Now that ultrabooks and ultrathin laptops are commonplace, what happens to the average nonultrabook laptop? It needs to step up, that's what. After using a MacBook Air for the last few months, my expectations for a 13-inch laptop are that it should be razor-thin. Maybe you're more forgiving, but when it comes to a smaller laptop, I want it as small as possible.
The new Sony Vaio S Series 13P is an important tweak to the previous Vaio S line, which I've reviewed twice before. The premium version I reviewed, the SVS13A190X, isn't cheap; it starts at $1,119, but then again, there are a host of improvements over the $1,050 Sony Vaio SA41FX that I reviewed less than six months ago. Sony has added a slot-loading drive and a larger touch pad; more RAM is included, and the hard drive is larger; there are a new, faster Intel CPU, better Nvidia graphics, and an integrated battery, which gives much improved battery life over the previous generation's $150 slice battery add-on, sold separately and practically a requirement for good battery life the last go-around.
Granted, you can get a Vaio S for as little as $799, but not all Vaio models are made alike. To get the Nvidia graphics and other bells and whistles, you'll need to pay up. As a package deal at the high end, however, the Vaio S is both lightweight (3.7 pounds) and full of features that I now expect in a laptop that's not an ultrabook.
This is the laptop that I wanted the new 13-inch MacBook Pro to be: lighter, graphics-boosted, with a higher-res screen. This Vaio S isn't a revolutionary machine, but it's finally a version of the Vaio S that makes no compromises, and gets a leg up on Apple's 13-inch Pro in the process.
|Starting price / Price as reviewed||$1,119 / $1,199|
|Processor||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M|
|Memory||6GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||640GB, 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE (1GB) / Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13x8.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.7 pounds / 4.4 pounds|
The Sony Vaio S Series 13P is a high-end variation on the S line, a replacement for the small-business-targeted and confusingly named Vaio SA model from the last generation. The new Vaio looks similar in terms of its all-matte-black design and tapered footprint, but some of the laptop's lines are curved where they were previously angular. The Vaio S Series 13P comes in three color options: Carbon Black, Carbon Gold, and Carbon Gunmetal.
The upgraded premium version of the Vaio S bears a carbon fiber lid: it feels rigid, but still flexes as much on its center hinge as previous models. However, the partial carbon fiber construction of the S Series 13P makes it surprisingly lightweight for its size, at 3.7 pounds. It's easy to lift with one hand. The move to a carbon fiber lid (as opposed to magnesium alloy on the "regular" Sony Vaio S Enhanced) shaves 0.1 pound off.
A cleaned-up look lends the new Vaio a touch of minimalism. A slot-loading DVD drive replaces the tray-loading version from the last Vaio S. A larger, far wider clickpad looks much cleaner than the old, smaller touch pad with its discrete buttons beneath. Still, odd buttons and toggles like the Stamina/Speed graphics switch remain above the keyboard area, adding extra clutter (honestly, why can't the switch be software-based or automatic?). The switch toggles power profiles, and can disable the GPU in Stamina mode, but there's no reason why this laptop couldn't simply rely on Nvidia's Optimus technology for automatic switching instead.
The Vaio S feels like a larger version of the Vaio Z, and not far off from the size and weight of Sony's ultrabook, the Vaio T. The T is 0.7 inch thick and weighs 3.4 pounds; the Vaio S Series 13P is 0.95 inch thick and 3.7 pounds. The last Vaio S I reviewed was a tiny bit thinner (0.9 inch) and lighter (3.5 pounds), but not by much.
While some might look at the new Vaio S and see a larger version of the Vaio Z, the laptop shares more in common cosmetically with the Vaio T: it has a same-size touch pad, with extra-wide finger space for multifinger gestures. The matte surface responds well to finger motion, but multigesture commands can sometimes be tough to pull off. Still, the whole affair's a lot better than the smaller, more cramped pad on the previous Vaio S. The brushed-metal palm rest area still feels comfortable and offers generous space.
Good news: the keyboard is equally excellent. The raised, backlit keys have more travel than on the far shallower Vaio T, and the keys are large, well-spaced, and not cramped by any weird extra buttons like the ones that pop up on some other computers.
A few dedicated buttons above the keyboard launch Web (a browser hot key), Vaio (Sony's photo/media software), and Assist (customer service help and diagnostics). Next to that is the odd Speed/Stamina toggle that persists from Sony's last-gen Vaios. Flipping it activates one of two power/graphics modes, but it's really unnecessary. You could adjust these settings on your own. A more useful inclusion is the fingerprint reader located next to the Assist key at the top. It's an odd location for the button (usually it makes sense somewhere near the touch pad), but Sony includes a tool set for using the reader to consolidate log-in and account passwords.
Sony's preinstalled software includes a whole suite of video and music tools: Imagination Studio Vaio Edition includes DVD Architect Studio, Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum, Sound Forge Audio Studio and ACID Music Studio, and Sony's PlayMemories and Media Gallery. They're an alternative to Apple's suite of iLife software. Most of these programs can be launched via a pop-up Vaio Gate toolbar that hovers from the top of the screen.
The 13.3-inch matte display does a good job of keeping glare away in an office; the screen's 1,600x900-pixel resolution is a step up from the average 1,366x768-pixel resolution of most 13-inch laptops, and colors and text alike pop vividly. Unfortunately, the screen has terrible off-axis viewing angles, as compared with a superior display like the one on the Samsung Series 9. Just make sure you look at it straight on.
Stereo speakers, heralded by Sony for having Dolby definition, sound louder than expected. They're surprisingly noisy when playing games or watching movies and have some excellent treble for spoken word -- sound effects in an episode of "Breaking Bad" actually had pop. When playing music, though, some bass notes sounded distorted.