When we last saw Sony's VAIO SE 15-inch notebook, we were praising its gorgeous 1920 x 1080 display and solid performance, while knocking it for its weak audio, mediocre battery life and sluggish hard drive. Now, the prodigal son has returned in the form of the new VAIO S Series 15, which promises better battery life and performance numbers than its predecessor. But can the $999 Core i5-powered VAIO S Series 15 (SVS15113FXS) put the past behind it?
Click to EnlargeFrom its off-white paint job to its slim profile, the VAIO S Series 15 is as sleek as laptops come. Its magnesium alloy lid helps repel greasy fingerprint smudges and gives the system a bit more durability than a standard plastic top. At the center of the top is a large reflective silver VAIO logo, which is paired with an attractive gray Sony logo on the upper lip.
Open the VAIO, and you'll find a large wrist rest that extends about an inch past the S Series 15's clickpad. Above that is the VAIO's backlit keyboard and number pad. Seated in the top right corner of the S Series 15's keyboard deck are an eject button for the slot-loading optical drive, a small speaker grill and the notebook's Stamina and Speed switch. The latter feels redundant considering Nvidia's Optimus technology can automatically switch from the discrete to the integrated GPU. With Stamina mode, the Nvidia chip gets manually switched off.
In the top left corner of the keyboard deck are the VAIO S Series 15's power button and second speaker grill, as well as its VAIO, Web and Assist buttons. Tap the VAIO button to launch either the system's Media Gallery or PlayMemories Home software. Pressing the Web button will launch your default web browser, while the Assist button opens the VAIO Care menu.
Thanks to its flat bottom, the Sony VAIO S Series 15 measures just 14.9 x 10 x 0.9 inches. That's a hair larger than the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG Ultrabook, which measures 14.4 x 10.1 x 0.79-0.81 inches. However, the 4.6-pound VAIO S Series 15 weighs 0.2 pounds less than the 4.8-pound Aspire M5.
Click to EnlargeThe Sony S Series 15's 15.5-inch 1920 x 1080 display with IPS technology offers superb color and contrast. As we watched a trailer for the next James Bond flick, "Skyfall," shadowy corridors looked like deep pools of black ink, while Daniel Craig's blue eyes sparkled like twin sapphires. The hig-resolution display also made viewing websites a joy. We were able to see much more content above the fold on sites such as laptopmag.com, CNN.com and NYTimes.com than we could on other notebooks with lower resolution screens.
Viewing angles on the S Series 15's display were equally appealing. We were able to watch videos and scroll web pages from a 45-degree angle without noticing any color distortion or washout. And with a brightness rating of 270 lux, the S Series 15's display proved to be brighter than the category average of 259 lux, and above the Acer Aspire M5's 158 lux.
One of our biggest problems with Sony's previous version of the VAIO S Series 15 was its poor audio performance. Unfortunately, Sony has once again saddled an otherwise good multimedia machine with lackluster audio performance. The laptop's two Intel High Definition Audio speakers made songs we regularly listen to sound almost unrecognizable. While listening to Killswitch Engage's "Rose of Sharon," guitar riffs sounded as if they were coming out of an old AM radio. Bass heavy songs like The Yin Yang Twins' "Whisper Song," were actually difficult to hear since the bass was nonexistent.
Not even the S Series 15's Dolby Home Theater audio software, which features three preset options including Movies, Music, and Games, could make our listening experience any better. In fact, it actually seemed to make things slightly worse, by lowering the overall volume.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Click to EnlargeThe S Series 15's backlit keyboard felt a bit too spongy for our liking. Key travel was short and didn't offer enough feedback. Oddly, Sony chose to eschew the usual practice of lining up the S Series 15's clickpad with the keyboard's G and H keys, instead choosing to make the pad slightly offset to the right. This left more room on the palm rest for our left hand, but it did make us more conscious of the clickpad, causing us to alter the position of our right hand. Fortunately, this didn't impact our typing speed, as we scored our usual 75 words per minute while using the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor.
The S Series 15's 4.7 x 2.6-inch Synaptics multitouch clickpad is large enough for easy navigation, but we experienced inconsistent results. While we were able to execute multitouch gestures such as pinch-to-zoom and three-finger swipe fairly easily, the pad would occasionally mistake left clicks for right, and vice versa. This issue cropped up more when the VAIO S Series 15 was in our lap.
After streaming a Hulu video for 15 minutes, the S Series 15's keyboard reached a relatively mild 81 degrees. Its touchpad stayed equally cool, reaching just 83 degrees. However, the temperature of the Sony's underside shot up to a blistering 102 degrees, well above our 95-degree comfort threshold.
Click to EnlargeThe 1.3-megapixel webcam on the S Series 15 provided pixilated images. In our office, video was darker than we would have liked, but when we moved to a sundrenched room the colors perked up quite a bit. The ArcSoft Webcam Suite offered a host of capabilities including Masque, which allows you to digitally insert your face into an existing image. The software's best feature by far, however, is its face-tracking option, which accurately follows your face as you move in front of the laptop. Move too far, however, and the camera will lose track of you.
