We hate to break it to you, dear readers, but we're in the throes of back to school season. In a few short weeks, lots of wide-eyed freshmen will be setting up their dorm rooms and begging off name games during orientation, which means they (and their generous parents) are stocking up on gear now. We've been testing a bunch of budget and mid-range laptops aimed at young folk and pretty much any other mainstream consumer who'd happily forgo some bells and whistles in exchange for a lower price. So why not start with a review of one of the best? Sony's VAIO SB series is the 13-inch laptop for the kindele who can't afford the VAIO Z, or even the slimmed-down SA series. It offers good specs for the money, a bright, matte display, a solid keyboard, long battery life and a (mostly) well-built design. And while we try not to spoil our reviews, we'll say this: it's one of our favorite mid-range Windows laptops, period. How much do we like the SB? Join us as we count the ways.
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Sony VAIO SB Series review


Look and feel

It can be tough getting all of those VAIO S series notebooks straight, so before we dive in we'll go ahead and set the record straight: this here VAIO SB is the same 13.3-inch VAIO S series laptop Sony brought stateside this spring. It's not -- we repeat, not -- the slightly slimmer, higher-end SA series Sony introduced in May, after the SB laptops were already on sale.

Sony decked out the 0.95-inch thick SB series in a familiar matte magnesium alloy casing that doesn't exactly mask fingerprints, but at least makes them less conspicuous. The lid, also available in white, bubble gum pink and an arresting blue, has an ever-so-slightly textured feel and that same 'ol chrome VAIO logo, emblazoned across the center in large lettering. (Unlike other companies -- ahem, Dell! -- Sony isn't charging a premium for colors that aren't black.) Clearly, Sony hasn't taken any big design risks, and we suspect that's just fine by those customers who already swear by the VAIO brand.

And there are plenty of other ways in which the SB series looks like VAIOs of yesteryear: it's got dedicated switches for turning on WiFi and toggling between "speed" and "stamina" modes; a power button and DC port that glow orange or green depending on whether the laptop is asleep; and dedicated keys for launching the default browser, VAIO Assist, and VAIO Care. And if you've ever seen a VAIO, you know all those buttons and switches are labeled with large, sans serif lettering. We've always been of the mind that this clutters the chassis and can make an otherwise cutting-edge laptop look dated. Judging by Sony's unflinching judgment, though, we gather there are lots of you who don't mind it.


For the most part, the 3.8-pound laptop feels sturdy, though we have to say we were a tad disappointed by the uneven build quality -- something VAIO stalwarts often swear by. Let's start with the good news: the palm rest feels rigid when you hold the 13.04 x 8.84 x 0.95-inch frame one-handed. But, we noticed that even when we set the laptop down lightly, the lid wobbled forward and back -- something we noted on the VAIO Z as well. Once we saw that, we started comparing the display to those belonging to other laptops we happen to have lying around, including an HP Pavilion dv6t, a Lenovo ThinkPad X1 and a year-old MacBook Pro. Indeed, if you apply some finger pressure to the VAIO SB's screen, you'll see it gives way a whole lot more than any of these other models.

As Apple is wont to do, Sony stacked all of the ports and slots on one side, save for a DVD burner and headphone jack on the other -- a potentially crowded, impractical arrangement. Does anyone really want all of their peripherals growing out of the same general area? For what its worth, the group of ports you'll find on the SB's right side is pretty comprehensive, with two USB 2.0 sockets (and one of the 3.0 variety) on board, along with HDMI and VGA output and an Ethernet jack. Moving along, there's also a VGA webcam tucked in the bezel. And for some reason, Sony continues to separate its SD slot from MagicGate -- that is, the one that accepts Sony's own Memory Stick format. An odd choice, we think, but not one that's going to inconvenience you.

Keyboard and Trackpad



As with everything else, Sony hasn't mucked around with its chiclet keyboard. And why should it? The company has long since shifted toward island-style keys, and has had plenty of time to get it right. The backlit panel feels solid, typing is quiet, and Sony also didn't dare shrink essential keys, such as Backspace or either Shift button. The keys themselves also have a soft, matte finish that matches the material used in the chassis and palm rest, a design choice that gives the SB a reassuringly uniform look.

Still, if you're looking for pillowy, tactile keys, you might be disappointed. We said this with the VAIO Z and we'll say it here, too: while the keys aren't uncomfortable to type on (far from it!) they're shallower than most. There's simply less travel with these keys than, say, the MacBook Pro's, though if you're already used to typing on a chiclet keyboard, the learning curve should be gentle.

