Over the years, Sony has established a reputation for creating laptops with style, but they haven't exactly been known for great value. The $799 VAIO Y Series, Sony's first 13-inch ULV notebook, delivers a sleek and sturdy magnesium design for an aggressive price. It also offers a convenient dedicated button to help users troubleshoot and tune up their systems. While this ultraportable doesn't last as long on a charge as some competitors, the VAIO Y is a good value.
Measuring 1.3 inches thick and weighing 3.8 pounds, the black VAIO Y is made for travel. It's also made to last. Sony decked out the top and bottom of the chassis in magnesium, giving the notebook a nice rigidity; twisting the machine in our hands with the lid closed resulted in zero flex. The competing ASUS UL30A has a light silver brushed aluminum lid, but the deck is plastic. The HP Pavilion dm3 has aluminum on both the lid and deck, which gives it more of a consumer feel. Some may feel the VAIO Y looks too much the part of a business machine, but we like its fit and finish.
Other elegant details on the VAIO Y include a textured grid pattern on the deck, which has a nice feel. Like other Sony notebooks, this one sports circular hinges; the right side houses the power button, and the left has the power jack. Above the keyboard is a speaker strip and two buttons: VAIO and Assist. The VAIO button launches VAIO Media Gallery software, while the Assist button pulls up VAIO Care for quick access to support and troubleshooting options.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Sony was one of the first to introduce chiclet-style keyboards on notebooks, and the VAIO Y continues that heritage. The company says it engineered the layout so that the spacing between the keys would minimize errors while maximizing comfort. In our tests, we could touch type at a brisk base, even if the keys felt a tad mushy.
We're big fans of the large touchpad on the VAIO Y, which has a dotted pattern but a smooth surface. We prefer this touchpad to the dimpled one on the ASUS UL30A, and it beats the pants off of the friction-heavy HP Pavilion dm3. And unlike the UL30A, this notebook has two dedicated touchpad buttons; they offered good feedback but are too loud for our tastes.
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Compared to other ULV notebooks we've tested recently, the VAIO Y keeps its cool. After playing a Hulu video for 15 minutes, we measured temperatures of 88 degrees Fahrenheit on the touchpad, 94 degrees between the G and H keys, and 98 degrees on the bottom side of the laptop. (Anything under 100 degrees is acceptable.) The HP Pavilion dm3, on the other hand, registered as high as 102 degrees on the underside.
Display and Audio
The VAIO Y boasts a gorgeous 13.3-inch LED-backlit display that offers vivid colors and excellent contrast levels. When we streamed an episode of 24 on Hulu at full screen, horizontal viewing angles were generous, and we noticed a high level of detail even in standard definition mode.
Dialog in that episode of 24 was loud and clear, but music was a less fulfilling experience. The speaker bar above the keyboard produced good volume when we streamed tunes from Pandora (enough to double as a mini stereo in a hotel room), but Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge" sounded tinny. Foo Fighters' "Learn to Fly" sounded a bit less harsh. We suggest keeping the volume one or two notches below the max.
Ports and Webcam
There are few surprises when it comes to the port selection on the VAIO Y. Like most ULV notebooks, this one lacks a DVD drive, so looks elsewhere if that's and important feature to you. The left side houses the power jack, VGA port, HDMI, one USB 2.0, a FireWire port, and headphone and microphone jacks. The Ethernet ports, two more USB 2.0 ports, and an ExpressCard/34 slot line the right side. Up front you'll find separate Memory Stick and SD Card slots.
The Motion Eye webcam on the VAIO Y captured high quality images during a Skype chat. The other caller could easily make out the funny faces we made. ArcSoft's bundled Magic-i Visual Effects 2 and WebCam Companion 3 software lets you tweak settings like brightness and contrast, as well as add fun special effects like frames and masks.
Click to enlargeLike many other ultraportables in this price range, the VAIO Y features Intel's 1.3-GHz Core 2 Duo SU7300 processor. This dual-core CPU, along with 4GB of RAM combined to offer snappy performance. The system scored 2,906 in PCMark Vantage; that showing is above the ultraportable category average (2,739), much better than the ASUS UL30A (2,442), and slightly higher than the HP Pavilion dm3 (2,874). The VAIO Y also beats the Intel version of the Toshiba Satellite T135 (2,701). Anecdotally, the VAIO Y proved to be a good performer; we noticed only a bit of lag when we tried to zoom in on our Manhattan office while we had Pandora streaming in the background, and most applications opened quickly.
