Sony VAIO FE Review (pics, specs)

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Overview and Introduction

The Sony VAIO FE590 is the first custom configurable unit in Sony’s FE series. The Sony FE series is the dual core update of its FS series and looks almost the same (for a review of the previous FS series see here). The FE is a main stream 15.4″ notebook that is supposed to appeal to the more style oriented users. The 15.4″ WXGA XBRITE (Sony’s glare screen), it’s relative low weight for the size, and the possibility of adding a NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 graphics card make this a versatile notebook that can be used for anything from light graphics editing, to gaming, and business applications.


Sony VAIO FE590 (view large image)

The configuration I chose is as follows:

  • Intel Core Duo Processor T2500 (2 GHz)  
  • NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 Graphics Card
  • 15.4″ WXGA (1280×800) display with XBRITE HiColor technology  
  • Wireless LAN (802.11a g)  
  • 512 MB DDR-SDRAM (DDR2-533, 256 MBx2)  
  • 100 GB Hard Disk Drive   (5400 RPM)
  • DVD+R Double Layer /DVD+-RW Drive  
  • Microsoft Windows XP Professional with SP2
  • Extended 3 year onsite warranty

The prices Sony dreams up for upgrading RAM via the online configuration is insane, so I separately ordered 2 GB of DDR2-667 CL5 Corsair Value RAM from Newegg.com.

Reasons for Buying

I pondered a painfully long time over the choice of my new notebook. I seriously started thinking about a new notebook in the summer of 2005. My previous notebook, a 4 year old Sony GR300 (P-III), was still running strong, but I had the dire need for more computing power. I have to run statistical and mathematical programs such as stata and Matlab quite often, and my old notebook simply couldn’t keep up anymore. I also wanted the possibility to play games occasionally. I am not a hard core gamer and didn’t need the best graphics card out there, but something with dedicated VRAM would be nice. I also wanted a 15″ or 15.4″ screen. I didn’t want an external screen so 14″ and below seemed too small for me. The notebook would be mainly stationary on my desk, but I needed the possibility to carry it to my office to make presentations and take it along while travelling to watch movies and such.

In the beginning I turned to Asus for a possible choice for my new notebook. I adore the sleek, but simplistic design of the Asus V6v, but heat issues reported by many owners kept me from buying it. I also considered the Asus W3V and the Z70a, but the W3V was a little bit too small for my taste and the Z70a didn’t quite look as great and also had several owners complaining of various issues. I almost bought the V6va from a European reseller while it was still not available here in North America, but the uncertainty about customs duties kept me from actually going through with it.  Luckily Costco was offering the Acer Ferrari 4005 WMLi at that time and their fabulous return policy convinced me to buy it (6 month full refund, no questions asked). The Ferrari 4005 is a great notebook, and I would have probably kept it, but about a month later a friend who owns a dual core desktop told me that the dual core enables him to still work on his computer while running statistical applications in the background. So far, I always had to take a break when my programs were running (sometimes for hours at a time), so that sounded quite appealing to me. I knew that dual core mobile processors were about to be released in early 2006, so after just 1.5 months my Ferrari went back.

Next was the choice of which dual core notebook to buy. I almost bought the Acer 8204 WMLI, but previous bad experience with tech products that were manufactured in China kept me looking for alternatives. For a brief moment I considered the MacBook Pro, but getting used to a different operating system plus the incompatibility with all my current software quickly let me abandon that thought. I saw the announcement of the VAIO SZ and VAIO FE series here on NotebookReview.com and decided that even though I would prefer a WSXGA screen, decided the FE would be my new notebook.

Where and How Purchased

On the second day of the start of their pre-order, the 25th of January, I ordered my Sony FE590 by phone through sonystyle.com. I ordered by phone because I wanted an extended warranty and at that time you couldn’t add one online. As far as I know they will only let you customize a Sony notebook through their website. I wanted the NVIDIA 7400 and none of the stock units (non-configurable) announced contained it at that time.

Many notebooks now feature an integrated camera, but I am sure I would never use it. While my wife and I were living apart for a year I installed a camera on her computer and got one for myself too. I think we used them 3 times during the whole year. The price increase from the 100GB to the 120GB HD seemed a bit stiff, so I stuck with the 100GB HD. For as long as I can remember Sony has overcharged on RAM, so I ordered it with the minimum amount of RAM possible with the intent of getting 2GB from an independent vendor later on. With the above configuration it came to $2,027 including tax plus $250 for the warranty. About a week after it arrived I ordered 2GB 667MHz CL5 Corsair Value Select RAM from Newegg.com.

As many people on the Sony notebook forum of this website can attest, their customer service is often quite clueless about their own products. I wasn’t really sure when it would arrive even after calling them several times, so it came as a little surprise when the FedEx guy dropped off the huge box in front of my door about 3 weeks later. My initial impressions weren’t that great and I have to say Sony’s packaging is one of the cheapest I have seen so far.


