Sony VAIO S Series VPC-SA21GX/BI review: Sony VAIO S Series VPC-SA21GX/BI

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
  • Overall: 7.8
  • Design: 8.0
  • Features: 9.0
  • Performance: 8.0
  • Battery life: 7.0
  • Service and support: 7.0
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The Sony Vaio SA21GX packs a lot of computer into a light and thin frame, without setting the price too high. A high-res display, optional Blu-ray, and AMD graphics round out a complete package.

The Bad The screen hinge feels too wobbly for our tastes, and the throwback, slightly angular design might not appeal to everybody.

The Bottom Line Sony's revamped Vaio S series laptops have slimmed down, but still offer plenty of high-end features, creating an affordable alternative to the attractive-but-expensive Vaio Z.

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Sony's Vaio laptops have long been considered the high-end benchmark for Windows laptops, at least in terms of their media-playing excellence, hardware design, and higher-than-average prices. While Vaios have slowly become more affordable over the years, the reputation for stylish, overly expensive products lingers, especially when it comes to ultraportables such as the undeniably impressive but crazily priced Vaio Z.

The Vaio S, a redesigned line of 13-inch laptops, has emerged as an inheritor of much of the style of the Vaio Z, but at more reasonable prices. By "reasonable," we mean starting at $899, which certainly falls in a range competitive with Apple.

A lot has changed since the chunkier Vaio S laptop we last reviewed. The new 3.5-pound Vaio S is thinner and lighter, certainly more so than the average 4-pound-plus mainstream laptop. It's not as thin and light as a MacBook Air or Samsung Series 9, but it's one of the thinnest laptops that still includes a standard-voltage CPU and an optical drive. Its closest alternative in terms of size and features is the Toshiba Portege R835.

There's a lot packed into the Vaio S's narrow magnesium alloy frame: second-generation Core i-series processors, AMD graphics, optional 1,600x900-pixel higher-res screen, a Blu-ray drive, and a removable slice battery that effectively doubles battery life. Add all of these in, and the Vaio S definitely has a luxury feel. However, prices rise quickly: our configuration checked in at $1,299, and depending on what else you add, you could easily get near $2,000.

If you're in the market for a 13-inch Windows laptop that can keep pace with Apple's designs, the Vaio S comes as close as any Windows laptop. Its angular, nearly throwback design might not appeal to some, but the Vaio S gets a nod of respect for being a more sensible variation on the Z's excesses, without charging a huge premium--at least, if you keep your upgrades to a minimum.

Price as reviewed/starting price $1,299/$899
Processor 2.3 GHz Intel Core i5-2410M
Memory 4GB, 1,333 MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel HM65
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6630M / Intel HD 3000
Operating System Windows 7 Professional (64-bit) w/ SP1
Dimensions (WD) 13.0 inches x 8.8 inches
Height 0.9 inch (1.4 inches w/slice battery)
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight/weight with AC adapter 3.6 / 4.5 pounds (4.7/5.6 pounds w/slice battery)
Category 13-inch

At first glance, the Vaio S owes a lot to the design aesthetic of the Vaio Z. Some people sitting in coffee shops might even assume this is a Z. Angled edges and a slim profile look nearly identical to the Vaio Z we reviewed last year. The all-metal aluminum case over a magnesium alloy frame is sturdy, but it's so lightweight that it can fool you into feeling slightly flimsy.

The Vaio S actually has two model variations; Sony decided to bifurcate the Vaio S line a little with the confusingly named SA and SB, positioned at slightly lower and higher-end price spectrums. The Vaio SB comes in four colors--black, white, pink, and blue--and starts with more scaled-back specs (Core i3/i5), whereas the Vaio SA comes in Jet Black or Platinum Silver and has higher-end CPU options (Core i5/i7) and better AMD Radeon graphics. Both the SA and SB share many of the same configuration features, with some differences between the two. If you're shopping on Sony's Web site, it's best to do the comparing and contrasting yourself, and then make a decision. For most, the decision will probably come down to color over anything else. Our Vaio S is the Platinum Silver Vaio SA, in a set configuration for $1,299.

The similarities to the Vaio Z continue on the inside of the Vaio S; the raised keyboard and a dedicated row of launch buttons feel extremely similar. The hinge, however, is different. On the Vaio S, a chromed center-connected hinge floats near the middle of the laptop's back end, adding a more retro-angled feel to the design. The upper lid is extremely thin, bordering on too thin; we experienced the same type of flexy feel when opening and closing that we did with previous Vaio Zs. The hinge action, too, felt unusual--sometimes too loose, sometimes stiffer at other angles. The hinge worked fine, but gave a sense of being a little erratic. The Vaio SA's lid opens up to a wider-than-average angle, past the standard 45 degrees, offering some better visibility when lap-typing or working at a low desk.

