Editors' note: This review is part of our Back-to-School 2008 roundup, covering specific configurations of popular laptops that can be found in retail stores.
Take the Vaio VGN-NR430, add a slightly faster Core 2 Duo processor, an extra gigabyte of memory, an additional 90GB of hard-drive capacity, add $150 to the price, and you get the Sony Vaio VGN-NR498. We reviewed the NR498E/W model (W = white; there are four other colors from which to choose), a fixed-configuration, 15-inch laptop available at retail. The Vaio VGN-NR498 offers competitive performance among laptops in the $850 to $1,000 range, but the extras it lacks--media control buttons and a Webcam--are more noticeable here than in the entry-level category where they are more the exception than the rule. Like the NR430, this Vaio's strong suits are its excellent keyboard and touchpad and solid construction. If you are willing to lug a 15-inch laptop around campus (on the whole, we think 14-inch models like the Dell Inspiron 1420-123B, the Gateway T-6836, or Sony's Vaio CRCR510 offer the best balance between usability and portability), the Vaio VGN-NR498 makes for a comfortable campus companion.
|Processor||2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5750|
|Memory||3,072MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz|
|Hard drive||250GB, 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Intel GM965 Express|
|Graphics||Intel GMAX3100 (integrated)|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Premium|
|Dimensions (WDH)||14.2 x 10.6 x 1.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.2 / 7.0 pounds|
The Vaio VGN-NR498 features a textured plastic shell, both on the lid and inside on the keyboard tray. The 489E/W model is white. The four other available colors are blue, gray, brown, and pink. The textured plastic is more susceptible to getting marred and showing dings than the glossy finish found on, for example, the Apple MacBook or the HP Pavilion dv5, so you might want to avoid white here and go with a darker color. The laptop feels solid, with little of the flex that is sometimes evident on cheaper laptops with a thin, plastic chassis. The two hinges holding the display are wide and strong, resulting in little-to-no wobble when the laptop is bumped or moved.
More importantly, the keyboard is the same flat Sony keyboard we've come to love. The keys are similar in feel to a MacBook's, and feature good travel. The touch pad, too, is comfortable and amply sized with responsive vertical and horizontal scroll areas along the right and bottom, respectively. The two mouse buttons, however, make a loud clack sound when pressed. The ample keyboard and touch pad cost you a bit of portability; you'll find the 14-inch Vaio CR150 shaves nearly a pound off of the system weight but costs $150 more for the same components.
Though the Vaio VGN-NR498's keyboard tray leaves plenty of room for multimedia control keys--something most media-consuming students will come to appreciate, we believe--you won't find any here. We're seeing such controls on more and more laptops, even at the low-end of the price spectrum. For example, Dell's entry-level Inspiron 1525 features touch-sensitive media control keys. Aside from the power button, you'll find only two buttons above the NR498's keyboard. A programmable key labeled S1 lets you mute the speakers, put the laptop into sleep mode, go to max brightness, or launch applications. The AV Mode button launches a useless Vaio media app that lets you choose among various multimedia programs to access your music or photos or play a DVD. You're better off just choosing an application from the Start menu or simply creating a desktop shortcut. The AV Mode button does not allow for instant-on access. That is, you cannot play a CD or DVD without first booting to Windows.
We found less bloatware than with past Vaio laptops. The trial offers have been whittled down to four AOL desktop icons, one of which, however, is animated.
The 15.4-inch wide-screen LCD display offers a 1,280x800 native resolution, which is typical of a display this size, though some vendors, including Dell, offer a finer 1,440x900 resolution option on configurable models. The Vaio VGN-NR498 features Sony's Xbrite-Eco screen, which we found to be crisp and vivid; movies and photos showed accurate colors, crisps edges, and smooth movement. In anecdotal testing, we found it to be less bright than other laptops, but at max brightness, the image looked fine under a variety of conditions. It features a glossy screen coating, but it wasn't as prone to glare and reflections as other glossy screens we've seen. And it offers a surprisingly wide viewing angle.
|Sony Vaio VGN-NR498||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, MemoryStick, SD card readers||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The Vaio VGN-NR498 provides the basic allotment of connections. While many mainstream models are serving up HDMI or DisplayPort connections, the Vaio VGN-NR498 sticks with the tried-and-true VGA-out, should you want to hook up an external monitor. We were pleased to find four USB ports conveniently split with a pair on each side of the laptop. On the front edge, next to the SD and Memory Card slots, is an always appreciated Wi-Fi On/Off switch.
The Sony Vaio VGN-NR498 features a standard, mainstream configuration of an Intel Core 2 Duo T5750 processor, 3GB of 667MHz memory, and a 250GB hard drive. In the labs, the NR498's finest hour came on our multitasking test, where it topped the chart. The scores on this test show the gap between Intel and AMD, where the four systems to feature a Core 2 Duo (the same T5750 chip, in fact) bested the four laptops that featured an AMD Turion 64 X2 processor. Our Photoshop CS3 benchmark illustrates that 64-bit Windows and 4GB of RAM aids performance, where the top-three scores featured that pairing, including one AMD-based system in the HP Pavilion dv2945se. Of the 32-bit systems, which can access a maximum of 3GB of RAM, the Sony Vaio VGN-NR498E/W was the top finisher, though many were grouped tightly here on this test.
Not included among the NR498 upgrade from the NR430 are discrete graphics. The NR498, as with most laptops in its price range, features integrated graphics, which means it's not a good bet to run 3D games.
When looking at its performance against the cheaper Vaio VGN-NR430 system, the NR498 proved to be roughly 14-percent faster on average, which we doubt you'll feel in real-world terms. Both Vaio laptops run Vista Home Premium smoothly and felt peppy during anecdotal testing; applications loaded quickly and performance kept pace even when multitasking. For that 14-percent performance edge, you'll pay 21-percent more when jumping from the $699 NR430 to the $849 NR498. You can basically double that figure if you factor in the $100 discount Best Buy currently offers for the NR430.
The Vaio VGN-NR498 ran for an impressive 3 hours and 16 minutes on CNET Labs' battery drain test, which isn't all that surprising given that it features roughly the same hardware and the same six-cell battery as the Vaio VGN-NR430, which conked out only 2 minutes sooner on the test. Our video playback battery drain test is fairly grueling, so you can expect the laptop to run longer by tweaking the power management settings.
Though purchased at retail, Sony's basic, one-year, parts-and-labor warranty applies to the Vaio VGN-NR498. Support is accessible through a 24-7 toll-free phone line, and an online knowledge base. Driver downloads for this specific model can be found at Sony's support Web site.