While playing with the SB, we became keenly aware of how much we've missed touch buttons. We've tested many a laptop with a buttonless trackpad, and more often than not, we've felt underwhelmed by the user experience. Too many instances of the pad mistaking a left click for a right one -- something touchpad providers will say varies depending on the manufacturer. Regardless of who's to blame, it's no fun having a navigation device that doesn't do what you want it to. So -- getting to the point -- the SB's buttons feel tremendous, and provide just the right amount of tactile feedback. They're neither too stiff nor too mushy, and they make a satisfying, low-pitched click.

As for the pad itself, it feels cool and is made of the same magnesium-alloy as the chassis, but using it can be a somewhat exhausting experience; there's a bit too much friction, and you might struggle to make the cursor go where you want it to. We had one vexing episode where the pad simply wouldn't obey us. As we dragged our cursor across the screen, it registered clicks on objects, even when we hadn't pressed one of the touch buttons.

Display and Sound


It might not surprise you that a mid-range $1,000 laptop like this has run-of-the-mill 1366 x 768 resolution. What you might find refreshing, though, is that it comes with a matte, 13.3-inch panel that makes it easy to watch movies from severe side angles or with the lid dipped forward. Believe us when we say that after testing so many laptops with glossy displays, the SB's bright, yet glare-free panel felt like a revelation.

The speakers deliver tinny sound, making even "Rapper's Delight" sound metallic. And although we've more or less resigned ourselves to mediocre audio quality in laptops -- particularly smaller, less expensive ones -- we're pretty sure you can do better, especially with HP loading all of its notebooks up with Beats Audio.

Performance and graphics

Our $999 configuration came with a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M processor, 4GB of RAM and a 500GB 5400RPM hard drive. That particular CPU, as you might know, can be sped up to 2.9GHz when duty calls. For the money, this configuration also comes with switchable graphics, with an Intel card on the integrated side and an AMD Radeon HD 6470M with 512MB video memory on the discrete. Note that this system does not have NVIDIA's Optimus technology (since there's no NVIDIA card and all), which means although you don't have to restart the system to switch cards, you will have to do it manually and wait a second or two for the change to take.

All told, we had no problem jumping from tab to tab in Chrome, checking email, streaming YouTube videos and chatting with friends, all while downloading and installing programs. The SB also boots in 50 seconds, which is reasonable for a Windows 7 laptop, especially one without an SSD. The fan can get noisy sometimes, though, which is something we complained about when we reviewed the more expensive VAIO Z. For what we'd call mainstream use, it'll do just fine, and we suspect that's all parents buying this for their children really want to hear.

But for those who care about benchmarks, it's worth noting that while the SB's scores are respectable, they're not too hot either. With or without the discrete graphics card enabled, its PCMark Vantage score falls more than 4,000 points behind the new MacBook Air, which doesn't even have a standard voltage processor (it does have an SSD, though). The Air's integrated graphics card also beats the SB's in 3DMark06, although the SB pulls ahead when you enable discrete graphics. Again, the performance is just fine for basic tasks, and if an optical drive is a must-have, then the SB is easily one of our favorite laptops on the market, hands down. But if you can do without physical media, you could get faster performance for a similar price.


PCMarkVantage 3DMark06
Battery Life
Sony VAIO SB series (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6470M) 5,129 (stamina mode) / 5,636 (speed mode) 3,609 (stamina) / 5,128 (speed)

3:39 (speed) / 5:11 (stamina)

Extended battery: 9:49 (speed) / 12:21 (stamina)

Early 2011 MacBook Pro with a 2.2GHz Core i7-2720QM CPU and AMD Radeon HD 6750M graphics (we reviewed the 15-inch version) 8,041 10,262 Ran a different test
2011 Sony VAIO Z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6650M) 11,808 / 11,855 4,339 / 7,955 4:15 / 8:43
2011 MacBook Air (1.7GHz Core i5-2557M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 9,484 4,223 4:12
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 (2.5GHz Core i5-2520M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,787 3,726 3:31 / 6:57
Samsung Series 9 (1.4GHz Core i5-2537M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,582 2,240 4:20
ThinkPad X220 (2.5GHz Core i5-2520M, Intel HD Graphics 3000) 7,635 3,517 7:19
ASUS U36Jc (2.53GHz M460, NVIDIA GeForce 310M) 5,981 2,048 / 3,524 5:30
Toshiba Portege R705 (2.26GHz Core i3-350M, Intel HD graphics) 5,024 1,759 4:25
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.

