The market for 15.6-inch laptops is dominated by big, inexpensive machines. They’re thick, they’re available for between $400 and $800, and most unattractive. Still, consumers buy them more frequently than any other type of laptop because they’re affordable and powerful. Even portability is no longer hopeless, as many inexpensive 15.6-inch laptops can offer four hours of life or more.
Not every consumer wants an inexpensive laptop, however. Apple offers the MacBook Pro 17-inch for a reason. Mobile power users are a niche, but they’re out there, and they’re more demanding than any other group besides gamers.
Sony’s entry into this group of elite laptops is the Sony VAIO SE, a slim-and-sexy 15.5-inch model equipped with a Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM and a Radeon HD 6630M. These are a well-rounded set of specifications that suggest gaming and productivity will be possible in equal measure.
The base model of the Sony Vaio S 15.5-inch is priced at $999 on Sony’s website (and is only $929 at Newegg). Our review unit, which has a Blu-ray player in addition to the hardware listed above, is priced at $1329.99. That’s a heck of a lot money. Is the Sony worth it?
We’ve reviewed the 13.3-inch Sony S series previously, and the 15.5-inch model is essentially a larger version with all of the same design traits. Just like its little brother, the larger model has an interior coated in colored metal (dark black on our review unit, but others are available) which feels pleasant to the touch. The finish is matte, providing a subdued and refined character. We think this larger model looks better, however, because there’s simply more material here. The feel is spacious and comfortable.
The rest of the laptop is made of plastic which lacks the luxury feel of the interior, but feels durable. Most of the corners of the laptop are rounded and smooth, and gaps between materials are both few and tight. A slim chassis with a large display usually results in some flex when roughly handled, but no such weaknesses are on display here.
Unfortunately, one major weakness we found on the 13.3-inch model has made the transition, and that’s the display lid. It is about a sixth of an inch thick, and there simply isn’t enough material to give a sturdy feel. We don’t believe this to be a durability concern because we did press on the middle of the lid to see if that resulted in any disruption in the LCD. There was none. However, this is a high-end luxury laptop, and a flexible lid doesn’t fit the part.
The backlit keyboard on the Sony Vaio SE is integrated into the chassis, enhancing the laptop’s feel of refinement and luxury. Keys are large and flat, but significant separation between them makes keeping track of your fingertips easy while touch-typing. A numpad is included, and unlike those found on many other laptops of similar size, this one has full-size keys. That’s a common advantage of Sony laptop keyboards.
Backlight quality is good, with even lighting across all keys, but there is no function key that turns the backlight on or off. Instead, it appears to work via automatic light detection. The good news is that this feature works shockingly well, so you won’t mind having the laptop handle it.
There is, however, a physical switch for the discrete graphics solution located just above the keyboard. Sony has offered this before on several different Sony laptops, with mixed results. In this case it’s a good solution. ATI’s switchable graphics software doesn’t work as well as smoothly as Nvidia’s when left to its own devices.
Acres of touchpad space are available. We would like to see a different texture than the simple plastic used, but it works well enough. Two large, individual mouse buttons are below it and offer sufficient travel. Our only complaint is the poor default multi-touch support, which doesn’t work like other laptops (two-finger scroll moves in leaps, rather than a smooth motion) and has confusing custom settings.
Display and audio quality
Display resolution instantly separates this laptop from the crowd. It’s 1080p, which is unusual for any laptop with a display size under 17.3-inch inches. Better still, it’s an amazing 1080p display. Black levels are its greatest weakness, but even those are a little better than average. This is made up for by excellent white saturation, great contrast, good gradient banding performance, and high backlight brightness. Even most TN-panel desktop monitors are inferior.
While the display is gloss, it’s not what I would consider high-gloss. Reflections are apparent in bright sunlit rooms, but they’re blunted and blurred, which makes them less distracting than the mirror-like reflections found on most gloss displays.
Let’s be clear: This is one of the best displays we’ve ever experienced, and it’s the laptop’s greatest strength. Should media quality be important to you, and you’re looking for a high-end desktop replacement, you should immediately place this laptop on your short list regardless of what we say in the rest of this review. It’s that good.
Audio quality can’t live up to the promise of the display. Maximum volume is decent, but there’s no bass available, which causes almost all audio to fall flat. You’ll need to buy a pair of external speakers for real audio enjoyment. Then again, that’s true for almost any laptop.
Thinness can sometimes be an issue where cooling is concerned, particularly with a laptop that has a powerful processor and discrete graphics solution. The Sony Vaio is of two natures in this regard. At idle, it is rather easy to use, showing only some noticeable heating along the underside and very little along the interior. Long-term typing is comfortable thanks not only to the great keyboard but also to the large, cool palmrests. No sweaty palms here!
At load, however, the chassis can become a bit hot. Hot air exhausts out of the rear of the laptop, which is an excellent choice — it keeps that air away from the user. Yet it sometimes has trouble keeping up with the laptop when gaming, which results in noticeable and uncomfortable heat generation along both the bottom and the interior, particularly the lower right-side palmrest. Such a situation is hard to avoid in discrete gaming laptops, but always notable, as some users mind it more than others.
Fan speed at idle is extremely quiet, but load is a different story. The noise is not only loud, but also inconsistent, as the fan has an annoying tendency to pulse between two different fan speeds. Even gaming laptops are often quieter.