Not everyone on the market for a 13-inch laptop wants an Ultrabook. Some shoppers would prefer a faster full-voltage Intel processor and a built-in DVD drive. The Sony VAIO S Series 13 offers just that, plus the option to add powerful discrete graphics and an extra-capacity sheet battery. Our $899 configuration sports a 2.5-GHz Core i5 processor, 6GB of RAM and a 640GB hard drive. While this 3.8-pound machine doesn't have an SSD like Ultrabooks, it does promise to wake from sleep in just 2 seconds. Does this premium thin-and-light notebook satisfy?
The VAIO S Series 13 sports a full-flat design that looks similar to Sony's T13 Ultrabook. We like the clean lines and the sleekness of the slot-loading DVD drive on the left. Our review unit came in white with a silver keyboard, but you can also get this notebook in black, gold, pink and silver. The laptop sports a magnesium alloy lid, deck and bottom, with plastic sides.
Overall, this VAIO has a nice modern vibe, but the brushed aluminum finish on the Dell Inspiron 14z ($899) and all-aluminum Lenovo IdeaPad U310 ($799) have a sturdier feel. On the other hand, fingerprints on the lid and deck were nearly impossible to discern.
The VAIO S Series 13 measures 13.1 x 8.9 x 1 inches and weighs 3.8 pounds. The VAIO T13 Ultrabook is thinner and lighter at 12.7 x 8.9 x 0.7 inches and 3.4 pounds, but it lacks a DVD drive. The 13-inch MacBook Pro, by comparison, weighs a heftier 4.5 pounds and measures 0.95 inches thick. Regardless, the VAIO Series 13 is svelte enough to fit comfortably into a messenger bag or backpack.
A row of buttons sits above the keyboard: On the left is an eject button for the optical drive, flanked by a switch that allows users to toggle between Speed and Stamina modes. On a configuration with discrete graphics, flipping to Stamina mode will disable the GPU to save battery life. On our configuration, however, the toggle felt somewhat vestigial.
On the right side, in addition to the power button, sit buttons for Assist (which opens the VAIO Care utility), Web (which launches your default Web browser) and VAIO (which launches either the Sony Media Gallery or PlayMemories Home application, depending on your choice).
Keyboard and Clickpad
The keys on the VAIO S Series 13's island-style, backlit keyboard offered a comfortable amount of tactile feedback. While the keyboard suffers from a fair amount of flex, this proved more aesthetically annoying than troublesome - we still achieved a rate of 68 words per minute with a 1 percent error rate on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, slightly above our average speed.
Unfortunately, the backlighting leaves much to be desired. Although it is easy to distinguish individual keys when using the S13 in a dark room, light bleeds from the beneath the keys, making the backlighting appear oversaturated when viewed at any angle other than straight down.
Thankfully, this VAIO's spacious 4.7 x 2.5-inch Synaptics clickpad proved to be accurate and reliable. The cursor glides smoothly from one end of the display to the other, and promptly responded to clicks even when we used two fingers to navigate and select items on the screen. Multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling, three finger flick, pinch-to-zoom and rotate worked consistently. The clickpad itself depresses quietly, with a satisfying amount resistance.
Although the 1366 x 768-pixel resolution is standard fare for a 13-inch laptop, the VAIO S Series 13 plenty bright. The notebook registered 267 lux on our light meter, beating the average ultraportable by more than 30 lux and measuring far above the dim Inspiron 14z (154 lux) and VAIO T13 (163 lux). Only the IdeaPad U310 approached the S13 in terms of brightness, measuring 238 lux.
Unfortunately, colors appeared less vibrant on the S Series 13 than on other 13-inch displays. When watching the trailer for "The Hobbit" in 1080p on YouTube, we could make out fine details such as the gnarls in Gandalf's staff, but the pastoral hues of the Misty Mountains seemed muted. Still, viewing angles proved generous - we could move almost 45 degrees to either side before images began to wash out.
Powered by Dolby Home Theater v4 technology, the VAIO S Series 13's speakers pumped out enough sound to fill a small room. However, at maximum volume, music sounded harsh and ragged. Rock songs featuring plenty of treble - Radiohead's "Reckoner," for instance - sounded tinny, and bass-heavy songs such as "Empire State of Mind" seemed to lack bass entirely. Switching the preset from to Movies or Games in the Dolby control panel did little to improve the sound quality.
During our testing, the VAIO S Series 13 remained within our comfortable range - mostly. After streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured the touchpad at a cool 84 degrees Fahrenheit, the space between the G and H keys at 90 degrees, and the bottom at a warm but not unpleasant 92 degrees. We did find one location - the lower right corner of the bottom - that registered 102 degrees.
The VAIO S Series 13 features a standard suite of ports, including Gigabit Ethernet, one USB 2.0 port, two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, VGA, SD card reader, Memory Stick reader and a Kensington Lock slot on the right side; and a headphone/microphone jack on the left.
The 1.3-MP HD webcam captures stills and video at a maximum resolution of 1280 x 1024 using the WebCam Companion from ArcSoft. Images and video were crisp and exhibited warm colors, although video had a strange cel-shaded quality.
Boot and Wake Times
One of the most touted features on the VAIO S Series is its Rapid Wake technology, which should resume the computer from sleep in 2 seconds flat. In our tests, the laptop resumed in an average of 1.68 seconds.
The 640GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive booted Windows 7 in 47 seconds, just behind the average ultraportable notebook (0:46), and significantly slower than Ultrabooks such as the IdeaPad U310 (33 seconds) and VAIO T13 (25 seconds), both of which feature a 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive with a 32GB SSD cache. Considering its $899 price tag, we wish the S13 came standard with an SSD cache as well.
