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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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  • MacTheSpoon - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the great review. Any plans to review the Lenovo x220? That's another interesting battery slice computer. Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    Lenovo kit is still hard to get in house. We'll try, but don't get your hopes up. Reply
  • MacTheSpoon - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    OK, cool, I'll keep my fingers crossed... Reply
  • GiantPandaMan - Saturday, September 10, 2011 - link

    As a happy owner of the x220t (tablet) I'd say that it's a fair bit better. The only bloat comes with the Lenovo software, which is pretty easy to uninstall. I got mine with an SSD so I don't know if the software bloat really caused any slowdown. The screen (IPS) is absolutely excellent. Runs very cool, but it does only have an Intel IGP.

    The big negatives were:

    Touchpad/pointer dying due to a driver conflict with Windows 7 64bit. Had to use my stylus just to get things back running. That's been fixed.

    Touchpad is just a tad too wide and a little annoying due to the lack of true left/right click buttons. I actually disabled it entirely because every time I typed I'd end up sliding the cursor by accident and deleting whole paragraphs. Thank goodness for undo.

    Difficult ordering. The x220t was paper launched, even though they had it posted on their website. Waited over a month from order date to receive my laptop. Their laptop support people were terrible at knowing what was actually going on. At first they didn't know the difference between the gorilla glass tablet and the normal tablet. Then they didn't know when the gorilla glass tablet would be available. (Found out via twitter rather than their support people.) Then they didn't know what was holding up my laptop when the ship date started changing randomly then going to "unknown" mode. That said, it did ship almost the same time as its original invoiced ship date prediction. I think this may have been more of a specific issue with the x220t though, and not the x220.

    As far as I know the ordering issues have been fixed. The x220 is a great piece of hardware. I'm not so sure about Lenovo's support system/people however.

    Me, I'm quite happy with my laptop. Great screen. Great battery life. Great keyboard. Tough case/screen with no flex and a solid feel. I fear might happen if I ever have to need to get any repairs on it though.
    Reply
  • damianrobertjones - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    I'm glad that this has been mentioned for once and I hope that the readers realise that MS gets ALL the blame when a computer runs slow

    HP 5330m: 98 processes
    http://forum.notebookreview.com/hp-business-class-...

    HP Probook 6460b: 106 processes
    http://forum.notebookreview.com/hp-business-class-...

    Been there, done that, removed the processes. To Sony & HP: If you want to compete then stop bogging your machines down with absolute rubbish. To Microsoft: Stop the oems destroying YOUR name!
    Reply
  • InterClaw - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    The 14" Samsung Series 7 (NP700Z3A-S01US) feels a lot more interesting to me. Reply
  • zsero - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    Sorry, all over the internet Sony S is called SA and SB. Can you clarify things a bit?

    Is this a THIRD model? Or is it an SA or an SB?

    They are in different price range (900 EUR vs 1900 EUR), as well as have different screen options (1600x900) and so on. Ideally it would be nice to have a paragraph about the differences in the Sony laptop range, SA, SB, Z, etc. But at least call this arcticle Sony Vaio SB!

    For a reference, have a quick look how notebookcheck did it, I know they are a german site, but when there is such a huge difference it would be nice to clarify things a bit.
    http://www.notebookcheck.net/Review-Sony-Vaio-VPC-...
    http://www.notebookcheck.net/Review-Sony-Vaio-VPC-...
    Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    This is the SB, and there was actually some contention between us as to which model we should refer to this one as. Reply
  • krumme - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    Another excellent piece from Dustin. Besides the fuent style, i like he present his opinions as what they are - opinions - and not the only objective truth in this world.

    It is impressive and surprise Sony did work with this machine to get those idle numbers.

    The consumers is sure stupid, when they buy those 160 shader gfx, i newer expected that to happen. Why the OEM want to offer it, when it is of no benefit is also a mystery? - thinking long lasting brand loyality...

    I think for good measure, every review using the hd3000 should mention the mkv bluray video problem, and quality of the gfx. I take my old 16 cuda 8600m gs over my hd3000 any day. Theese benchmark does not reflect that perception. And i can not be the only one thinking the quality of video and gaming is weak on the Intel. I dont know the technical reason, but the ATI and NV machines, on the same settings, give better picture quality than the hd3000 in fx. TF2. But i doubt that is the reason Sony included the ATI card, or what?
    Reply
  • Malih - Friday, September 09, 2011 - link

    This review makes me hunger for a 12 inch, or thin 13 inch Laptop with Llano in it. Get out of your a** AMD, get me this Laptop ASAP!!! Reply

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