Sony Vaio S13 A Review

Pros
* Probably the best performance-per-pound ratio on the market (with the possible exceptions of the much pricier Vaio Z and Retina Macbook Pro).
* Large, responsive touchpad.
* Generally solid build-quality.
* Good resolution (1600×900) for a 13” MATTE display. Text is sharp and colors are vibrant (however, see cons).
* Switchable graphics works like a dream, the “Speed>Stamina” switch works wonders.
* Included software suite provides video and audio editing tools which are lightyears ahead of Microsoft’s Live Essentials kit (I presume).
* Sony’s Smart-Network is the first OEM networking utility you might actually want to keep on your computer.
* Comfortable, well-spaced keyboard.
* Solid battery life, considering the high performance parts.
* No compromises regarding functionality: includes an optical drive, Ethernet port, and standard sized VGA and HDMI ports (ie. no adapters needed). The hard drive, memory expansion slot, battery and networking card are removable and easily accessible.

Cons
* The speakers, oh dear god, the speakers
* The screen has some serious flex (although apparently this is by design).
* The touchpad is perhaps a bit too large, and unintentional palm-clicks are a problem while typing. This can be solved with an adjustment to the touchpad settings.
* The color accuracy of the screen leaves a lot to be desired. Yellows have a greenish hue, while blues shift towards purple. This doesn’t really matter for most people; however, this display is not suitable for photographers, or anyone who requires good color reproduction. [EDIT: Workaround available, see comments below]
* Lack of Displayport limits external monitor resolution to 1920×1200.

Bottom Line: If you want more performance, you’ll need to add two pounds. If you want to shave off some weight, you’ll need to sacrifice some serious performance. This is the crux of the VAIO S13A design, no other laptop (that I am aware of) offers this kind of all-around performance in a sub four-pound frame.

Design and Build Quality

The frame of the S13A is made from a plastic/carbon-fiber blend which provides decent stiffness and some serious weight reduction. Removing the lower access panel displays the impressive strength-to-weight ratio of this material; the millimeter thin panel is surprisingly stiff. Don’t let the non-metallic feel turn you off, this is a quality frame. There is a slight bit of flex under the keyboard, mostly over the optical drive, but you won’t notice unless you’re looking for it. The palm rests are rock solid, and picking up the laptop by one corner only induces the slightest flex in the frame overall.

The intake for the cooling path is on the right side of the frame, while the exhaust is through a copper heat-sink on the rear, beneath the hinge display. This design allows for the use of the system as a true laptop, no vents on the bottom to block. The cooling system is effective, and the laptop rarely heats up even under load. The fan is unobtrusive until you flip the switch from stamina to speed and put the system under load, at which point the sound kicks up considerably.

I’ve never been a fan of the screen flex typical of Sony’s ultraportables. According to Sony this is a bend-don’t-break engineering choice, rather than a design flaw. The feel doesn’t inspire confidence, but Sony’s been doing this for years, so hopefully they’ve got it figured out by now.

At 3.7lbs the S13A is one of the lightest fully featured laptops on the market. To put that in perspective, the 13” Macbook Air weighs 3lbs, and the 13” Macbook pro weighs 4.5lbs; yet the S13A competes with the performance of the latter rather than the former. The Lenovo X230 and ASUS UX32VD both weigh in at 3lbs, but neither offers an internal optical drive or the CPU/GPU performance of the S13A. Sony’s own high end Z series packs a standard voltage i7 quad core CPU into a 2.5lbs frame, but skimps on the GPU and will cost you your first born child. All in all, there is nothing else in the sub 4lbs range than offers the all-around capabilities of the S13A. In fact, there’s very little in the sub 5lbs range with a GPU equivalent to the 640M LE found in the S13A.   

Aesthetics

The look of the S13A is understated, but with a little more style than a traditional business laptop. The frame is a uniform thickness throughout, with sharply angled margins. The screen bezel mounts to the frame with a drop hinge, and swings slightly behind the frame when opened. This allows the rear exhaust some breathing room, but prevents the screen from opening past approximately 120°. The hinges are plenty stiff and keep the screen steady while typing, and the lid firmly shut. Unfortunately the stiffness of the hinges means that you will feel the display flex when lifting and closing the lid. There is also a slight creaking sound associated with this flex.

