Sony VAIO S380 Review (pics, specs)

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by Robin Green, California USA

This Sony VAIO S380 has got to be the smallest, lightest and grooviest laptop I have ever owned. It’s got killer industrial design, the perfect screen hinge used on the Powerbooks, is legacy port free and, for me, has exactly the right looks and features. Face it, I’m a design snob and I like Sony products.

The VAIO S and everything that comes with it (view larger image)

NotebookReview.com was the site I came back to over and over again to compare details, cross check models and prices, so I thought it was time that I gave a little of the love back and do a real good in-depth review of the machine. Previously there was a good review of the S260 and S360 that covered the basic physical features of the Vaio S-Series and the S380 has exactly the same dimensions and chassis, so I want to go into more detail about the differences and what it’s like to live day-to-day with the machine.

Sony Vaio VGN-S380P Specs

  • Intel Pentium M 750 (1.85 GHz, 533 MHz bus)
  • Chipset Intel 915PM
  • 13.3″ WXGA XBrite (glare) Screen
  • RAM 512MB (1 stick, I’m going to be upgrading this)
  • NVidia GForce Go 6200 (32MB onboard)
  • Intel PRO/Wireless 2915ABG + Bluetooth (802.11 a/b/g)
  • 80GB 5400RPM HDD, Serial ATA
  • CD-RW (24x read/24x write)/ DVD-ROM (8x read)
  • Ports and Slots: 2 x USB 2.0, 1 x 1394 (4-pin mini Firewire/iLink), Headphones, Microphone, 1 x MemoryStick Pro port, 1 x 100baseT Ethernet + V.90 modem, 1 x PCMCIA Type II/I
  • Weight: 4.2lbs with battery
  • Measures 12.3″ x 1.39″ x 8.85″ (Width x Height x Depth)

Purchased from the Sony Style website just a few weeks before the S480 was announced (doh!) and, despite being a Sony employee, I was joyfully fleeced on the price just like everyone else. But then, if you’re buying a new model Vaio you’re not doing it for the sweet deal. VAIO is for people who really want a Powerbook, but have to run Windows programs, n’est ce pas?

Image Gallery (20 images)

For those uninterested in reading and just looking to kill time looking at pictures, we’ll accomodate that desire here: Sony VAIO S380P Image Gallery

Reasons for Buying

Unlike almost every laptop review ever, I couldn’t give a flying French fancy about 3D gaming performance. I bought this laptop as the centerpiece of my portable audio studio – software synths, software FX and mixing, MIDI I/O, FireWire pro audio, that kind of thing.

My last machine was a Dell Inspiron 8100, a monster of a machine. That 10 pound behemoth (with extra battery) was an overpowered, huge screen joy to use just so long as you didn’t actually need to carry it anywhere. Increasingly I found myself attending conferences and thinking “Nah, I’ll just leave it behind this time”. Thin and light was my key upgrade, that and NO LEGACY PORTS. Initially I was set on the IBM Thinkpad T43 all the way, right up until the moment I found it has no Firewire. That was a deal killer for me as I *need* 1394 for low latency audio devices. The Asus V6V has everything I wanted except it was over my weight budget (it was a really close choice, how fickle am I?) and so I found myself drawn to the Vaio S270/S360/S380. But which one to choose?

When specifying the perfect audio crunching laptop, CPU, Memory Bandwidth, HDD size/speed and Ports are the only things that matter, and in these things the Sonoma 912PM chipset offers plus, after customizing an S270 to the spec I wanted the price difference was ~$200. S380 it had to be.

Form & Design

VAIO S with front loading DVD-ROM sticking out (view larger image)

In my opinion the Vaio S380 is a beautiful machine, free of decoration like many home systems, it’s just pure form and function. The details are so well thought out – tiny rubber bumpers that exactly cushion the screen from touching the keyboard when it’s closed (a problem with the old Inspiron 8000), no screen latch needed, rubber feet on the base that keep the base off the table and help shift some of the heat. Some criticisms that have been aired in previous reviews are the flimsiness of the WIFI switch and, yeah, it’s cheap and wobbly (and usually missing on store display models), but I have no intention of ripping it out. The strange shape of the mouse buttons take a few hours to get used to as they are fairly austere shiny metallic bars rather than the luxurious click-me-anywhere surfaces you might be used to. Takes a bit of precision to use and the mouse pad has a fairly abrasive surface initially but that’s fine. The major physical thing you notice while using the machine is the sheer heat of the wristpad coming from under the Windows XP sticker. It gets WAY toasty if you’re running full power, less so under power management or on battery. I’ve never owned or used a laptop that gets this hot but it’s not uncomfortable, just toasty warm. Having said that, I haven’t used the machine in the height of summer yet.