Thanks to its 2.5-GHz 3rd generation Intel Core i5-3210M processor and 6GB of RAM, the VAIO S Series 13 delivered above-average performance on most tests.
On Geekbench, a synthetic benchmark that measures processor and memory performance, the VAIO S Series 13 scored a 6,791, easily beating the ultraportable category average of 5,152 as well as the 5,432 turned in by the VAIO T13 (1.7-GHz Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM), the 5,715 by the IdeaPad U310 (1.7-GHz Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM) and the 6,070 by the Inspiron 14z (1.7-GHz Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM). All of these Ultrabooks have slower, lower-voltage CPUs.
Similarly, this Sony completed the LAPTOP Spreadsheet Macro test, in which 20,000 names are matched to their corresponding addresses, in 4 minutes and 49 seconds. This proved much faster than the category average (8:13), the IdeaPad U310 (6:06), the VAIO T13 (5:53) and the Inspiron 14z (5:47).
Unfortunately, the VAIO S Series 13's hard drive delivered lackluster speeds when transferring files. The notebook took 3 minutes and 47 seconds to copy 4.97GB of mixed media files, a rate of 22.4 MBps - far below the category average of 50.8 MBps. To be fair, this category includes a number of Ultrabooks that have SSDs, but the IdeaPad U310 (28.6 MBps) and Inspiron 14z (29.8 MBps) also achieved faster transfer rates, with only the VAIO T13 (18.6 MBps) falling behind.
This version of the VAIO S Series 13 features the Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip. On 3DMark06, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall graphics performance, the notebook scored 4,907. While this beats the measly 3,975 achieved by the IdeaPad U310 (Intel HD Graphics 4000) and the category average of 4,095, it falls far behind the 6,032 notched by the Inspiron 14z (AMD Radeon HD7570M graphics). The S13 did manage to exceed the VAIO T13, which turned in a score of only 3,829.
When we ran "World of Warcraft" on Good settings, the VAIO S13 turned in a playable 46 frames per second - a greater frame rate than the IdeaPad U310 (39 fps), VAIO T13 (32 fps) and ultraportable average (40 fps), but short of the Inspiron 14z (64 fps). On Ultra settings, our frame rate plummeted to 16 fps, below the Inspiron 14z's 32 frames per second and the category average of 20 fps (although still higher than the IdeaPad U310 and VAIO T13, both of which turned achieved a meager 15 fps).
Those looking for more graphics power should consider spending extra for a configuration of the VAIO S Series 13 with Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE graphics, starting at $969.
The Sony VAIO S Series 13 gets a leg up on most of the Ultrabook competition in terms of battery life. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuously surfing the Web over Wi-Fi, the notebook lasted 6 hours and 17 minutes. Although this falls short of the ultraportable average (6:50), it beats the IdeaPad U310 (5:19), Inspiron 14z (5:35) and VAIO T13 (5:05) by nearly an hour.
An optional 4,400-mAh lithium polymer sheet battery is available for an extra $150. Sony claims that the 0.4-inch, 1.4-pound battery will double the VAIO endurance to 12 hours. The sheet battery can be charged independently of the notebook itself.
Software and Warranty
The VAIO S Series 13 comes preloaded with a huge array of Sony-branded software. Media Gallery lets you listen to your music and view your photos and videos from an attractive tile interface. Music Unlimited is Sony's alternative to iTunes, allowing you to purchase and listen to music, as well as create channels based on your musical preferences.
PlayMemories Home imports photos and videos from your camera and allows you to organize them by date, print and edit photos, and create a disc to share with friends. You can also use the software to upload your photos and videos to Sony's "Personal Space" sharing service, or send your media to friends via email.
Sony VAIO Care gives users the option to install, uninstall and update their software; solve issues and optimize their notebook's performance; and use restore and recovery tools to return their computer to a usable state if software becomes corrupted.
The S Series 13 also features Sony's Creative Software Suite, which includes DVD Architect Studio (for burning DVDs from your photos and videos), Vegas Movies Studio HD Platinum (a complete toolkit for creating HD movies, including tools for stereoscopic 3D, video compositing and soundtrack creation), Sound Forge Audio Studio (a utility for editing and mastering professional-quality audio) and ACID Music Studio (which allows you to creat beats and remix imported mp3s). All told, this is an impressive media suite worth $200.
Perhaps the most intriguing preinstalled software is VAIO Gesture Control, which allows users to scroll through songs, pictures and Web pages on Windows Media Player, Internet Explorer and Sony's Media Gallery by waving your hand in front of the webcam.
Third-party applications include CyberLink PowerDVD, Evernote, Skype, Microsoft Office 2010 Starter and a 30-day trial of Kaspersky Internet Security.
Sony backs this laptop with a one-year standard warranty, including in-home service, international service and toll-free phone support. See how Sony stacks up in our Tech Support Showdown and Best & Worst Brands report.
In addition to the $919 configuration we reviewed, which includes a 2.5-GHz Core i5-3210M CPU, 6GB of RAM and 640GB HDD, the S13 can be customized to include up to a 2.9-GHz Core i7-3520 CPU, an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE GPU with 1GB of VRAM, a 1TB 5,400-rpm hard drive, 12GB of RAM and a 4,400-mAh sheet battery.
The $899 Sony VAIO S Series 13 delivers good processing power, a dedicated optical drive, solid battery life and one of the most reliable clickpads we've seen on a notebook. However, the harsh-sounding audio and sluggish hard drive keep it from being a top pick. If you don't mind opting for a bigger screen, the Dell Inspiron 14z packs discrete graphics and an SSD cache and 8GB of RAM for the same price as this Sony. Overall, though, the VAIO S Series 13 is a worthwhile Ultrabook and MacBook Pro alternative.