The Good Improved battery life, Nvidia graphics, and lots of upgrade options make the new 13-inch Sony Vaio S Series 13P an improvement over last year’s model.
The Bad A flexible lid and an imperfect touch pad keep the Vaio S from being as usable as it could be, and some of the various Vaio S configurations can get confusing on Sony’s web site.
The Bottom Line Lightweight, comfortable, and with a good feature set, the Sony Vaio S 13P might be expensive compared with other Windows laptops offering a similar package, but it beats Apple’s 13-inch MacBook Pro, for the same price.
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Now that ultrabooks and ultrathin laptops are commonplace, what happens to the average nonultrabook laptop? It needs to step up, that’s what. After using a MacBook Air for the last few months, my expectations for a 13-inch laptop are that it should be razor-thin. Maybe you’re more forgiving, but when it comes to a smaller laptop, I want it as small as possible.
The new Sony Vaio S Series 13P is an important tweak to the previous Vaio S line, which I’ve reviewed twice before. The premium version I reviewed, the SVS13A190X, isn’t cheap; it starts at $1,119, but then again, there are a host of improvements over the $1,050 Sony Vaio SA41FX that I reviewed less than six months ago. Sony has added a slot-loading drive and a larger touch pad; more RAM is included, and the hard drive is larger; there are a new, faster Intel CPU, better Nvidia graphics, and an integrated battery, which gives much improved battery life over the previous generation’s $150 slice battery add-on, sold separately and practically a requirement for good battery life the last go-around.
Granted, you can get a Vaio S for as little as $799, but not all Vaio models are made alike. To get the Nvidia graphics and other bells and whistles, you’ll need to pay up. As a package deal at the high end, however, the Vaio S is both lightweight (3.7 pounds) and full of features that I now expect in a laptop that’s not an ultrabook.
This is the laptop that I wanted the new 13-inch MacBook Pro to be: lighter, graphics-boosted, with a higher-res screen. This Vaio S isn’t a revolutionary machine, but it’s finally a version of the Vaio S that makes no compromises, and gets a leg up on Apple’s 13-inch Pro in the process.
|Starting price / Price as reviewed||$1,119 / $1,199|
|Processor||2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M|
|Memory||6GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||640GB, 7,200rpm|
|Graphics||Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE (1GB) / Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||13×8.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||13.3 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.7 pounds / 4.4 pounds|
The Sony Vaio S Series 13P is a high-end variation on the S line, a replacement for the small-business-targeted and confusingly named Vaio SA model from the last generation. The new Vaio looks similar in terms of its all-matte-black design and tapered footprint, but some of the laptop’s lines are curved where they were previously angular. The Vaio S Series 13P comes in three color options: Carbon Black, Carbon Gold, and Carbon Gunmetal.
The upgraded premium version of the Vaio S bears a carbon fiber lid: it feels rigid, but still flexes as much on its center hinge as previous models. However, the partial carbon fiber construction of the S Series 13P makes it surprisingly lightweight for its size, at 3.7 pounds. It’s easy to lift with one hand. The move to a carbon fiber lid (as opposed to magnesium alloy on the “regular” Sony Vaio S Enhanced) shaves 0.1 pound off.
A cleaned-up look lends the new Vaio a touch of minimalism. A slot-loading DVD drive replaces the tray-loading version from the last Vaio S. A larger, far wider clickpad looks much cleaner than the old, smaller touch pad with its discrete buttons beneath. Still, odd buttons and toggles like the Stamina/Speed graphics switch remain above the keyboard area, adding extra clutter (honestly, why can’t the switch be software-based or automatic?). The switch toggles power profiles, and can disable the GPU in Stamina mode, but there’s no reason why this laptop couldn’t simply rely on Nvidia’s Optimus technology for automatic switching instead.
The Vaio S feels like a larger version of the Vaio Z, and not far off from the size and weight of Sony’s ultrabook, the Vaio T. The T is 0.7 inch thick and weighs 3.4 pounds; the Vaio S Series 13P is 0.95 inch thick and 3.7 pounds. The last Vaio S I reviewed was a tiny bit thinner (0.9 inch) and lighter (3.5 pounds), but not by much.
While some might look at the new Vaio S and see a larger version of the Vaio Z, the laptop shares more in common cosmetically with the Vaio T: it has a same-size touch pad, with extra-wide finger space for multifinger gestures. The matte surface responds well to finger motion, but multigesture commands can sometimes be tough to pull off. Still, the whole affair’s a lot better than the smaller, more cramped pad on the previous Vaio S. The brushed-metal palm rest area still feels comfortable and offers generous space.
Good news: the keyboard is equally excellent. The raised, backlit keys have more travel than on the far shallower Vaio T, and the keys are large, well-spaced, and not cramped by any weird extra buttons like the ones that pop up on some other computers.
A few dedicated buttons above the keyboard launch Web (a browser hot key), Vaio (Sony’s photo/media software), and Assist (customer service help and diagnostics). Next to that is the odd Speed/Stamina toggle that persists from Sony’s last-gen Vaios. Flipping it activates one of two power/graphics modes, but it’s really unnecessary. You could adjust these settings on your own. A more useful inclusion is the fingerprint reader located next to the Assist key at the top. It’s an odd location for the button (usually it makes sense somewhere near the touch pad), but Sony includes a tool set for using the reader to consolidate log-in and account passwords.