A note on the plastic covers over the ports. These covers are made from the same plastic used to make soft drink caps – polyethylene. It’s a strong, flexible material that will take a lot of abuse and I have no fear of the covers being torn off their connectors. I do, however, worry for the tiny teeth that hold the covers closed. Only time will tell if that’s just an imaginary worry or not.

Going around the machine clockwise from the bottom left (7 O’clock), the PCMCIA slot has a spring loaded cover to keep out dust and has a release bar that locks flush inside the case. The VGA Out has no screw retainers but seems to provide a surprisingly good, almost rubbery grip on a male socket. The 1/4″ Audio jacks are initially quite crunchy and feel like they won’t take much horizontal or lateral abuse, but they grip well so treat them gently. The RJ-45 Network port is a bit of a nuisance as it’s recessed under the top surface and will require you to retract any rubber cover you may have on your network cable. As a consequence the locking on the RJ-45 is not as crisp as my old Inspiron and you’re never quite sure if the network cable is engaged. Excellent friction hinges holding the screen, I have no doubts of their strength. The only weakness in the case appears on the main unit just above the “S” buttons where the plastic casing is unsupported above the battery bay and it’s disconcertingly flexible there. This doesn’t effect the power and S-buttons as they have that solid, quality Sony Electronics click.

VAIO S380 Left side (view larger image)

The Speakers are only OK. There’s zero bass but audio is clear enough to sample MP3s to friends. The ear splitting *BEEP!* the machine puts out when using any of the blue “Fn” function is piercing, man. *BEEP!* I changed the screen brightness. *BEEP!* I unmuted. Got to change that setting. At this point the review notes ask me to note “would you recommend getting headphones or external speakers?” Well, duh! Get one of these: Edirol FA66 and see what *real* audio quality is about.

Sony VAIO S380 back side view (view larger image)

The power port is a reassuring 6mm jack, not some proprietary monstrosity and should be easily replaceable if push comes to shove. Next, at 3 O’clock, is the fan vent and BOY does this kick out some heat! Expect to toast any cables routed from the ports to behind your screen, not to mention your mouse-hand if you’re right handed. There’s comments on the board about the fan being noisy. Sheesh, you guys are picky, the air conditioning in my office totally drowns this out – it’s gentle whispering noise not a whining motor and it’s under power management control. Tweak it!

VAIO S380 right side view (view larger image)

Next around there’s a Kensington lock hole, then a cover opens to reveal two USB 2.0 ports and a 4-pin Firewire. Sorry, iLink. 1394. Whatever. Finally, the bottom edge we have the clickety WIFI switch, a MemoryStick Pro slot that I don’t see myself ever, ever using, the mouse pad and buttons and finally the DVD/CDR release button. I prefer to use the “Fn+E” key combination to open the drive rather than grope around to find the recessed DVD release, and the DVD door has a tenancy to catch on the front edge as you close it as the front face of the drive door is beveled downwards causing you to unintentionally push it upwards and inwards at the same time. A tiny detail but it gets me *every* time.

Sony VAIO S380 oblique view (view larger image)

So, a lot of criticisms there but each one is so very minor. The S380 is not the perfect, UL7IM4T3 n0738ook 3VA!!!!, but it’s very good. And it’s sooooo pretty, did I mention how pretty it is? I did? Oh OK. I’ll shut up now.

Screen

It’s been said before, but the screen is very good. Good viewing angle, deep rich blacks, zingy colors, not one DP, it is a joy. Switched off it has a dark green hue but powered up it turns deep black and is amazingly bright even in full sunlight (I wish my cellphone had this screen). I even find myself turning it down at night, it’s too bright. 1280×800 pixels, widescreen baby! I was concerned that it wouldn’t be enough desktop real estate as I had originally promised myself to go no lower than 1400×1050. I had to actually go to Frys Electronic Store to meet an S360 face to face to see if the desktop size would be too small for me. Yes, I do miss the extra height when reading long web pages but I figure that’s what a home desktop PC is for. This screen is for portability and working on the road, and for that purpose it works well.