Packaging (view large image)

Build & Design


VAIO FE front view (view large image)

Anyone who has seen the VAIO FE or VAIO FS knows that the design is aesthetically pleasing. While this is not a typical business notebook, I imagine it might be popular with people in the fashion, art and entertainment industry since its color composition is very stylish but at the same time still very clean looking. The visual differences to the FS are subtle. The back of the keyboard area is now white as well, the shortcut buttons got a redesign, got moved to the left side of the keyboard area, and they added 3 sound control buttons (mute, -, +) . The front area also got a few plugs and LED’s moved around, but apart from that it seems to look the same.


VAIO FE bottom side (
view large image)


The guts of the VAIO FE590 (view large image)

The outer shell seems to be made of some metal composite that feels very solid. The hand rest area and most of the area around the keyboard is made from some material that feels like the plastic that Coke bottles are made from. I don’t know what Sony was thinking when they decided to use this material. It is by far the worst feeling material of any notebook I have laid hands on so far. The material around the screen itself is also plastic and it seems they could have done a better job fixing it to the screen. Maybe it is different for models that have the camera, but that stuff easily extends away from the rest of the notebook. I can see it getting caught in something while packing or unpacking ripping it apart, as it is quite thin as well.

The hand rest area is also very easy to get dirty. Gunk accumulates quite fast and I have to wipe it down at least once a week to not feel a little disgusted. I don’t know if this is a Sony problem, but as reported for other models as well, the battery sits a bit loose and if you shake it around you can hear it rattle. Not an issue for me as I use it as a mainly stationary notebook.

Screen

The screen is great. Like I mentioned before it is a 15.4″ WXGA XBRITE (glare) screen and this is the only screen the FE comes in so far. This is by far the brightest screen I have ever seen on a notebook. Even when plugged in I have it at a brightness setting of 200/255 since I would probably go blind if I left it at 255. The picture is clear and crisp No color distortions, fuzziness near the edges or anywhere else. The colors look good and I don’t have any dead pixels (so far).


VAIO FE590 screen (view large image)

Pressing as hard as I feel comfortable on the back of the screen as well as bending it while holding the upper two edges produces zero ripples. The light leakage is so minimal I had to turn off all lights and search for it in a completely dark room with a black screen. The backlighting is very even and I can’t find any area on the screen that is less bright than others. The viewing angles are very good as well. The brightness and clarity are almost the same from a 45 degree horizontal angle. You loose a little brightness if you tilt it in an extreme angle vertically, but text is still easily readable. The rave about Sony screens seems to be justified.

The only gripe I have is about the software supplied by nvidia. I don’t know if it is nvidia’s, Microsoft’s, or Sony’s fault, but the brightness switching from plugged to unplugged and back doesn’t work. Supposedly it automatically adjusts the brightness level of the screen to the plugged or unplugged setting of your choice. It doesn’t. If I unplug or plug the power cord, nothing happens to the brightness.

Speakers

The speakers are nothing phenomenal. They aren’t terrible, but very far from sound nirvana. The bass is non-existent, which makes listening to music painful. Voices are better, but still far from enjoyable for me. I usually use headphones when playing games, music, or watching movies and this is also what I would recommend. If used as a multimedia notebook, I would recommend getting an external pair of high quality speakers.

Processor and Performance

I ordered my FE with the T2500 (2GHz Duo). The performance gain over the 1.86GHz Duo is probably negligible, but it was psychologically important to me to have a 2 as the first digit. The 100GB HD has a quoted speed of 5400 RPM and I installed 2 GB of DDR2-667 CL5 Corsair Value RAM.  Now with all my programs installed it takes about 1 minute and 30 seconds to boot up (ready to start any program. I don’t get a logon screen as I am the only registered user) and 30 seconds to shut down. I left the free Norton software on it (until it expires). As far as I know that takes some time to start up and shut down so you can probably shave another 10 seconds or so off those numbers. This laptop is definitely faster than my old laptop (big surprise) and I even have the impression that it responds a bit faster than the Acer Ferrari 4005 I owned for 1.5 months. I can run my statistical programs in the background and still surf on the internet (or run another program) if I want. I love the power of dual cores.

So far I only played some F.E.A.R. on this notebook. The game automatically adjusts the computer performance to high (4/5) and the graphics performance to medium (3/5). It plays very fluid in these settings, the graphics look pretty nice, and I have yet to encounter any lag. With these settings, the test utility gives me and average of 22 frames per second. When I change the graphics settings to high (4/5) it goes down to 13 FPS and with maximum I get a measly 4 FPS. The numbers don’t change when I set the CPU performance to maximum. Seeing as F.E.A.R. is deemed a very demanding game, graphics wise, I am quite satisfied with those results.

