Sony has cut down on the number of different laptop lines it offers, but you're still left with the Vaio E, S, T, and Z series. Of those, the Vaio S is probably the most universally useful, combining sharp, high-end design with powerful components, a decent set of configuration options, and both 13- and 15-inch screens. High prices also go along with that, especially compared with the more budget-friendly Vaio E series.
This $1,349 15-inch Vaio S could position itself as an alternative to more expensive premium midsize laptops, such as the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display. It's nearly identical in terms of components to Dell's updated XPS 15, another fairly thin 15-inch laptop, but that model can cost as much as $1,699.
The Vaio S series certainly has a lot of what we look for in a high-end laptop. Full 1080p display, a Blu-ray drive, discrete graphics, plus something you rarely see on a consumer laptop, a TPM (Trusted Platform Module) chip, something you likely won't need, but your IT department might.
Sony also packs in some extra value with a decent free software package, including Vegas, Acid, and Sound Forge -- all Sony-owned apps that are used for pro-level multimedia production (I've used Acid and Sound Forge many times over the years).
As I've come to expect from Sony, this is an excellent multimedia package that can also handle some midlevel gaming. It's a show-off laptop for the coffee shop or office, but at more than $1,300, it's a sizable investment as well.
|Price as reviewed||$1,349|
|Processor||1.6GHz Intel Core i7 720QM|
|Memory||8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||750GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE / Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||15x10.1 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.5 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.4 pounds / 5.4 pounds|
The design of the Vaio S reminds me a lot of the even more expensive Vaio Z. The body is made of magnesium and aluminum, for a combination of ruggedness and light weight. It's not quite in the ultrabook category, but this is still a reasonably thin and light 15-inch laptop, especially considering the powerful components inside, such as the quad-core CPU and Nvidia GPU. At 4.4 pounds, it's lighter than both the HP Envy 6 Sleekbook and the Dell XPS 15, and weighs about the same as the MacBook Pro with Retina Display.
Like the last generation of Vaio S laptops we reviewed, this Vaio S looks like a matte black slab when closed, and it continues the move away from Sony's longtime stylistic stamp of a tubelike round hinge, with the power button and AC adapter plug on opposite sides. Instead, you get a much more conventional hinge, with a power button on the keyboard tray, and the power cord connection on the right side panel.
The flat-topped, widely spaced keys keys on this island-style keyboard are large and easy to hit, if a little on the clacky side. The wide chassis allows for a full-size number pad, but I've always been a proponent of a wider spacebar than found here. The keyboard is backlit, which is a must-have feature in a high-end laptop right now. Function key commands for multimedia and system options keys, such as volume and brightness control, are not function-reversed, so you'll have to hold down the Fn key to access them. Some PC makers do it this way, some the opposite. I think this setup is especially inconvenient for a multimedia laptop.
The large touch pad has a pleasing matte surface and, in a big change from last year's version, the traditional left and right mouse buttons have been eliminated, leaving you with what we now call a click pad. Apple, Hewlett-Packard, and others already use this style, which has a click zone in the lower left and right corners and two-finger scrolling for vertical navigation. I generally like click pads, but this setup (from Synaptics) felt twitchy and sometimes failed to register taps and movement, no matter how I set the sensitivity options.
One odd holdout from an earlier era remains, the physical Speed/Stamina switch above the keyboard. It used to turn a Vaio laptop's discrete graphics off and on, before Nvidia developed a way to switch between GPUs on the fly. Now, it switches between a low-power and high-power mode, with the Nvidia GPU simply disabled in the lower setting, along with adjustments to screen brightness.
The 15.5-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which is perfectly suited for Blu-ray and 1080p HD video. Vaio laptops always have excellent screen quality, and in this case, images and videos were clear and bright, and off-axis viewing was impressive, even looking down from above.
Audio from the stereo speakers is good for a midsize laptop, and included Dolby Home Theater software can switch among audio presets for movies, music, and games. Those presets are mainly EQ and compression settings, but the Dolby app offers no real explanation or way to fine-tune the controls.
|Sony Vaio S||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||VGA plus HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader, Memory Stick reader||2 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray player/DVD burner||DVD burner|
In a bit of a switch from what you might be used to on other laptops, most of the ports and connections on the Vaio S are on the right side panel, rather than the left. The slot-loading optical drive is likewise flipped to the left side (where it shares space with the audio jacks). Twin USB 3.0 ports are nice (although standard now), but only the single USB 2.0 port can charge an external device while the laptop is off or asleep. Note that, as it's a Sony laptop, you get a Sony Memory Stick slot in addition to the usual SD card slot.
With a quad-core Intel Core i7-3612QM CPU, the Vaio S is pretty much ready for anything, from HD video editing to heavy-duty multitasking. Like most Core i7 laptops, it's probably got way more computing power than you'll ever need. That said, there are high-end laptops that are faster, especially in our multitasking benchmark test, including the Maingear EX-L15 and Apple's Retina MacBook Pro.
The Nvidia GeForce 640M in this system is a mainstream graphics card, and for $1,399, one might even expect something a little stronger, but it's fine for mainstream gaming. The Dell XPS 15, for example, has the same GPU, while the Retina MacBook Pro has a GeForce GT 650M. The Vaio ran our Street Fighter IV test at 1,920x1,080 pixels at 51.5 frames per second, and our very challenging Metro 2033 test at 7.3fps at the same resolution. That means pretty much any current game will work well, but some of the detail settings may have to be dialed back to hit that 30fps sweet spot.