Sony's new 15.5-inch VAIO E Series promises style, performance, and multimedia prowess at recession-conscious prices. Though our $919 configuration is a bit steep, this machine provides more than ample performance to serve as an all-purpose family PC that surfs the Web, plays Blu-ray movies and games, and looks great in your den, kitchen, or living room. However, short battery life and tinny speakers hold this system back.
If you want a notebook with a conservative look that will fade into the wallpaper, don't buy the VAIO E Series. However, if you desire a colorful, exciting design that really turns heads, the VAIO E is for you. However, it's not made for road warriors. At 14.6 x 9.8 x 1.2 inches thick and 6.0 pounds, the VAIO E is more at home on your desk than on your lap or your airline tray table.
The notebook is available in the relatively conservative Coconut White, Gunmental Black, and Black Sand or the louder Hibiscus Pink, Caribbean Green and Iridiscent Blue (metallic teal). The shiny lid and deck feature gradient patterns, while the bezel, sides, and bottom all have a metallic hue. Our review unit's Iridescent Blue color, combined with the green status lights and hot pink writing on the Assist button, reminded us of the television show Miami Vice.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The 103-key island-style keyboard includes a numeric keypad and plenty of room for your hands. The keys offer an acceptable but unimpressive level of tactile feedback, with no noticeable flex. Using the Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor test, we were able to achieve a strong score of 86 words per minute with a 1-percent error rate, better than our typical rate of 80 words per minute.
Rather than sitting in the middle of the deck, the VAIO E's touchpad is positioned left of center and directly beneath the space bar. This positioning takes some getting used to, as does the high-friction surface on the pad. In our testing, we found navigating around the desktop to be a little jerky because of the rough pad. We were also disappointed to find that the touchpad does not appear tosupport multitouch gestures. The two discrete mouse buttons offered just the right amount of feedback.
Click to enlargeThroughout our use of the VAIO E Series, we found that the major touchpoints stayed within comfortable temperatures. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured the keyboard at an acceptable 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the touchpad at a reasonable 94 degrees, and the bottom at a somewhat warm 101 degrees.However, given the size of the notebook, you probably won't be putting it on your lap much.
Display and Sound
The VAIO E's 15.5-inch 1366 x 768 screen provided sharp images and bright colors. However, the glossy surface on the screen ensured that colors looked washed out at any but the most direct viewing angle and, even when sitting right in front of the computer, we had to push the lid back 30 degrees to avoid seeing overhead lights or our own reflection.
Every kind of video we played was incredibly sharp, detailed and smooth, from a streaming 720p episode of Fringe to a downloaded 1080p file from Microsoft's WMV HD Content Showcase to a DVD of the movie Dark City. When we tried playing a Blu-ray disc of Iron Man, images were crisp and colorful, but the soundtrack seemed muted, even at maximum volume.
The speakers are a definite weakness. We tried listening to a heavy metal song, a jazz tune, and an R&B track, and all sounded tinny and harsh. Though the notebook's speakers got fairly loud as we streamed tunes from Napster.com, the VAIO sounded more like a mono clock radio than an expensive multimedia machine with stereo speakers.
Ports and Webcam
The VAIO E comes with just about every port the average consumer could need. On the right side of the chassis are three USB 2.0 ports, an optical drive, and a Kensington lock slot. On the left side, you'll find Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, eSATA/USB, and ExpressCard/34 slots. The front lip has headphone and microphone ports and two different memory card readers: one for Sony Memory Stick Pro cards and another for standard SD Cards.
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Thewebcam provided detailed images and clear video, even in a dimly lit room. When chatting over Skype, our call partner was able to see every pore in our skin.
Click to enlargeThe VAIO E's 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3-330M CPU and ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 graphics combined to give it very strong overall performance. Whether surfing the Web, viewing high def videos, playing games, or circling the globe in Google Earth, the notebook felt extremely snappy, and our benchmark tests only confirmed that impression.
On PC Mark Vantage, a test that measures overall performance, the VAIO E scored a whopping 5,449, well above the mainstream notebook category average of 3,587 and the 4,918 returned by the Core i3-powered Toshiba Satellite L505.
The 7,200-rpm, 500GB hard drive booted Windows 7 Home Premium(64-bit) in 56 seconds, which is just a tad faster than the category average of59 seconds and 5 seconds better than the Satellite L505.
The hard drive took 2 minutes and 55 seconds to complete the LAPTOP Transfer Test, in which we copy 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of 21.7 MBps, which is a little bit better than the category average of 20.4 MBps or the 20.9 MBps turned in by the Satellite L505.
