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Introducing the Sony VAIO S

You asked for it, you got it: in house, a review of Sony's longstanding 13.3" road warrior S series. It's light, has a matte screen, switchable graphics, a mainstream Sandy Bridge processor, and the potential to last all day (and then some) on the battery. From the outside, at least, the Sony VAIO S looks like a winner at nearly any level. But did Sony cut any corners to get the VAIO S' price down, or should it be on any traveller's short list?

Before we get to the meat of the review, first a word about naming conventions. The actual laptop we're reviewing is technically the Sony VAIO VPCSB190X CTO (CTO = Configure To Order), but it's part of the VAIO S line and so we'll simply call it the VAIO S. There are lower end models (usually SB) and higher end offerings (SA), so bear in mind that what we're reviewing may have the same shell as other VAIO S laptops, but the LCD and other components (and thus performance) can vary.

Say what you will, I've always been a fan of Sony's styling and it's a rare pleasure to get one of their more portable VAIO notebooks in house for review. This may not be the Z series you were hoping for (we're working hard to get one of those in), but the S series has an awful lot to recommend it in and of itself. The svelte 13.3" chassis boasts an internal battery (user-replaceable), new Sandy Bridge graphics, and Sony continues to employ switchable graphics, this time with an AMD Radeon HD 6470M. To top it all off, you can even get the VAIO S with a matte screen. Here's how our specific test sample came equipped.

Sony VAIO SB Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2410M
(2x2.3GHz + HTT, 32nm, 3MB L3, Turbo to 2.9GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 4GB DDR3-1333 soldered to motherboard, one empty DIMM slot
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6470M 512MB DDR3 (switchable with Intel HD 3000)
(160 stream processors, 800MHz/1.8GHz core/memory clocks, 64-bit memory bus)
Display 13.3" Matte 16:9 1366x768
(SNY05FA Panel)
Hard Drive(s) Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 500GB 5400RPM HDD
Optical Drive Matshita DVD-RAM
Networking Realtek PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Wi-Fi Link 1000 802.11b/g/n
Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR
Audio Realtek ALC275 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Headphone jacks
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 49Wh battery

Optional sheet battery:
6-Cell, 11.1V, 49Wh battery
Front Side Wireless toggle
Left Side Headphone jack
Optical drive
Right Side MS/MSPro reader
SD reader
Kensington lock
VGA
HDMI
UVAIO S 3.0
2x UVAIO S 2.0
Ethernet
AC adaptor
Back Side Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 13.04" x 8.84" x 0.95" (WxDxH)
Weight 3.8 lbs. (5 lbs. with sheet battery)
Extras Webcam
Backlit keyboard
Flash reader (SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
Switchable graphics
Extended sheet battery
Warranty 1-year limited warranty
Pricing Starting at $899
Priced as configured: $1,134

The configuration for the Sony VAIO S that Sony sent us is actually pretty close to their entry level; only the processor and hard drive have been upgraded (barely), and they opted to include the sheet battery for us to test as well.

By now Sandy Bridge processors should be pretty familiar to you; our VAIO includes the lowest i5 chip, the Intel Core i5-2410M, but it's still a beefy processor, sporting two Hyper-Threaded cores running at 2.3GHz and capable of turbo'ing up to 2.6GHz on both or 2.9GHz on a single core. That's certainly more than adequate for most tasks. Alongside it is one of the more interesting parts of the VAIO S' design: there's only one DIMM slot in the notebook, and it's open. The other memory channel is occupied by 4GB of DDR3-1333 soldered to the motherboard. In fact, you can actually see the RAM chips right below the open slot. This means that our review unit is running at a slight disadvantage, with only a single memory channel populated instead of running dual-channel.

Where things get a little perplexing is the AMD Radeon HD 6470M with 512MB of DDR3. Even 1GB of video memory would be excessive for this GPU, with just a 64-bit memory bus and 160 shaders. The 800MHz core clock and 1.8GHz effective memory clock help even things out a little, but this is still one of AMD's weakest GPUs. Sony also doesn't use AMD's troubled dynamic switchable graphics technology (we'll have a look at that in the near future), opting instead to use what seems to be a mux-based hardware switch to toggle the dedicated graphics on and off. Given what we already know of the 6470M's performance, it really bears asking...what's the point? Intel's HD 3000 graphics are roughly 70% as fast in most games, and we're at the entry level anyhow. Sony does offer an upgrade to the AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 1GB of DDR3, though I have concerns about just how well a chassis this thin can handle a GPU like that.

