If Sony knows how to do something well, it's creating slick-looking laptops. Recent examples include the very high-end 13-inch Vaio Z and the more modest Vaio E series, which still manages to have plenty of flair despite the midrange price. The latest addition is the new Vaio SE, which is currently restricted to a single 15.5-inch version. At $999, the Vaio SE is playing in pretty crowded territory, and we'd put it in the same league as the Dell XPS 15z or the HP Envy 14--all upscale midsize laptops that mix high style with high performance.
To help the Vaio SE stand out, Sony adds a few important extras. First, like the Vaio Z, the SE supports an optional slice battery. This $150 add-on is a thin external battery pack that covers the entire bottom surface of the laptop. It adds bulk and weight, but it's a much nicer design than having a huge extended battery that sticks out of the back of the system like a kickstand.
The Vaio SE also include a TPM (trusted platform module) chip and Symantec's VIP authentication technology--the former especially is a must-have for IT departments. It's not something casual consumers will have to worry about, but it makes the Vaio SE much easier to integrate into a business environment.
|Price as reviewed||$1,149 / $999|
|Processor||2.4GHz Intel Core i5 2430M|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||640GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6470M / Intel HD3000|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||14.5 x 9.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.5 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||4.2/5.1 pounds|
Our review unit is black, but a silver version is also available (Sony calls them jet black and platinum silver). Like Sony's other high-end laptops, such as the Vaio Z, the body is made of magnesium and aluminum, for a combination of ruggedness and light weight. The look and feel is pure Vaio, and the system looks like a matte black slab when closed, offset by an angular chrome hinge. That's part of a continuing evolution of Sony laptops, moving away from the long-time stylistic stamp of a tube-like round hinge, with the power button and AC adapter plug on opposite sides.
At 1 inch thick and a bit over 4 pounds (not counting the AC adapter or slice battery), it's the latest in a recent move toward very thin and light midsize laptops, such as the Dell XPS 15z (or even the new Inspiron 14z). While it certainly makes these machines easier to carry around, it's still too big for a daily commute. For regular travel, you'll want a laptop 13 inches or smaller.
Sony has been doing the island-style keyboard, with its flat-topped, widely spaced keys, as long as anyone, and it has since become an industry standard. The individual keys are large and easy to hit, but shallow and little on the clacky side. The chassis is wide enough to also fit in a full-size number pad, and the important keys (Shift, Enter, Ctrl, etc.) avoid any unnecessary shrinkage. The space bar, however, could be longer, and we frequently found ourselves missing it while touch typing.
The keyboard is backlit, which we always appreciate. In fact, with the light shining through the white letter stamps on the key faces, as well as around the edge of each key, this is the brightest backlit keyboard we can recall ever seeing. Function key commands for volume and brightness control are unfortunately not function-reversed, so you'll have to hold down the Fn key to access them--which is inconvenient for a multimedia laptop.
The large touch pad has a pleasing matte surface and two large separate mouse buttons. Our long-standing gripe with Sony touch pads is in the software defaults. Scroll zones for vertical and horizontal scrolling are set too wide by default, and we had to go into the control panel to resize them.
The 15.5-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which we sometimes call full HD (as it's the same as for Blu-ray, HDTV, etc.). Vaio laptops always have excellent screen quality, and this is no exception. Images and videos were clear and bright, and off-axis viewing was above average. Even though the screen has a glossy coating, it felt like a muted version of laptop screen gloss, and we had very few problems with glare and reflected lights.
|Sony Vaio SE||Average for category [midsize]|
|Video||VGA plus HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader, Memory Stick reader.||2 USB 2.0, 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
Like nearly all Sony laptops, special space had to be carved out for a Memory Stick slot, in addition to the normal SD card reader. That space comes at a premium as well, as all the ports and connections are crowded along the right edge, with the exception of a lone headphone jack tucked away at the very back of the left side edge.
One nice extra is Intel's Wireless Display technology, which can send the video output of the system to a nearby big-screen TV. This requires a sold-separately receiver box, which usually runs around $99 and connects to an external display via HDMI. The results aren't lag-free enough for gaming, but it's fine for video playback.
For a sub-$1,000 midsize laptop, Intel's Core i5 CPU is what you'd expect to find, represented in this case by the 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 2430M. Still, we've seen the faster Core i7 chips start to filter down to lower priced systems as well. But for everyday computing, such as Web surfing, media playback, and even heavier tasks such as photo and video editing, the Vaio SE has more than enough power to handle most workloads with no slowdown or stuttering, although a Core i7 15-inch MacBook Pro was faster in each of our benchmark tests (but also more expensive).
The AMD Radeon HD 6470M GPU can switch off with the basic Intel HD 3000 graphics found on every Intel laptop in order to maximize battery life. However the implementation is a bit of a throwback, a problem we've seen in several Sony laptops over the past couple of years. Nvidia's Optimus technology, for example, can turn the GPU off and on automatically as needed, in a way largely transparent to the user. AMD has also made some improvements to its graphics switching this year, even though it's not in the same league yet.
The system Sony uses seems anachronistic by comparison. A physical switch above the keyboard is labeled 'Speed' at one end and 'Stamina at the other. If you're not sure exactly what that means, we don't blame you. Speed means the GPU is turned on, and Stamina means the GPU is turned off for longer battery life (or stamina). Unlike some older versions of this switching technology, a reboot is not required, but the screen does flash a few times. Most people will forget about the switch and just leave it in one position or the other full-time. Asking people to choose between Speed and Stamina makes it sound like you'll always be missing out on something. Perhaps the two sides of the switch should have been labeled "Tastes Great" and "Less Filling."
With the GPU turned on, the system ran Street Fighter IV at full 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution at 19.8 frames per second. Dial the resolution down to something less daunting, and you're likely to get a playable experience in most current PC games.