Sony VAIO Pro 11 review: finally, a new flagship ultraportable to replace the Z

If you've ever read the comments section here at Engadget, you know it's possible to develop a fanatical attachment to a brand. To a specific product, though? And a laptop, of all things? That's fairly rare. But the VAIO Z wasn't a common notebook. For years, it was Sony's flagship ultraportable, with a featherweight design, top-of-the-line specs and a delicious carbon fiber weave. It was the sort of laptop for which techies happily spent $2,000 -- and they were ready to plunk down even more money when a new version came out. Then it was discontinued, only to be replaced by mid-range models with lesser specs. There was a clear hole in Sony's lineup, and diehards were left disappointed, with no clear upgrade path once it came time to retire the ol' Z.

In a sense, the Z is still dead: to this day, there is no Z series in Sony's lineup. But there is the new Pro line, and it more or less picks up where the Z left off. (It takes after the business-friendly S series, too.) Starting at $1,150 and available in 11- and 13-inch sizes, these machines use carbon fiber to achieve an even lighter design (under two pounds for the 11-inch model). Both pack fresh Haswell processors, with 1080p screens, NFC and backlit keyboards all standard. As it happens, we've been testing the smaller Pro 11 for almost two weeks, so although Sony just announced these machines to the public, we already have a full suite of impressions, benchmarks and hands-on photos ready to go. Join us after the break to see if this is the Z replacement you've been waiting for.

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Sony VAIO Pro 11 review

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Sony

Sony VAIO Pro 11

Pros

  • Exceptionally lightweight
  • Long battery life, sheet battery option
  • 1080p display with great viewing angles
  • Keyboard is improved over the old Z
  • Webcam excels in low light

Cons

  • Keyboard is cramped on this 11-inch model
  • Stiff touch button, flaky trackpad
  • Fan can get loud sometimes
Summary

Sony's old Z series flagship comes back to life with epic battery life, an even lighter design and a more reasonable price.

Look and feel

Sony VAIO Pro 11 review finally, a new flagship ultraportable to replace the Z

You can't appreciate the Pro's design until you pick it up. You can't talk about its hardware at all, actually, until you acknowledge how light this thing is.

If you were to examine the Pro through a glass case, it would seem like just another VAIO, except cut down to size. After all, it's got many of the same visual touches as past models, including a chiclet keyboard, a chrome hinge, a big metal VAIO logo and a glowing green power button, located on the upper-right corner of the keyboard deck. But that's just the thing: you can't really appreciate the Pro's design until you pick it up. You can't talk about its hardware at all, actually, until you acknowledge how impossibly light this thing is. At 1.92 pounds, Sony claims it's the world's lightest touchscreen Ultrabook -- in the 11-inch category or otherwise. Regardless of whether that's true (and we believe it is), the Pro feels utterly insubstantial, but in a good way. Even after Sony's product team told me the exact weight, I still didn't immediately appreciate how little it was; when I unboxed my review unit, I heaved it out of the packaging the way I would a 3.5-pound Ultrabook, only to realize gravity wasn't working against my hands. Sort of like playing a game of tug of war with a child. (Not that I'd know.)

You can imagine what a convenience that is on a day-to-day basis. Not only is it easy to grip in one hand and shuttle from room to room, but I also barely registered a difference when I stuffed it in my backpack along with my regular 13-inch laptop. True to its name, the Pro would be perfect for business travel, where every extra pound amounts to more hassle. In the case of the 11-inch model, the small footprint makes it especially easy to pack inside a bag with other items, though the larger Pro 13 surely makes for a low-maintenance companion as well.

Sony mainly attributes that lightness to the materials used, which include carbon fiber on both the lid and chassis, with black and silver as your two color options. The one exception to all this carbon fiber is the brushed-aluminum palm rest, which also happens to be where the machine is at its creakiest. On the black model, at least, it's also where it picks up the most grease stains, but then again, that's where we tended to hold the machine. That aluminum area aside, the Pro does a good job masking fingerprints, though we were dismayed to find it's not immune to scratches. You might want to get yourself a carrying sleeve, then, or maybe put it in the same carry-on as your socks.

Similar to Sony's new mainstream "Fit" laptops, the Pro has a lid that extends far backward, even slightly past the hinge. Though the cover doesn't actually hide the hinge in this case, it reaches the desk when it's all the way open, giving the entire machine a lift. To some extent, that's just a neat design flourish, this illusion of the chassis "floating" above your desk. But there's an ergonomic benefit too: the wedge shape makes the keyboard a little more comfortable to type on.

