Editors' note: August 8, 2008. We incorrectly identified the CPU as a Core 2 Duo T2390 for this laptop. It uses the older Pentium Dual-Core Mobile Processor T2390, which features 1MB of L2 cache and operates on a 533MHz frontside bus. Most Core 2 Duo mobile processors operate on a faster bus and all offer 2MB or more of L2 cache. Both the Pentium Dual-Core and Core 2 Duo chips are manufactured using the same 65-nanometer process.
This review is part of our Back-to-School 2008 roundup, covering specific configurations of popular laptops that can be found in retail stores.
When we made our sweep of back-to-school laptops this summer, we were surprised to see a Sony Vaio among the entry-level models. (Perhaps Sony's declining laptop market share has encouraged the company to compete at the low end of the price scale.) Only last year did we see our first Vaio limbo lower than the $1,000 mark when Sony introduced the Vaio NR line, and now the retail-only Sony Vaio NR430 E/L takes the Vaio down to the lowest end of the laptop price scale. At $679--and currently being sold at a discount at Best Buy for $599--the Vaio NR430E/L strikes all the right notes for a basic 15-inch laptop. Really, at this price point, you are looking to avoid any potential deal breakers, and we didn't find any here. Our complaints with the Vaio NR430 are minor: the lack of multimedia control buttons and clacky mouse buttons. What offsets these quibbles are the fact that the laptop features a pleasing design, excellent keyboard, strong performance (among entry-level laptops), and long battery life. For students who simply need a laptop for churning out term papers and other basic tasks, the Sony Vaio VGN-NR430E/L is our entry-level pick.
|Processor||1.86GHz Intel Pentium Dual-Core T2390|
|Memory||2,048MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz|
|Hard drive||160GB, 5,400rpm|
|Chipset||Intel GM965 Express|
|Graphics||Intel GMAX3100 (integrated)|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Premium|
|Dimensions (WDH)||14.2x10.6x1.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||15.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.2 / 7.0 pounds|
The Vaio NR430 features a textured plastic shell, both on the lid and inside on the keyboard tray. My colleague Dan Ackerman wasn't much for this design when we reviewed the NR160 model last year, but that model cost a bit more and was white. The white plastic may look a bit dingy by senior year, but our Vaio NR430 review unit is a deep blue, almost purple, color that Sony dubs Nightfall Blue (Amazon.com also lists silver and pink models). It should hide dings and scratches accumulated over your course of study, and presents what I think is an upscale look for such a cheap laptop. And it feels solid, with little flex that is sometimes evident on cheaper laptops with thin, plastic chassis.
More importantly, the keyboard is the same flat Sony keyboard we've come to love. The keys are flat--similar in feel to a MacBook's--and feature good travel. The touch pad is comfortable and amply sized with responsive vertical and horizontal scroll areas along the right and bottom, respectively. The two mouse buttons, however, make a loud clack sound when pressed.
Though the Vaio NR430's keyboard tray leaves plenty of room for multimedia control keys--something most media-consuming students will come to appreciate, we believe--you won't find any here. We're seeing such controls on more and more laptops, including at the low end of the price spectrum. For example, Dell's entry-level Inspiron 1525 features touch-sensitive media control keys. Aside from the power button, you'll find only two buttons above the NR430's keyboard. A programmable key labeled S1 lets you mute the speakers, put the laptop into sleep mode, go to max brightness, or launch an applications, among others. The AV Mode button launches a useless Vaio media application that lets you choose among various multimedia programs to access your music or photos or play a DVD. You're better off just choosing an application from the Start menu or simply creating a desktop shortcut. The AV Mode button does not allow for instant-on access. That is, you cannot play a CD or a DVD without first booting to Windows.
We found less bloatware than with past Vaio laptops. The trial offers have been whittled down to four AOL desktop icons, one of which, however, is animated.
The 15.4-inch wide-screen LCD offers a 1,280x800-pixel native resolution, which is typical of a display this size, though some vendors, including Dell, offer a finer 1,440x900-pixel resolution option on configurable models. The Vaio NR430 features Sony's Xbrite-Eco screen, which we found to be crisp and vivid; movies and photos showed accurate colors, crisps edges, and smooth movement. In anecdotal testing, we found it to be less bright than other laptops, but at max brightness, the image looked fine under a variety of conditions. It features a glossy screen coating, but it wasn't as prone to glare and reflections as other glossy screens we've seen. And it offers a surprisingly wide viewing angle.
|Sony Vaio VGN-NR430||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||4 USB 2.0, mini FireWire, MemoryStick, SD card readers||4 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||DVD burner||DVD burner|
The Vaio NR430 provides the basic allotment of connections. While some entry-level models are serving up an HDMI port, the Vaio NR430 sticks with the tried-and-true VGA-out should you want to hook up an external monitor. We were pleased to find four USB ports conveniently split with a pair on each side of the laptop. On the front edge, next to the SD and MemoryStick card slots, is an always appreciated Wi-Fi power switch.
In the labs, the Sony Vaio NR430 did well for itself, keeping pace with the identically configured Dell Inspiron 1525-121B and finishing at or near the top of all of our benchmark tests. Both models feature a low-end Intel Pentium Dual-Core CPU and finished ahead of Compaq and Toshiba models that use a comparable AMD Turion X2 chip and had an extra gigabyte of RAM. Our results show that a third gigabyte of memory doesn't have much--if any--effect on performance; the Toshiba Satellite L305 features the same Pentium Dual-Core chip and 3GB of RAM and finished behind or statistically tied with the Vaio NR430 and Inspiron 1525 that had 2GB of RAM. We found the Vaio NR430 had enough pep to power Vista Home Premium, even when we had a half-dozen applications open at once. Of course, any laptop at this price will feature integrated graphics and isn't a wise choice for gamers.
The Vaio NR430 took top honors among our five entry-level back-to-school laptops, running for an impressive 3 hours and 14 minutes. Our video playback test is fairly grueling, so you can expect the laptop to run longer by tweaking the power management settings.