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Sony Vaio SA41FX/BL review: Sony Vaio SA41FX/BL

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MSRP: $1,029.99

The Good The Sony Vaio SA41FX/BL has a compact size and plenty of upgrades: dedicated AMD graphics, optional Blu-ray, a fingerprint reader, HD Webcam, and higher-def 1,600x900-pixel display.

The Bad Unless you buy the sheet battery, battery life falls below that on equivalent alternatives; also, the entry price is high.

The Bottom Line The 13-inch Sony Vaio SA41FX/BL has plenty of features and optional bells and whistles for a compact laptop, but it falls a bit short on battery life and price to be a must-have product.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 9
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 7
  • Support 7

The Sony Vaio S comes really, really close to being a great laptop. The size is right; the keyboard, excellent; it's a clean design, and it's reasonably lightweight. So, what's wrong?

When I reviewed the last Vaio SA configuration, the Vaio SA21GX/BL back in the summer of 2011, I certainly appreciated the size and weight of this trim 13-incher. In a chassis slightly lighter than a MacBook Pro, the Vaio SA included a DVD drive and dedicated AMD graphics in a package with plenty of customizable upgrades (Blu-ray, SSD). Unfortunately, the price of the higher-end Vaio SA started at over $1,000 and got progressively higher from there. Also, while the Vaio SA has an optional slice-style sheet battery that doubles up on run time away from an outlet, the thick $150 add-on isn't as ideal a solution as a better integrated battery.

The early 2012 version of the Vaio SA--the Vaio SA41FX/BL--is pretty similar to last year's model: same AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics, same screen and chassis build. Slightly upgraded processors are the only real change. Sadly, the price hasn't seen a big drop: the entry-level Vaio SA is $1,029. Now, a note to Vaio S shoppers: there is a more affordable model Vaio S, known as the Vaio SB, without the bells and whistles of our SA version, starting at $799 with a Core i3 processor. In our Vaio S, the price bump reflects a better Core i5 processor, faster graphics, a higher-res 1,600x900-pixel screen, a fingerprint reader, HD Webcam, and optional SSD storage and mobile broadband. Basically, the Vaio SA is the pro version of the Vaio SB. Why Sony needed to make the decision so confusing is anyone's guess.

In early 2012, the real disconnect I have with the Vaio S is simple: its battery life runs a bit too short for my tastes, and the price seems high. Otherwise, the Vaio SA might be a laptop worth looking into if you don't care for an ultrabook, or crave an optical drive (better yet, check out the Vaio SB and compare specs).

Price as reviewed / starting price $1,079 / $1,029
Processor 2.5 GHz Intel Core i5-2450M
Memory 4GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 500GB 5,400rpm
Chipset Intel HM65
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6630M / Intel HD 3000
Operating System Windows 7 Professional w/ SP1 (64-bit)
Dimensions (WD) 13 x 8.8 inches
Height 0.9 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 13.3 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 3.5 / 4.5 pounds (4.6/5.6 pounds w/ sheet battery)
Category 13-inch

At first glance, the Vaio S owes a lot to the design aesthetic of the more expensive 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 recently. The all-metal aluminum case over a magnesium alloy frame is sturdy, but it's so lightweight that it can fool you into thinking it feels slightly flimsy.

One thing the Vaio S isn't is an ultrabook. It is a pound lighter than the MacBook Pro, but a bit heavier than the HP Folio 13 or Toshiba Portege--certainly easily portable, but nowhere near the wafer-thin sexiness of ultrabook 13-inchers. It's a tweener, but soon enough regular laptops will all start off as thin as this Vaio S.

The Vaio S actually comes in two model variations: Sony decided to bifurcate the line a little with the confusingly named SA and SB, positioned at lower- and higher-end starting prices. The Vaio SB comes in five colors--blue, pink, red, white and black--and starts with more scaled-back specs (Core i3/i5), whereas the Vaio SA comes in jet black, carbon fiber black, or platinum silver and has higher-end CPU options (Core i5/i7) and better AMD Radeon graphics. If you're shopping on Sony's Web site, it's best to do the comparing and contrasting yourself.

The similarities to the Vaio Z continue in the interior 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 demonstrates a flexy feel when opening and closing, just like it did with last year's Vaio S. The hinge feels better than before, tighter, with opening and closing action smooth but stiff at any angle. 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. On our black-colored unit, the key backlighting worked perfectly (I remember that on the Platinum version it created some key visibility issues from all the reflective silver).

The hard lines and extra buttons lend the whole laptop a bit of a throwback feel, but--especially in the black model--it comes off as somewhat timeless and attractive. One thing I didn't like? "Stamina/Speed." Sony seems to love 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 with processor turbo boost. 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, with strong viewing angles and crisp, bright color. The Vaio SA comes standard with a 1,600x900-pixel resolution screen (the less expensive Vaio SB has a 1,366x768-pixel display). 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. I 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 I've seen.

This Vaio also has Intel Wireless Display (WiDi), 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 SA41FX/BL Average for category [13-inch]
Video VGA, HDMI VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader, Memory Stick card reader 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband
Optical drive DVD burner; optional Blu-ray DVD burner

The Vaio SA has an average set of ports for its size, as well as plenty of customizations. In addition to an HD Webcam and fingerprint reader, an USB 3.0 port, HDMI, and Bluetooth come standard. Also available are optional mobile broadband (Verizon/AT&T/Sprint, $50), and a chance to swap the DVD drive for Blu-ray ($100) or even a Blu-ray burner ($200). The Vaio SA is also TPM-certified, a function used by some corporate IT departments.

Our configured Vaio SA41FX/BL came with 4GB of RAM, a 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive, and a 2.5 GHz Core i5-2450M processor. The Vaio SA can be upgraded up to 8GB of RAM, and Sony offers SSD drive upgrades starting at 128GB for $280 and climbing all the way to a whopping 1TB for $2,980. At that point, you might as well dip your laptop in solid gold and call it a day.

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