You don't need an Ultrabook to travel light. Just look at the Sony VAIO SE, a remarkably portable 15-inch notebook that weighs only 4.4 pounds but crams in a Core i5 processor, switchable AMD graphics, a DVD drive and a vivid full HD display. Add in an optional sheet battery and you have more than 10 hours of endurance. Read on to find out if the $999 Sony VAIO SE hits all the right notes.
Editor's Note: Although our review unit came with a 640GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, Sony currently offers only 500GB and 750GB hard drives.
Sporting a modern minimalist look, the platinum silver magnesium alloy lid of the VAIO SE tapers along the sides, breaking up its boxy shape. The only accents are a large chrome VAIO insignia in the lid's center and chrome rear hinge. The exterior cuts down on fingerprints and smudges, which we love.
The VAIO SE's brushed aluminum interior uses the same platinum silver as the outside. The upper portion of the deck gently tapers into the large recessed keyboard deck. Sitting above the keyboard are buttons for Eject, VAIO Assist, Web browser, power, the VAIO Media Gallery and a Stamina/Speed switch to toggle between GPUs. Here, there's also a pair of thin speakers. On the front lip on the notebook sits a silver switch to toggle the wireless radios.
At 4.4 pounds, the 14.9 x 10.1 x 0.9 inch VAIO SE is one of the lightest 15-inch notebooks ever. It's lighter than both the 5.6-pound Dell XPS 15z (15.2 x 10.3 x 1-inches) and the 5.8-pound HP Envy 15 (14.9 x 9.6 x 1.1 inches). However, when its extended sheet battery is attached, the VAIO SE weighs 5.7 pounds and has a thickness of 1.3 inches.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The Sony VAIO SE features a silver island-style backlit keyboard with a full number pad and generous spacing. While the Tab, Caps Lock and Left Shift Keys were a tad small, the large flat keys delivered solid feedback. The keyboard's backlighting was bright enough to clearly distinguish letters and symbols in a dim setting, but we noticed a significant amount of light bleeding from underneath the keys.
We enjoyed running our fingers over the smooth 3.8 x 2.25-inch Synaptics touchpad. Instead of complicating the multitouch features with a ton of gestures, Synaptics whittles it down to a few useful swipes. One-finger scroll, pinch-zoom, two-finger scroll, flick and press worked well. Two-finger rotation was a hit-or-miss affair, and poor palm rejection caused the cursor to jump around at times as we were typing. We did like the oversized mouse buttons with their firm, springy feedback.
Display and Audio
Watching video and reading text on the VAIO SE's 15.5-inch, 1920 x 1080 backlit IPS display was a pleasure. Thanks to the full HD screen's matte finish, we could view the screen in direct sunlight without too much glare or sacrificing color. Text on CNN.com and GameInformer.com was sharp, and images were crisp and vivid. The display delivered a brightness of 250 lux which is brighter than the Envy 15's 243 lux but well below the 317 lux mainstream category average.
During the 1080p YouTube trailer of "Snow White and the Hunstman," the blood-red eyes in the murder of crows popped, as did the crimson war flags. Charlize Theron's evil queen was resplendent in gold and even more stunning as she emerged covered in bone-white goo.
We were pleasantly surprised with the volume produced by the notebook's speakers. At maximum volume, the VAIO SE's sound easily filled a small room. However, we found the audio quality to be lacking. Despite having Dolby Home Theater technology, we were disappointed by the lack of bass and the overall hollow sound when we played "Numb/Encore," the Linkin Park/Jay-Z collaboration. There was also a high level of distortion from the guitar and vocals from both the rapper and the band.
After 15 minutes of watching a fullscreen video on Hulu, the VAIO SE's touchpad registered a cool 79 degrees Fahrenheit. The space between the G and H keys and the bottom of the notebook measured 80 and 82 degrees respectively.
Ports and Webcam
A USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card reader, a Memory Stick Duo slot, HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, secure lock and power port can be found on the VAIO SE's right side. A tray loading CD/DVD burner and a headphone jack sit on the left side.
The VAIO SE's HD webcam can capture stills at 2560 x 2048 pixels and video in 1280 x 1024 using ArcSoft WebCam Companion 4. While images were relatively smooth, there was a noticeable amount of graininess. We also noticed that colors appeared dull whether we were under fluorescent or natural lighting.
With its 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-2450M processor, 4GB of RAM, 640GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, AMD Radeon HD 6470M with 512MB of VRAM and Intel HD Graphics, the Sony VAIO SE can handle high-def movies, productivity tasks and some moderate gaming. During our real-world testing, we were able to play through a few boards in "Bastion" while streaming music from Spotify with eight open tabs in Google Chrome and Internet Explorer.
During PCMark Vantage, which measures overall performance, the VAIO SE scored 6,982. That's more than enough to top the HP Envy 15 (6,713; 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-2430M) and the mainstream category average (6,161). The Dell XPS 15z and its faster 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7-2620M CPU predictably muscled past these two machines with a score of 8,094.