The store-bought model comes in a matte black; however, I opted for the gunmetal black option available only through online order. The gunmetal finish has a dark, brushed appearance, and a more textured look than the matte option. Oddly, the dark metallic colour gets a subtle brown/purple hue under incandescent light, and a blue/silver hue under fluorescent lighting. I prefer the gunmetal look to the matte black, but either way, I doubt you’ll regret your choice. The large VAIO logo emblazoned in the center of the lid is… unfortunate, but at least Sony didn’t stick a light bulb behind it.

All in all I really like the look of the S13A. This is a laptop which you can take into a business meeting, or into a coffee-shop without feeling out of place. It won’t turn many heads, and that’s just the way I like it.

Display

The display on my S13A is an above average TN panel with a resolution of 1600×900. The display is made by Sony (part# SNY06FA). The matte finish is definitely appreciated, and doesn’t negatively impact colour saturation. Colours are vibrant and blacks are decently black, unlike the washed out displays which plague cheaper laptops. In dark scenes there is some noticeable backlight bleed at the bottom and the top right corner. Horizontal viewing angles are good, while vertical viewing angles are standard for a TN panel (ie. poor).

Colour accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. Yellows, such as the folder icons in explorer, have a noticeable green shift, while blues a have a touch of purple in them. Personally, this doesn’t affect what I do, and I really don’t mind; nevertheless, photographers beware. I’m a novice at display calibration, so if anyone has any tips, please let me know!

Since this is a small, relatively high resolution display, text and UI elements may be a bit too small for some. What follows is a quick tweak guide to get the most out of small, high res displays.

1.    Increase the DPI scaling for larger, clearer text. Open the Start Menu and type ‘dpi’, then select the “Make text and other items larger or smaller” option. Select “Medium 125%”, hit apply and logout and log back in.
2.    Shrink UI elements to reclaim valuable screen space. Right click on the desktop and select “Personalize”. Select “Window Colour”, and then “Advanced appearance settings…”. Select from the drop down list “Active Title Bar” and set the size to 22. From the same drop down list select “Border Padding” and set the size to 0. Then select “Scrollbar” and set the size to 18. Hit OK, and then Save Changes.
Next, right click on the taskbar> select Properties> check the ‘Use small icons’ box> click ‘OK’.
3.    Smooth out and darken text rendering. Open the Start Menu, and type “ClearType”. Click through the wizard per your own preferences, I prefer my text nice and dark.

Sound

These speakers are awful, that’s pretty much all there is to say about it. I don’t use my laptop speakers often, but if you do, this may be a deal breaker. The volume is loud enough, but I wouldn’t recommend subjecting your favorite tracks to this sort of sound quality. The included dolby audio utility can help in some situations, but no amount of software will save these speakers. On the other hand, plug in a good set of earphones or externals and you’ll be very pleased with the results.

Keyboard

The keyboard is very soft to the touch, which takes some getting used to. That being said, I’m really starting to appreciate how little effort it takes to type, no finger fatigue here! Spacing is good and everything feels solid. The backlighting is automated, using the ambient light sensor just above the F keys. You can turn the backlight on and off manually using the Vaio control panel; however, I would have appreciated a hotkey for this. Sony, Fn+F8 and Fn+F11 are still available! Function keys include: touchpad on/off, volume control and mute, display brightness, display output selector (redundant with Windows 7, just hit Win+P), zoom in/out, and sleep. Lack of a play/pause control is an unfortunate oversight. The Page-Up, Page-Down, Home and End keys are mapped to the arrow pad and activated by the Fn button.
You will find a fingerprint reader above the keyboard. Tip: these finger-print readers are more reliable with your middle finger rather than your index finger.

Touchpad

The touchpad on this laptop is one of the best I’ve ever used (and yes, I’ve logged my fair share of time on a Macbook). The left and right click buttons are activated by clicking the respective corner of the touchpad itself. I’ve seen this design end in disaster before; however, it works reasonably well here. That being said, tapping is so responsive (tapping with two fingers activates right-click), that I have hardly used the physical buttons at all. The multi-touch gestures include two-finger scrolling, pinch-to-zoom and three-finger swiping (among other, more obscure gestures), and all work very well. No touchpad will ever replace a mouse for precision work, but this is one of the few which I will dare to use in Photoshop.

