobble considerably if you're using the PC on your lap. The optical drive tray feels destined to break if it's used often. On that front, then, someone with a Lenovo ThinkPad T series or a MacBook Pro might feel more comfortable about what they own.
We do like the display with some qualifications. At a 1366x768 resolution, it's strictly average for a 13-inch system. The color palette is noticeably muted, and colors quickly wash out or invert if your vertical angle goes more than slightly past head-on. Having said this, the horizontal angles are good, and we didn't notice any obvious color banding or other artifcats of a low color display. Sony uses a glossy finish but has toned down the reflectivity enough that it's usable in most any situation but one with a bright, direct light source.
Expansion is good but straightforward, with one USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, Ethernet, Memory Stick and SD card readers, and both HDMI as well as VGA for output. We'd have liked to see full-size or mini DisplayPort. Intel's WiDi (Wireless Display) is here, but without the relatively costly adapter for a TV, we couldn't test it out and considered more a minor amount of futureproofing than anything else.
Probably the best experience on the whole system is, apart from the weight, the keyboard. It's a chiclet design much like many systems now have, but the keys are, for the most part, well laid out and more reminiscent of the generally well-regarded Mac layout through the large keys and quick, no-fuss travel. We wrote this review on the VAIO S and could move very quickly with virtually no errant keys. About our only concern, though a significant one, was the backlighting. For some unknown reason, Sony has backlit the keyboard but turns it off after a certain amount of idle time, and won't turn it back on until you press a key; what's the point of a backlit keyboard if you still have to hunt for that first key in the dark?
Our reaction to the trackpad was more mixed. The surface area is comfortably large, as are the buttons, and tracking is largely smooth. However, it's a classic example of the flawed gesture support that's still present in Windows. You still need to use the edges to scroll, making diagonal scrolls difficult. Multi-touch was also horribly inconsistent. Despite having enabled all gestures, things like two-finger scrolling often didn't work where zooming and pivoting did. Software meant to skip spurious input also didn't seem to work. The trackpad is certainly usable; it just didn't work as advertised.
Heat and noise
Separate attention has to be given to how the system behaves under load. When in regular Windows apps or playing common video formats off of the web, the VAIO is well-behaved. There's a faint but sometimes noticeable fan sound in the background. On your lap, it's fairly comfortable, though it's warm enough that it may give you that slightly ill feeling if it sits on your lap warming you up for several hours. We noticed the right palm rest gets fairly warm, too; without a teardown of the system in front of us, we'd suspect that's the hard drive.
Pushing the system hard is when things get unpleasant. When trying anything that truly pushes the hardware, such as a benchmark or a 3D game, the VAIO S quickly gets to be very hot. We wouldn't want it on our lap at that point. Moreover, it's genuinely noisy, spinning the fans at such a high speed that it's hard to completely drown out the noise, even with speakers or most non-cancelling headphones. While it's not a fatal flaw, it gives away that Sony managed to get a fast processor inside the frame by using a very aggressive cooling system.
Performance: subjective and objective
The featherweight design of the VAIO S is capable of holding some surprisingly fast components for its size. Our example had the standard 2.3GHz Core i5 and an AMD Radeon HD 6470M, but you can scale up all the way to a 2.7GHz Core i7 and a Radeon HD 6630M. What was in our system is mid-range, but it's a world better than what's usually found in systems just $200 cheaper.
Day-to-day performance is, understandably, fast. We had no trouble juggling several apps, playing 1080p videos, or otherwise handling heavy duty tasks. Gaming is surprisingly good for the class of system. A truly demanding game like Crysis 2 will still strain itself on the VAIO S, but we could play Portal 2 and other Source engine games at 30-plus frames per second with most detail at maximum and at the native display resolution. Given that the 6630M video in higher end systems is in an entirely different performance class, we'd opt for it fairly quickly if we wanted a longer lifespan for games, although the VAIO S still won't replace a good desktop PC for games.
To gauge the performance of the system in a more scientific way, we used Futuremark's two latest synthetic tests, PCMark 7 and 3DMark 11. The former checks some graphics but also focuses on common tasks like browsing, video encoding, photo editing, and storage. Our system hit a PCMark bench of 1,762 points; that puts it at the high end of systems with a similar Core i5 and Radeon HD 6400-series video; it's certainly not a performance system, though, as a comparison against another VAIO with a 2.7GHz Core i7 and a Radeon HD 6750M -- the closest we could get in the early stages of PCMark 7's life -- gave a typical score of 3,100 points, or a whopping 75 percent higher. That's not to say the VAIO S with our performance isn't good or even great, but it does put the overall performance in context.
Our result with 3DMark 11 was difficult to compare as easily because of Sony: it's using non-certified drivers and isn't officially counted in the database. A quick comparison shows that the P630 3DMark score we received at Performance-level settings is in the upper range of performance for similar hardware, though once again, it's relative. Looking at a faster 2.6GHz Core i5 and Radeon HD 6750M model to that faster VAIO we saw, it's not hard to get 1,135 with just a couple of key upgrades.
Actually looking at the 3DMark benchmark, which is checking DirectX 11-level visual effects, illustrated that the VAIO S really isn't completely ready for future gaming. Most tests, such as the deep sea and temple tests, could run at just two to three frames per second; our best result was in the physics test, at 10 frames per second. Critics have said the Radeon HD 6470M isn't really fast enough to drive the effects it supports in a gaming situation, and that was borne out here. Consider the VAIO S a thin-and-light notebook first that just happens to have graphics good enough for some modern games or light 3D rendering.
