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Sony VAIO EB12FX/T: Style without high price

Notebook gives you high style without the high price tag, but you give up some performance and battery life

The Sony VAIO EB12FX/T is an affordable all-purpose notebook that impresses with its style, features, and affordable price–but it is also marred by mediocre performance. It looks great and has most of the features you’d expect in a notebook costing around $750. The earthy brown finish, slim design, and clean layout certainly make it more attractive than most sub-$1,000 notebooks, but it if you need a laptop for heavy-duty tasks, playing games, or long battery life, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Sony’s VAIO line has long been known for its excellent aesthetics, and the EB12FX/T is no exception. A brown notebook might seem like an odd design choice, but the deep earthy/coffee tone Sony has chosen works quite well and serves to hide blemishes and fingerprints. And the system is blissfully uncluttered by clunky extra buttons or switches. You won’t even notice, at first, that it is loaded with a fine selection of well-placed ports. The right side has three USB ports, all in front of the optical drive, where they’re much easier to get to. The left side has the Ethernet port in the back by the power plug, where it belongs, while the VGA plug, HDMI, and eSATA/USB combo port are up front. Even an ExpressCard slot is there. Memory card readers and the headphone/mic ports are along the front edge, making them easy to access even in cramped environments (like that airplane tray table).

If the VAIO scores some usability points for its excellent variety and placement of ports, it loses some for its keyboard. The chiclet-style keyboard is accompanied by a full numeric keypad, which makes things a little cramped on a 15.5-inch widescreen notebook. The arrow keys are half-size and jammed in awkwardly under the enormous right Shift key, while the left Ctrl key is too small–we often hit its neighboring Fn key by mistake when using common copy/paste shortcuts.

The touchpad works well enough, and is offset from the center of the machine to be lined up with the middle of the spacebar. We’re used to seeing larger 17-inch notebooks with numeric keypads, but the whole thing seems a little cramped on a 15.5-inch model, and that off-center touchpad is more of an issue with the smaller screen size, too. The display looks quite good, with bright and even lighting and off-axis viewing that is better than on most other affordable laptops. Things get a little washed-out when you drop the brightness down, but not to the degree we’ve seen on many other notebooks.

Aside from a keyboard layout that is cramped around the edges, the biggest flaw in the EB12FX/T is its performance. The dual-core 2.13GHz Core i3-330M just isn’t a barn-burner by modern standards. It’s fine for the basics–Web browsing, e-mail, simple 2D and Web-based games–but it’s painfully slow when it comes to more full-featured games, audio or video processing, or other processor-intensive tasks. Fortunately, Web-based video looks quite good, now that Adobe Flash 10.1 Beta 3 incorporates support for the integrated Intel HD graphics. We were able to watch full-screen hi-def 1080p clips from YouTube and Hulu videos without any stuttering or skipping. As always, know that Intel’s (NASDAQ: INTC) integrated graphics are unsuitable for playing modern 3D games well. The mediocre processing power in this VAIO model would be more acceptable if the battery life was great, but at 3 hours and 22 minutes, it’s certainly not at the top of the pack.

If you’re looking for a stylish notebook with a good display, good placement of ports and plugs, and a full keyboard with numeric keypad, the Sony VAIO EB12FX/T fits the bill, with a few caveats. You won’t pay a lot, but neither will you get impressive performance or battery life.