A large palm rest area frames an otherwise normal-size touch pad. Its smooth surface responded better than the average to multitouch gestures and motions; tucked beneath is a pair of discrete buttons that run right to the front edge. Between them is a small fingerprint sensor, which can be programmed to store passwords for extra security.

The wide keyboard features island-style keys with plenty of space between. The keys are set in a slightly recessed tray, leaving the tops of the keys about flush with the palm rest below. Like Apple's keyboards (and unlike many other Windows laptops), the Enter/Shift keys are unencumbered by any added column of awkward keys on the right side, which makes typing a lot less cramped. The Vaio S's keyboard is backlit, a welcome addition for low lighting, but in dimly lit rooms the silver keys on our Platinum Silver unit were hard to read at times.

If we're going to nitpick the Vaio S's design, it's mainly the angled 1980s look the laptop seems to embrace. Sure, nothing like the Vaio S ever existed in 1988, but especially in our Platinum model, the hard lines and extra buttons lend the whole laptop a bit of a throwback feel. Sony loves to add specific Assist, Web, and Vaio keys above the keyboards of many Vaios like this one, but the dedicated keys are largely unnecessary. A physical "Stamina/Speed" performance switch on the upper left feels like a joke (after all, don't we want stamina and speed at the same time?), but is essentially a graphics on/off switch. The included AMD Radeon graphics don't switch off and on automatically, and this is the Vaio S' method of balancing power consumption. The physical switch is clunky: programs have to be quit and the laptop briefly flickers as its mode is switched. We're so used to automatic graphics just as those on Apple's laptops or Nvidia Optimus-equipped notebooks that we found this option off-putting.

The 13.3-inch matte screen is better than most we've seen, with strong viewing angles and crisp, bright color. Even better, the Vaio S offers a higher-resolution upgrade option above the standard 1,366x768 pixels. Our Vaio SA21GX/SI had a 1,600x900-pixel resolution screen. It might seem excessive on a 13-inch laptop, but it's not; the added screen real estate is a workflow optimizer, fitting more programs onscreen at once. Text still remains largely readable, if on the condensed side.

The built-in stereo speakers sounded solid, and louder than we expected to hear. We wouldn't say the Vaio S is an ideal media laptop, but it's a pretty sharp way to consume videos on the go--and if you've decided to upgrade to Blu-ray and a higher-res screen, this adds up to one of the most compact media-friendly 13-inchers we've ever seen.

This Vaio also has Intel Wireless Display, a useful way to stream HD video from your laptop to an HDTV. WiDi requires a separately purchased converter box that plugs into your TV, but once that's set up, you can use WiDi to turn your big-screen TV into a second monitor, with a slight delay in transmission time. Streaming Web videos, DVDs, and Blu-rays are supported for playback, and applications look good over the connection, too, but games requiring quick response won't work.

The included Webcam captures video at resolutions up to 1,280x720 pixels, but we found the image quality to be a little more washed-out and dull compared with other recent HD Webcams.

Sony Vaio SA21GX/SI Average for category [13-inch]
Video HDMI, VGA VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/mic combo jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 1 USB 3.0, 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader, Memory stick reader 3 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None None
Networking Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional 3G Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive DVD burner DVD burner

The Vaio S comes with a strong selection of ports and connectors for such a small laptop: three USB ports, one of which is USB 3.0, along with HDMI and dual memory card slots for SD/Memory Stick. We could have done without dual slots and saved space on a multicard reader, but Sony laptops tend to offer dual slots by default. Bluetooth comes standard, and optional Sprint or Verizon mobile broadband costs an extra $50.

The headphone jack is strangely situated behind the optical drive door on the left side, which is asking for snags when discs are ejected. The rear jack also shortens the cable length of any headphones. A Kensington cable-lock hole, meanwhile, is oddly placed below the SD card slot on the front right side. We're used to having cable locks in the rear.

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Where to Buy

Sony VAIO S Series VPC-SA21GX/BI

Part Number: VPCSA21GX/BI

MSRP: $1,299.99

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Installed Size 4 GB
  • Color jet black
  • Weight 3.7 lbs
  • Optical Drive DVD-Writer - fixed
  • Graphics Processor AMD Radeon HD 6630M / Intel HD Graphics 3000 - 1 GB
  • CPU Intel Core i5 (2nd Gen) 2410M / 2.3 GHz
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