The VAIO S380 screen is nice and bright, but notice the glossy finish causes reflection of light (view larger image)

I’ve never used one of the new shiny-style LCDs so I was new to the experience. I like it – reflections are easy to ignore and even provide you with a sense of peripheral “what’s that going on behind me?” vision that’s useful in the office. If you have to know anything about the screen, know this: never EVER touch the screen. The greasy finger marks are amazingly visible and take some real elbow grease to get out. Invest in a box of anti-static screen wipes and a microfiber cleaning cloth, you will thank me.

A note on the backlighting – yes, it is uneven, with slightly less bright areas on the bottom corners (see the image). Do you notice this in everyday use? Yes. Does it honestly matter? Nope. My brain just interprets it as being built into the Windows XP taskbar skin, but your brain may vary.

Uneven backlighting example (view larger image)

The video chip has come under some fire for having only 32MB on chip and some shonky AGP-portal-style shared texture memory setup. So long as it has enough RAM to host two large 1600×1200 32bpp screens with accellerated desktops, I’m happy. Plugging in an extra screen or a projector is simplicity itself on the VAIO, it automatically reacts to the new device and pops up settings menus. Got to love that.

Processor and Performance

Boot time to the XP desktop is almost exactly 30 seconds, not brisk but that’s Windows for you. Performance seems snappy, but then every new laptop seems snappy compared to your old machine. Note: to reach the BIOS you use the F3 key at POST. You need to know this because it’s never mentioned in the docs nor onscreen. There’s very few settings of interest other than the boot device order, BIOS password and stretch-VGA-when-not-in-Windows settings. Let’s test this baby and see if I’ve thrown my money away on the Sonoma chipset for nothing, shall we?

Benchmarks

The Super PI test is an interesting exercise in raw memory access speed and integer crunching:

 Notebook Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits
Sony VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 42s
Sony VAIO S360 (1.7 GHz Dothan Pentium M) 1m 57s
Dell Inspiron 6000 (1.60GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 52s
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 45s
Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M) 1m 48s
IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M) 2m 23s

Below are the PCMark04 Scores and a comparison to the IBM X41 12.1″ screen 1.50GHz notebook:

Futuremark PCMark04 Scores
  Sony VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz) IBM X41 (1.50 GHz)
Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression 3.366 MB/s 2.66 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption 27.667 MB/s 21.81 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression 24.104 MB/s 19.03 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing 11.046 MPixels/s 8.65 MPixels/s
Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning 1726.7 MB/s 1349.58 MB/s
Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check 2.876 KB/s 2.09 KB/s
File Decryption 55.425 MB/s 43.78 MB/s
Audio Conversion 2552.67 KB/s 2014.01 KB/s
Web Page Rendering 5.693 Pages/s 4.43 Pages/s
DivX Video Compression 47.043 FPS 39.19 FPS
Physics Calculation and 3D 166.72 FPS 79.59 FPS
Graphics Memory – 64 Lines 478.29 FPS 399.62 FPS

Below are the HD Tune benchmark results, not too shabby for portable I/O and good enough for direct MP3 record-to-disk.

 HD Tune Benchmarks
 Minimum Transfer Rate 17.7 MB/sec
 Maximum Transfer Rate 34.6 MB/sec
 Average Transfer Rate 27.4 MB/sec
 Acess Time 18.4 ms

Keyboard and Touchpad

Keyboard and Touchpad view (view larger image)

The keyboard I like. Quiet, a small amount of travel for the keys, very nice. This review was written on the S380 as the first long document I’ve created using it and it seems to work fine. It’ll take a little time to unprogram my fingers that the PgUp and PgDn, Home and End keys are not down the right hand side. Instead they are blue FN-shifted from the arrow keys. This leads to moments where you think “To select the rest of the line… I need to use Fn… leftarrow… AND the Shift key”. I’m sure patterns like Shift+Fn+PgDn will become second nature soon. The LCD controls on the Fn+F7 key pops up *BEEP!* an overlay display and you can select what action *BEEP!* *BEEP!* you want the graphics driver to do, including *BEEP!* bringing up the settings menu. Nicely done.

