The Sony VAIO VGN-S260 weighs 4.2 pounds (4.9 pounds with its two-prong plug AC adapter), which puts it on the lighter end of the thin-and-light spectrum, and its matte-black case is made of a sturdy magnesium alloy. The notebook runs a smidge more than 12 inches wide, 9 inches deep, and just about 1.25 inches thick. Two fat hinges hold the lid closed without a latch, which could create problems if the hinges wear out, and the lid opens almost 180 degrees for when you want to work standing up or with a laptop stand.
This laptop's design, while sleek and attractive in the typical Sony way, leaves room for improvement. The battery sits on the back edge of the VAIO VGN-S260, forcing all ports to the sides--a downside if you prefer all of your cables out of view--and the battery itself fits loosely and rattles disconcertingly. While we appreciate the presence of a Wi-Fi on/off button, which lets you turn off the unit's Intel Centrino b/g Wi-Fi radio to conserve battery life, it felt flimsy--we worried it might pop off. The CD-RW drive and the Memory Stick reader sit conveniently on the front edge, hidden beneath the deep bevel. We understand that Memory Stick is Sony's own technology, but we wish the laptop supported other flash-memory formats.
The Sony VAIO VGN-S260's 13-inch wide-aspect display packs a 1,280x800 native resolution onto the screen at a very dense 114 pixels per inch but with such perfect contrast that we could read even small type easily. However, our test unit's screen was rather dark overall, with an inch-long strip on either side that was noticeably darker than the rest of the screen. Where most notebook speakers require you to wear headphones for quality audio, the VAIO VGN-S260's stereo speakers lacked bass but did not distort when played loud. The decently sized keyboard, unfortunately, felt a bit mushy and infirm.
Many of the notebook's connections, which include two USB 2.0 ports, modem, and Ethernet, come protected by plastic covers that are built to last. In addition to one PC Card slot, a VGA out, and jacks for mic and headphones, the VAIO VGN-S260 also has a FireWire port (Sony calls it iLink S400). While more and more laptops support the four-pin type FireWire port, which does not provide power, the VAIO VGN-S260 has a six-pin port that does; you can connect a camcorder without its AC or battery, for example. Sony ships the laptop with Microsoft Windows XP Home and includes its own DV Gate Plus software for importing, digitizing, and exporting video, along with the simplified LE version of Adobe's well-regarded Premiere digital-video editing package.
In CNET Labs' tests, the VAIO VGN-S260 performed well and bested the updated Alienware Sentia, though both systems have 512MB of 333MHz memory and 1.7GHz Pentium M processors. The Dell Inspiron 700m, featuring a slightly faster, 1.8GHz Pentium M and a 5,400rpm hard drive, scored only a bit better than the VAIO VGN-S260. However, the VAIO VGN-S260 proved itself superior in our battery-life tests, outlasting the Dell, the Alienware, and even the Fujitsu LifeBook S7010, by functioning for just 11 minutes short of four hours.
Sony backs the VAIO VGN-S260 with an industry-standard warranty: one year of free service that includes free shipping both ways and 24/7 toll-free telephone tech support; support calls after the year expires cost $20 per incident. Sony offers an array of warranty extensions; a three-year plan with onsite service costs $250. Sony doesn't publish its policy on screen defects--the only big vendor still concealing that information--so our standing advice on Sony laptops and LCDs is that you examine the unit before you buy.
Sony's Web site provides a knowledge base with an overburden of wisdom--the gems are there, but we had to dig for them. You can also e-mail Sony technicians from the Web site. In our test, we reached an off-shore tech-support agent who gave good advice on a complicated problem, although our telephone connection was so bad that it interfered with the discussion. Sony provides copious, clearly written electronic documentation for the VAIO VGN-S260, though there's very little printed documentation--a problem if the machine malfunctions. The system-restore data comes on a hidden hard drive partition, and the setup guide recommends that you create your own restore CDs for disaster recovery.