The Netbook is dead; long live the new Netbooks. Atom-toting 10-inch laptops might be a thing of the past, but the 2011 trend of sticking low-power processors in small-screened computers is alive and well. However, this time, the result is a far better laptop. An AMD Fusion processor in a sub-$500 11-incher was a novelty back in January, but now, we're quite used to these devices, which have been slowly getting modest processor upgrades and price adjustments through the year.
We reviewed the Sony Vaio YB15KX/S in February; like many early-2011 laptops, it paired an AMD E-350 APU with ample storage space and RAM to create a tiny laptop that performed well and didn't cost too much (for a Vaio, at least). The Vaio YB35KX/B is a revision that upgrades to an AMD E-450 processor, keeping the same 4GB of RAM and 500GB hard drive as its predecessor, at a lower cost. Depending on where you buy it, it currently can be found for as low as $469.
A similar thing happened to the HP Pavilion dm1, which got its own slight redesign and AMD E-450 upgrade. The processor upgrade isn't something you'll notice at all, but the price drop is a bigger story. At this price, the latest Sony Vaio Y is a much better value. The ample hard-drive space and speedier processor make this an excellent choice as a Netbook-sized laptop that can truly transcend its size and be used as a full-fledged computer.
Yes, there are limitations: the AMD E-450 is considerably slower than a mainstream Intel Core i5 or its equivalent, such as you'd find in an ultrabook or MacBook Air. It's nowhere near as thin as a ultrabook or an Air, but it's also not as expensive. From that perspective, it could be the compromise you're looking for, if you can live with a smaller screen and slower performance.
|Price as reviewed||$499|
|Processor||1.6GHz AMD Fusion E-450 Dual-Core APU|
|Memory||4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||500GB, 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6320|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.2x8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.1 pounds / 3.6 pounds|
Clad in grayish-black plastic, the Vaio YB35KX/B looks rather generic. A casual passerby might mistake it for an Asus Eee PC Netbook. Classic Sony Vaio touches abound if you know where to look, as in the slightly cramped raised keyboard, convex palm rest, and circular side hinges. The glowing green power button is embedded in the right side of the hinges, which got confusing for me, as I kept pressing the rectangular button on the top right of the keyboard instead, which looks like a power button but is really the Vaio Assist key. Pressing it boots diagnostic software that bypasses Windows 7, and I had to exit and restart when I made this mistake, which I imagine many will.
The left-side hinge is where the AC plug goes. It juts out of the side, without blocking any USB ports.
The modest keyboard has small keys but good key travel, and an overall typing feel that resembles that of a Netbook. Volume and screen brightness are controlled via numbered function keys rather than dedicated buttons.
Nestled below is one of the smallest touch pads I've ever seen. Two discrete plastic buttons beneath restrict space even further, to the point where the responsive touch-pad surface is barely larger than two-and-a-half SD cards placed side by side.
The 11.6-inch, 1,366x768-pixel-resolution glossy inset screen is crisp and bright, but requires head-on viewing for the best results. Movies and pictures looked very sharp. Speaker quality is another matter. The stereo speakers have barely any oomph, and sound is hard to hear even at maximum volume. You'll want to keep headphones handy at all times. The 640x480-pixel Webcam (1,280x960-pixel for still pictures) is serviceable, barely. Pictures looked dark and grainy. Considering Sony's camera and lens expertise, it's surprising that this Vaio didn't have a better Webcam.
Was using this laptop exciting? No. Is it functional? Yes, of course it is. A few Sony software touches like a pull-down dock on the top of the screen (for accessing Sony software, naturally) aren't too intrusive. I found this Vaio easy to hold in one hand, it rested easily on my lap, and the screen tilted to a comfortable viewing angle for lap-typing.
|Sony Vaio VPC-YB35KX/B||Average for category [ultraportable]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader, Memory Stick reader||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
This little Vaio doesn't have USB 3.0 connectivity, but it does have Bluetooth. There are three USB 2.0 ports, plenty for a small laptop. There's also HDMI, and...well, that's it. Like all Sony Vaio laptops, the YB35KX/B has a Memory Stick card slot in addition to an SD card slot. The two discrete slots are stacked on top of each other.
One of the best parts of this Vaio is its ample hard drive. It's no solid-state drive (SSD), but a 500GB hard drive matches the average for a larger mainstream laptop. Those looking to make this their big media-library repository will be in luck. The comparatively limited SSD storage on ultrabooks is one of the biggest hindrances for digital hoarders. That won't be a problem here.
Unlike Atom-based Netbooks, this Vaio, thanks to AMD's Fusion processor, is pretty adept at handling Flash and video streaming. On the other hand, Netflix movies sometimes exhibited choppiness during high-speed action; not enough to ruin watching, but enough to make purists feel grumpy. The 1.6GHz AMD E-450 processor, aka an APU, has its own onboard graphics--AMD Radeon HD 6320--to enhance video playback and even allow some basic gaming. Street Fighter IV ran at 17.8 frames per second with 2x antialiasing at native 1,366x768-pixel resolution, as compared with 18.9fps on the HP Pavilion dm1-4010us, which has the same processor. That's not really what gamers would call "playable," but hey, it's something. You could play your average game on this Vaio at toned-down graphics settings.