I mapped my additional S1 and S2 keys to “mute-audio” and “standby”, with the power button mapped to “hibernate”. Can’t see myself ever changing those settings, they’re perfect.

Input and Output Ports

I firmly wanted a legacy-free machine. No Parallel port, no Serial port, no PS/2. Since the world turned USB there’s just no need for them. The USB 2.0 is fast enough for external HDD storage and the Firewire runs my studio. 2 x USB is enough for me. Ask me in a year if I still believe that.

Wireless

Wireless just works! It’s got better reception on my home network than the PCMCIA Orinoco card I was used to using, and having the 802.11 letters (A, B and G) gives me more neighbours to steal bandwidth from. Netstumbler is your neighbourhood mapping friend, oh yes. Bluetooth was the one frivolous thing I added to my order. No idea what I will use it for, but I like having the option. Bluetooth headphones? Wireless mouse? Who knows what Xmas will bring!

Battery

The battery gives me a solid 3 hours of web surfing on half brightness. I have not tested it formally, but that’s about the same as my Inspiron on a fresh battery. I found, over time, that I almost never used the battery for that long and buying that extra life battery that makes a laptop heavier just made the machine a bit more likely to be left at home. Face it, even in Starbucks there are power outlets and finding them is half the fun. Plenty of real-world battery life, certainly enough to edit some music and burn an audio CD-R of the result for a buddy.

Is the battery loose? Yup, definitely noticable. I solved it by adding a few layers of masking tape to the underside of the battery (see picture), something I shouldn’t have to do on a laptop this expensive.

Adding masking tape to the battery to prevent wobble (view larger image)

And so to the power brick. You’re right, it is HUGE but it comes with just the dearest little power cord just 18 inches long. No heavier or bigger than the Dell adapters but it just looks oversized compared to the teeny tiny machine. Do I care? Nope. Heck, I’m used to carrying around the Orinoco card, various audio cables, a Microsoft optical mouse, headphones, etc. and now I need slightly less gear. The size makes no difference to me and it’s an overall win. Buy some Rip-Tie velcro cable ties and live with it, mmkay?

The power adapter is rather large relative to the machine (view larger image)

Operating System and Software

The OS is Windows XP Pro (SP2) and, along with the driver and all the other junkware, it comes embedded on a 5GB partition deep within the machine. Sony you cheap bastards. Job #1 as a new user, after unpacking the machine, admiring it, finding out that wiping your fingerprints off the lid doesn’t work, switching it on (*BLIM!BLIM!BLIMM!*) and watching the pretty boot animation, is to back up this partition into seven CD-Rs you *just happen* to have at hand (or one DVD-R if you bought that option). This takes HOURS of tedious clicking through buttons. I would definitely recommend investing in a copy of PartitionMagic 8.0 to remove the hidden partition afterwards, as reformatting and reinstalling the HUGE amount of system and demo software you get with the machine will take forever.

Talking of free software, there is no such thing as free software. It’s all demo versions and limited license versions with the option to “upgrade to the full thing!”. No thanks. Job #2 is to uninstall most everything to free up some space.

Job #3 is to turn off that damn boot animation.

Conclusion

I am extremely happy with this machine, it fulfills my needs perfectly and despite getting a lot of criticisms on the forums, most of the points made against it are very minor. It’s a thin-and-light, always take it with you, audio crunching powerhouse with a beautiful screen. PLUS on full power it also doubles as a marvellous hand warming device for cold days.

Pros

  • Those good looks, hoo boy.
  • The widescreen look is hot this season.
  • Fast CPU, fast HDD, fast all over.
  • Connectivity out the wazoo.
  • You’ll never want to leave it at home.

Cons

  • That power brick is HER-YOOGE.
  • Hot! Hot! Hot hands! Hot mouse cable!
  • Attracts greasy finger marks like you wouldn’t believe.
  • Too much tedious rubbish “free” software.
  • No S-Video output for watching region-hacked DVDs on a TV.
  • No Windows or backup driver CDs provided.
  • You gots a rattling battery, dude.

Ewww, greasy fingermarks show up quite readily on the Vaio S lid (view larger imag, if you dare)

Pricing and Availability

Image Gallery

Sony VAIO S380P Image Gallery


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