Introducing the Sony VAIO S

You asked for it, you got it: in house, a review of Sony's longstanding 13.3" road warrior S series. It's light, has a matte screen, switchable graphics, a mainstream Sandy Bridge processor, and the potential to last all day (and then some) on the battery. From the outside, at least, the Sony VAIO S looks like a winner at nearly any level. But did Sony cut any corners to get the VAIO S' price down, or should it be on any traveller's short list?

Before we get to the meat of the review, first a word about naming conventions. The actual laptop we're reviewing is technically the Sony VAIO VPCSB190X CTO (CTO = Configure To Order), but it's part of the VAIO S line and so we'll simply call it the VAIO S. There are lower end models (usually SB) and higher end offerings (SA), so bear in mind that what we're reviewing may have the same shell as other VAIO S laptops, but the LCD and other components (and thus performance) can vary.

Say what you will, I've always been a fan of Sony's styling and it's a rare pleasure to get one of their more portable VAIO notebooks in house for review. This may not be the Z series you were hoping for (we're working hard to get one of those in), but the S series has an awful lot to recommend it in and of itself. The svelte 13.3" chassis boasts an internal battery (user-replaceable), new Sandy Bridge graphics, and Sony continues to employ switchable graphics, this time with an AMD Radeon HD 6470M. To top it all off, you can even get the VAIO S with a matte screen. Here's how our specific test sample came equipped.

Sony VAIO SB Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2410M
(2x2.3GHz + HTT, 32nm, 3MB L3, Turbo to 2.9GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM65
Memory 4GB DDR3-1333 soldered to motherboard, one empty DIMM slot
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6470M 512MB DDR3 (switchable with Intel HD 3000)
(160 stream processors, 800MHz/1.8GHz core/memory clocks, 64-bit memory bus)
Display 13.3" Matte 16:9 1366x768
(SNY05FA Panel)
Hard Drive(s) Hitachi Travelstar 5K500.B 500GB 5400RPM HDD
Optical Drive Matshita DVD-RAM
Networking Realtek PCIe Gigabit Ethernet
Intel Wi-Fi Link 1000 802.11b/g/n
Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR
Audio Realtek ALC275 HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Headphone jacks
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 49Wh battery

Optional sheet battery:
6-Cell, 11.1V, 49Wh battery
Front Side Wireless toggle
Left Side Headphone jack
Optical drive
Right Side MS/MSPro reader
SD reader
Kensington lock
2x UVAIO S 2.0
AC adaptor
Back Side Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit SP1
Dimensions 13.04" x 8.84" x 0.95" (WxDxH)
Weight 3.8 lbs. (5 lbs. with sheet battery)
Extras Webcam
Backlit keyboard
Flash reader (SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo)
Switchable graphics
Extended sheet battery
Warranty 1-year limited warranty
Pricing Starting at $899
Priced as configured: $1,134

The configuration for the Sony VAIO S that Sony sent us is actually pretty close to their entry level; only the processor and hard drive have been upgraded (barely), and they opted to include the sheet battery for us to test as well.

By now Sandy Bridge processors should be pretty familiar to you; our VAIO includes the lowest i5 chip, the Intel Core i5-2410M, but it's still a beefy processor, sporting two Hyper-Threaded cores running at 2.3GHz and capable of turbo'ing up to 2.6GHz on both or 2.9GHz on a single core. That's certainly more than adequate for most tasks. Alongside it is one of the more interesting parts of the VAIO S' design: there's only one DIMM slot in the notebook, and it's open. The other memory channel is occupied by 4GB of DDR3-1333 soldered to the motherboard. In fact, you can actually see the RAM chips right below the open slot. This means that our review unit is running at a slight disadvantage, with only a single memory channel populated instead of running dual-channel.

Where things get a little perplexing is the AMD Radeon HD 6470M with 512MB of DDR3. Even 1GB of video memory would be excessive for this GPU, with just a 64-bit memory bus and 160 shaders. The 800MHz core clock and 1.8GHz effective memory clock help even things out a little, but this is still one of AMD's weakest GPUs. Sony also doesn't use AMD's troubled dynamic switchable graphics technology (we'll have a look at that in the near future), opting instead to use what seems to be a mux-based hardware switch to toggle the dedicated graphics on and off. Given what we already know of the 6470M's performance, it really bears asking...what's the point? Intel's HD 3000 graphics are roughly 70% as fast in most games, and we're at the entry level anyhow. Sony does offer an upgrade to the AMD Radeon HD 6630M with 1GB of DDR3, though I have concerns about just how well a chassis this thin can handle a GPU like that.

Unfortunately, where things get pretty dire is the hard drive: it's not a bottom rung Toshiba or Fujitsu, but as you'll see later the 5400RPM Hitachi Travelstar really bogs this system down. You can upgrade to a 7200RPM drive (or even an SSD in the premium model) and I can't stress this enough: pay for the upgrade.

Finally, our review unit also included the extra sheet battery which plugs snugly into the bottom of the notebook and adds a little more than a pound of heft, bumping the VAIO S up to a still reasonable five pounds. In exchange, you get basically double the battery capacity, a development that gets all the more impressive later on when you see our battery life results. Sony was only willing to lend us the VAIO for two weeks, and about a day into my battery testing I began to feel...a little rushed.

Good Computer, Too Much Bloat
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  • I am as mad as hell - Saturday, September 10, 2011 - link

    Built-in Logitech/Microsoft Mouse RF receiver
  • MobiusStrip - Saturday, September 17, 2011 - link

    Apple has opened up an opportunity to be beaten, by taking cues from second- and third-tier vendors at Best Buy and pushing pathetic glossy screens on everything.