Battery Life

Not bad! And we should know: we ran our battery test four times: twice with the sheet battery, twice without, and once each time with the switch flipped to either "Stamina" or "Speed." (For the uninitiated, our battery test involves playing the same movie on repeat with WiFi on and the brightness set to 65 percent.) With just the primary six-cell battery and the system set to "Stamina," we managed five hours and eleven minutes. That time sank to three hours and thirty-nine minutes when we switched to the performance-driven "Speed" mode.

Needless to say, that extended battery works wonders. Set to speed mode, it made it nine hours and forty-nine minutes with four percent juice left at the end. In stamina mode, it lasted twelve hours and twenty-one minutes, again crapping out with four percent charge remaining.


Wireless Display

The SB also supports the second-generation of Intel's Wireless Display technology, which lets you wirelessly mirror your screen on and stream 1080p movies to an HDTV. To do this, you'll need a third-party adapter that connects to your TV or monitor via HDMI. Though some notebooks, particularly Best Buy exclusives, come with a complementary adapter thrown in, the SB requires you to buy it separately. Street prices vary, of course, but Netgear's Push2TV HD, for one, rings in at well under $100 at many retailers.

If you'll recall, when we tested Intel's Wireless Display 2.0 technology with the Toshiba Satellite E305, we found that the adapter was easy to install, and the accompanying WiDi interface is wholly self-explanatory. The 1080p video was also pretty smooth, though you'll want to keep the laptop out of sight while you watch on a bigger screen, as the two will not be out of sync by a second or two.

Configuration options

The configurable version of the SB series starts at $899 under the moniker VPCSB190X. For that price, you'll get a 2.1GHz Core i3-2310M CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 320GB 5400RPM hard drive, DVD burner and Intel integrated graphics coupled with that same AMD Radeon 6470M card and 512MB video memory. This is the only graphics option available.

Ready to upgrade this thing? You can opt for a Core i5-2410M ($80) or an i5-2520M CPU ($130). When it comes to hard drives, you've got two more 5400RPM options -- a 500GB and 750GB -- along with a 500GB 7200RPM number. Other upgrades include a Blu-ray player ($100) or burner ($400), while that sheet battery is on sale for a promotional price of $75 (it regularly costs $150).

And then there's a near-identical VAIO laptop on sale exclusively at Best Buy. This one, dubbed the VPCSC1AFM (see the more coverage link at the bottom of this post), has the same design, for all intents and purposes, along with the same processor, graphics card, memory count, hard drive, Blu-ray player and Intel Wireless Display technology as the SB series laptop we're reviewing today. And, it includes a 4G radio and a WiDi adapter -- something you'll have to purchase as a separate peripheral if you configure yours through Sony. All this for $979.99. Just sayin', friends.

The competition


Sony has come out and said that the SB series is meant to compete directly with the 13-inch MacBook Pro. So let's take the company up on that claim and dig into it, shall we? For starters, the 13-inch MBP starts at $1,199, $300 higher than the entry-level SB series. For the money, you'll get the same 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, a 1280 x 800 display, integrated Intel graphics, a 320GB 5400RPM hard drive and a non-removable battery that promises up to seven hours of battery life. It also has two USB 2.0 ports, a Thunderbolt socket, FireWire 800, an Ethernet jack, SD card slot and headphone and mic ports, along with a DVD burner. Although we haven't had a chance to test the two laptops' batteries head to head, it's clear that the VAIO SB offers the same (and sometimes better) specs for less money. The MBP also weighs more, at 4.5 pounds. You might still pay more for the MacBook Pro because you prefer Mac OS X (or at least, Macs' industrial design). Just don't fool yourself into thinking you're getting superior innards for those extra Benjamins.

And though the new MacBook Airs weren't around when Sony dreamed up the SB series, it's still worth comparing the two, since the 13-inch Air replaces the 'ol white plastic MacBook as Apple's entry-level 13-inch laptop. To recap, the 13-inch Air starts at $1,299 with an ultra low voltage 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB solid-state drive. It has no discrete graphics option or optical drive, and is much thinner than the SB series, at 0.68 inches thick. The tradeoff, then, is that although the SB series weighs more, it offers standard voltage processors, more RAM and storage space to start (but not in the form of an SSD), along with an optical drive. We'll be honest: we're enamored with both -- albeit, for a different combination of reasons. The SB is less expensive and offers an optical drive (something some of us want), along with more ports and storage space. The Air is pricier, of course, but for those who can swing the cost and won't miss DVDs, it's skinnier, lighter, faster and offers slightly better integrated graphics performance (or so say the benchmarks, anyway).


