Since we haven’t been seeing many Sony VAIO notebooks on retail stores’ shelves lately, at least not compared to some years ago, it doesn’t come across as a surprise that this famed brand has been a bit under the radar recently. In a recent conference held by Sony, a wider cooperation with a few select global distributors has been announced, leading to better availability even in the remotest markets, so we can expect Sony VAIO notebooks to join the neck-to-neck battle once again. The first wave brought us a VAIO from the new S15 series, representing the “House of Lords” in Sony’s notebook business.
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Wave and 10

The very name VAIO stems from an acronym for “Visual Audio Intelligent Organiser”, with the logo itself depicting analogue and digital technologies (VA being an analogue wave and IO being a digital binary code).

VAIO notebooks have always been more expensive than most counterparts, no doubts about that, but they were reputed for their quality, design and unique solutions. Sony hasn’t made a single step back from this tradition to date, and they still continue to be the first ones to install new and revolutionary devices and technologies into VAIO notebooks, launching them onto the notebook market. Most markets are pretty well-stocked with representatives of both E- (affordable) and S-series (upper class) notebooks, and the model we got for testing today belongs to the latter, as already stated. So what’s all the fuss about?
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Fifteen inches

Although Sony has got us accustomed to expecting peculiar design for VAIO notebooks, S15 has pushed the limits even further. The entire case is made of a very light aluminium/magnesium alloy and weighs exactly 2 kg. The non-standard 15.5” display and slightly thick frames around it make its appearance even bulkier than one might think. However, the choice of colours is problematic. Although we’re dealing with a top-of-the-line metal frame, the grey-silver combo leaves an impression of the cheapest plastic. The situation doesn’t improve much upon touching the case. If we hadn’t already learnt that it was an aluminium-based alloy we were dealing with, we wouldn’t have guessed it in a million years. We believe that the black version comes across as more attractive, because in all honesty, it could hardly be worse than this. In order to perform a reality check, we asked several independent people for opinions, and none of them felt very positive towards this aspect. In short, high-quality and light, but visually unappealing.

The case carries a large silver VAIO logo, with the top made of plastic, as this is the section where all the wireless antennae are located. The opposite end contains a very decent camera, capable of recording in 800p resolution (don’t be confused by the non-standard numbers, this is Sony we’re dealing with). The sensor has a resolution of 1.3 MP, gives a decent framerate even at maximum resolution, but the resulting image has more noise than we’d like to and expect from a notebook in this price range.
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What’s definitely the most striking and high-quality element of this portable PC is its display. The full HD display with a non-standard diagonal of 15.5” is exhilarating in every way. The image is razor-sharp, viewing angles are excellent, colours are faithful, while the resolution looks stunning. To make things better, the display has a non-reflective coating, which means a lot when you’re not at home or in the office. Simply enough, the display gets an A+ and makes working with this notebook a proper joy every single time.

The rest

IMG 7207 sLifting the display lid reveals a Chiclet keyboard that fits well with the remainder of the system visually. Although this doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy at first, the backlight drags this impression down after a while. More precisely, the white backlight pierces through the keys and their frames. This is fantastic when you’re working shrouded in darkness or when your keys are entirely black, making white an excellent contrast. With silver buttons, however, this is quite unfortunate, especially when you’re not behind a desk, as the backlight actually reduces the visibility of the keys. To make things worse, there’s no shortcut for turning the backlight off – this setting depends on the power profile in use. The keys themselves are amply spaced out, making typing comfortable, but the material used is very similar to the one already mentioned when we talked about the case, which, as you might have understood from our subtle hints, we don’t like. The good thing, however, is that there was sufficient space for a numerical section, and this also means that the frame to the left and right is quite thin. The shortcuts are present in large amounts and their layout is good, bar the glaring omission of a backlight one. The section directly above the keyboard houses all shortcuts, lamps, buttons and switches. Since Sony has opted for a slot-in optical device in the left, the top left corner also contains an Eject button, marked with a pictogram.