Click to EnlargeThe Sony S Series 15 offers a healthy number of ports. On the left side you'll find its slot-loading optical drive, microphone and headphone ports and a security lock slot. The right side is home to the system's power, two USB 3.0 ports, one USB 2.0 charging port, HDMI, VGA, Ethernet ports, as well as its SD card and Memory Stick Duo slots.
Our VAIO S Series 15 came with a 2.5-GHz dual-core Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5-3210M processor, 6GB of RAM and 640GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive. Overall, the VAIO offered fairly good performance numbers. On PCMark07, which tests a laptop's CPU and memory performance, the VAIO S Series 15 notched a score of 2,279, just below the category average of 2,398. The Acer Aspire TimelineU M5 (1.7-GHz Core i5-3317U processor; 6GB of RAM; 500GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive and 20GB SSD) mustered a higher 2,631.
On our OpenOffice spreadsheet test, the VAIO S Series 15 bested the Acer and category average, matching 20,000 named to their corresponding addresses in just 5 minutes and 10 seconds. The Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG took 5:51 to complete the same task, while the average mainstream notebook takes 6:08.
Not surprisingly, the Sony VAIO S Series 15's 640GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive was also able to produce excellent performance numbers. On our LAPTOP File Transfer Test, it took the VAIO just 2 minutes and 25 seconds to duplicate 4.97GB of mixed media files, a rate of 35.1MBps. That's faster than the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG (28.6 MBps), and far better than the average mainstream system (36MBps).
The VAIO S Series 15's hard drive started Windows 7 Home Premium in 52 seconds, faster than the category average time of 55 seconds, but slower than the Acer Aspire TimelineU's 31 seconds. Of course, the M5 was aided by its 20GB SSD cache.
Sony equipped our VAIO S Series 15 with an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE GPU and 1GB of RAM. On the 3DMark11 benchmark, the GPU helped the VAIO S Series 15 turn in a score of 1,342. That showing is better than the category average (1,067), but below the Acer Aspire M5, which hit 1,824 with the same GPU.
When we popped in "World of Warcraft" and set the graphics to autodetect and the resolution to 1366 x 768, we navigated the world of Azeroth at 144 frames per second, better than the category average of 60 fps, and edging out the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG's 137 fps. When we increased the resolution to native, the VAIO S dropped to 97 fps, which is still quite good. When we bumped the graphics setting up to their highest, the frame rate on the VAIO S dropped to 46 fps, comfortably higher than the 31 fps category average.
Click to EnlargeThe VAIO S Series 15 held its own hen we started up "Batman: Arkham City." With the graphics tuned to their lowest and the resolution set to 1366 x 768, the VAIO ran at a smooth 71 fps, and when we bumped up the resolution to the notebook native 1920 x 1080, the frame rate fell to a still fairly smooth 47 fps. By comparison, the Acer M5 notched 36 fps at the low settings, which falls below the category average of 51 fps. Still, that's about the best you can hope for on the VAIO S; when we jacked the effects up to high, it could only manage 15 fps.
The Sony VAIO S Series 15's lithium polymer battery lasted a respectable 5 hours and 24 minutes on our LAPTOP Battery Test (Web surfing with the display set to 40 percent brightness). That's almost exactly the same as the older VAIO SE, and a few minutes shy of the category average of 5:32, but not even close to the Acer Aspire TimelineU M5's 7:29. As of this writing, though, Sony is offering a free sheet battery with the S Series 15 ($150), which should effectively double its endurance.
Click to EnlargeVAIO-branded software on the S Series 15 lets you control everything from the keyboard backlighting to downloading music and video through the Sony Music Unlimited and Media Go stores.
Tying all of this together is Sony's VAIO Gate software. Situated at the top of the S Series 15's home screen, VAIO Gate is a drop-down menu that provides users with quick access to all of the laptop's VAIO-specific programs. However, we found VAIO Gate to be a hindrance, especially when browsing the web. When we went to click on a new browser tab at the top of the screen, we found ourselves opening VAIO Gate by accident on more than one occasion. Fortunately, you can turn off VAIO Gate.
Our $999 Sony VAIO S Series 15 came with a 2.5-GHz Intel Core i5-3210M dual-core processor, 6GB of RAM, a 640GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive and Nvidia Geforce GT 640M LE graphics chip with 1GB of RAM. If you're looking for more performance, you can get the notebook with a quad-core Intel Core i7-3612QM processor, 8GB of RAM, a 640GB, 7,200-rpm hard drive and an Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE graphics chip with 2GB of RAM for $1,399. In total, there are six preconfigured models, and all are currently offered with a free sheet battery, a $150 value.
Click to EnlargeThe $999 Sony VAIO S Series 15 is a solid all-around performer with a gorgeous 1080p display and attractive design. Despite its relatively light weight, this 15-inch laptop has serious game, too. And while the standard battery offers just about average endurance, adding a sheet battery will help you go all day.
Unfortunately, Sony has done little, if anything, to improve its audio performance. The somewhat erratic touchpad and hot temperatures on the bottom also hold this VAIO back from a higher rating. The $849 Acer Aspire TimelineU M5-581TG-6666 offers better endurance, but has a lower resolution 1366 x 768 display. If you can get the S Series 15 with the free sheet battery--and find a good pair of external speakers--you'll like what this multimedia notebook has to offer.