The VAIO SE's 640GB 5,400-rpm hard drive booted the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium in 81 seconds, 22 seconds behind the 59 second mainstream average. The XPS 15z and its 750GB 7,200-rpm hard drive loaded in 67 seconds while the Envy 15 and its 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive booted in a swift 44 seconds.
On the File Transfer Test, the VAIO SE duplicated 4.97GB of multimedia files in 3 minutes and 23 seconds for a transfer rate of 25.1 MBps, matching the Envy 15. Still, both were slightly below the 31 MBps mainstream average. The XPS 15z blew past the competition, scoring 32.2 MBps.
During the OpenOffice Spreadsheet test, the VAIO SE took 5 minutes and 22 seconds to match 20,000 names with their corresponding addresses. That's 1 minute and 4 seconds faster than the 6:26 category average. The Envy 15 took 6:31 to complete the task.
The Sony VAIO SE has hybrid graphics comprised of an AMD Radeon HD 6470M GPU with 512MB of memory and an Intel HD Graphics GPU. Users can toggle between GPUs using the switch marked Stamina/Speed in the top left corner of the notebook. It took approximately 2 to 3 seconds for the laptop to make the switch, complete with a blacked-out display. We prefer Nvidia's Optimus technology, which switches between GPUs on the fly.
When discrete graphics were enabled, the VAIO SE scored 6,839 on 3DMark06, which measures overall graphics performance. That's 1,890 points higher than the 4,949 mainstream average. However, the Dell XPS 15z and the HP Envy 15 outperformed the Sony. The XPS 15z (Nvidia GeForce GT525M with 3GB of VRAM, Intel HD Graphics) notched 7,420 while the Envy 15 (AMD Radeon HD 7690M with 1GB of VRAM, Intel HD Graphics) delivered a blazing 8,978.
During the "World of Warcraft" test, the VAIO SE notched a frame rate of 36 fps on autodetect at 1920 x 1080. The Envy 15 notched 43 fps at the same resolution while the XPS 15z scored 59 fps. The VAIO SE did slightly better when we cranked the settings to maximum, scoring 29 fps, a hair above the 28 fps category average and the Envy 15. However, the XPS 15z held on to the lead with 35 fps.
During the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing via Wi-Fi), the Sony VAIO SE lasted 4 hours and 18 minutes on the Speed setting with the extended battery sheet. That's 38 minutes below the 4:56 mainstream category average. In Stamina mode, the VAIO SE lasted 5:26, beating the HP Envy 15's time of 5:01. However, the Dell XPS 15z lasted the longest, clocking in with an impressive 6:08.
When we added Sony's $150 sheet battery, the VAIO SE lasted a massive 10 hours and 35 minutes, If you can live with the expense and 1.3 pounds of extra weight this is definitely the way to go.
Our $999 configure-to-order review unit of the Sony VAIO SE (CTO VPCSE290X) comes equipped with 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-2450M processor, 4GB of RAM, 640GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, AMD Radeon HD 6470M with 512MB of VRAM and Intel HD Graphics. Although our review unit came with a 640GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, Sony currently offers 500GB and 750GB hard drives. The sheet battery adds another $150 to the cost.
The $929 base model has similar specs to our review unit except for a 500GB 7,200-rpm hard drive. The $1,449 preconfigured high-end model features a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7-2640M CPU, 6GB of RAM, a 640GB 5,400-rpm hard drive, AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics with 1GB of VRAM and a Blu-ray player.
Software and Warranty
The Sony VAIO SE comes bundled with the usual cast of Sony-branded software. Mousing over the top of the display reveals Sony VAIO Gate, a shadowy black blob that expands into a black bar with shortcuts to a number of programs, including ArcSoft Web Companion 4, Media Gallery, VAIO Care and Internet Explorer. We liked Gate's unobtrusiveness as well as the convenience of having our shortcuts only a mouse click away.
In terms of multimedia, the VAIO Media Gallery allowed us to quickly organize our photos, videos and music by time and event. The app also offered some interesting recommendations based on our content including YouTube links. We also liked Picture Motion Browser (PMB), which placed all of our photos into an easy to navigate calendar. Media Go transfers content to Sony devices such as the PS Vita, Sony Ericsson phones and Sony Tablets.
VAIO Control Center and VAIO Care are two of the more useful utilities. Control Center allows users to view their system data, including power management, display and security. VAIO Care offers users the ability to troubleshoot and run diagnostics throughout the system.
Reader for PC allows fans of Sony's e-reader app to access all their purchases on the PC.
Third-party apps include Skype, Evernote for VAIO, Microsoft Office Starter, Windows Live and a 30-day free trial of Norton Internet Security.
There's a lot to like in the $999 Sony VAIO SE. This 15.6-inch notebook offers a full HD display, good performance and a compelling suite of multimedia software in a surprisingly lightweight frame. Users who are willing to deal with some added weight and cost can attach the sheet battery for over 10 hours of endurance. Some multimedia mavens may prefer the Dell XPS 15z, which for around the same price, offers better graphics and audio. Nevertheless, he Sony VAIO SE is a very good choice for those looking for a lightweight multimedia machine that can go the distance.