|Introduction and Specifications|
The CULV notebook market has been overloaded with options over the past few months, and this year's Consumer Electronics Show saw even more PC makers jump in with an abundance of new offerings. Asus and Acer seemed to be at the forefront of the CULV revolution, which--for those who don't know--are machines that split the divide between low-powered netbooks and energy-draining full size laptops. Today we'll be looking at a CULV-based model from Sony, as they have taken their well respected VAIO line to the land of the Intel Consumer Ultra Low Voltage notebook platform.
The VAIO Y-Series that we're testing today is one of Sony's newest machines, and just as Lenovo ThinkPad machines wear their legacy on their sleeves, this one screams VAIO from end to end. The exact model number is VPCY115FX/BI, and it's definitely one of the most stylish ultraportables out today. Like it or not, this machine is going head-to-head against Lenovo's also-appealing ThinkPad Edge 13", and we're going to compare and contrast the two throughout these pages to give you an idea of which machine has the overall advantage, in our opinion. Contrary to popular belief, Sony actually is in the business of making lower-end machines in terms of price, and even we were shocked to see that this machine had a base price of just $799.99. VAIO's typically have a rather noticeable price premium attached to them, so seeing a well-equipped version under the $800 mark is somewhat impressive.
If you've been intentionally overlooking Sony because you thought their machines were on the expensive side, it's time to give the manufacturer another look. At $799, but specified well above many other base units from rival companies that are also selling CULV machines, this machine offers a great deal of value on paper. Will this VAIO model bring performance along with its good looks? Join us in the pages to come to find out...
|Design and Build Quality|
If you've never had the pleasure of handling a Sony VAIO notebok, it's worth trying. Sony has set the bar for PC laptop design on occasion, and while the ThinkPad Edge is stylish in its own right, there's just something special about a VAIO that we have yet to see replicated. Apple has iconic designs for their machines, and while it's obviously an Apples to Oranges discussion (pun intended), we would have to say that Sony is the closest PC counterpart from a style perspective. We still prefer the aluminum shell compared to Sony's reliance on plastics, but you can tell that some serious engineering went into designing this new Y Series.
It's actually a touch thicker than the ThinkPad Edge, but the whole machine just feels more spacious despite the fact this it's just another 13.3" ultraportable. We do wish that Sony would have added a slot-loading optical drive (or any optical drive) in order to make this machine stand out above the competition, but if you need to insert a CD or DVD you'll have to spring for an external unit. The design is simple and subtle, yet well implemented. The charcoal color covers the machine inside and out, and the slight textures on the palm rest not only jazz things up a bit, but they actually feel great when you're typing on the machine.
As for build quality, this Y series machine is one of the more sturdy ultraportables that we've used, but we wouldn't trust it to survive a fall from your hip. Keyboard flex was nonexistent, and the LCD hinge felt extremely sturdy. The trackpad was also fantastic to use, and its 3.9lbs. was almost difficult to notice when stuffed into a backpack. You'll still find loads of plastics, so we wouldn't place it at ThinkPad-levels of rigidity, but it's certainly a leap above most of the other rivals in the space.
An interesting design choice seen on this machine is the inset keyboard. This is the first ultraportable we have seen where the keyboard is set a bit lower than the palm rest and the speaker bar above they keys. The point is to make the tops of the keys, and not the base of the keys, flush with the palm rest. It's a subtle change, but wow, does it make a difference in comfort. We had no issues typing for hours on the well-spaced chicklet style keyboard, and right away we noticed how much more enjoyable this spacing was to use. We're guessing that more PC makers will pick up on this; it's hard to notice at a glance, but you'll immediately appreciate the added comfort once you take to the keys.
Around the edges, you'll find a 34mm ExpressCard slot, a total of 3 USB 2.0 ports, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, a power button, AC socket, VGA and HDMI outputs, mini FireWire and audio in/out ports. No IO sockets are placed on the rear, but two card slots and a Wi-Fi on/off switch are on the front. The trackpad is one of the larger ones we have seen for a notebook of this size, and there are dedicated left/right click buttons. The LCD won't recline 100%, but it sets back far enough for the vast majority of circumstances. The machine also has a glossy-style LCD panel with a 1366x768 native resolution.
|Software and Accessories|
The trend continues. What we're referring to is the refusal of laptop makers to include accessories in their packaging anymore. As with many of the other machines we have tested in the past few months, Sony included no bonuses in the box. You get the notebook, an AC power cord, a power brick and that's it. With cheaper machines, we usually don't mind if nothing extra comes in the box. However, with a VAIO, you're expecting a quality machine and quality packaging. When you check into a nice hotel, you also expect subtle extras; the same is true here, and we're somewhat let down that Sony isn't bundling at least a notebook sleeve. Given the relatively low price for a VAIO, however, it's somewhat understandable we suppose.