Benchmarks

Below are the results gained from running Super Pi (ftp://pi.super-computing.org/windows/super_pi.zip), a program that forces the laptop’s processor to calculate Pi to 2 million digits of accuracy.  As you can see, the new Intel Core Duo processor smokes any previous processor at this calculation:

Notebook Time
Sony VAIO FE590 (2.0GHz Core Duo)  1m 13s
Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo)  1m 15s
 Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 53s
 Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)  1m 18s
 IBM ThinkPad Z60m (2.0 GHz Pentium M)  1m 36s
 Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)  1m 48s
 Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  1m 52s
 Dell Inspiron 600M (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  2m 10s
 HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 39s
 HP DV4170us (Pentium M 1.73 GHz)  1m 53s
 Sony VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 45s

3DMark05 Results

 Notebook  3DMark 05 Results
 Sony VAIO FE590 (2.0GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 128MB)  1714 3D Marks / NA
 Lenovo ThinkPad Z60m (2.0GHz Pentium M, ATI X600 128MB)  1659 3DMarks / 3426 CPUMarks
ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)  727 3DMarks / 3414 CPUMarks
 Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)  2530 3D Marks / 3749 CPU Marks
 Quanta KN1 (1.86 GHz Pentium M, NVIDIA GeForce Go 6600 128mb)  2,486 3DMarks / 4106 CPUMarks
 HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)  2536 3D Marks / 3557 CPU Marks
 Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)  4157 3DMarks / 4812 CPU Marks

HD Tune:


(view large image)

Everest: (click to see report)

The numbers didn’t really change when I put in the 2GB RAM. That was a little surprise for me. I thought it would have at least some effect on 3DMark05.

Heat and Noise

This is a really silent notebook in my opinion. At first I thought there is no fan activity at all, but then noticed that at the lowest spin cycle, it is just so silent that you have to get really close to the notebook to hear it. Every now and then it kicks into second gear while playing games or doing calculations for a few hours, but even that is very tolerable. Nothing compared to the Ferrari 4005 or my wife’s Fujitsu S7020. The HD noise is also barely noticeable and the left palm rest area, under which it is located, is noticeably colder than the right one. The DVD drive is not hot swappable, but is securely screwed in with 3 screws. I am guessing this is the reason it also stays relatively quiet even when in operation.

The heat outlets are on the right side of the back and middle of the bottom. The right palm rest area and the right bottom area get warm. I took of the bottom cover (quite some work) and you can see how the heatpipe connects the GPU, which sits in the middle of the notebook, and the CPU at the right side. Like I mentioned, the right palm rest area gets warm and together with the plastic material this makes my palms sweaty. This is definitely a negative point for me and I wish (again) that Sony would have used a different material for the palm rest area. Though I didn’t try it, I imagine it is tolerable to have this notebook on your lap though I would probably not rest it on my bare skin.

Keyboard and Touchpad


Sony VAIO FE keyboard view (view large image)


Sony VAIO FE keyboard view 2 (view large image)

I like the keyboard. The placement of the keys is pretty standard and there are no surprises such as exchanged FN and Ctrl keys. I like the sound and response I am getting from this keyboard. The size of the keys is just right for my somewhat large hands. It is much easier for me to type on this keyboard than on the S7020 and I would even say I prefer it to my external MS keyboard I have on our desktop. When you press down the keys really hard, it has quite a lot of flex on the right and left side of the keyboard. This is comparable to the S7020. I never press down that hard on keys, but if you are a “hacker” this might be an issue for you. In my opinion the sound while typing is much fuller and more satisfying than on my previous Ferrari 4005 which sounded more “plasticy.” However, I have to say that the typing sound of the S7020 might be a little bit better. But this is all very subjective, so I am sure people will disagree.

The touchpad is in the same color as the keyboard area and is your standard touchpad. The response is ok and it has a scroll function on the right side of it. The buttons are a bit too loose in my opinion, but get the job done. I don’t like to use the touchpad much and prefer an external mouse so there might be some issues I am not aware of since I didn’t use it much.

Input and Output Ports

Most ports are located on the right hand side of the notebook. You get 1 Firewire port, 3 USB ports, 1 S-Video and VGA out, and the power port. There is also a slot for pc cards and a slot for a memory card reader supplied by Sony. To my big surprise this memory card reader not only lets you read Sony’s proprietary memory sticks, but is also xD, SD, and MMC compatible. So far Sony was known to only have support for their own memory sticks on their notebooks.


