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Sony Vaio SE Series review: Sony Vaio SE Series

Sony Vaio SE Series

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
8 min read

If Sony knows how to do something well, it's creating slick-looking laptops. Recent examples include the very high-end 13-inch Vaio Z and the more modest Vaio E series, which still manages to have plenty of flair despite the midrange price. The latest addition is the new Vaio SE, which is currently restricted to a single 15.5-inch version. At $999, the Vaio SE is playing in pretty crowded territory, and we'd put it in the same league as the Dell XPS 15z or the HP Envy 14--all upscale midsize laptops that mix high style with high performance.

Sony Vaio SE

Sony Vaio SE Series

The Good

The discrete graphics and optional slice battery on the stylish <b>Sony Vaio SE</b> help it stand out from other midsize laptops, and the included TPM chip should play nice with your IT department.

The Bad

The AMD graphics switching remains tied to a clunky physical switch, and without the extra slice, battery life is merely OK.

The Bottom Line

Sony knocks out another stylish system with the 15-inch Vaio SE, with some extra appeal for business users.

To help the Vaio SE stand out, Sony adds a few important extras. First, like the Vaio Z, the SE supports an optional slice battery. This $150 add-on is a thin external battery pack that covers the entire bottom surface of the laptop. It adds bulk and weight, but it's a much nicer design than having a huge extended battery that sticks out of the back of the system like a kickstand.

The Vaio SE also include a TPM (trusted platform module) chip and Symantec's VIP authentication technology--the former especially is a must-have for IT departments. It's not something casual consumers will have to worry about, but it makes the Vaio SE much easier to integrate into a business environment.

Price as reviewed $1,149 / $999
Processor 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 2430M
Memory 4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 640GB 7,200rpm
Chipset Intel HM65
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6470M / Intel HD3000
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 14.5 x 9.5 inches
Height 1.0 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 15.5 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 4.2/5.1 pounds
Category Midsize

Our review unit is black, but a silver version is also available (Sony calls them jet black and platinum silver). Like Sony's other high-end laptops, such as the Vaio Z, the body is made of magnesium and aluminum, for a combination of ruggedness and light weight. The look and feel is pure Vaio, and the system looks like a matte black slab when closed, offset by an angular chrome hinge. That's part of a continuing evolution of Sony laptops, moving away from the long-time stylistic stamp of a tube-like round hinge, with the power button and AC adapter plug on opposite sides.

At 1 inch thick and a bit over 4 pounds (not counting the AC adapter or slice battery), it's the latest in a recent move toward very thin and light midsize laptops, such as the Dell XPS 15z (or even the new Inspiron 14z). While it certainly makes these machines easier to carry around, it's still too big for a daily commute. For regular travel, you'll want a laptop 13 inches or smaller.

Sony has been doing the island-style keyboard, with its flat-topped, widely spaced keys, as long as anyone, and it has since become an industry standard. The individual keys are large and easy to hit, but shallow and little on the clacky side. The chassis is wide enough to also fit in a full-size number pad, and the important keys (Shift, Enter, Ctrl, etc.) avoid any unnecessary shrinkage. The space bar, however, could be longer, and we frequently found ourselves missing it while touch typing.

The keyboard is backlit, which we always appreciate. In fact, with the light shining through the white letter stamps on the key faces, as well as around the edge of each key, this is the brightest backlit keyboard we can recall ever seeing. Function key commands for volume and brightness control are unfortunately not function-reversed, so you'll have to hold down the Fn key to access them--which is inconvenient for a multimedia laptop.

The large touch pad has a pleasing matte surface and two large separate mouse buttons. Our long-standing gripe with Sony touch pads is in the software defaults. Scroll zones for vertical and horizontal scrolling are set too wide by default, and we had to go into the control panel to resize them.

The 15.5-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which we sometimes call full HD (as it's the same as for Blu-ray, HDTV, etc.). Vaio laptops always have excellent screen quality, and this is no exception. Images and videos were clear and bright, and off-axis viewing was above average. Even though the screen has a glossy coating, it felt like a muted version of laptop screen gloss, and we had very few problems with glare and reflected lights.

Sony Vaio SE Average for category [midsize]
Video VGA plus HDMI VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader, Memory Stick reader. 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 DVD burner DVD burner

Like nearly all Sony laptops, special space had to be carved out for a Memory Stick slot, in addition to the normal SD card reader. That space comes at a premium as well, as all the ports and connections are crowded along the right edge, with the exception of a lone headphone jack tucked away at the very back of the left side edge.

