Vaios have always been a select class of laptops, with premium features and amazing looks and build quality. The Sony Vaio SB, the 13.3 inch notebook we’ll be talking about in this post, is here to prove that Vaios are still those great pieces of technology we’re used to and if you’ll continue reading this article, you’ll eventually find out if it does.
Now, after testing a bunch of smaller 10 and 11.6 inch Vaios lately, it’s good to have a powerful Sony laptop to play with. The SB will compete with the likes of the Asus U36SD or the Lenovo e220s in the high end 12.5 – 13.3 inch segment, one that becomes more and more crowded everyday. And I couldn’t be happier about it, as 13.3 inch laptops are the ideal mix of portability and power in my eyes.
Before jumping to the actual review, I do have to tell you that the Vaio SB we reviewed here is a test unit, but only a few technical details differ on this one from the final versions you can get in stores. Have a look at the list of specs below for more details:
- 13.3 inch display, LED backlit, 1366 x 768 px with a non-glare finish
- Core i5-2520M CPU clocked at 2.5 GHz, with HT and TurboBoost
- hybrid graphics: integrated Intel HD 3000 Graphics and dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6470M chips
- 6 GB of RAM
- 500 GB, 5400 rpm HDD
- DVD-RW optical unit
- Gigabit LAN, Bluetooth, Wireless N, 3G modem
- 1 x USB 3.0, 2 x USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, two card-readers, fingerprint reader and webcam
- Windows 7 Professional OS
- Li-Ion 6 Cell 4400 mAh 52Wh integrated battery
- measures 331 x 225 x 24 mm (13 x 8.9 x 0.95 inch)
- weighs 1.75 kilos (3.8 lbs)
In stores, you will find this laptop in a bunch of different versions, but the main-model will offer a slightly underclocked Core i5-2410M 2.3 GHz processor, 4 GB of memory and 500 GB 7200rpm hard-drive, which will offer performances only a tiny bit under the ones we managed to get on our test unit.
Design and exterior
I doubt anyone can say something bad about the body of the SB. We got to play with the black version, the one covered in a magnesium shell that feels solid and looks sober, exactly like a business portable should. Inside, you get aluminum on the palm-rest and around the keys, plus a matte plastic bezel around the screen.
The SB is also offered in white in Europe, with a rugged plastic case that looks good as well, but doesn’t feel as sturdy as this one.
The bottom of this laptop is also covered in plastic and you can see that the battery is integrated inside the case and cannot be removed. You get however a big bay that will allow access to the storage drive and memory slots, a 3G SIM slot covered by a rather flimsy rubber cap and two connectors, one for a docking station and another for a slice battery than can be added underneath this unit.
On the sides, you get all the standard ports and connectors, but also an optical unit, which is quite unusual for a laptop of this size. Placing that unit on the left side of the laptop caused the cooling exhaust to be moved to the back of the laptop, which is actually quite a nice thing.
It’s amazing though how Sony managed to squeeze all that technology inside a device that it’s only a bit bigger than other 13.3 inch laptops, while still keeping a slim under 1 inch profile and weighing just 3.8 pounds.
Of course, more details about the casing and exterior are available in this clip below:
We should also mention the buttons above the keyboard on this one, especially that switch used to change between the two graphic solutions, with a Stamina and a Speed mode. More about these two later on, in the hardware and performances chapter.
Keyboard and trackpad
There’s a full-size island keyboard on this Sony Vaio SB and I can say it’s one of the best I’ve seen lately. Keys are proper sized and spaced, but what sets them apart is the rubbery coating on top, that makes them more comfortable to use. I also like the fact that the arrow keys are nicely emphasized from the rest of the keys, but on the other hand this layout doesn’t include dedicated keys for some functions most will use quite often, like Home or End, which are accessible through different keys combinations.
Update: I forgot to add that the keyboard is discretely illuminated and in order to save battery life, there’s a sensor that controls it intensity and can even shut down illumination completely if it detects there’s enough light around. Of course, you can turn that off and set the illumination levels manually. (Thanks Jiri for reminding me about this part).
The palm rest area and the trackpad are proper spaced as well and covered in aluminum. Also, I like the fact that the trackpad is nicely separated from the area around it and slightly deepened into the palm rest. But while the touchpad is proper sized and responsive, the click buttons are rubbish. Yes, you do get separated buttons for right/left click, with a fingerprint reader between them, but they are stiff and difficult to press and get even stiffer as we get closer to the middle. Also, they are placed on the lower edge of the laptop, thus can be easily pressed by accident when using your laptop in bed or on the sofa.
Unlike many other laptops in this class, this Vaio SB offers a 13.3 inch non-glare display, with the standard 1366 x 768 px display. That’s good news, meaning you can use this screen outside and it won’t be a mirror.
However, colors, contrast and viewing angles are bad, even for the untrained eye. It’s nearly impossible to set the screen right in order to get perfect image reproduction, even when standing in front of it, with the laptop on your desk. And if you plan using your laptop while in bed or on the couch, it’s even more complicated, because the screen won’t lean that much on its back.
Thus, we love the fact that the screen is matte, but its viewing angles and overall quality are quite poor and I was expecting way better for a laptop in this price range.
Hardware and performances
Our test unit boosts a Core i5-2520M CPU alongside hybrid graphics with a dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6470M chip, 6 GB of memory and a standard 2.5″ 5400rpm 500 GB hard-drive, while running Windows 7 Professional 64bit OS. Thus, a powerful configuration built on Intel’s latest generation Sandy Bridge platform.