IMG 7215 sThe corners contain small openings for stereo speakers which won’t knock you off your feet with quality, but are decent for “first aid” purposes. We definitely expected more from a Sony notebook in this regard. Unexpectedly, there’s a Stamina-Speed switch, which is used to select the performance and cooling profile. This is a totally retro element, which is not only questionably practical and cheap in feel, but also could’ve been replaced by an entirely regular button. Three LEDs and an ambient light sensor are placed right next to it, the latter being used to regulate display brightness and keyboard backlight. If active, the ambient light sensor will automatically adjust display brightness, as it becomes the primary regulator, which can be very irritating. If this bothers you, you can only turn it off completely.

The right-hand side contains a fingerprint reader, as well as “Assist”, “Web” and “VAIO” buttons. “Assist” opens the very useful VAIO Care applications, which helps the user resolve the most common issues in a number of ways, but also contains instructions on how to use more advanced functions of the PC. “Web” opens a new tab in the default browser or the browser itself if it’s not already open. The “VAIO” button is entirely customisable, but defaults to the VAIO control centre, which contains all key, feature, connection and other settings, from colour profiles for the display, over battery saving options, to sound effects and frequently displayed messages and reminders. A most useful shortcut and an even better application; good job, Sony.

IMG 7214 sThe upper right corner is reserved for the unusually shaped Power button and its green-lit sign. When the notebook is on, so is the green LED along the right edge, right above the power connector. Since the notebook ships with Windows 8, the spacious touchpad with integrated left and right clicks is no surprise. Although Microsoft claims that summoning the Charms bar and using gestures is as simple as it gets, we couldn’t concur based on our experience with this notebook. We can’t say who to blame – a faulty touchpad driver, sensitivity or bad implementation – but luckily, all shortcuts are alternatives to mouse or keyboard ones. As much as Microsoft boasts that Modern UI is brilliant, it’s clearly aimed at touch-sensitive displays, so using the touchpad as an alternative is an awkward and uninspiring task, which is more likely to push you back away from the concept than make you appreciate and embrace it. In simple terms, it’s clear that Windows 8 isn’t what we’d call a polished product, and that it needs a good service pack before all the dull features go away, as they only drag the entire experience down at the moment.

As far as ports and connectors are concerned, S15 is no champ. It has two USB 3.0 and one power USB 2.0 port, HDMI, VGA, LAN, audio in/out and two card readers (one for Sony Memory Stick and one for SD), while Intel’s Centrino wireless module takes care of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

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Hardware

Under the hood, there’s a ticking Ivy Bridge Core i5 3210M with its four cores (two physical and two logical) and a clock of 2.5 GHz (3.1 GHz in Turbo mode). The CPU can draw up to 35 W of power and contains HD 4000 integrated graphics, which couples with a discreet NVIDIA GT640M LE chip to create an Optimus graphics subsystem.

The said GT640M LE graphics is actually a GT640M chip with somewhat lower clocks and slower memory. This means that it’s essentially GK107-based, with 384 shaders, a clock of 500 MHz and 128-bit bus to 1 GB of GDDR3 RAM. Bear in mind that NVIDIA is touted to release a Fermi-based, 96-shader chip with a clock of 762 MHz under exactly the same product name. Luckily, Sony got the better version which turned out to be quite decent for gaming, especially for a full HD display. The motherboard contains 4 GB RAM working at 1333 MHz and comes with an extra slot for RAM extension if needed.
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Data storage has been relegated to a modest Hitachi HDD with a capacity of 500 GB. It’s a shame that Sony hasn’t opted for a small caching SSD, as it would raise the notebook’s performance to a much higher level. In terms of autonomy, Windows 8 is still rough around the edges, so it’s impossible to say, as the testing cycle saw the display brightness rise or drop significantly despite the light sensor being turned off. Game tests have seen similar patterns as well, as well as the occasional switch to desktop for no obvious reason. Still, we believe that VAIO could pull off just over two and a half hours of practical work time. As a final caveat, don’t count on the GT640M LE graphics if you don’t have your charger handy, as the battery mode only supports Intel’s integrated solution.