The VAIO E took a brisk 1 minute and 5 seconds to transcode a 5-minute MPEG-4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Converter. This is a bit faster than the Satellite L505's 1 minute and 12 seconds. The category average is 52 seconds, but many of the systems that contributed toward that average have faster CPUs or four cores.
Though it's not marketed as a gaming system, the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5470 card inside the VAIO E gives it a lot of graphics muscle. On 3DMark06, which measures overall graphics prowess, the VAIO E scored an impressive 4,112, way better than the 3,185 category average, miles ahead of the Satellite L505 with integrated graphics (1,743), and even better than the discrete graphics-powered ASUS UL50VF (3436).
When we played World of Warcraft at 1024 x 768 resolution, the VAIO E managed a smooth-as-butter 60 frames per second, 15 frames better than the category average of 45 fps and nearly double that of the Satellite L505 (31 fps). The ASUS UL50VF, with its Nvidia graphics, also achieved 60 fps. When we bumped the resolution up to 1366 x 768 with high detail, the E Series' frame rate dropped to a still-playable 25 fps, on par with the category average of 26 fps, but far ahead of the Satellite L505 (10 fps). The ASUS UL50VF managed 31 fps at this resolution.
The E Series can even handle Far Cry 2, a more demanding game than World of Warcraft. At 1024 x 768 resolution, the notebook achieved a strong frame rate of 47 fps, far better than the category average of 32 fps, the 11 fps offered by the Satellite L505, and the 22 fps provided by the ASUS UL50VF. At 1366 x 768 resolution, the frame rate dropped to an unplayable 18 fps, but that was still better than the category average of 17 fps.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
With a 15.5-inch screen, powerful Core i3 CPU, and discrete ATI graphics, we didn't expect the VAIO E Series to last very long on a charge. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, the notebook lasted only 2 hours and 44 minutes. This is 45 minutes less than the category average of 3:29, and 23 minutes less than the Toshiba Satellite L505. The ASUS UL50VF, which uses an IntelCore 2 Duo CPU and Nvidia Optimus Technology, lasted a whopping 7 hours and 50 minutes.
The VAIO E's 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi card provided a strong transfer rate of 45.1 Mbps at a distance of 15 feet from the router, and 32.8 Mbps at a distance of 50 feet. These scores were similar to those provided by the Satellite L505 (43.9 / 27.2 Mbps) and the ASUS UL50VF (46.4 / 28.3 Mbps).
Click to enlargeThe Sony VAIO E starts at $699 with a base configuration that includes a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3-330M CPU, Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit), a 5,400-rpm, 320GB hard drive, 4GB of RAM, Intel GMA HD integrated graphics, a Gunmetal Black chassis, and a DVD burner. When configuring your VAIO E, you can upgrade to a faster 2.26-GHz Core i3 or 2.4-GHz Core i5 CPU. You can also move from Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)to Windows 7 Professional (64-bit), choose between 320GB and 500GB hard drive options in either 7,200-rpm or 5,400-rpm speeds, and grab up to 8GB of RAM. For $50, you can move from Intel's integrated graphics to ATI's discrete solution.
If you want a color other than Gunmetal Black, you'll find yourself paying a $50 premium. $70 upgrades you from a DVD burner to a Blu-ray player, while $150 gets you a Blu-ray burner. Sony tells us that a 1920 x 1080 resolution screen configuration of the VAIO E will be available soon, but right now you're stuck with the standard 1366 x 768 display, even if you're playing high def Blu-ray discs.
Software and Warranty
Click to enlargeSony includes its VAIO Care utility, which launches when you hit the pink Assist button above the keyboard. It gives you easy access to Sony VAIO support, while including system tune-up utilities, a recovery/restore feature, and troubleshooting wizards for dozens of possible problems. The SmartWi Connection Utility is Sony's wireless manager, but we didn't see any benefit of using it over the built-in Windows Network and Sharing Center.
In addition to its utilities, Sony includes ArcSoft WebCam Companion 3for shooting videos and stills with the webcam, Corel WinDVD BD for playing Blu-ray discs, and Roxio Easy Media Creator 10 LJfor burning discs.
The E Series comes standard with a one-year warranty and 24/7 toll-free support. To see how Sony did in our Tech Support Showdown, click here.
The Sony VAIO E provides a strong mix of style, performance, and multimedia features, but it's not for everyone. If you're looking for the best possible multimedia system, you may want something with better sound. You also might want to hold out for the 1920 x 1080 screen configuration of the VAIO E. If graphics performance isn't paramount, you should be fine with the base integrated graphics configuration, though you might want to look at Toshiba's Satellite L505: both are available for $699. However, if you want a colorful centerpiece for your living room/office that the whole family can enjoy for gaming, work, and more, the VAIO E is a compelling choice.