Sony’s preinstalled software includes a whole suite of video and music tools: Imagination Studio Vaio Edition includes DVD Architect Studio, Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum, Sound Forge Audio Studio and ACID Music Studio, and Sony’s PlayMemories and Media Gallery. They’re an alternative to Apple’s suite of iLife software. Most of these programs can be launched via a pop-up Vaio Gate toolbar that hovers from the top of the screen.
The 13.3-inch matte display does a good job of keeping glare away in an office; the screen’s 1,600×900-pixel resolution is a step up from the average 1,366×768-pixel resolution of most 13-inch laptops, and colors and text alike pop vividly. Unfortunately, the screen has terrible off-axis viewing angles, as compared with a superior display like the one on the Samsung Series 9. Just make sure you look at it straight on.
Stereo speakers, heralded by Sony for having Dolby definition, sound louder than expected. They’re surprisingly noisy when playing games or watching movies and have some excellent treble for spoken word — sound effects in an episode of “Breaking Bad” actually had pop. When playing music, though, some bass notes sounded distorted.
A 1,280×1,024 HD Webcam had good light sensitivity in a dim office, but exhibited a grainy quality using the included ArcSoft WebCam Companion software.
|Sony Vaio S Series 13P S13A190X||Average for category [13-inch]|
|Video||HDMI, VGA||HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0 w/power-off charge, SD card reader, MagicGate card reader||2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional mobile broadband|
|Optical drive||DVD burner, optional Blu-ray||DVD burner|
The Vaio S Series 13P’s got you covered when it comes to ports and features: USB 3.0, a USB 2.0 port that can charge while the laptop is powered off, Ethernet, HDMI, and VGA along with two media card slots (SD and MagicGate/Memory Stick) line the Vaio’s right side, while the slot-loading DVD drive sits alone on the left next to an oddly placed rear headphone jack.
This $1,199 Vaio S Series fits a nonultrabook (meaning, faster) third-gen Core i5 processor, a 640GB hard drive, 6GB of RAM, a slot-loading DVD drive, Nvidia graphics, and a higher-res 1,600×900-pixel display into the package.
The pricing and distinctions between various Sony models can often get confusing, and with the new Vaio S it’s not much easier to understand. The Vaio S series comes in three pricing tiers: Standard (starting at $799), Enhanced (starting at $999), and Premium (starting at $1,119). Enhanced and Premium include Nvidia graphics, but the differences between Enhanced and Premium are harder to appreciate. Premium, based on what we can suss out on Sony’s site, includes TPM for business security, solid-state drive (SSD) storage options, and a fingerprint reader. The average user can probably skip that $119 upsell and go for the Enhanced version (the review unit sent by Sony is the Premium model).
Upgrade options are plentiful: you can pick from a trio of Core i5 or i7 processors, Nvidia 1GB or 2GB graphics, up to 12GB of RAM, up to 1TB of hard drive storage or 512GB SSD, and even an optional Blu-ray player or burner. One thing you can’t upgrade is screen resolution.
With a third-gen 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M processor, the Vaio S Series 13P handled everyday tasks very well. It matched up surprisingly closely with the 1.9GHz Core i7-3517U ultrabook CPU seen in the Acer Aspire S5 391-9880, an indicator that the gap between “full-fledged” dual-core laptops and ultrabooks is diminishing by the month. The Vaio S13A190X I reviewed still outperformed most ultrabooks, but as you can see, the difference is sometimes in terms of seconds. In some tests, the Vaio S came close to the performance of the more affordable but less robust Vaio T13112FXS. The 13-inch MacBook Pro still outperformed the Vaio S Series 13P in several of our multitasking and single-tasking tests, but software such as iTunes tends to perform better on Apple hardware.
Nvidia GeForce GT 640M graphics with 1GB of memory add a nice boost for gaming, and the leap in performance is obvious, although it’s not enough to get you into the territory that would satisfy a serious gamer. Street Fighter IV ran at 64.8 frames per second at 1,600×900, and Metro 2033 — always a challenging game to run well — ran at 14.3fps at 1,366×768 with graphics settings on High. Mafia II ran at 28.6fps when I ran its benchmark at 1,600×900 resolution and default graphics settings. You can expect a better experience for games than you’d get at this weight class otherwise.
I appreciate that, at long last, the Vaio S can boast good battery performance without relying on an annoying slice battery add-on. The integrated battery lasted 5 hours and 37 minutes in our video playback test. The last Vaio S I reviewed only made it 3 hours and 24 minutes when set on Speed mode. The extra $150 slice battery (still an upgrade option) boosted battery life back then, to only about a half hour more than the current Vaio S got without one. Finally, you can skip the battery purchase and go a day on what Sony included built-in. It’s still not stellar battery life, but it’s better than what you get from most Windows machines in its class, including the larger 15-inch Vaio S we recently reviewed.
The Sony Vaio S is backed by an industry-standard one-year mail-in 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 upgrades can be a bit steep, running $179 for a three-year mail-in plan, or $329 for a three-year plan that includes accidental damage protection.
The new 13-inch Sony Vaio S is a big step up from the last generation, resulting in a laptop that, while still not perfect, finally finds a good middle ground between ultrabook and full-size machine without feeling too redundant. More hard drive space, better graphics, more upgrade options, and an optical drive that’s Blu-ray-upgradable may make the difference for some shoppers, but make sure you price out a sensible model that doesn’t needlessly break the bank. Most consumers probably don’t need the extra features of the Premium edition.
Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio S13A190X
169Acer Aspire S5-391-9880
173Dell XPS 14
176Asus Zenbook UX32V
197Sony Vaio T13112FXS