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
2x UVAIO S 2.0
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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  • Malih - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    a Sony VAIO S with Llano in it would be awesome
  • KPOM - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    This compares pretty favorably to the 13" MacBook Pro, and since it's a Sony it should hold up pretty well. That they can cram a discrete GPU into this is small package is impressive and ought to get the engineers at Apple motivated to do the same for the next MacBook Pro, unless the Ivy Bridge chip is substantially better in the graphics department, in which case I wouldn't be surprised to see the 13" Pro dropped.
  • hardwareguy - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    The 13" MBP already doesn't have discrete graphics. I think they keep it around for people who need a little more connectivity or hdd space than the Air offers.
  • Roland00Address - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    I am still baffled why sony sent the 160 shader version and not the 480 shader version. The price between the two is barely anything.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    I'd guess the SA is going to run pretty damn hot/loud as the major issue. I've actually got an Acer TimelineX 3830TG; run a game and the CPU throttles after about a minute because the CPU+GPU overwhelms the HSF. Part of that is Acer's BIOS, no doubt, but GT 540M and HD 6630M should generate comparable heat so unless Sony has better ventilation....
  • waldojim42 - Saturday, September 10, 2011 - link

    Heat was never really an issue when I had the 6630 version. In reality, the machine would turbo up to about 3.2Ghz in most games, and be quite happy to run there all day. Doesn't change the fact that the fan can be annoying though. Nor does it change Sony customer service... or lack thereof.
  • nutral - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    I actually have this laptop, with the sheet battery.

    I also got in the amd 6630, wich is actually pretty good for gaming, i can run call of duty or deus ex on it pretty well. It does get hotter with the amd,, but it's not that bad.

    The bloat is kind of bad, i reinstalled windows 7 right when i got it and also put in a intel 80gb ssd, in the cd drive i put in the 500gb harddrive and i also exchanged the 1000wifi for a 6200 and put in 4gb extra.

    Right now it is a power machine, works very long on a battery and still very light and thin. i usually don't even have to take the charger with me.

    with the 6630M this does become a pretty good road notebook, with some gaming.
  • waldojim42 - Friday, September 9, 2011 - link

    You guys really needed to test the SA. I did purchase the SA, with the Intel 2620 i7 and the AMD 6630. It did not get that warm, and still ran all day. The fan is still annoying though. I really do think you guys would have a totally different view of the machine though, if you considered the amount of portable power the i7/6630 delivers.

    I no longer own it though, as that fan died within 30 days. They then took over a month waiting on a motherboard to arrive. I finally coerced them into a refund, but was without a machine or my money for over 2 months.
  • OCedHrt - Saturday, September 10, 2011 - link

    Sony provides a Fresh Start option for free (for the most part) for all their CTOs without the Sony bloat. Not sure if them not sending a unit configured like that is a good thing or bad thing.
  • I am as mad as hell - Saturday, September 10, 2011 - link

    First off, we don't own any Apple products in my household, except an old iPad Nano.

    Now to the rant: All of those Windows PC based OEM's are spineless and make super boring products. The notable exceptions are ACER and Samsung.

    Gosh, can any of them make a decent laptop that puts Apple to shame?

    It's not that hard. There is just lack of creativity and commitment to excellence.

    A good PC Laptop should have the following mandatory specs besides the obvious ones:

    High Quality NONE GLOSSY! IPS or better LCD display
    Non-Glossy Bezel
    1x SSD boot drive with at least 64GB Ram
    1x HDD with at least 500GB capacity
    Back-lit Keyboard
    Built-in Logitech/Microsoft Mouse
    Wireless RF Headset receiver for Sony, Sennheiser, etc... wireless RF sets)
    Built-in 3D cameras (1 one the front, 1 on the back)
    External SATA port
    HDMI port
    One Laptop model option with optional external Blu-ray burner (don't need to use an optical drive all the time)
    High Quality Speakers (making good use of the saved space, by not having an internal optical drive)
    External Speaker port on the backside
    USB ports away from the left/right front side of the base. They should be placed more to the back left/ right side of the laptop (2 on each side)
    Paint that won't wear off!

    Dear Windows OEM's,
    Got that, good!

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