This 15.5-inch version of Sony's multimedia notebook features a top-of-the line 1080p IPS display and is less than an inch thin. Keep reading for our full review.
The Sony VAIO line of notebook PCs has historically been easy to identify by two features; a sharp, angular-edged chassis with Chiclet-style keyboard (a Sony design innovation that many people incorrectly attribute to Apple) and a high price tag. The 15-inch VAIO S is one of the more affordable notebooks in Sony's lineup but it retains the design features and performance that people expect from a Sony product.
Build and Design
The VAIO S's all-black exterior is rather plain; it doesn't have distinguishing features other than the fact that it's not. The exterior is actually made of magnesium alloy, not plastic which feels cool to the touch. The use of this material helps keep the notebook light; the VAIO S is practically a featherweight for a 15.5" notebook at 4.4 lbs. It's also extra thin at just 0.95 inches.
The chassis isn't as sturdy as one might think given the magnesium alloy construction; it flexes a bit like we are used to seeing from consumer notebooks. The lid is too flimsy for my comfort but no ripples appear on the display when pressing in on the back. Fit and finish is good with no sharp edges of areas that look like better quality than others. Overall the VAIO S earns a "B" grade in the design and build quality department.
Those looking to upgrade the VAIO S will find easy access to a single RAM slot and the hard drive in the user accessible panel on the bottom of the notebook; it takes just two screws to remove.
Input and Output Ports
The Sony VAIO S includes an adequate if not impressive variety of ports. USB 3.0 and HDMI are included. Like most modern notebooks the VAIO S lacks ExpressCard, eSATA and DisplayPort, but the 15-inch size provides adequate room for a slot-loading optical drive. All picture descriptions are left to right.
Left: slot-load optical drive, Kensington lock slot, headphone and microphone jacks
Right: Memory Stick Pro DUO slot, SD card reader, Ethernet, VGA out, HDMI out, 2x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0, AC power jack
Keyboard and Touchpad
The VAIO S has a full-size keyboard with separate numeric keypad and white LED backlighting. The not so subtle backlighting is a nice touch and is visible in the daytime. The keys take too little effort to press down which results in a lack of tactile feedback. It's not a bad feeling keyboard by any means; it simply needs more definition. The full-size numeric keypad is appreciated; I've noticed a lot of notebooks that included a separate numeric keypad use smaller than usual keys. Other pluses of this keyboard include its extra quiet operation and smooth key surfaces.
The Synaptics clickpad doesn't have physical buttons; press down anywhere to produce a click. Unfortunately this is not one of the better implementations of a clickpad. The clicks are inaccurate; clicking and dragging just doesn't work. In addition it's not clear where the left clicks end and the right clicks start; you're better off clicking at the bottom left or right like a normal touchpad with physical buttons. At least the clickpad has a good surface and the clicks are quiet.
Screen and Speakers
The screen is one of the biggest reasons to consider this notebook; the VAIO S is one of the only notebooks on the market with an IPS display. This display has unlimited viewing angles unlike the TN panels on most notebooks; it can be viewed from any angle vertically or horizontally without color distortion. The panel itself is of high quality -- contrast is excellent and saturation is just right.
My sole complaint about the screen is that reds tend to look more orange. A screen calibration device could probably fix this if you're picky and want to use this notebook for photo editing. Other pluses of this display include the anti-glare surface -- there's no annoying reflections like on a glossy display - and the excellent 1920x1080 resolution, perfect for using two windows side-by-side and doing as little scrolling as possible.
The speakers won't win any awards; they're not much different than "typical" notebook speakers. The static-free headphone jack and HDMI port are two good ways to get audio out.
Performance and Benchmarks
Our configured-to-order Sony VAIO S review unit has the following specifications:
This particular model has the minimum specifications available in the customizable model; notice it has just 4GB of RAM and a slow 500GB 5400RPM hard drive. The beautiful 1080p IPS display is standard equipment as is the better-than-average Intel wireless card, Bluetooth and Intel Core i5 processor.
Performance as configured is solid though Windows start-up and loading programs is laggy because of the slow 5400RPM hard drive. Sony offers the VAIO S with faster 7200RPM hard drives and Solid State Drives (SSDs); we recommend the latter for the best performance.
Note that our model has integrated graphics and a dual-core processor; the VAIO S is offered with a dedicated Nvidia GeForce 640LE card, good enough for playing modern 3D games at medium settings, and a much more powerful Intel Core i7 quad-core processor.
We should also mention that the pre-installed collection of "bloatware" that Sony included with the VAIO S actually prevented PCMark 7 from running; which is why there is no PCMark 7 score provided here. We typically uninstall offending applications or reformat the drive on a review unit so that we can run all our benchmarks but this VAIO S was graciously provided on loan from a Sony user, so we didn't take the liberty of removing the troublesome bloatware.
wPrime processor comparison results (lower scores mean better performance):
PCMark Vantage is an older benchmark that measures overall system performance (higher scores mean better performance):
3DMark06 measures overall graphics card performance for gaming (higher scores mean better performance):
CrystalDiskMark storage drive performance test:
Heat and Noise
Air is drawn through the keyboard and exhausted out the back. It's not possible to see the vent without turning the notebook upside-down; the exhausted air is deflected off the lid. While the VAIO S showed no cooling issues in our testing this MacBook-like setup isn't ideal; air should be exhausted clear of the chassis with no interference. That said the fan is silent for all intents and purposes.
The VAIO S achieved an even five hours of life with the standard battery in our run-down test (Windows 7 Balanced power profile, 70% screen brightness, wireless active and refreshing a web page every 60 seconds). This is a decent time for a 15-inch multimedia notebook.
Battery life test results (higher scores mean better battery life):
The Sony VAIO S is a more than recommendable multimedia notebook. My complaints are relatively minor: an inaccurate clickpad and display lid that's too flexible. There's little not to like otherwise. The VAIO S is extraordinarily thin and light for a 15.5-inch notebook at just 0.95 inches and 4.4 pounds, respectively. The 1080p IPS display is gorgeous; it's hard to find better on a notebook this size, especially for the price. Other things we like about the VAIO S include its backlit keyboard with full-size numeric keypad, magnesium alloy chassis, quiet fan and five hours of battery life. All of this in a package for $899.99? That's a deal.