VAIO FE front side view (view large image)


Sony VAIO FE590 left side view (view large image)


VAIO FE back side (view large image)


Sony VAIO FE590 right side view (view large image)

On the front side you get 4 status LEDs, you can lock the screen when it’s closed for travel, the headphone or external speaker out, the microphone in, the WLAN on/off switch, and an integrated slot for Sony’s memory stick duo. For reasons that escape me it seems more and more notebooks now have their microphone and headphone jacks on the front of the notebook. Especially for semi-stationary notebooks like the FE, this seems counterintuitive as you will probably want to connect a set of external speakers. Maybe that is their way of pushing the docking station, which lets you connect all that stuff on the back.

On the left side you only have the DVD drive and the Ethernet and phone ports. In my opinion Sony could have provided rubber covers for the Ethernet and phone ports. Right now there are just two gaping holes. There are no ports on the back.

The FE comes with an Intel a/b/g card. I didn’t choose Bluetooth as I can’t think of any device I would use that requires it. The wireless network works well. It picked my network up right away and I have no problems using the internet or printing through it.

Battery

With the LCD at 135/255 brightness (I can still read and work with lower brightness, but below 135 it is not as comfortable anymore) I got 2 hrs and 20 minutes while typing and surfing. That’s not phenomenal, especially considering that many notebooks now have battery lives of 3.5+ hrs. I wish it would get at least 3 hrs for viewing movies and working away from a power plug. With the current battery life you are forced to schlep your power brick around, even on shorter trips.

Sony offers a large capacity battery. When I bought it the rep told me that it would stick out at the bottom and lift the back of the notebook a little. That actually seems like a good solution, as a little angle of the notebook, might make typing even easier. But I haven’t seen the large capacity battery so I can’t comment on it.

The power brick itself is, in old Sony tradition, big and heavy. Not quite as heavy as my old GR300, but about the same size. Compared to the S7020’s and the Ferrari’s it looks massive.

Operating System and Software

As of the time of my order Sony offered the FE with a choice of all three XP OSs. I ordered mine with Pro. Sony doesn’t provide any system or software disks, but has an invisible partition on the HD that contains all the necessary files. With two DVDs you can make your own backup disks and then delete the restore partition, freeing up about 10GB of space.
Unfortunately Sony also installs a lot of bloatware such as AOL, a MS Office 30 day trial, etc. Some of their own useless programs and some third party useless programs. You can get rid of a few of those if you do a clean install with your newly created backup disks, but you can’t get rid of all the software as some of it is necessary for certain functions, such as support, short cut buttons, etc. This is actually quite annoying and with the premium price they charge for their computers you would think they should be able to minimize consumer nuisance in this department.

Customer Support

You get a 1 year warranty with the purchase of the notebook, but I purchased the additional 3 year onsite warranty ($250) mainly for peace of mind. I never needed customer support on my old Sony since I was able to handle it myself whenever something went wrong. If you need customer support you have the choice of contacting them via phone, email, or online chat.

After some time my FN key stopped working, so I used this opportunity to test the online support of Sony. I didn’t have to wait long for a rep to come online in the little chat window and he (assumed as the name sounded male) was courteous and actually solved my problem. But the time it took him to respond was amazing. I am guessing this guy was talking to 10 customers at the same time as I could have gone and taken a shower between his replies.

Conclusion

In this review I tried to be very critical, listing all the negative points I noticed that might influence buyer decision. Even though, according to this review, the FE might come across as having lots of issues I have to emphasize that I really like this notebook. As far as I am concerned there simply is no “perfect” laptop out there as everybody defines “perfect” different.

The FE590 the way I configured it, is everything I need in a notebook and maybe a little more. It satisfies my computing needs, while at the same time offering the possibility of light gaming. It is really quiet and has a beautiful screen. It doesn’t get scorching hot and on top of that will turn heads wherever you take it. Being the son of an industrial designer, the form factor always factors into my decisions when buying consumer products. With this notebook I notice myself closing it more often than really necessary, just so that I can look at it and open it when I come back.

This is certainly not supposed to be a very portable thin and light notebook, but I think the biggest problem of the FE is its short battery life and lack of portability because of it and the large power brick. So if you are in the market for a 15.4″ notebook, portability is not the most important aspect you are looking for, and you don’t need the most powerful graphics card out there, then I can recommend the Sony VAIO FE590 as a nice and versatile notebook that will make your girlfriend (or boyfriend/wife/husband/etc.) jealous.

Pros:

  • Great design that sets it apart from other main stream notebooks, while at the same time retaining a very clear and clean line
  • Bright, clear, and crisp screen with great viewing angles.
  • Quiet, not overheating, and still relatively thin and light for its class.
  • Fast processor. For the next few months or so this will be one of the fastest notebooks around

Cons:

  • Battery life. 2 hours is too low in today’s standards.
  • Plastic hand rest and keyboard area. It not only attracts dirt, but also makes my palms sweat.
  • Cheap on the packaging, no system disks plus lots of bloatware.

Pricing and Availability: Sony VAIO FE

 


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