The hybrid Intel + AMD graphics on this one do not use a seamless changing solution between the two chips like Intel and Nvidia have with Optimus, you have to change between them manually. And here’s where the physical switch on top of the keyboard comes in play, with its two modes: Stamina uses the integrated Intel HD chip, while Speed uses the faster AMD one. In order to change between them you’ll have however to close all your application and wait for a couple of seconds, while encountering some screen flickering when actually making the switch, but you’ll get used to it. The clip below shows details about this process, among others.
The SB will be able to deal with pretty much all you will throw at it, from standard everyday apps to more complex software, like Adobe Premiere you get preinstalled, used for editing video content. It can also run all kinds of HD content and output it via HDMI. Most of these are achievable on Stamina mode, I only recommend switching to Spped if planning to run some games or edit some clips.
Now, don’t expect to be able to run the latest titles on the Vaio SB, as the AMD Radeon sollution included is only an entry-level graphics card from AMD’s latest line, so it will be able to run smoothly older titles and some of the new ones, as long as you trim down details and even resolution.
We also ran a couple of synthetic benchmarks on this unit and you can find the results. The first set is for the computer running on Stamina:
And this ones are on Speed mode:
All in all, the Vaio SB offers solid performance, but the fact that Sony went with the AMD graphics and their annoying switching solution puts the Asus U36SD in a better light, as it offers rather similar results with a more comfortable everyday experience.
Not much to say about software. There’s the standard Windows 7 Professional OS and a bunch of preinstalled programs, like Microsoft Office Starter (with light edition of Word and Excel) and some photo/video editing software from Adobe.
Also, there are all these Vaio apps, some of them being quite useful. You get for instance the Vaio Gate that adds a bar of apps on top of your desktop, similar to what Mac OS offers, and programs like Vaio Power Management, Vaio Care and Vaio Control Center, that can be easily launched with the help of those 3 quick-launch buttons you can find above the keyboard.
Most 13.3 inch laptops offer Wireless N, Bluetooth and Gigabit Ethernet, and the SB is no exception. However, there’s also an integrated 3G/HSPA modem included, dual SD-MMC and HGDuo card readers and an USB 3.0 slot, thus in terms of connectivity, the SB is flawless, as there’s almost nothing you could need and won’t get on this one.
Noise, heat and others
Like all the other thin laptops boosting a Core i5 or Core i7 2nd generation Intel Sandy Bridge platform, the SB gets warm as well, but not nearly as hot or as noisy as the Asus U36S for instance, as long as you keep it in Stamina mode. However, when switching to Speed, the fans inside the laptop will get very loud. This helps keeping the laptop rather cool when compared with competitors, CPU and motherboard getting to around 65-68 degrees, but that noise can be a bugger especially when using the laptop in a quiet room.
The speakers you get on this laptop are first of all loud, but sound quality ain’t bad either, especially if you don’t get the volume too high. Also, there’s a 2 MPx camera that will come in handy when chatting with your friends.
There’s a 6 cell 4400 mAh 52 Wh battery on this SB and it’s encased inside the body, thus not removable.
Sony claims up to 7 hours of battery life on Stamina mode from this one. You won’t get that much during everyday use, but rather around 4 and a half hours, while performing different everyday activities: browsing, listening to music, watching some clips on Youtube, editing some texts and some videos, all on Balanced Mode with screen at 70% and Wireless ON.
Of course, this can get to 5+ hours on lighter use but can also drop beneath 3 in Speed mode, when running some games.
Thus, battery life on the SB is not impressive and a little bit under what competitors offer. However, Sony offers an extra slice battery you can fix beneath this laptop, and the combo will offer up to 14 hours of life on Stamina. This translates to around 9-10 hours during everyday use, which is top notch on such a powerful machine, but will also cost you 100+ bucks and will add to the total weight of the notebook.
Prices and availability
The Vaio SB has been available worldwide for a while now. In the US, prices start at $899 for the Core i3 version with only 2 GB of memory and 320 GB hard-drive.
A Core i5-2410M version with 4 GB of memory and 500 GB hard-drive will set you back for $1099, while top equipped versions with a Core i7 CPU, 8 GB of memory, better AMD 6630 graphics, 3G and the extended Slice battery will get to around $1600.
So, there are quite a bunch of options to choose from for the Sony Vaio SB and you can also configure you own version on Sony’s site. Prices are pretty high, but not much higher than the ones offered by the main competitors from Asus, Lenovo and Toshiba.
All in all, this is quite a portable laptop. Brings looks and a solid body, good performances, a nice keyboard and overall decent battery life to the table, but looses points for the noisy hardware and the pretty poor screen, despite being a non-glare one, which is something we loved.
We feel however that this Vaio is a nice 13.3 inch laptop for the buck, especially since you can configure it to fit your needs and pick from options many of its main competitors lack, like a slice battery and a docking station. And prices, while on the high side, are actually good for a premium business notebook. And don’t forget this is a Vaio that will catch some eyes and you do have to pay for “the privilege”.
Of course, the Sony Vaio S is not the only proper 13.3 inch laptop out there and it’s not perfect either, that’s why we advice you to have a look at the competition as well, with laptops like the Acer Aspire One 3830TG, Asus U36SD and Lenovo ThinkPad e220s coming to my mind right now. Last but not least, there’s also our list of recommended notebooks you can check out as well.
That’s about it with our Sony Vaio S series review, a high-quality portable laptop with plenty of strong points. If you have any questions or additions to our article, don’t hesitate to post a comment, as your feedback is always appreciated.