The touchpad is rather large for such a small laptop, which I’m sure some people appreciate. Personally, I crank the pointer sensitivity up to max and turn on pointer momentum; hence, I only use a few square centimeters in the center (this has the added benefit of making sure that no other human will be able to use my laptop without losing their mind). Unfortunately, the touchpad is so large that it will often record taps from my palm while typing. This can be solved by turning up the SmartSense setting in the Synaptics control panel. SmartSense allows the touchpad to distinguish intentional taps with the finger from unintentional brushes of the palm. Unlike with my previous laptop, having SmartSense set to high does not reduce the precision of the touchpad, and I’m shocked that it is on a low setting by default.

Ports

Port layout is fairly standard. Left side: combined headphone/microphone jack. Right side: A/C, gigabit ethernet, USB 2 (support for offline charging), 2x USB 3, HDMI, VGA, SD Card Slot, Sony MemoryStick Slot. This port selection will cover most needs without resorting to adapters. Unfortunately, the HDMI port tops out at a screen resolution of 1920×1200, demonstrating once again that this laptop was not designed for creative professionals. I prefer HDMI to Displayport personally; HDMI has been the standard on all HDTVs since 1080p hit the market, and I hate travelling with adapters. That being said, having both connectors would have been a better way to go, and I can see why many would prefer the Displayport option.

The power jack has a noticeable wobble to it. It isn’t that the plug feels loose in the jack, so much as the jack has significant play within the frame. I’m going to assume that this is another bend-don’t-break design choice from Sony, and if so, will go a long way towards preventing damage to the jack from sudden pulls of the power cord.

On the base of the laptop are ports for a docking station and battery slice (both sold separately). Sony began including the battery slice for free as a promotional deal shortly after I received my laptop. A quick email to the Sony CS department and my free battery slice was in the mail, +1 for customer service. The battery slice clips to the bottom of the laptop, increasing both the thickness and the weight. Even so, the laptop+battery slice weighs in at under 5lbs, and reminds me of the weight and thickness of the IBM T40 I once loved so dearly. I still have to do a double take when the Windows battery monitor tells me that I have 12 hours remaining.

Under the Hood

I chose to go the custom order route with the following configuration:
* CPU: Intel Core i7-3520M
* Memory: 8GB (4GB soldered to the motherboard, 4GB aftermarket upgrade)
* GPU: Intel HD 4000 + Nvidia GT640M LE (2GB)
* HDD: 640GB 7200rpm (manufactured by Hitachi)
* Optical: DVD-RW
* OS: Windows 7 Pro x64
* Colour: Gunmetal Black

Unlike most laptops in this weight range, the S13A uses standard voltage (35W TDP) processors from Intel’s new Ivy Bridge line. These chips run at much higher clock speeds than the 17W versions found in most Ultrabooks. To put this in perspective I’ve compiled some scores from 3DMark 06 – CPU (all of which are taken from Notebook / Laptop Reviews and News – Notebookcheck.net).

i7-3520M (Dual Core, 35W, 2.9GHz, 4MB cache): 4023 | 100% — high-end option for S13A
i5-3320M (Dual Core, 35W, 2.6GHz, 3MB cache): 3792 | 94% — mid-range option for S13A
i5-3210M (Dual Core, 35W, 2.5GHz, 3MB cache): 3478 | 86% — standard option for S13A
i7-3517U (Dual Core, 17W, 1.9GHz, 4MB cache): 3179 | 79% — CPU found in high-end Ultrabooks
i5-3317U (Dual Core, 17W, 1.7Ghz, 3MB cache): 2757 | 68% — standard CPU in most Ultrabooks

First off, synthetic benchmarks of this nature should be taken with a grain of salt, and real world performance will vary depending on the needs of the application. Nevertheless, it is apparent that you really do lose some performance with the Ultrabooks. That being said, even the low voltage CPUs of today are plenty fast enough for web browsing and office applications. The focal-stack imaging software I use on a daily basis is very CPU intensive, and even a 5% boost in performance is worth the extra money for me. However, for most people I would not recommend spending the extra to upgrade from the i5-3210M which comes in the S13A base configuration.