    Their laptops also suffer from poor, incomplete keyboards. No Delete key? WTF?

    But does anyone step up with a state-of-the art, physically elegant competitor? No. They trowel out the same gaudy, chintzy garbage that's saddled with disgraceful crapware.

    It's too bad, because as applications become less and less important, the physical incarnation of the computer becomes more important.
  • gochichi - Saturday, September 10, 2011 - link

    It looks like an interesting enough product, and the review highlights that. But what of actually digging in and answering the questions that a potential buyer would want answered?

    Like, Sony offers a $50 upgrade to Windows 7 Pro, and then you can select "Fresh Start" for no further additional charge. Does this resolve the issue with bloatware? And sony should be getting flamed out of existance for having this as a hidden option (and you guys have some pull in actually changing this for us little guys, not sayinig you have tons of pull but surely more pull than a single concerned consumer).

    Also, the screen thing, I didn't even see 1600x900 as a listed option on Sony's website, would it really be that much to ask to get two review units in there and actually give us the information we're all looking for? I want to buy stuff, I want to read stuff that helps me really determine what I will be happy with.

    Really enjoyed the review, so much to like about it. I have a Sony right now that has 1600x900 res on a 14", I just put an SSD and vanilla WIndows 7 on it and so I know exactly what you're talking about with that. It's not that it's a bad review, it's that it could be a DEFINITIVE review and its not.
  • waldojim42 - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    With Win 7 pro, and clean start, I had basic drivers, and a very few select Sony utilities. Basically, enough to get the full user manual, and access the advanced features. It was a nice surprise to have no bloat.

    As for being hidden, I didn't even have to ask. I bought the i7/6630 version in store, it was a standard option on it.

    The 1600x900 screen is only an option on the SB not the SA (or the other way around, I don't remember). Sadly, the machine that can take advantage of it, doesn't have the option. You do not get to have the i7+6630 with the 1600x900.

    As mentioned elsewhere on here though, buy third party. Don't buy direct. And get an extended warranty. The repair times are atrocious right now, and they aren't willing to just replace the machine... even new ones.
  • megaphat - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    The reviewer has repeatedly raised the point of the switching graphics necessitating Sony's drivers (which may not be updated frequently), but I might just point out that the drivers can be unofficially updated. A user has created a driver package ( Apparently switching will continue to work, but WiDi requires a few changes.

    This makes it much more tolerable for gamers. With this in mind, I've ordered myself a SA (with the high res display and 6630).
  • - Sunday, September 11, 2011 - link

    Just want to drop my opinion on the bloatware subject: I completely agree with the reviewer, the sheer burden of all the useless programs sony includes it's ridiculous. Things like remote play for PS3 or media importers that fire up every time I connect my Android to the PC, jesus... Sony it's shooting itself in the foot with something so obviously wrong (this is user experience 101) that the only reasonable explanation I see of this is pressure from upper management inside Sony to "synergize" with other products/companies.

    And I am somewhat of a power user, I can't even imagine what the poor souls that don't know who to uninstall a program have suffered in the ram-full-of-crap-stuff-always-popping-up hell :s
  • omaudio - Tuesday, September 20, 2011 - link

    where is the noise info in "battery, noise, and heat'? I have been looking for a replacement for my Gateway LT2102 (LOVE this machine and their support!) and this looks interesting. My ultimate wish list is: 3lbs, backlit keys, cuda ready switchable gpu, quiet, 1366x768 minimum res, 5+hrs battery, 1.3mp web cam or higher, wireless hdmi (Intel?), bluetooth, gigabit LAN, decent trackpad buttons (ASUS=fail) etc.
  • nutral - Tuesday, October 11, 2011 - link

    The 6630 has the exact same graphics chip as the 6650, 6670, 6730, 6750 and 6770. the 6750 and 6770 have gddr5 memory instead of gddr3 of the others.
    I actually overklocked my hd6630 graphics chip from 485 to 748mhz. wich is over the speed of the 6730. The heat hasn't changed much but the performance is 25% higher, with a memory overklock from 800 to 900 i'm getting benchmark scores between the 6750 and the 6770. Mind you, the upgraded macbook pro 15inch has a 6750, so for a 13inch laptop it's quite some performance.

    I think it would be able to overklock every 6630 to around 600mhz, wich is the speed of a 6650M.
  • frodbonzi - Saturday, December 3, 2011 - link

    So it's been almost 3 months since this review... and Sony is selling the SA at approximately the same price as the SB was...

    I recently ordered the VPCSA390S :
    Intel® Core™ i5-2430M processor (2.40GHz / 3.00GHz with Turbo Boost)
    4GB (4GB fixed onboard + 1 open SDRAM slot) DDR3-SDRAM-1333
    AMD Radeon™ HD 6630M (1GB) hybrid graphics with Intel® Wireless Display technology
    13.3" LED backlit display (1600x900)
    128GB (128GB x1) solid state drive
    Extended Sheet Battery (Standard Capacity Battery + Large Capacity Sheet Battery)

    Price before tax was $1379 CAD - I had a ton of Sony points I had to redeem before Dec 31, so it ended up being free - hence the purchase despite possibly many other better laptops in this price range...

    I'm wondering - does anyone have this laptop (or reasonably close) and can say whether the upgrades over this article's laptop make it substantially better? Curious about the screen quality and the SSD difference especially.
  • fagus195623 - Thursday, April 19, 2012 - link

    is it sata 2 or 3

    in the first bios R1031h4 it was actived,
    later, last bios it was deactived R2085h4
    Nice when you did buy a 1000 euro laptop

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