One nice extra is Intel's Wireless Display technology, which can send the video output of the system to a nearby big-screen TV. This requires a sold-separately receiver box, which usually runs around $99 and connects to an external display via HDMI. The results aren't lag-free enough for gaming, but it's fine for video playback.

For a sub-$1,000 midsize laptop, Intel's Core i5 CPU is what you'd expect to find, represented in this case by the 2.4GHz Intel Core i5 2430M. Still, we've seen the faster Core i7 chips start to filter down to lower priced systems as well. But for everyday computing, such as Web surfing, media playback, and even heavier tasks such as photo and video editing, the Vaio SE has more than enough power to handle most workloads with no slowdown or stuttering, although a Core i7 15-inch MacBook Pro was faster in each of our benchmark tests (but also more expensive).

The AMD Radeon HD 6470M GPU can switch off with the basic Intel HD 3000 graphics found on every Intel laptop in order to maximize battery life. However the implementation is a bit of a throwback, a problem we've seen in several Sony laptops over the past couple of years. Nvidia's Optimus technology, for example, can turn the GPU off and on automatically as needed, in a way largely transparent to the user. AMD has also made some improvements to its graphics switching this year, even though it's not in the same league yet.

The system Sony uses seems anachronistic by comparison. A physical switch above the keyboard is labeled 'Speed' at one end and 'Stamina at the other. If you're not sure exactly what that means, we don't blame you. Speed means the GPU is turned on, and Stamina means the GPU is turned off for longer battery life (or stamina). Unlike some older versions of this switching technology, a reboot is not required, but the screen does flash a few times. Most people will forget about the switch and just leave it in one position or the other full-time. Asking people to choose between Speed and Stamina makes it sound like you'll always be missing out on something. Perhaps the two sides of the switch should have been labeled "Tastes Great" and "Less Filling."

With the GPU turned on, the system ran Street Fighter IV at full 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution at 19.8 frames per second. Dial the resolution down to something less daunting, and you're likely to get a playable experience in most current PC games.

Juice box
Sony Vaio SE Average watts per hour
Off (60 percent) 0.24
Sleep (10 percent) 0.91
Idle (25 percent) 11.28
Load (5 percent) 61.62
Raw kWh 53.75
Annual energy cost $6.10

With the optional slice battery, the Sony Vaio SE ran for 6 hours and 34 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, with the GPU switch set to Speed (which is we expect most users will set and forget it). Without the slice battery, the system ran for only 3 hours and 2 minutes, which is on the low end of acceptable for a midsize laptop. Flip the switch to Stamina, and those times should improve by at least a third, and with the slice batter and the GPU turned off, a full day of computing should be no problem.

The Sony Vaio SE is backed by an industry-standard, one-year warranty. Support is accessible 24-7 via a toll-free phone line, an online knowledge base, and a Web site with driver downloads. Sony's support sites are clean and easy to navigate, but information about your exact laptop configuration may be hard to find (although it's hard to tell in this specific case, as Sony hasn't listed it for sale yet).

From the design and features list of the Vaio SE, it's clear Sony is targeting this as a high-end, power laptop with potential appeal to business users, which is rarely charted territory for Sony. Fortunately, it also works just fine as a reasonably priced consumer laptop, and a sharp-looking, powerful one at that.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations

Dell XPS 15Z
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-2620M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 525M / 64MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Sony Vaio VPC-SE
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-2430M; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 6,470M/ 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD; 640GB Western Digital 5,400rpm

Dell Inspiron N411Z
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) w/ SP1; 2.3GHz Intel Core i5-2410M; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 64MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Western Digital 7,200rpm

Apple MacBook Pro - Core i7 Sandy Bridge 15.4 inch - 2.2GHz
OS X 10.6.6 Snow Leopard; Intel Core i7 2.2GHz; 4096MB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 1GB AMD Radeon HD 6,750M / 384MB (Shared) Intel HD 3000; 750GB Toshiba

Asus K53E
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-2520M; 6,144MB DDR3 SDRAM 667MHz; 192MB (Dedicated)/1,760MB (Total) Intel GMA HD; 640GB Seagate 7,200rpm

Sony Vaio SE

Sony Vaio SE Series

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 7Support 7