On the software front, our test model shipped with a 64-bit version of Windows 7 Professional, and we noticed an interesting boot-up sequence here that isn't present on most machines. Sony's startup process invites you to register your machine, but then it gives you the option of enabling one of two anti-virus suites and it informs you that Google's Chrome web browser is pre-installed. At first, we were annoyed by yet another pop-up box at startup (this is only on the first boot up, though), but then we realized how great this was. We are constantly annoyed by Norton nag screens, and having the option to disable the software right away was great. It's still installed on the HDD, so you still have to remove it completely if you wish, but at least you can dodge the nag screens. Also, having Chrome on board is a great choice. Chrome is a fantastic web browser, and while the latest version of Internet Explorer is also on the machine, it's nice to give people options, particularly when you consider that IE is really lagging behind Chrome, Safari and Firefox in terms of speed and extra features.
Other software includes a 60-day trial of the Microsoft Office suite, a Sony connectivity manager and little else. Nothing too special, but then again, there isn't much bloatware to speak of. And that's always a good thing.
Using the new VAIO Y Series was a blast. It's fun to carry around, it's stylish, it's quick and the keyboard/trackpad are two of the best we've used. The hardware setup is almost identical to that found in the ThinkPad Edge 13", and thus, the performance is essentially exactly the same. In fact, the Windows 7 Experience scores from both machines were 3.4. So spec wise, there isn't anything here that would make you spring for a Sony over a Lenovo.
That said, we did greatly prefer the keyboard setup on the VAIO. As we mentioned earlier, the way that Sony dips their keyboard here and raised the palm rest made for an extremely comfortable experience. The ThinkPad Edge 13" also has a slightly lowered keyboard, but the palm rests aren't arched to give your wrists that additional support. Also, the expansive trackpad here was just about perfect in our eyes. It reacted to our finger inputs exactly as it should have, and the split right/left click buttons exhibited the perfect amount of travel. With an ultraportable, you'll be using the keyboard and trackpad an awful lot, so it's important to get a machine that has a keyboard and trackpad that you'll enjoy using.
Sony also managed to space out the keyboard very well. We had no troubles adjusting to the layout, and while there's no dedicated row of multi-function or multi-media keys, the Fn key along with the standard layout can toggle a number of shortcuts. We found that the experience within Windows 7 was right in line with other ultraportables of this stature, not feeling any faster or slower than Lenovo's ThinkPad Edge 13". Bootup and application loading were both acceptably quick, and the inclusion of 4GB of memory certainly helped when it came time to multitask.
Overall, the machine kept cool and quiet, and the integrated speakers (which sit just above the top row of keys) were satisfactory for a laptop. The display was also a gem. The viewing angles were great, and the only gripe we had with it was that it was glossy. Movies tended to "pop" (as most Sony panels do), and colors seemed exceptionally saturated (but not blown out). We tend to take our ultraportables outside a lot, and having a matte panel would greatly enhance outdoor visibility. One quirk that we found interesting was that the power button is on one side of the machine rather than near the keyboard; we don't exactly like this setup, because this button can easily be pressed by accessories in your bag if you just slide your notebook down without thinking about its position. When a power button resides underneath the top panel, you have to actually open your machine before your deliberately boot it up.
As for multimedia and gaming, one was possible while the other was not. As with the ThinkPad Edge 13", we had no issues playing back our library of 720p and 1080p content. We never saw the CPU utilization meter break 40%, even while tasks were going on in the background. Gaming, however, is pretty much out of the question, as you'd expect on a CULV-based machine without a discreet GPU. Newer first-person shooters cannot be played enjoyably at any resolution, though some older titles may fare well if you crank the details down. Still, don't buy this machine (or any CULV machine with integrated graphics) with a serious intention of gaming.
|Test Setup and 3DMark 06 CPU|
The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.
No huge surprises here; the SU7300 1.3GHz CULV processor is present in all four of these machines, with the main variables being the OS (Windows 7 vs. Vista) and the GPU arrangement. Our VAIO Y didn't stack up so well against the UL80Vt (which was tested with its discrete GPU switched on), but it matched up pretty evenly with the UL30A and ThinkPad Edge 13". The unit's full 3DMark06 benchmark result is below:
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage|
We also ran the Sony VAIO Y Series (VPCY115FX/BI) through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric, PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.
