The Sony VAIO S480 is the perfect notebook for people that don’t want to compromise on performance when it comes to their lightweight laptop. With a 2.13GHz processor, 100GB hard drive, DVD+/-RW dual layer drive, and integrated GeForce Go 6200, the S480 has the power to replace a modest desktop PC. But, with a 13.3″ XBRITE widescreen display and a weight of just 4.3 pounds, this powerhouse just barely misses a classification of an ultra lightweight laptop. While the battery life could be better, and this first class package comes at a first class price, the VAIO S480 is a top contender all around.
Design and Features
Buying a laptop has become a daunting task. In the old days, before mass standardization, the options were diverse, confusing, and plentiful. But since Intel standardized much of the world on Centrino technology, the market has been flooded with nearly identical items, differing only in company moniker and preinstalled software (much of which is instantly uninstalled by a competent user during the initial setup). Choosing which laptop fits a particular user falls into one of three categories. If you want power, you’re stuck with a 17″ widescreen behemoth, weighing in at 10 pounds or more. If you want ultra portability, you’re stuck with a screen the size of your thumb, integrated graphics that are taxed playing Pong, and a processor that would rival a 386. And then there are the 15.4″ widescreen “indecisives”, all sporting the exact same configurations as each other.
But what if you want a light system that doesn’t skimp on the power? What if you’re outright allergic to the snail’s pace of integrated graphics? Sony has answered your call in the form of the VAIO VGN-S480. Weighing in at a light, but substantial, 4.3 pounds, and showing its goods through a 13.3″ XBRITE widescreen display, the S480 measures up on the lightweight notebook end of the spectrum. But, look under the hood and you see a 2.13GHz Pentium M and GeForce Go 6200 graphics card with 128MB of memory – features only available is heavier powerhouse laptops. Wrap that all up in a typical Sony stylized shell, and you have one sleek package.
The VAIO S480 is the second tier model of the VAIO S series, and is available for customization on the Sony Style website. The current flagship, the S580 adds support for SATA hard drives, DDR2 memory, and the GeForce Go 6400. Other S models are available with varying options and case colors, of which we opted for a maxed out model of the S480, with the only downgrade being a 2GHz Pentium M instead of the 2.13GHz model, 1GB of RAM (2GB max), and the absence of 802.11a support.
The external shell is a textured metal, with the screen side color differing from the main body, depending on model number in the S series. The 13.3″ screen leaves very little space around the edges, but enough that we feel it might survive a drop without destroying the screen. Seven inset rubber bumps line the edges so that the screen doesn’t press against the keyboard when closed. The bottom of the screen bevel curves into the keyboard section with an elegant sweeping curve similar to the current line of LCD monitors. The screen itself has a native resolution of 1280×800, and has deep black levels. The response time is not published, but is probably close to 25ms judging from the few games we ran on it. While not as spectacular as LCDs go, but better than most laptop screens. The XBRITE screen has a very glossy coating, which can be annoying in brightly backlit environments, but is in part responsible for the great contrast ratio.
The keyboard on the S480 is slightly smaller than your typical but doesn’t feel cramped, and has a good spring to the keys. Two shortcut buttons above the keyboard can be assigned various functions, and are situated next to the Power button. Stereo speakers are located on the top left and right of the keyboard. As usual, don’t expect too much from the built in speakers. A standard laptop touchpad with shiny metallic buttons rounds out the input area. Along the bottom right edge are all the activity indicators, such as Bluetooth, WLAN, Memory stick, HDD and optical drive access. Nestled I with the indicators is the physical switch for turning off the internal wireless networking. Turning the switch tot eh of position deactivates both Bluetooth and WiFi, but a software utility can be used to turn off one or the other. This is convenient for conserving battery power, but using a Bluetooth mouse, or using WiFi with no Bluetooth devices.
The front edge contains only the optical drive and Memory Stick slot. The left edge houses the single PCMCIA slot, microphone, headphone, VGA, Ethernet, and modem ports. The network and modem ports are covered by a door to protect the fragile pins from debris. There is a similar door over the right side of the S480 that protects the two USB and one 4 pin Firewire ports. The power adapter and fan are located on the right edge as well. The fan is audible during intense operation, but does not become loud enough to draw attention. The fan speed can be controlled from the Power application, keeping the system nearly silent. The battery snaps into the rear of the unit. We thought the battery felt loose and wiggled too much for our tastes. While this is easily remedied with a small piece of padded tape, it is a little disconcerting that the main source of power feels like it could easily lose contact with the power leads. We should note, though, that regardless of how it ‘feels’ prior to adding the tape, we never suffered any loss of power due to the battery connection. Sony offers both a regular and large capacity option, with the standard advertised at 1.5-3 hours, and the large lasting 2.25-4 hours. In our tests we found that Sony has become increasingly honest in their battery life claims. Under medium load, with screen full brightness and all devices active, we found the S480 lasted 2.5 hours. Disabling WiFi and Bluetooth boosted regular use time to 3.25 hours.
Image Courtesy of Sony Electronics
Setup and Use
Like all Sony computers, the S480 comes loaded with all the confusing and media-centric software we’ve come to expect. We didn’t look too far into the proprietary software, but only enough to confirm that it has remained as confusing, pretty, and inefficient as earlier versions. Preinstalled software includes PictureGear, SonicStage, Click to DVD, and VAIO Media. We still find SonicStage to be one of the worst music programs available, with the only redeeming factor being that it is easy to uninstall. Sonic Stage has thankfully been discontinued, so upcoming models will not include it. PictureGear has improved very little since its introduction and we would highly recommend other programs, like ACDSee or Adobe Photoshop Album, over it. VAIO Media is Sony’s program for sharing media between multiple VAIO computers. We had no other VAIO computers on our network, making the software unnecessary. The S480 includes the Sony Power Management program, which is just a glorified Power Control Panel. One feature we did like was a graphical representation of where power would be used in each preset, mapped out on a five point pane. Each point corresponds to one of the following: Battery Life, Performance, Quiet, Enabled Devices, and LCD Brightness.
We ran several standard benchmarks, including SiSoft Sandra, 3DMark03, and 3DMark05. Sandra clocked the CPU Whetstone at 7559, and Dhrystone at 2769/3067. Integer and Float operations were 2845 and 2855 respectively. 3DMark03 Clocked the system at 2384 3D Marks, and 809 in 3DMark05. Performance wasn’t great, but the GeForce Go 6200 supports most of the latest graphics technology. So, even if you can’t run future games at full resolution with all the eye candy turned on, the system is relatively future proof.
We also installed World of Warcraft, which ran smoothly at the native resolution. It should be noted that the GeForce Go 6200 only has 32MB of physical memory dedicated to graphics. The remaining 96MB is shared system memory. This isn’t ideal, but still results in a performance gain that is leaps and bounds over onboard Intel graphics chips.
Image Courtesy of Sony Electronics
The Sony VAIO S480 is a top notch, lightweight laptop for people that want no-compromise performance in a highly portable package. The screen is brilliantly clear, the design is sleek, and the processor packs a solid punch. While battery life could be slightly improved, it still falls in line with similarly equipped laptops. The S480 is a great secondary computer, and even performs well enough that we would recommend it as a primary computer. The light frame makes the system a great option for on-the-go executives and students, and is sure to inspire tech lust in all that encounter it.
– Built-in WiFi/Bluetooth
– Fat and powerful
– Bright screen
– Plenty of storage space
– Battery life could be improved