Editors' note: This review is part of our 2010 retail laptop and desktop back-to-school roundup, covering specific fixed configurations of popular systems that can be found in retail stores.
Big-screen desktop replacement laptops have traditionally been reserved for the most high-end components, from CPUs and graphics cards to Blu-ray drives. They've also occupied the upper end of the price scale as well, typically costing $1,200 to $2,000 or more. Sony's Vaio line is no exception, as demonstrated by the $1,350 Vaio F126 reviewed here, but fortunately, most of that system's benefits are also available in this $999 model, called the Vaio F12A.
For an extra $350, the F126 includes a powerful Intel Core i7 processor and an Nvida GeForce 330M GPU, instead of the Intel Core i3 and Nvidia 310M GPU in the less-expensive Vaio F12A, along with more RAM (6GB versus 4GB) and a bigger hard drive (640GB versus 500GB). Comparing the two, there's no doubt the expensive F126 is a much more powerful system; however, for mainstream users, there's little reason to think you need all that extra horsepower if you're only surfing the Web, watching HD video, or even playing mainstream PC games.
Even better, the F12A is a configuration Sony makes exclusively for Best Buy as part of the retailer's Next Class program that bundles in a full version of Microsoft Office (Student Edition) and a one-year subscription to Webroot's antivirus software.
|Price as reviewed||$999.00|
|Processor||2.26GHz Intel Core i3|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 310M|
|Operating System||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.3x10.4 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||16.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.6 / 7.7 pounds|
Both 16-inch laptops share the same basic design-the main visual difference between them is the F126 has dark gray body and the F12A has light silver-gray body. The chassis and most of the system's software and features are the same, so our observations on the keyboard, touch pad, and so on are largely similar.
The Vaio's full-size keyboard features flat-topped, widely spaced keys that are similar to what you'd find on MacBooks. It's a nearly universal key style now, but it is one that Sony deserves credit for pioneering years ago. As this is a desktop replacement laptop, there's plenty of room for a full number pad to the right of the keyboard, as well as separate Page Up and Page Down keys. A row of quick-launch and media control buttons sit above the keyboard, which launch Sony's proprietary media software and a built-in Vaio Care tech support app that offers one-stop shopping for troubleshooting and diagnostic tools.. One misstep is that Sony incudes dedicated play, fast-forward, and rewind buttons, but to control the volume, you have to press the Fn key plus F2, F3, and F4.
The Vaio's keyboard is also backlit, a great extra feature that is not nearly common enough in laptops. Once you get used to having a backlit keyboard, there really is no going back. In this case, the keyboard lights up automatically when the ambient light sensor activates, so you don't have a full-time light source eating away at the battery.
The touch pad is a decent size, but not overly generous. Its left and right mouse buttons are excellent--large and just stiff enough. However, the Vaio's touch pad lacks some of the multitouch gesture controls that you'll find in some less-expensive laptops. The touch pad supports the pinch-to-zoom gesture, but not two-finger scrolling, for example. That's a shame, as the vertical scroll zone on the right side of the pad is set too sensitive by default.
Sony is well known for larding up its laptops with proprietary software--some of which are handy to have, whereas some are useless. In this case, Sony included overlapping media apps: Vaio Picture Motion Browser, Vaio Media Gallery, and Vaio Media Plus. These are all perfectly fine apps, but they are not essential and each app has its own learning curve. However, Sony's Vaio Care tech support software is a winner.
You can access all these apps with Sony's version of a software dock. In this case, it sits along the top edge of the screen and it called Vaio Gate. For a software dock, it looks nice and has some cool animations when activated; however, it commits the unforgivable sin of popping up what are essentially spammy messages about how great Sony's software and dock are every few minutes. The messages are controlled via an RSS feed that you can turn off in the Vaio Gate settings, but Sony should have turned it off by default.
As a part of Best Buy's Next Class program, this system includes a full version of Microsoft Office Home and Student Edition--but you'll have to enter the included serial number to activate it--as well as a one-year subscription to Webroot's antivirus software. Office is a great extra, especially for students, but we'd still stick with a free and easy to use antivirus program such as AVG Free.
The Vaio's 16.4-inch display has a 1,600x900-pixel native resolution, which is a definite step up from the standard 1,366x768-pixel resolution you'll find on most up-to-15.4-inch laptops. That's not exactly Blu-ray resolution (1,920x1,080 pixels), but acceptable for a $999 laptop. This machine's $1,349 cousin has the same 1,600x900-pixel resolution.
|Sony Vaio F12A||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers with subwoofer, headphone/microphone jacks.|
|Data||3 USB 2.0 (1 USB/eSATA), SD card reader, Sony Memory Stick reader; FireWire||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader, eSATA|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi; Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray player/DVD burner||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray player|
The F12A's ports and connection are identical to that of more-expensive Vaio F126 model. The rapidly vanishing ExpressCard slot makes an appearance here, as does eSATA, along with an HDMI port for outputting Blu-ray content to a big-screen TV. The laptop even has a holdover FireWire connection, and, of course, Sony always adds a Memory Stick slot just in case you use its proprietary memory card format. Another nice feature is that the Vaio's headphone jack doubles as an optical audio out port if you're connecting the laptop to a high-end audio system.
While the Vaio F126 has Intel's high-end Core i7 processor, this version trades all the way down to a Core i3. While not exactly entry level CPU, it's a big step down in terms of raw performance power. In our benchmark testing, the F12A could not come close to the F126 or other similarly configured systems. As decent an overall deal this laptop is, for $999, one should really expect at least Intel's middle-of-the-road Core i5 CPU.