Thanks to its svelte, silver finish and overall good looks, the Sony VAIO VGN-NR310E looks more expensive than its $599 price tag. But while you get a large and bright glossy display and a DVD burner for a bargain-basement price, don't expect more than basic productivity performance. This laptop is best for word processing, checking e-mail, and browsing the Web. Anything more causes it to wheeze.
We don't typically expect much in terms of pizzazz from a $599 notebook. But the VGN-NR310E stands out with its classy, modern look and sturdy feel. The VGN-NR310E measures 14.2 x 10.6 inches and is 1.2 to 1.5 inches thick. Its full-size keyboard sits below a 15.4-inch widescreen display and has good punch to it; typing felt natural. The trackpad continues the silver, brushed-metal design, and we appreciated its large size.
The VGN-NR310E has two USB 2.0 ports on the left, along with a 8X DVDRW drive. On the front of the unit are two card-reader slots: one for SD Cards and one for Memory Sticks. On the right is a 34mm ExpressCard slot, two more USB 2.0 ports, an i.LINK Interface (FireWire port), headphone and microphone jacks, and a VGA output. The Ethernet, modem, and power inputs are on the back. There are few bells and whistles on this value-priced VAIO, which means no webcam or quick-launch media buttons.
Display and Audio Quality
While the whole of the VGN-NR310E feels sturdy, the DVDRW drive felt flimsy, and we needed to push a bit aggressively to close it. Once we had Two for the Money playing, the picture looked quite good on the 15.4-inch display (1280 x 800 pixels), so long as we were sitting right in front of the system, though we noticed some graininess. The screen will serve its purpose for just one or two on a love seat, though: Vertical viewing angles were good, but if you're sitting eye-level with the display and lean just 20 degrees left or right of center, the image begins to turn negative. The speakers were loud, but as is typical with laptops, the sound was tinny and thin on bass.
Because the VAIO VGN-NR310E features an older 1.73-GHz Intel Pentium Dual-Core T2370 processor and only 1GB of RAM to run Windows Vista Home Premium, you shouldn't expect much in the way of performance. The system couldn't run either MobileMark or PCMark, and boot-up to took a leisurely 1 minute and 30 seconds.
We put this notebook through its paces by playing some videos on Hulu.com. The "Job Fair" episode of The Office looked good in Internet Explorer. However, once we switched to full-screen mode, the picture looked blocky. In general, this notebook is better suited for everyday productivity chores.
The 160GB 5,400-rpm hard drive has plenty of room for MP3s and music, and it's acceptable for a budget laptop. The VGN-NR310E doesn't have a lot of graphics power, though. It scored 1,317 points in 3DMark03, which is low no matter how you look at it: The category average for mainstream laptops is 4,501.
Battery Life and Wireless
The VGN-NR310E offers pretty good endurance for a budget system. When we used the notebook to surf the Web, watch part of a movie, and stream a small amount of video, we saw 2 hours and 47 minutes of life before the notebook ran out of juice. The average runtime for this laptop category is 3 hours with Wi-Fi enabled.
Wireless scores were decent, but the VGN-NR310E supports only 802.11b/g networks, so you'll need a new network card to take advantage of 802.11n access points. The notebook was able to maintain data throughput of 15 Mbps at 15 feet, which is just 2 Mbps below average. At 50 feet from the access point, the NR310E pulled in a rate of 12.7 Mbps, again, just 2.2 Mbps below the mainstream notebook average.
Beware of Bloatware
We were put off by some of Sony's preloaded bloatware. For one, when you launch Internet Explorer, AOL, eBay, and Sony's own Web site automatically launch in three different tabs. Second, you'll find an annoyingly animated "Free Storage on Xdrive" icon on the desktop, and more links for AOL software such as AIM, AOL, and AOL Video. Sony also includes Microsoft Works and a Norton 360 trial. You can remove all of these easily, but the computer feels cluttered right out of the box. If you need help getting rid of this added software, Sony offers one year of 24/7 toll-free technical support. Should anything happen to your notebook, a one-year limited warranty is also included.
For $599, the VGN-NR310E is an attractive but not very powerful notebook. What you get is a machine for surfing the Web, storing and viewing pictures, and working on office tasks. It can handle DVDs and streaming online video, but not as well as other budget systems we've seen. If you're willing to drop a little more dough, we suggest the beautiful $799 Gateway T-6828, which offers 3GB of RAM, longer battery life, and better performance.