The 5,400-rpm, 320GB hard drive booted to Windows 7 Home Premium in a relatively sluggish 1 minute and 8 seconds. This is 7 seconds slower than the category average of 61 seconds. The VAIO Y completed the LAPTOP Transfer Test--in which we copy a 4.97GB folder of mixed media files--in 3 minutes and 53 seconds, for a transfer rate of 22.3 MBps. That's a tad faster than the 21.0 MBps category average, but slower than the ASUS UL30A (23.2 MBps) and on a par with the HP Pavilion dm3 (22.4 MBps).
Graphics and Video Transcoding
For a notebook with integrated graphics, the VAIO Y holds its own. Its score of 906 in 3DMark06 is slightly above the ultraportable average (852). Gameplay in World of Warcraft was a decent 26 frames per second at 1024 x 768 resolution, but that plummeted to a snail-like 7 fps at native resolution. We wish Sony offered a discrete graphics option, like HP does with the dm3t. If you want this feature from a 13-inch VAIO, you'll have to step up to the $1,199 SR Series.
When we transcoded a 114MB video from MPEG-4 to AVI using Oxelon Media Converter (which uses multithreading), the task took 2 minutes and 1 second. The pricier Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 13 beat this time by 44 seconds, but the AMD-powered Toshiba Satellite T135D was 10 seconds slower.
Battery Life and Wireless
This is the one area where the VAIO Y falls behind the pack. In the LAPTOP Battery Test, which simulates continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi, the notebook lasted 6 hours and 22 minutes. That's nearly an hour longer than the category average, but less than Sony's "up to 8 hours" claim and well behind the ASUS UL30A's epic runtime of 9:55. The HP Pavilion dm3 also beat the VAIO Y by a wide margin, lasting 9:07. If you want more endurance, Sony makes a large capacity battery available with the $999 configuration of this notebook, which it claims will last for up to 12 hours.
Equipped with a 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi card, the VAIO Y delivered data rates of 20.4 Mbps at 15 feet from our access point and 19.4 Mbps from 50 feet (both scores are above average). Sony also includes a stereo Bluetooth radio.
Click to enlargeSony offers two versions of the VAIO Y Series. The $799 model we tested features a 320GB hard drive and a standard capacity battery, while the $999 configuration (the VPCY118GX/Bl) comes with a larger 500GB hard drive and both the standard and large capacity batteries. Unfortunately, you can't build your VAIO Y to order as you can with many other Sony notebooks.
Software, Support, and Greenness
Sony bundles the VAIO Y with two utilities that are given high priority with dedicated launch buttons. The VAIO button launches VAIO Media Gallery, which neatly organizes and displays your music, photos, and videos. You can also use this software to create slideshows with nifty transitions and music soundtracks.
The Assist button launches VAIO Care, a portal for assessing your system, troubleshooting, and performing quick tune-ups (such as defragmenting your hard drive and cleaning the registry). You'll also find easy access to creating restore points. Our favorite feature within this utility is VAIO Support, which clearly displays Sony's toll-free number and provides a link to chat with support specialists.
Sony also includes Microsoft Works SE 9.0, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, and a 30-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2010,
Sony backs the VAIO Y with a one-year limited warranty, complete with 24/7 toll-free phone support. To see how Sony fared in our annual Tech Support Showdown, click here.
The VAIO Y has an EPEAT Gold rating of 21 (out of 27).
Sony took its sweet time bringing its first 13-inch ULV ultraportable to market, but it was worth the wait. It offers a more durable design than the ASUS UL30A ($799) and a better touchpad than the HP Pavilion dm3 ($814 when similarly configured). But while the VAIO Y's nearly 6.5 hours of battery life is good, both the ASUS and HP machines last over 9 hours on a charge. Still, if you can live with the Sony VAIO Y's endurance--and we think many buyers can--you'll enjoy taking this $799 system on the road.