- Comfortable, well-made, backlit keyboard
- Ambient light sensor on display
- Good performance
- Integrated mobile broadband
- Highly reflective screen
- Battery life could be better
- On the bulky/heavy side
Last year we looked at the VAIO Z, to which we awarded an Editors' Choice, and the tiny VAIO P, which we found rather less impressive. To kick off 2011 we have a versatile workhorse in the shape of the VAIO S. Three models were available at launch; the range has now expanded to nine, with prices ranging between £779 and £1,309 (inc. VAT). Our review sample came in at £1,189 (inc. VAT; £991 ex. VAT)
The VAIO S is a fairly chunky 13.3in. notebook measuring 32.9cm wide by 22.85cm deep by 2.76cm thick and weighing 2kg. By comparison, Toshiba's Portégé R700, another optical-drive-equipped 13.3in. system, has a top weight of 1.43kg and measures 31.6cm by 22.7cm by 1.83-2.57cm.
Sony describes the 13.3in. VAIO S as an 'all-purpose performer'
The magnesium alloy chassis is designed to shield the Sony VAIO S from knocks, and the base section is very sturdy. There 's a fair bit of movement in the lid though, and it emitted some rather worrying creaking noises as we flexed it in our hands. We're not convinced that the screen is very well protected.
There's no clasp between the lid and base sections, and a small gap when the notebook is closed could allow foreign objects to find their way in. You'll need a slip case for protection when travelling.
The VAIO S features Sony's signature silver roundels at the back of the left and right edges. The power connector is on the left roundel and the on/off switch on the right one. The remainder of the chassis is almost entirely black, apart from Sony's silver VAIO logo on the lid.
The 13.3in. display has a native resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels. Its reflective coating is a real irritation when working with a bright light behind you, and we found it one of the worst offenders we've seen in that respect. Viewing angles are good on the horizontal plane and acceptable on the vertical; overall it's a good screen for watching video, but not for working while on the train.
A light sensor automatically adjusts screen brightness depending on the surrounding lighting conditions.
The VAIO S's keyboard is excellent, and benefits from backlighting (controlled by an ambient light sensor)
The chiclet keyboard, with keys separated from one another rather than contiguous, is superb. The keys are large, they feel great under the fingers and there's almost no flex at all in the base. There's enough room for a wide and tall Enter key, full-size cursor control keys and a row of full-width, half-height Fn keys. Touch typing at normal speed is no problem on this keyboard.
The keyboard is backlit, the illumination kicking in as the ambient light level diminishes. The mix of orange, blue and white backlights really do look smashing in darker conditions. But if you are not at the right angle to the keyboard, for example if you are lounging on a sofa rather than sitting at a desk, the brilliant white light that is beneath the keys can bleed through their edges and be very distracting.
The touchpad has a smooth finish and is wide enough to move the cursor almost all the way across the screen in a single sweep. There's a vertical scroll zone on the right edge, but no horizontal scroll zone. Multitouch is supported for zooming and image rotation — and unlike some multitouch touchpads we've tried, this one was very responsive. A fingerprint sensor sits between the two mouse buttons.
The screen bezel houses a VGA webcam in the usual location. Sony provides ArcSoft's WebCam Companion software to manage the camera. This includes features like motion detection, image and video capture, but has a distinctly consumer for many professionals' tastes.
Sony is talking up the environmental credentials of the VAIO S series, claiming that around 85 percent of its plastic parts are made from recycled materials, the LED is mercury free, and black models have a powder-painted lid that reduces CO2 emissions during the painting process.
Our review sample of the Sony VAIO S, the VPCS13V9E/B is built around a 2.53MHz Intel Core i5-460M processor. Other models run on Core i3 processors. A generous 6GB of RAM is provided as standard, with a maximum of 8GB of RAM supported. The operating system is Windows 7 Professional 64-bit across the range.
For graphics acdeleration, our review sample had a discrete Nvidia GeForce 310M GPU; other configurations stick to Intel's integrated HD Graphics.
For connectivity there's Gigabit Ethernet, Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth (2.1+EDR) and mobile broadband. That latter comes courtesy of a Qualcomm Gobi 2000 module and supports downloads at up to 7.2Mbps and uploads up to 5.76Mbps. The SIM slot is underneath the battery.
The hard drive is a shock-protected 500GB SATA unit spinning at 5,400rpm. Our review sample also had a DVD SuperMulti drive. Hard disk and optical drive specifications vary in other VAIO S models.
The optical drive sits on the right edge of the chassis, leaving little room for ports and connectors. There are two rather closely spaced USB 2.0 ports (so one may be inaccessible when the other is in use) and, right at the back, the Ethernet (RJ-45) connector. Sitting beneath the USB ports is a 34mm ExpressCard slot.
On the left edge is a third USB 2.0 port, a 4-pin i.Link (IEEE 1394) connector, an HDMI port and a VGA port. The back is clear, but the front is busy: on the far right is the eject button for the optical drive (a rather odd location, but not a problem); there's also a toggle switch for the Wi-Fi radio, a pair of audio jacks, plus slots for SD- and Memory Stick-compatible media. Two front-mounted LEDs indicate battery and hard drive status, and there are three further status lights above the keyboard.
Also above the keyboard is a 'VAIO' button that simply turns the speakers on and off; a second 'Assist' button launches an applet offering troubleshooting and diagnostics tools.
Sony always crams its notebooks with its own and third-party applications. The VAIO S's bundle includes a starter edition of McAfee with 60 days' free usage, a trial of Norton Online Backup, Google's Chrome browser (sitting alongside Internet Explorer 8) and Evernote, the popular cloud-based notes manager.
Sony's VAIO Gate gives easy access to applications and RSS notifications
Sony also includes its VAIO Gate shortcuts bar, which sits at the top of the screen and offers access to application shortcuts and RSS feed notifications. You call it up by placing the cursor at the top edge of the screen. If you don't get on with it, VAIO Gate is easily banished by unchecking its 'load at startup' button.
The VAIO S's Windows Experience Index (WEI) was impressive, thanks in no small part to the 6GB of RAM on-board. The overall WEI of 4.9 (out of 7.9) corresponds to the lowest component score, which was for Graphics (desktop performance for Windows Aero). The remaining scores were 5.5 for Primary hard disk (Disk data transfer rate), 6.0 for Gaming Graphics (3D business and gaming graphics performance) and an impressive 6.9 each for Processor (calculations per second) and RAM (Memory operations per second). Overall, this is a decent all-round performer.
Sony claims five hours' life for the VAIO S's standard 5,000mAh battery. We tested this by choosing the balanced power plan and then playing a movie from DVD for as long as a fully charged battery could manage. Under these conditions we got just 2 hours 35 minutes of video: this is obviously a demanding test, but even if you're doing everyday productivity tasks using Wi-Fi for internet access, you're not going to get a full day's work out of this system on battery power. A high-capacity 7,500mAh battery will cost you £179 (inc. VAT).
The VAIO S's stereo speakers deliver a reasonably high volume and are not as treble-heavy as some we've heard. They come into their own for video watching, and would do quite well delivering audio-enhanced presentations to small groups.
Sony's 13.3in. VAIO S doesn't stand out in terms of slimness, aesthetics or affordability. Although it's solidly built and performs well, some users may need to invest in a high-capacity battery.