Sony VAIO SE: An IPS Laptop for Under a Grandby Jarred Walton on April 3, 2012 5:40 PM EST
Dissecting the Sony VAIO SE
We’ve covered the basics, but now it’s time to get into the specifics. We’ll start with the obligatory exterior shots as well as a quick dismantling of the laptop to get at the important components. We’ve got the black model, though the SE is also available in silver.
The design doesn’t really break any new ground, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without the sheet battery, the SE is actually quite thin considering the hardware inside. The front has a WiFi switch, the left side is home to the optical drive and headphone jack, and the right side has all of the interesting ports: flash memory readers (MS Pro Duo, MMC, SD), Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, the Kensington lock, and AC adapter.
Where Sony does veer off the beaten path is with the back of the laptop, where the exhaust vent is located. That’s not really a problem for most laptops, but the hinge on the SE has the cover pivot down to actually obscure/block the vent, leading to potentially higher temperatures. I didn’t experience any stability issues caused by heat—or any stability problems at all for that matter—but I can see no reason for the current hinge design. It doesn’t feel particularly sturdy/stiff, it blocks the exhaust, and from an aesthetics point of view it doesn’t accomplish anything noteworthy. It’s not a complete deal breaker, but a slight retooling of the chassis to move the hinge up to the normal “top” location would easily solve this.
As mentioned earlier, the SE has an optional sheet battery that basically doubles the battery capacity from the integrated 56Wh battery by adding an additional 49Wh. For the size of the sheet, it’s actually quite light (1.1lbs) and doesn’t have as much capacity as I would have liked. My feeling is that anyone willing to carry the extra battery around likely would have been happier with a 90+ Wh sheet that weighed a bit more, but Sony informed us they felt the current design offered a good balance of battery life vs. size. Even at just 49Wh, with the sheet battery you’re looking at a whole lot of battery life for basic tasks. Again, it’s a minor complaint, but I do feel the latching mechanism for the sheet battery could be a bit more robust—it feels a little loose when installed—but I didn’t experience any problems.
One interesting aspect of the sheet battery is that Sony has equipped the laptop/battery with some intelligence. When you use battery power, the laptop will first use the sheet battery and only when that has been drained will it start to run off the main battery. Once you hit 50% battery life, then, you could stow the sheet battery and carry around a thinner and lighter laptop. Likewise, when charging the battery the laptop will charge the sheet battery up to 80% (which is the fastest portion of the charge) and will then charge the main battery to 80% as well, after which the remaining 20% charge on the two batteries can take place.
If you’re interested in additional expansion options, the SE also supports an optional port replicator that connects to the bottom of the laptop—and yes, it can be installed with the sheet battery in place (which explains the “hole” in the middle of the sheet). The port replicator costs around $180 and includes four additional USB 2.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a VGA port, and an HDMI port.
Moving on to the user experience, the VAIO SE doesn’t really have any major flaws. The chiclet style keyboard is a bit springier than I like, but it’s comfortable enough to type on and the layout is good—including a full 10-key on the right. The keyboard also has backlighting, which is always a plus, and the backlight intensity can be set to vary according to ambient light if you’d like. (I actually don’t like auto-adjusting backlight intensity, but it can be disabled on the SE.) The touchpad is a similar story: it’s a Synaptics model and works fine, with several gestures, tap zones, and Chiral scrolling available. It doesn’t have two finger scrolling (at least, not that I could find), but otherwise I don’t have any complaints with using the touchpad.
With all the good aspects, there are a few areas where the VAIO SE could still be better. While the IPS display is a great improvement over typical TN panels, colors (and the color gamut) aren’t as good as the best displays out there—though I’d still say an “average” IPS display trumps even a high quality TN panel, personally. The build quality of the LCD/cover is also rather flimsy, and the hinge location and design left me scratching my head wondering what engineer thought it was a good idea. The main body of the laptop feels much more solid—Sony’s website says it uses a magnesium alloy chassis with a brushed aluminum palm rest. I have no reason to doubt the former, but if the palm rest is brushed aluminum then they’ve got a thick coating of paint to hide it; probably it’s more noticeable on the silver model. Anyway, I don’t mind the palm rest or body, but the display/cover/hinge feels loose and I’m not sure how well it will hold up after a few years of use. (Have you ever used a laptop where the hinge is so loose that the display just flops open/closed? I could see that happening in a year or two with the SE, as the hinge already moves quite easily.)
Perhaps the biggest complaint however has little to do with the build quality and hardware and more to do with the software. Yes, there’s a lot of bloatware and extraneous utilities preinstalled (I had just over 100 running processes at first boot), but I’m not even talking about that—15 to 20 minutes will have most of that junk uninstalled. My biggest concern is with the switchable graphics. It’s not quite as bad as the dynamically switchable graphics that I discussed in the VAIO CA, and Sony did update the drivers at least once since the launch, but those drivers are now about four months old and there are already a few titles that have issues running properly. Read up on the history of Sony VAIO laptops and driver updates and you’ll find that the likelihood of getting additional driver updates is slim at best, so you basically need to plan on running the November 2011 video drivers. I’m also not sure how things will play out with the launch of Windows 8 (presumably) later this year. In short, while this is a great business or multimedia laptop and it can handle gaming reasonably well, it’s not a gaming laptop and you shouldn’t buy one with the assumption that you will always be able to run the latest AMD Catalyst drivers.
One last item to quickly discuss is the upgradeability of the VAIO SE. The main battery is built into the unit and can’t be easily replaced or swapped out without a screwdriver—which is not to say that it would be difficult; two screws secure a metal panel on the bottom that provides quick access to the hard drive, battery, and single SO-DIMM slot. You’ll notice that there’s 4GB RAM soldered onto the motherboard, and our test unit includes an additional 2GB SO-DIMM. Note also that Sony charges an exorbitant $60 for a 2GB DDR3-1333 SO-DIMM, or $85 for a 4GB SO-DIMM; yes, you’re far better off making the upgrade on your own (which is why we provided those links to Newegg, if you’re wondering)! And while we’re on the subject, we’d suggest making the upgrade to an SSD on your own as well—the 256GB Samsung 830 can be had for $359, and while Sony will offer you 2x128GB SSDs in RAID 0 (presumably using an mSATA drive for one of the SSDs, though we can’t be sure), the truth is we’d be happier with a single good SSD with full TRIM support.
That’s it for the overview of the laptop itself; now let’s run some benchmarks and show how well it performs against other recently reviewed laptops. We’re mostly focusing on mainstream offerings but with a few others thrown in for good measure.