The S13A comes with 4GB of Samsung DDR3L-1333 low-voltage [1.35V] memory soldered to the motherboard, as well as one expansion slot for upgrades. Sony asks $100 to add an additional 4GB to the configuration; however, you can find a 4GB DDR3L module on NewEgg for as little as $23 (Newegg.ca – Crucial 4GB 204-Pin DDR3 SO-DIMM DDR3 1333 (PC3 10600) Laptop Memory Model CT51264BF1339). Upgrading the memory in the S13A is a breeze, simply remove two screws and slide off the bottom panel.

My work requires disk space and lots of it, and solid state hard drives are still not an option for me. For those of you who can get away with a 256GB disk, I would recommend looking into a solid-state drive. Sony offers such an option for the ‘bargain’ price of $550. This disk is composed of two 128GB drives in a RAID 0 configuration for even greater performance; nevertheless, you can probably save a few hundred dollars by buying your own solid state disk from elsewhere. The hard drive bay is easily accessible under the same panel as the memory, and accepts standard sized 2.5” HDDs with a standard SATA connector.

The GPU setup found inside the S13A may be its defining feature. You get both the Intel HD 4000 (the first worthwhile GPU from Intel) and the Nvidia GT 640M LE, the current low-end model of Nvidia’s new Kepler architecture (the GT 630M and GT 620M are based on the older Fermi architecture, and some 640M LE models are based on Fermi as well). I opted for the $50 upgrade to 2GB of graphics memory. Some of the software I use is CUDA enabled and can make use of the extra memory. Otherwise, keep that $50 in your pocket, the 1GB base configuration will do just fine for gaming at this laptop’s 1600×900 screen resolution.

Switching between the two GPUs is handled by Nvidia’s Optimus technology, and it works like a dream. Optimus puts Intel’s integrated GPU in charge of all video output, and simply uses the 640M LE for extra back-end rendering muscle when needed. This makes switching between the two seamless: no screen flicker and no stutter. The speed/stamina switch above the keyboard gives you some control over this process. In stamina mode the Nvidia GPU will never activate, no matter the rendering load. In speed mode the system will switch between the two automatically based on a list of application specific profiles created by Nvidia. You can easily create your own profiles using the provided Nvidia control panel.

I haven’t done any gaming on this system, I need the 3D rendering muscle for creating and displaying 3D models. One of my models, composed of 270,000 vertices and 540,000 faces, renders in Meshlab at 13fps with the 640M LE, and 6fps with the HD 4000 (and thanks to the speed/stamina switch, I can jump between the two on the fly). That roughly 2 to 1 ratio holds fairly consistent with most models in Meshlab. The Intel GMA 3100 in my old laptop rendered the same model at roughly 1fps. I should point out that the clock speed of the HD 4000 varies between processors, so the performance from the HD 4000 in the i7-3520M [650MHz base, 1.25GHz dynamic] will likely be slightly better than you’ll see from that within the i5-3210M [650MHz base, 1.1GHz dynamic], and significantly better than from the 17W low voltage processors: i7-2517U [350MHz base, 1.15GHZ dynamic], i5-3317U [350MHz base, 1.05GHz dynamic].

Battery Life

I haven’t done any true battery life tests with this laptop yet. That being said, with the normal ‘coffee shop’ workload of web-browsing and typing I get about 6 hours out of the internal (but user replaceable!) 49WHr battery (in stamina mode of course). The battery slice, also 49WHr, appears to double that exactly, although I’ve never burned through both batteries in a single sitting. The laptop runs down the battery slice first, and then switches to the internal. In ‘workstation mode’, ie. processing 3D models using CUDA enabled VisualSFM, the internal battery lasts a touch under 2 hours, but I usually wait to find a plug before subjecting my laptop to that kind of torture.