Unfortunately, where things get pretty dire is the hard drive: it's not a bottom rung Toshiba or Fujitsu, but as you'll see later the 5400RPM Hitachi Travelstar really bogs this system down. You can upgrade to a 7200RPM drive (or even an SSD in the premium model) and I can't stress this enough: pay for the upgrade.

Finally, our review unit also included the extra sheet battery which plugs snugly into the bottom of the notebook and adds a little more than a pound of heft, bumping the VAIO S up to a still reasonable five pounds. In exchange, you get basically double the battery capacity, a development that gets all the more impressive later on when you see our battery life results. Sony was only willing to lend us the VAIO for two weeks, and about a day into my battery testing I began to feel...a little rushed.

Good Computer, Too Much Bloat
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  • jeremyshaw - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    How about the Sony Z line, with 1920x1080 13.1" (not a typo) display? :p

    Also, I want to note the the author: the HD6470m can simply download the latest AMD drivers, and install OVER the existing (must be installed) Sony driver set. Just make sure to download the large 80MB+ file from the second or third tab of the AMD driver website, and NOT the 1MB "downloader/launcher" file.

    In addition... the HD6470m kicks the HD3000 solidly on it's rear, no questions asked. It's not "70%," as claimed in this article, due to other little things, like Intel's horrid texture butchering, and general driver quality in gaming.
    Reply
  • broccauley - Monday, September 19, 2011 - link

    I'd rather have all those extra pixels in a useful aspect ratio.

    Also, more pixels != always better, especially since software support for high DPIs isn't always great and I don't want the eye strain.

    BOYCOTT 16:9. DEMAND 16:10.
    Reply
  • joshu zh - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    What makes 16:9 display bad is thw Windows - all toolbars/icons eating up the areas at the top and bottom of the screen. if these toolbars/icons can been relocated to either the left or right of the screen, 16:9 will not be too bad. Reply
  • Ushio01 - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    Right click bottom toolbar and drag to either side of the screen. Reply
  • gochichi - Saturday, September 10, 2011 - link

    That's an awesome suggestion! Thank you! I'll try it for a while, but my initial feeling is that it's awesome. (the hiding thing just doesn't ever work out well). This, this really could be awesome for us with the 16:9 (which i don't even hate to begin with).

    The true comparison laptop wise, is 16:9 versus a fewer inch laptop. Meaning, 12" 5:4 versus 13" 16:9 and in those cases the 16:9's win hands down.

    For instance my VAIO 14" has the same footprint as my Macbook Air 13" ... and they feel similarly sized (other than the air is obviously lighter). You gotta realize that keyboards are long, always have been, so you get especially for smaller laptops, a more useful package with 16:9... hands down.
    Reply
  • Flunk - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    This is really a good idea. I did this about a week after getting a new 1080p monitor and it really saves space and makes my desktop feel less cluttered too. Reply
  • deeyo - Monday, September 12, 2011 - link

    yess i love the sidebar for my 1366x768 laptop. Especially when I have tons of windows open, it's organized really nicely

    very protective of my vertical space =P
    Reply
  • cptcolo - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    I could not agree more Brad.

    The low resolution 16:9 displays on most laptops are not useful for productive work and I would never buy one. Manufactures have designed themselves out of the market.

    I DO believe that laptop resolutions will increase. If people speak out enough against 16:9 some PC manufacture will ... think different. iPad 3 will make make these ultra portables look pretty silly side-by-side.

    I own a Lenovo T410s w/160GB SSD. It is powerful enough and great enough to be my only computer. This Sony and frankly all the new Ultrabooks could not do that, primarily because of one thing, a terrible screen.

    Thankfully we have the 13 inch 1440x900 16:10 (equivalent 16:9 size of 13.64 inches) MacBook Air, which can be made to run Windows 7 only. (http://www.zdnet.com/blog/perlow/windows-7-on-the-...
    Reply
  • Rookierookie - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    The 7200rpm HDD is a $20 upgrade, and it's definitely not optional. Heat and noise and durability concerns be damned. Reply
  • therealnickdanger - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    Just put that $20 toward a quick SSD. Unless you need more than 120GB of space, you can get some awesome SSDs for under $200. Or you can just get a boot drive SSD (64GB and under) for under $80. Many high end SSDs are close to the magical $1/GB barrier now. Reply

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