Wouldn't you know it? We drew almost the exact same conclusion here as we did with the ThinkPad Edge 13". The VAIO Y is the lowest performer of the bunch here, but not by much. In real world use, we didn't notice this machine being any slower than the Edge 13". The Asus UL80Vt, which also shares the same 1.3GHz SU7300 CPU, had a discrete GPU enabled during this test, so that explains the delta between those two. Still, for an ultraportable with 6+ hours of battery life and a sub-$900 price tag, this thing really holds its own. The full PCMark Vantage score report is below:
|SiSoftware Sandra Benchmarks and Multimedia|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2009, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks). All of the scores reported below were taken with the processor running at its default clock speed.
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge
CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge
Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge
Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge
Much like the ThinkPad Edge 13", the VAIO T was a pretty middle-of-the-road contender in most of these tests. The 5400RPM hard drive wasn't exactly the fastest thing we've tested (an SSD in here would really make the system scream), but having 4GB of DDR3 memory certainly helped. For a CULV-based ultraportable, the numbers aren't too shabby, and real-world performance was better than expected.
To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included two screenshots of the 1080p clip from prior test rigs to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from rival systems.
Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264
Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD
Click To Enlarge; 1080p
Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion
Click To Enlarge; 1080p on Asus Eee PC 1201N w/ Ion
This machine isn't cut out for hardcore gaming, but it's perfectly capable of dealing with your multimedia collection. Both 720p and 1080p movie clips played back without issue, and in most cases, the CPU utilization hovered at or near 20% - 30%. A few intense scenes pushed that up to around 50%, but never did the clip stutter or pause. We even had a few things going on in the background, and never once did the video stall. In short, you shouldn't worry about this rig not being able to play back whatever content you've got laying around on the hard drive; even up to 1080p, it'll play back perfectly smooth.
|Power Consumption and Battery Life|
It's no secret that our battery life figures are generally less than those claimed by the PC maker. We've found that most published battery life figures are based around "ideal" conditions, which generally means that the screen is dimly lit, Wi-Fi is switched off and no real intensive tasks are done during the duration of the test. We use Battery Eater Pro, an application that taxes the system for the duration of the test to mimic heavy real-world usage. We had the screen brightness locked at 60%, Wi-Fi switched on and all other applications closed.
Much like the ThinkPad Edge 13", the VAIO Y doesn't live up to the lofty claims by Sony in terms of battery life; it's not even close. Sony claims that you can get up to 8 hours of life from a single standard battery. We got just over 3. Of course, our test represents expected life while you're actually working, but even if we would've left the machine idle for long stretches, we can't imagine that 3 hours ever stretching to 8. It may get 4 or 5 hours if you play your cards right, but 8 seems overly optimistic. Overall, 3 hours of life while working isn't bad for a standard cell in a CULV machine, but Sony's claims make it more difficult accept the 3 hours. We honestly expected to get somewhere close to 8 hours, and as you can see, we were let down in a big way.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the Sony VAIO Y trailed the reference systems in the CPU benchmarks, but managed to match up well against rivaling components in other areas, particularly when you consider the low price point of the system ($799.99). Windows 7 was well suited to the system, and the 4GB of DDR3 memory helped application load times and assisted in multitasking. The benchmarks do show that this machine is no gamer, though it's definitely up for HD video playback (both 720p and 1080p), which it handled with ease. For a standard machine to handle common computing tasks, it's plenty fast. Business users should have all they need under the hood (and on the hood, considering just how sexy this is), but we wish the 3 hours (under load) of battery life were a bit better.
Sony has done a fine job crafting a VAIO that fits the line's styling, yet also makes compromises that are needed to fit in the sub-$1000 price range. It's definitely one of the nicer looking CULV-based notebooks on the market, and you can tell that a lot of thought went into the design. It has one of the most comfortable keyboards and trackpads that we've ever used, and while we wish the latter understood multi-touch gestures, we're willing to let that slide based on Sony's great palm rest design that adds to the overall ergonomics.
As mentioned in the earlier pages, the keyboard was fantastic to type on, and the display was exceptionally crisp and sharp. We would've preferred a matte panel, but you can't have everything. Speed wise, we were satisfied with how the VAIO Y handled Windows 7. Having 4GB of RAM is great, though true speed freaks would want to upgrade to an SSD. Although, we do wish that Sony would have added USB 3.0 and an integrated Gobi chip, which would let road warriors hop online via Verizon or AT&T's cellular data networks.
If you're in the market for a CULV notebook, you have tons of options. Sony's VAIO Y doesn't really stand out above the rest in terms of raw performance, but the great style of the machine must be taken into consideration. If you're looking for something that looks a bit different (and better, we think) than the rest of the options out there, this machine might be the one for you. Don't expect it to crunch serious numbers or handle hardcore gaming, but it'll handle pretty much everything else. It's a big, big step up from a netbook, but it's almost as portable as one.