Laptops are one of Sony’s last fortifications in the consumer PC market, but this hasn’t reduced the company’s focus on premium pricing. Sure, you can get an E or Y-Series for $499, but only if you go for the bare-bones basics. Sony’s volume products usually cost at least $599 and can easily soar over $1,000.
Such is the case with the Sony VAIO S Premium. Fortunately, the high price buys some nice hardware. This small and thin ultraportable packs a 1600×900 display and is powered by a Core i5-3210M processor paired with Nvidia’s GT 640M LE. That is an impressive specification sheet for a laptop of this size.
With that said, there’s more to a laptop than its hardware. This Sony Vaio S is not an ultrabook or even a luxury ultraportable. According to Sony’s Website it provides “all-around excellence.” In other words, this is Sony’s mainstream laptop, albeit a high-end configuration. Can this $1,119 Sony hang with ultrabooks, MacBooks, and other expensive hardware?
We reviewed the previous Sony Vaio S last year. The design has not changed since then, for better and for worse.
As before, this laptop is handsome but also functional. Its dull blueish-black finish repels most fingerprints but also stands out from the pure matte black found on most laptops that lean towards functionality rather than aesthetics.
The interior of the Sony Vaio S is covered in a single piece of metal that helps enhance the feel of quality. It also reduces panel gaps. The keyboard weaves through cut-outs in the metal, and the palmrest is the same piece of material. You’ll only find gaps at the laptop’s edges, where the metal meets the plastic chassis – and these are small and difficult to notice unless you’re specifically looking for them.
Unfortunately the solid chassis is brought down a notch by the display lid. It’s thin but also feels flimsy. Moving the display up or down often causes it to warp noticeably and emit a groan of protest. It isn’t the sort of problem that a premium laptop should have.
Connectivity includes two USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 port, VGA, HDMI an SD Card and Sony’s MagicGate. There’s also an optical drive, which is unusual for a slim laptop. Unlike most laptops, the S-Series places all of its ports on the right side. This is great if you are left-handed but not great for the right-handed majority. Connected wires and peripherals will interfere with the use of a mouse.
The world’s widest touchpad?
Below the keyboard is the most important change made to the new Sony Vaio S – the touchpad. The previous model had a simple, small unit with two physical buttons. We liked it, but it’s now been replaced with an even larger touchpad that uses integrated buttons.This may in fact be the widest touchpad on any laptop we’ve ever reviewed, and it makes for an enjoyable experience. Multi-touch scrolling is smooth and the large surface makes it possible to move the cursor across the screen with a single swipe while keeping sensitivity relatively low.
Keyboard quality is another strong point. There’s plenty of space between keys, yet individual key caps are large and the layout makes no sacrifices. Key travel isn’t bad, either. The only real issue is keyboard flex – yes, there’s metal along the interior, but it’s thin and bends slightly during normal use.
A resolution of 1600×900 gives the Vaio S a lot of pixels for a laptop of this size. Few others, like the ASUS ZenBook Prime, pack as many into the same space. That makes the Sony a good choice for productivity and helps create a sharp image when playing movies and games.
While the panel is coated in gloss, it’s not as reflective as the finish used on many other laptops. Some light is reflected but reflections are slightly blurred and not too distracting. At maximum brightness you’re unlikely to have an issue, unless you’re using it outdoors.
Image quality is varied: black levels are extremely good; gradient banding is smooth; contrast is reasonable. However, viewing angles are poor and there appears to be some backlight bleed along bottom edge of the panel. Many laptops share this problem, of course, but most are less expensive.
Audio quality is nothing to brag about. Maximum volume is low and there’s no bass, resulting in the familiar tin-can quality that’s common among poor laptop speakers. You’re going to need a pair of headphones or external speakers if you want to enjoy music.
The Sony Vaio S tries to keep exhaust ports discrete so that the exterior looks smooth. At idle, the Sony Vaio S is both quiet and cool, with temperatures rarely exceeding the mid-80s Fahrenheit.
Load is a different story. This is a thin laptop, and the Nvidia GT 640M LE is a reasonably powerful discrete GPU. To keep it cooled the fan has to work hard. Noise is no worse than on a gaming laptop, but it sometimes comparable. In other words, it can be loud.