Software Environment

Sony offers a no-charge “Fresh Start” option for online orders, which removes all but the essential utilities from the install image. For reasons I don’t fully remember, I didn’t check that box when I ordered mine. Fortunately the “bloatware” included in the default image isn’t overly obnoxious. The trial of Kaspersky A/V got a quick uninstall, although I suppose if you’re going to be installing a trial A/V program, you could do worse than Kaspersky. For some reason Sony continues to install its VaioGate docking program, which is mostly redundant in light of the Win7 taskbar. Sony also includes three redundant media organization programs: Media-Gallery, Media-Go, and Play-Memories Home. I’m guessing that you already have a preferred set of media programs, and none of Sony’s offerings will change your mind; verdict: uninstall.

And now for the good news: some of Sony’s preinstalled programs are downright useful. The VaioCare program is Sony’s system management omni-tool. From here you can update, uninstall, and reinstall all software included with the system. You can access all sorts of troubleshooting and performance information, from the wear level of your battery to a list of background programs which are hogging resources. The included hardware diagnostics suite is very thorough as well. None of this will be of much use to the more tech-savvy users, but Vaio-Care provides the average user with a lot of useful information through a very user-friendly interface.

The Vaio Control Panel gives you a number of hardware related configuration options (ie. Keyboard backlight settings and the like). The battery-care option is interesting for those who mostly use their laptop at the plug, it will set the full battery charge to 80% or 50% of the maximum capacity of the battery, greatly extending the battery’s lifespan.

Another included utility worth mentioning is the Vaio Smart Network app. At first glance, Smart Network appears to be nothing more than a way of enabling and disabling the Wifi and Bluetooth modules. However, the ‘Share my Connection’ option provides the simplest Ad-Hoc networking functionality I’ve ever used. Sharing an Ethernet connection over Wifi has been around for years, and Smart Network streamlines this process nicely. Furthermore, Smart Network takes advantage of a little known back-end feature of Windows 7: the ability to share a Wifi connection over a second Wifi network, using just a single wireless card. As of 2009 most wireless cards didn’t support this functionality, so Microsoft never wrote a front-end for the feature; nevertheless, programs such as Connectify have provided that front-end, for price. Smart Network has that functionality built in, and it’s stupid-simple to use: set your SSID and WPA password, click the Share My Connection button, and you’re done. I’ve used this a number of times to create a wireless sub-network in my lab with internet access through the secured university wireless network (which filters for approved MAC addresses). Would the university IT department approve of my work-around? Probably not, but they haven’t figured it out yet. Another use might be setting up a temporary Wifi network for a meeting/party, without having to give out the password for your permanent network.

Also included with the S13A is a full suite of media creation programs, including: Acid Music Studio, Sound-Forge Audio Studio, Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum, and DVD Architect. I’m not much into media creation, but they look like quality apps, and Sony otherwise sells them as a bundle for $180. Perhaps someone with more experience in this field can comment, but I’m guessing that these will handle all of your home media-creation needs, and beat Microsoft’s Live Essentials kit by a country mile.

Final Take

Sony’s S13A provides a unique option for those wanting portability without compromising performance or features. There are smaller, lighter options without dedicated graphics or an optical drive (see Lenovo’s X230) and with low voltage processors (see the ultrabooks, especially the ASUS UX32VD which comes with a GT620 GPU and a glorious IPS display). There are options with quad-core processors and GT650 GPUs, but you’ll need to add two pounds to the weight, and a larger footprint for the frame. Or, for roughly a thousand bucks more, you can get a full voltage quad-core in a 2.5lbs frame in the Sony Vaio Z, or add a GT650 to that in the 4.5lbs frame of the Macbook Pro Retina. On the other hand, I can do a lot with a thousand dollars.

When it came time to replace my old laptop, I went looking for a thin-and-light system with a fast processor, a decent dedicated GPU, an optical drive, ethernet, upgradeable parts, and a 900p or better display resolution. To the best of my knowledge, the Vaio S13A is the only laptop on the market which meets those requirements. Fortunately, along with checking the necessary boxes, the S13A is also a really solid all-around laptop. If you’re in a similar situation, I would recommend taking a good look at this model. If you’re considering an ultrabook, I would recommend considering the extra value the S13A offers for only another half-pound.

Final Call: Highly Recommended, with a few caveats (make sure to read the cons list). via notebookreview

Related content