We'll add that graphics performance does get slower on battery when you switch to Intel video and will rule out more gaming and other heavy lifting. Intel's newer chip architecture, Sandy Bridge, does at last mean you'll get playable performance in some games and that 1080p video plays without a hiccup. Along with finally getting the full Aero Glass interface experience in Windows 7, it's a less jarring experience than it has been in the past, though we'll note that virtually any PC or Mac will experience the same thing.
Battery life and graphics switching
As is the case with a mounting number of portables, the S has live graphics switching. You can go from the faster but power-hungry Radeon HD video to the more miserlyintegrated Intel video and back without having to reboot. The option developed by AMD and Sony isn't as seamless as NVIDIA's Optimus, which can switch on an app-by-app basis, but it only requires a brief switchover. Any college student can attest to this sort of thing being a lifesaver: you can stay on Intel video in the classroom to stretch battery life but plug in at the dorm to get some gaming done.
Sony has its graphics switching tied into a familiar toggle switch just above the keyboard that controls a broader number of factors. Toggling Speed gives you the full power of the notebook: dedicated graphics are on, the display brightens up, and the system is otherwise at full bore. Stamina not only goes to Intel video and a dimmer screen but will shut off the optical drive and other non-essentials. On a basic level, it's a very handy way to extend the notebook's battery life without delving into power management software.
That is, when it works. Our review unit regularly had problems switching over to Stamina mode. Even when staring at a blank desktop with no apps running in the system tray, a flick of the switch would prompt us to close any running apps. The only solution was always a reboot, defeating the very point of live switching. Running even just a few apps seemed to throw it off even after quitting them entirely.
Battery life didn't benefit much. Officially, Sony claims as much as 7.5 hours of battery at the stock screen brightness and with Stamina mode on, shrinking down to 4.5 hours if it's being heavily taxed by DVD playback. Simply put, those figures were wildly optimistic. When we tried the same, we got 4:45 for battery life, even in the stripped down Stamina mode and doing nothing else but basic web browsing. Using the system in Speed mode but with a balanced power profile drops that to about 4:20, and using an unadulterated Speed mode drops that to 3:45.
We suspect that it's just another case of an unrealistic battery life claim for a Windows notebook that assumes you aren't running anything. There are Windows PC builders who are more forthright, but it's easiest just to point to Apple here: its quoted battery life is what you'll actually get, and sometimes more, even when you're browsing the web and handling real tasks. As-is, the VAIO S has competent battery life but just can't be used as an all-day computer unless you're willing to take major steps to be thrifty with energy.
If you do like the design enough, there is the option of a unique add-on. A $100 "sheet" battery can graft on to the bottom surface of the notebook and roughly doubles the amount of power in return for a thicker profile. Sony didn't give us the secondary battery to try, but we're not entirely convinced we would get the 15 hours of battery life Sony has promised. Going by Sony's track record would suggest that actual conditions would net about 9.5 hours of use under those conditions. That would be good enough for a full workday, though whether it's worth the extra expense and bulk is another matter.
At one point, Sony was known for having some of the most trialware-laden PCs on the market. The current VAIO S is thankfully a sign of how far Sony has progressed since then. Out of the box, the only non-official apps are Adobe's Acrobat Standard, Photoshop Elements, and Premiere Elements, a Starter Edition of Office, as well as a trial version of Norton Internet Security. You actually get the computer you were promised instead of clutter and slowdowns, although Norton needs to turn down its deliberately scary messages and intrusive pop-ups that show if you don't agree to a subscription and haven't uninstalled the app yourself.
Most of what's left are Sony's own utilities, such as recovery and simplified connection tools. A quick visit to Internet Explorer, though, shows that Sony hasn't entirely learned its lesson when it comes to the browser. On first loading it, you're greeted with both a Sony-customized version of Microsoft's optional Bing search bar as well as a Norton bar. They're not major issues, although they occupy too much of the valuable browser screen real estate for our liking. We're also somewhat disappointed that the VAIO didn't come with Google's Chrome browser loaded, as on earlier Sony PCs; even compared to Internet Explorer 9, it's frequently the better browser.
Two conspicuous Sony apps sit in a default install. VAIO Gate is a tray that hides at the top of the screen and provides shortcuts to common apps and, not surprisingly, mosy Sony-specific apps. It's polished and unintrusive, but it feels somewhat superfluous given Windows 7's taskbar. Media Gallery is more interesting: it's a hub for music, photos, and videos. The front end is easy to use and attractive, and there's even a cultivated Internet content channel that provides Slacker Radio, Blip.tv, Epicurious, and a number of other sources formatted for the full screen. We can imagine it being useful for some; it won't really be touched by power users, though few such custom apps are. It could very well be useful for curating background music or photo slideshows for a house party without digging through the web.
There's much to like about the VAIO S, most of all its seeming call to the Windows PC business to get back to a purer experience than what it has had lately. If you genuinely value portability and a get-things-done mentality, the 13-inch PC is a breath of fresh air compared to a sea of systems that resemble miniature raves with their excess frills and flashing lights. Certainly the software is kept straightforward.
As a performer, it's good as long as you keep your expectations in check. This isn't a gaming notebook, and you should consider a system like HP's Envy 14 if you're willing to go up in weight and size to get faster graphics. When compared to a lot of other systems in its size range and performance focus, though, it's quite a capable machine.
What brings the system down isn't so much a failure as unrealized potential. For a system so clearly meant to be carried everywhere, the battery life is underwhelming, and the sheet battery is mostly making up for a deficiency. Likewise, there's a sense from the build quality that, while it will probably be fine, there's a slight chance it could go to the repair shop before its useful lifespan is over.
With that in mind, the VAIO S is still a solid value for the money, and if you're largely satisfied with the Windows universe, the PC is a safe though not revolutionary choice to make.