Sony takes back ground in thin-and-light notebooks. (July 18th, 2010)
Sony for a long while was the king of ultraportable notebooks, but the advent of Intel's CULV (Consumer Ultra Low Voltage) processors seemingly knocked it off the throne: a thin, low-power notebook no longer demanded a premium price. With the VAIO Y, Sony is hoping to regain that crown, and we'll find out in a full review how close it gets to that mark.
Product Manufacturer: Sony
Price: $770 (Core i3, 4GB RAM, 320GB drive)
- Fast for the size and price.
- Good battery life for the class.
- Capable screen.
- Large amount of storage.
- Dedicated graphics option.
- 3G-to-Wi-Fi hotspot feature.
- Too much "bloatware" without paying $50 extra.
- Some may still want the missing optical drive.
- Weak built-in speakers.
Design, specs and features
Many of Sony's 2010 notebooks now have bright colors as regular options, and the VAIO Y we're looking at can be customized with any of six choices. Our review unit came in Pear Green; other exotic color options include Purple Violet and Teal Blue. Most of the color choices are loud and geared towards the college or home-use crowd, but more professional looking silver and black models are also available.
Underneath the Pear Green lid sits a beautiful 13.3-inch glossy LED backlit screen. The screen was bright and text and graphics were crystal clear. We wouldn't expect color accuracy, but that's arguably not Sony's aim. The lid was quite thin but, thankfully, quite sturdy with none of the fragility of old ultraportables. Located above the screen is a Motion Eye webcam integrated into the lid of the laptop. Our testing of the webcam yielded adequate, if not average picture quality.
Sony managed to make this unit feel very portable without feeling very cheap, and we applaud the build quality; we've seen some cheaply constructed systems from the company, but this doesn't feel like one of them. The use of a low-power processor also helped address a long-time pet peeve of ours with portable computers: gigantic power supplies. While MacBook users may beg to differ, the Y does have one of the smallest laptop power bricks we've seen thus far.
Our particular review unit was loaded with 4GB of RAM and was powered by an ultra-low voltage 1.2GHz Core i5 430 processor, the higher-end of the two options (a 1.2GHz Core i3 is default); confusingly, it still had the Pentium label on the outside. The performance might not seem like much, but it can Turbo Boost up to 1.73GHz. Storage is handled by a 5,400RPM 500GB hard drive on our example, so there was no question of whether or not the system would have enough space for the long haul; 320GB is standard and still quite healthy. Intel graphics are standard, but we'd strongly recommend opting for the Mobility Radeon HD 4550 option. Windows 7 by itself will feel faster, but it will also allow for 3D gaming and other tasks that Intel's video can't realistically handle. At $50, it's an easy choice to make.
One notable omission, of course, is the optical drive. The Y is one of Sony's few mainstream, non-netbook systems to go without DVD or Blu-ray. That will be unfortunate for movie watchers on planes, but the upshot is the system's relatively light 3.9-pound weight and slim casing. This is clearly meant as a college student's PC or for the person who already has a desktop (or desktop replacement notebook) at home, and we're willing to omit the drive for the sake of weight.
Besides Microsoft's OS, Sony preloads a lot of extra software -- which is unfortunate, as it bogs down and clutters the system out of the box. Most of the software is VAIO branded entertainment software and trial versions of popular office and security apps. The usual Fresh Start option is available to start clean, but it requires paying $50 extra to upgrade to Windows 7 Professional; you shouldn't have to pay extra just to use your system the way you intended. We did however, enjoy and appreciate Sony's ongoing decision to bundle Google's Chrome web browser and a desktop version of Evernote's note-taking and task list software; both provide a much better experience from the starting gate.
With the relatively quick hardware on this system compared to typical CULV systems, we expected the user experience to be snappy and responsive, and we weren't disappointed. The entire system felt quick and we found multitasking, even with intensive media apps, to be no problem. Windows 7 gave our test model a Windows Experience Rating of 3.9, not surprisingly citing the processor as the lowest scoring component of the system.
We sometimes provide benchmarks, but in this case the expectations are largely set from the beginning. You won't be running advanced games on the VAIO Y, but with the Mobility Radeon you'll have the option of playing some modern titles at reasonable levels of detail. The Core i5 does open the door in a way that earlier CULV chips didn't. It's no replacement for a full-power processor, but with Hyperthreading you'll sometimes get the equivalent performance of four cores -- that's a tremendous boon for video encoding or other tasks that care more about parallel work than clock speed.
In terms of entertainment capabilities, Sony impressed us by including an HDMI output in such a relatively small system but disappointed us with speakers that felt underwhelming. While most laptop speakers are low-powered to start, the speakers on the Y Series clearly felt underpowered. The Y Series also has a standard VGA output (now mostly for projectors) as well as FireWire (albeit not the full, powered variety) and USB connectivity.
An innovative feature available on the Y series is the combination of an (optional) built-in Verizon 3G modem with a technology Sony has dubbed Share My Connection. Like a MiFi router -- or, again, MacBooks -- it turns a 3G-equipped laptop into a Wi-Fi hotspot for multiple other devices. The bandwidth cap of 5GB will still be a concern in the near future, so you won't want to depend solely on the cellular link for a full-time Internet connection, the feature is innovative and useful, especially when traveling with an iPad or other devices and people that may not have mobile broadband access.
Above all else, we really felt that the Y Series is very portable. We were impressed by the battery performance of the unit relative to the performance and usual expectations. At a maximum six hours, this won't trump a MacBook's peak 10 hours, but it's well above the threshold for a typical Windows notebook in this price range and with performance well above that of a netbook.
Sony's lineup can be hit or miss in terms of value and quality for the dollar, but in the case of the VAIO Y it's very much on the side of hit. There's no doubt you could get a larger and faster notebook for the money, but this system works precisely because of the balance it strikes between portability and speed. This is not an ultraportable in the strictest sense, but it is in a very practical sense; it has enough genuine performance to be your only system if necessary yet still has some obvious size and weight advantages over a traditional design with an optical drive.
And while you won't get a 2GHz-plus processor or Blu-ray, you still get a fair amount of system for the money. Even at the base $770 price, the only real need to spend more applies to the graphics.
Our chief gripe is one that pervades most of Sony's systems: there's simply too much unnecessary software. We understand that trial bundles help subsidize the cost of the PCs, but $50 is a steep price of entry just to prune software clear.
But it's always possible to remove software you don't like, and apart from the anemic-sounding audio, the Y is well-rounded. Whether or not you option it up, it doesn't feel like much of a sacrifice . It's an ultraportable for an era where even the casual buyer can afford one and see a need for it. We're not quite to the point where we'd say that it would retake the throne without contest, but it's certainly in the running -- especially if you like wacky colors.