Sony VAIO SB series

Sony’s VAIO SB series, as configured in our review unit (model VPCSB1BGX), offers the best overall performance of any Ultraportable laptop we’ve yet tested. It’s light, thin, and a pleasure to use despite a few minor annoyances. Pity, then, that this configuration costs $2500. The base model starts at only $900, but that configuration won’t dominate our benchmarks as our review model does.

The VAIO SB is a 13.3-inch ultraportable that weighs a modest 3.7 pounds, perhaps a touch less for lower-end configurations. The top-end model we tested may cost $2500, but you get some pretty impressive hardware for that price. There’s a Core i7-2620M processor, which is a dual-core CPU with hyperthreading that runs at a base clock speed of 2.7GHz. Add to that very capable processor 8GB of RAM, switchable graphics between the Intel integrated and a Radeon HD 6630M with 1GB of graphics RAM, and a fast 256GB solid state drive. Not enough? How about dual-band 802.11n networking, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, a combination BD-ROM and DVD burner, and support for Intel’s WiDi wireless display technology. How they crammed all this good stuff into a sub-4-pound, one inch thick 13-inch laptop is beyond me.

All that hardware is enough to deliver a WorldBench 6 score of 144, which is higher than any other laptop of this size and weight. Does that destroy battery life? Far from it! In our rundown test the VAIO SB series battery lasted an impressive 7 hours and 19 minutes. There’s a physical switch above the F3 key to change between “stamina” (integrated graphics) and “speed” (discrete graphics). Our battery stamina tests were run with the switch set to “stamina”…enabling the Radeon discrete graphics will cut battery time in half or worse. We also tested the optional slice battery that fits neatly across the bottom of the laptop, making it a third of an inch thicker, and almost a pound heavier. This optional accessory will add about 5 hours of maximum battery life.

There’s a lot to like about the design of the VAIO SB series. The matte display only has a resolution of 1366 by 768, but that’s typical for a 13.3-inch screen. Color, contrast, and brightness are pretty good, and horizontal viewing angles are better than most laptops I’ve seen. Vertical viewing angles are predictably poor, though. The screen will either get washed-out or too dark if the lid is open to far, or not enough. The island chiclet style keyboard is quite good. Key travel is a bit on the short side, but spacing is nice and there’s a good tactile “clicky” feel to the keys. The trackpad is similarly good. It tracks smoothly and accurately, with two distinct buttons on which it’s hard to accidentally register clicks. It supports a fairly wide variety of multi-touch gestures, though oddly enough, two-finger scrolling is not on the menu.

The left side of the system is sparse, featuring only the BD-ROM and DVD burning combination optical drive. All the action is along the right edge, which has a memory stick slot, an SD card slot, VGA and HDMI outputs, one USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, gigabit Ethernet, and the power jack. Those who like physical switches to disable Wi-Fi will be happy to know there’s one along the front edge.

As usual, Sony loads down their system with a little too much software for my tastes. I’m not a fan of the pop-out dock at the top of the screen, or the way Norton Internet Security constantly nags me to pay up once the 30-day trial is over. It’s great that Sony bundles Photoshop Elements 8, Premiere Elements 8, and PowerDVD, though. Also included; ArcSoft webcam software, Sony’s media gallery, and Microsoft Office Starter 2010. If you’re like me and you prefer your laptop a little more “lean and mean,” it’s easy enough to remove most of this stuff.

It’s a little disappointing that the fit and finish isn’t quite up to the standards we’d expect from a $2500 laptop. It just doesn’t have the perfectly clean lines and premium build materials we usually find in systems that expensive. In this case, it’s because our test unit is the very upper end of a line that is meant to start at $900 — and at that price, the overall design is about average. In other words, I’m really impressed by the outstanding performance and usability of this very expensive ultraportable laptop, but oddly enough, a little underwhelmed by Sony’s sense of style.

PC World (US)

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