Temperatures at full load are generally in the high-90s Fahrenheit, with a few hot spots slipping above 105. That can make the laptop seriously uncomfortable to use, but competitors of similar size with similar hardware fare no better.
The Sony Vaio S isn’t technically an ultrabook but, at a weight of 3.8 pounds and a thickness of .95 inches, it’s pretty close. This is an extremely portable, easy-to-carry laptop that easily fits into any bag built for an ultraportable.In order to maintain the smooth profile and aid in portability, there’s no external battery hanging from the bottom (at least not in stock form – you can buy an optional, detachable sheet battery). This keeps a smooth profile for the laptop and also makes it easy to carry. The downside is the small 4400mAh standard battery. This is an issue that struck the last model we reviewed and the situation hasn’t changed since then. We obtained a Battery Eater result of one hour and forty-one minutes and a Battery Eater Reader’s Test result of five hours and fifty-one minutes. These figures are a bit behind the curve when compared to ultrabooks and ultraportables as a group. Buyers looking for maximum endurance will have to spring for the optional sheet battery.
One of Sony’s recurring problems is its software. There’s a fair amount of bloatware on the system including anti-virus software, but that’s all common and generally easy to ignore.
The main issue is the dock. It hangs out at the top of the screen and is activated whenever the user hovers a cursor near it. It does what any dock does – provides some applications and other items that can be opened. While theoretically useful, in practice it’s redundant given the Windows 7 taskbar.
Matters are made worse by the dock’s performance. It’s never worked smoothly on any Sony laptop we’ve ever tested, including this one. Its opening and closing animations are often slow and it will occasionally bug out, causing the dock to appear unopened and be replaced by a white square where the dock’s outline should be.
Our Sony Vaio S review unit arrived packing a Core i5-3210M processor, one of Intel’s mainstream third-generation components. You’ll find it in tons of laptops with various prices, but that doesn’t mean it’s not quick. In SiSoft Sandra’s Processor Arithmetic benchmark, the Vaio S managed a respectable combined score of 42.45, while 7-Zip returned a score of 8,627. Both of these are beaten by the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 but they’re still among the best results we’ve yet received from a dual-core laptop.
PCMark 7 was less kind to the Sony Vaio S, returning a total of 1,810. The Sony Vaio S Series has historically been a poor performer in this test and the culprit is always a low System Storage score. It’s impossible for a laptop to do well in PCMark 7 if its hard drive is slow.
3D gaming is not out of the question for the Sony Vaio S, thanks to its GeForce GT 640M LE graphics processor. We’ve tested this before in the Lenovo IdeaPad Y480 and found it a willing gamer. Results were similar here. 3DMark 06 offered a score of 10,301 and 3DMark 11 reached 1,204.
All modern 3d games are playable on this laptop at low-to-medium detail. With that said, gamers should remember that the display’s 1600×900 resolution is more demanding than the 1366×768 panels found in many other laptops with this GPU. It may be necessary to play below native resolution to obtain the best results.
Despite a few moderate changes to the Sony Vaio S, such as a larger touchpad and improved hardware, we’re still ambivalent about this laptop. We criticized the previous model for its flimsy display lid, so-so build quality, and small battery. All of these flaws remain. Sony really should have taken this opportunity to redesign the chassis, but they didn’t – which puts them behind the market.
Still, there are some nice things to be said about this laptop. The display, while not perfect, offers good image quality and a decent pixel count. We’re also pleased to see the inclusion of Nvidia’s GT 640M LE discrete GPU. This is a reasonably capable part that is rarely found in laptops this small and thin.
But there’s one final problem – price. At $1,119 this particular model of the Sony Vaio S is in the same territory as the MacBook Pro 13 and ultrabooks like the ASUS UX32 and HP Folio 13. That’s a tough crowd and Sony’s only advantage is overall performance. That will certainly matter to some buyers, but its advantage in our benchmarks was not large enough to erase our concerns about the laptop’s design and portability.
- Pleasing keyboard and touchpad
- High display resolution
- Discrete graphics
- Thin and light
- Flimsy display lid
- Below average battery life
- Poor performance in PCMark 7
- Not a great value