Sony VAIO SVS1512S1ES 
 
CPU Intel Core i5 3210M 2,5 GHz (3,1 GHz Turbo mode) 2C/4T, 35W
Chipset Intel Ivy Bridge (HM76 Express)
Memory 1x 4 GB DDR3 1333 MHz (single channel, soldered to the board), additional SO-DIMM slot
HDD 500 GB Hitachi HDD (5400rpm)
Optical device slot in DVDRW
Graphics NVIDIA Optimus: GeForce GT40M LE 1 GB DDR3 + Intel GMA HD4000
Display 15.5'', 1920x1080 pix, VAIO Display Plus, anti glare
Interfaces 2x USB 3.0, 1x power USB 2.0, HDMI, VGA, LAN, audio in, audio out, SD/MMC reader, Sony MS (HG Duo Magic gate) reader
Other Intel Centrino Advanced N6235 (Bluetooth 4.0 i WiFi), 1.3 MP web camera,
Dimension and Weight 380 x 255 x 23,9 mm; 2 kg
OS Windows 8
Battery VGP-BPS24: 6-cell, 4400 mAh (49 Wh)
Price [€] 1150

Software

The greatest advantage of this notebook is also its main flaw. First and foremost – the OS. Windows 8, as good as it may be for tablets, just doesn’t work properly without a touch-sensitive display. We’ve seen inexplicable slowdowns of ten seconds or so after mere minutes of heavy workload, after which everything goes back to normal, and don’t even get us started on the update and patch installation process, which takes up to half an hour in some cases, in spite of the simple, tiny applications being installed. Besides the gesture problems, which are its main flaw, Windows 8 is also rough in many other fields, and our advice is not to rush your system upgrade until the situation clears up a bit.
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The other side of this story is Sony’s own software. This is a field where Sony reminded us of Toshiba notebooks. They come with so much preinstalled software that you’ll get a headache by the time you sort through what you really need and what you don’t, and chances are that a decent portion will be deemed filler. Furthermore, a good chunk of apps, such as the super-useful Start replacement called VAIO gate, just didn’t work before updating to the latest version. It’s clear than Sony has invested considerable effort into this aspect, but the trouble is that few users really need all the programs that they provide, so it would’ve been much better if the installation process offered a choice between them. What really needs to be commended is the aforementioned VAIO Gate, as well as VAIO Control Centre and VAIO Assist, all of which look good and behave really well.

Test results 
 
3DMark 11 Performance Score/Graphic/Physics/Combined 1324 / 1206 / 3457 / 1118
PCMark 7 Score 2393
7-Zip 9.20 x64 compression/decompression [KB/s] 7464 / 92702
AIDA64 2.7 EE memory read/write/copy [MB/s] 10117 / 10370 / 9760
AIDA64 2.7 EE memory latency [ns] 54.2
Blender [sec] 329
Cinebench R11.5 x64 OpenGL [fps]/CPU/CPU (Single Core) [pts] 1h 41' / 2.87 / 1.19
HD Tune Pro 5.0 average read (HDD/SSD) [MB/s] 65.8
Powermark Balanced / Productivity / Entertainment 1h 41' / 2h 37' / 1h 31'
1920x1080 0xAA 0xAF
Heaven benchmark 3.0 tess off, shaders med [fps] 17.2
Crysis Warhead DX10 gamer [fps] 15.3
Resident Evil 5 DX10 high [fps] 35.8
Street Fighter IV DX10 high [fps] 64.4
Batman: Arkham Asylum very high, Physx off DX10 [fps] 50
Dirt 2 high DX11 [fps] 29.6
F1 2010 high DX11 [fps] 30
Lost Planet 2 Test B med DX11 [fps] 5.8
AVP DX11 med [fps] 18.9
Metro 2033 DX11 med Physx off  [fps] 22

Pros and cons

IMG 7213 sWe’ve definitely expected much more from a VAIO PC. S15 has a fantastic display, maybe the best ever seen on a portable computer. There’s also the ultralight case, but one which feels cheap, keyboard backlight that annoys during the day, a bunch of brilliantly conceived, but badly implemented shortcuts, a questionable choice of OS, iffy drivers… The list goes on, and for every good feature, there are at least three bad ones, despite the discrepancy in importance. Most importantly, one of Sony’s most prized achievements – production quality – simply doesn’t live up to Sony’s standards. The pieces haven’t been assembled properly, with a few “badly behaved” bits and pieces. We’re not saying that any of these are instantly visible, but they are there, and that’s something that Sony simply had to prevent, especially in its most expensive series. You just don’t have the feeling that you got enough for the money invested. Everything’s there, but everything’s also plagued by something, and that’s not the kind of feeling you encourage in high-yield customers that have just bought your flagship notebook.