But Sony's wrong to think this is just a two-horse race between the S Series and Apple's lineup. There's a whole market full of 13-inch PCs out there. Though it has a 14-, not 13-inch screen, we'd be remiss if we didn't touch on the HP Envy 14, just because it's a similarly sized laptop that starts at a comparable price of $999. Like many of the others listed here, it starts with the same 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, but it steps up to a 500GB 7200RPM hard drive, 6GB of RAM, an eight-cell battery and AMD Radeon HD 6630 graphics with a full gigabyte of dedicated video memory. It, too, has a backlit keyboard, and its basic warranty lasts two years, not one. We haven't yet reviewed the version with Sandy Bridge, so we can't say how the battery life compares to the SB's -- and we also can't vouch for its touchpad, which has been the Achilles heel for many an HP notebook we've tested. That said, on paper, at least, the Envy 14 can give the VAIO SB a run for its money.

And yes, there are laptops that arguably best the SB series when it comes to specs. Take the new Gateway ID47, for example. Depending on whether you're in the US or Canada, you'll find different configurations. Actually, there's just one available in the states, but it's a good example of what you can get for less money. For $700, you get the same 2.3GHz Core i5 CPU as our SB review unit, along with the same memory count (4GB) and a 500GB 5400RPM hard drive. We can't predict taste, of course, but we have a feeling some people would prefer the 4.6-pound metal-clad ID series, especially since it crams a 14-inch panel into a chassis normally reserved for 13-inch systems. And yes, the resolution there is also 1366 x 768, but some will appreciate the fact that the bezel takes up so much less space. The biggest drawback could be that it packs Intel integrated graphics, whereas the VAIO SB offers switchable cards for a starting price that's $200 higher.

Software


We'd say the SB comes with more bundled software than your typical laptop. That's largely thanks to VAIO Gate, a dock that sits on top of the screen with a small flap showing, and flies down when you hover your cursor over it. If you've seen a Dell laptop in recent years, you'll know what we mean when we say it's kind of like Dell Dock. It's really just a row of shortcuts to your favorite apps. We can see where this may have improved the user experience back during the Vista era, but even then folks were free to customize the Start Menu and desktop. Now that we've moved on to Windows 7, though, having this dock layered on top of the OS doesn't make sense -- not when you can just pin programs, along with websites and files. In any case, if it's not your thing, you can uninstall it.

Other than that, the SB series comes loaded with a mix of VAIO-branded programs and your typical roster of third-party apps, including Microsoft Office 2010 and Norton Internet Security. Sony's own software includes Evernote for VAIO, VAIO Messenger, VAIO Smart Network, VAIO Help and Support and VAIO Care, which we mentioned earlier. As you might have noticed, the computer booted quickly even with these programs on board, and we'd add that Sony's utilities were generally less intrusive than, say, the ones we've seen bundled on HP laptops.

Wrap-up

In general, we tread carefully when someone asks us, "What laptop should I buy?" People have different budgets and performance needs, and there's also no accounting for taste. There's no absolute answer, and that's why we're thankful there are so many models to choose from.

But the VAIO SB is a rare laptop that we've been recommending left and right. The price is right for so many people, as is the performance, design and long battery life. This notebook is going to please a lot of people -- not just students, but many a mainstream user as well. Simply put, this is one of our favorite 13-inchers with an optical drive. We do think that those who can live without DVDs might prefer the MacBook Air, as it's thinner, lighter and has a faster solid-state drive (albeit, with fewer gigabytes to spare). Other than that caveat, though, there's no reason why the SB shouldn't be on your shortlist if all you're after is the elusive laptop that performs well, weighs very little and doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
Sony

Sony VAIO SB series

Pros

  • Lightweight
  • Good endurance, even with no extended battery
  • Matte display with versatile viewing angles

Cons

  • Flaky trackpad
  • Screen wobbles
  • Fan can get loud
Summary

One of our favorite 13-inch laptops with a built-in optical drive, the SB is lightweight and well-built with a low-glare display and long battery life.