Sony certainly makes distinctive-looking laptops. And in a market saturated with cookie-cutter gray boxes (or now, endless MacBook Air knockoffs), that's more important than it may seem at first. Even better, Sony also happens to make very good laptops, and I can probably count the number of real lemons found in the Sony Vaio line over the past five-plus years on the fingers of one hand.
The Vaio F Series, represented here by the VPC-F236FM/B configuration, is a 16-inch multimedia machine. It's a not very common in-between size--a bit too big to be mainstream, but too small to be a desktop replacement. That said, with a Blu-ray drive, Nvidia GeForce 540M graphics, and a full 1080p resolution display, it's a tricked-out movie-and-gaming machine (perhaps the "F" stands for full-featured--Sony's Vaio naming conventions are among the most maddening in all of laptop-dom).
But it's also a premium-priced system, at $1,459 (different configurations from Sony's online shop start at $1,049). The look is certainly distinctive, with sharp angles and a raised wrist rest, but HP's 15-inch Envy 15 offers a similar mix of power and style in a slimmer chassis, starting at around the same price. If you want a screen that's just a little larger, and the overall size of this Vaio happens to be exactly what you're looking for, it's certainly a well-made, well-polished machine, and is a good reminder that, aside from Apple, Sony is generally the "reach" brand laptop shoppers actively seek out.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$1,459 / $1,049|
|Processor||2.2GHz Intel Core i7-2670QM|
|Memory||8GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||640GB 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 540M / Intel HD 3000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.4 x 10.7 inches|
|Height||1.3 - 1.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||16.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.6/8.3 pounds|
Next to Apple, Sony's Vaio line is probably the easiest to pick out of a lineup. Even though many Vaio design features have changed over the years, such as the rounded hinges with built-in power buttons that were standard for a long time, there's still a basic Vaio "look." In this case, that is manifested in an angular, gently sloping body, chrome Vaio logo across the back of the lid, and distinctive round quick-launch buttons just above the keyboard.
The system's silhouette is very distinctive; the body and lid are both wider at their tops, narrowing below. The effect, as seem from the side, is of two trapezoids stacked on top of each other. Also note that the base has a larger overall footprint than the lid, so the two halves don't clamshell together tightly.
As a 16-inch laptop, the Vaio F Series is at the larger end of the midsize category of systems, which have 14-, 15-, or 16-inch displays. Anything bigger would be considered a desktop replacement, designed to sit permanently in one spot and take the place of a desktop computer, home entertainment center, or other gear. As it is, this Vaio is large, even for 16-inch laptops, and next to a comparable full-featured 15-inch, such as HP's Envy 15, the size difference is notable. While I could see lugging the Envy 15 or a Dell XPS 15z (or a 15-inch MacBook Pro, for that matter) around a few times per week, the Vaio F is just too big for all but very occasional travel.
The very bright backlit keyboard is of the traditional island style favored by Sony (and Apple) for years. It's since become the industry standard for nearly everybody, even appearing on many Lenovo laptops. The large keys and full-size number pad work well, but the volume controls are relegated to alt functions of the F keys, which is not optimal. HP's recently revamped Envy 15 does it right, offering a separate volume wheel and mute button. Above the keyboard are touch buttons for play/pause and rewind/fast-forward, as well as quick-launch buttons for Sony's Vaio help tools, which are handily built into a single app.
The touch pad, demarcated by a pattern of textured dots built into the raised wrist rest, is adequate but small for such a large laptop, and the plastic feel is no match for the glass touch pads that are becoming more common in other brands. Finally, the left and right mouse buttons are squeezed into a thin rocker bar--for more than $1,000, I'd expect two separate buttons.
Sony does, however, pack a decent amount of extra software into the system, and unlike previous years where Sony was well-known as a bloatware king, there are a few apps on here that are real gems. They are easiest to find through the Vaio Gate shortcut bar that floats along the top edge of the screen, and from there, you can access system tools and extras, such as Remote Play for connecting to a PlayStation 3, and a bundle containing Sony's Vegas video-editing program, plus Sound Forge and Acid, both excellent audio apps for recording, editing, and multitracking. I used Acid for many years to arrange drum loops and samples because of its excellent time-stretching capabilities.
The 16.4-inch display has a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution, which is what we'd expect in a high-end laptop of this size. By way of comparison, most 15-inch laptops have a lower 1,366x768-pixel display, and even high-end ones tend to top out at 1,600x900. The advantage of having a 1080p laptop screen is that HD video, such as from a Blu-ray disc, can be displayed at its native resolution. As one would rightly expect from a Vaio laptop, the display is clear and bright, with decent off-axis viewing. While it's not technically a matte screen, this is one of the least glare-prone ones I've seen on a multimedia laptop in a long time.
|Sony Vaio F Series||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/Memory Stick card reader, FireWire 400||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||Blu-ray player/DVD burner||DVD burner|
There are a handful of surprises to be found in the ports and connections. This is one of the first laptops I've seen where the USB 3.0 ports outnumber the USB 2.0 ports (two to one, in this case). Of course, USB 3.0 peripherals are still not as common as they should be. Secondly, it's been a while since a laptop landed here with a FireWire port. Sony also calls this technology i.LINK, but it's really only used by a handful of cameras and older peripherals. But if you've been looking for a FireWire-enabled laptop, you've found one.
While the various preset configurations keep changing and disappearing, Sony currently has the customizable version of this system for sale on its website, and it's worth noting that even the $1,049 base model includes a quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU. The 1080p screen is also standard, and a 3D compatible version is also available--we. Our test unit also had an upgraded GPU, the Nvidia GeForce 540M, which is $50 more than the standard 520M.
In benchmark testing, the 2.2GHz Intel Core i7 2670QM performed excellently, beating out Dell's XPS 15z and Toshiba's P775 (both with Core i7 CPUs) in our multitasking test. In single-app tests, the XPS 15z did a little better, but at this high-end level, any of these systems is more than enough for even heavy multitasking, photo/video editing, and HD media playback.
The Nvidia GeForce 540M is a solid mainstream GPU, and the system ran our Street Fighter IV test at full 1,920x1,080 resolution at an impressive 44.7 frames per second. In Metro 2033, a very challenging test, it only ran at 12.0 frames per second, even at a lower 1,366x768-pixel resolution, but the game itself is very playable if you dial down the detail levels in the in-game menus.