Before we get too sidetracked detailing the typing experience, though, let's take a look at the ports. Most of the action's on the right side, where you'll find two USB 3.0 connections, an HDMI socket and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Over on the left, there's nothing except for a small vent, which can get quite warm to the touch. (Again, you're likely to grip this thing by the palm rest in one hand anyway.) And if you think Sony left out the SD slot, fear not: there's a memory card reader tucked in the underside of the notebook, close to where the touchpad is. All in all, not a bad selection of ports, especially considering it's an 11-inch system, and a very thin one at that. Heck, we're even surprised Sony got a full-sized HDMI port in there. The only thing you might crave from time to time is an Ethernet jack, but to be fair, that's missing from almost every other Ultrabook too.

Keyboard and trackpad

Sony VAIO Pro 11 review finally, a new flagship ultraportable to replace the Z

Sony says the Pro's island-style keyboard offers more travel than on the discontinued Z series, which was indeed pretty flat. (At the time, we said typing on it was kind of like walking in flip-flops. You may have noticed we have a thing for analogies around here.) In any case, this new keyboard really does feel cushier than the one we tested two years ago, but again, there was plenty of room for improvement. All told, the difference versus the Z is noticeable, but if you're coming from any other ultraportable, this might just seem like another shallow Ultrabook keyboard.

If anything, the Pro 11's small footprint means the individual buttons are small, even for little hands like yours truly's. We hate to say it, but typing on them feels like a throwback to netbooks, what with their crowded layouts and flimsy underlying panels. (Seriously, get ready to watch the keyboard bend and flex, especially if you've got a high wpm rate.) To be fair, no netbook we ever tested had a backlit keyboard. Plus, Sony ensured that all of the major keys (Enter, Backspace, etc.) were generously sized, even if the letter keys had to be kept small. So, while it's not the most comfortable keyboard we've ever used, you could do much worse, especially if this is going to be more of a travel machine than a daily driver. And though we haven't spent much time with the Pro 13, we suspect the cramping is much less of an issue there, period.

Sony VAIO Pro 11 review finally, a new flagship ultraportable to replace the Z

After testing the Samsung ATIV Book 7 we had some renewed faith in Windows trackpads: clearly, it's possible to make one where everything works as it should, without any misfires or phantom clicks. It's back to the grind with the Pro 11, though: the cursor doesn't always go where you want it to go, especially in desktop mode. Like other trackpads we've tested, it fares better when it comes to multi-touch gestures like pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scrolling; both of those feel like controlled motions and don't require you to apply too much pressure. Even then, however, it's possible to make the pinch-to-zoom gesture and end up doing a side scroll instead, so be careful.

Also, the machine didn't always respond to double-taps when we tried using that gesture to open desktop apps. Instead, we had to resort to double-clicking the touch button, but it's so stiff we didn't really want to press it. Hopefully, Sony will at least iron out the driver issues by the time this goes on sale, though it's too late to fix that shallow touch button, we reckon.

Display

Sony VAIO Pro 11 review finally, a new flagship ultraportable to replace the Z

At some point along the line -- we're not sure when -- Sony got the bright idea to have its various divisions talk to one another. This meant making some PSP games playable on its Android tablets, and putting point-and-shoot-quality cameras inside its phones. And in this case, it meant using some of the same imaging technologies that Sony originally developed for its Bravia televisions. This includes a display with Triluminos backlighting along with a mobile version of its X-Reality processing engine, which you can already find inside select Xperia phones.

In layman's terms: it looks nice. The 1080p resolution makes everything look crisp, but still eminently readable. Thanks to the IPS technology, too, the already-bright colors keep looking good even as you dip the screen forward or start watching from off to the side. And though the glossy finish does reflect some light, it never interferes with the reading experience. As a bonus, you can manually enable or disable that X-Reality engine, and it actually turns off automatically by default when you unplug the machine, so those great visuals will never come at the expense of battery life.

In a similar vein, all of Sony's new laptops have CMOS Exmor-R webcams, whose low-light imaging tech comes courtesy of Sony's imaging division. As you can see in the sample pic below, dimly lit shots don't escape noise-free, but they sure are a lot brighter than they have any right to be. You probably can't tell, but yours truly posed for this photo with the lights off, and at dusk, when the sun had all but disappeared.

DNP Sony VAIO Pro 11 review finally, a new flagship ultraportable to replace the Z

If Sony cut corners anywhere on the Pro 11, it was in audio quality. It's not that the sound is terrible to listen to -- it's actually quite pleasant -- but the intensity is weak. Even at top volume, it couldn't hold its own in a quiet room with an open window and a few cars passing by outside. Imagine, then, how it'll fare this summer, with creaky air conditioners and whirring fans carrying on in the background. Obviously, weak volume was to be expected, and it's not even a dealbreaker. Just make sure you take those conference calls in a quiet (windowless) room.

Performance and battery life


PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Sony VAIO Pro 11 (1.8GHz Core i7-4500U, Intel HD 4400) 4,634 N/A

E1,067 / P600 / X183

558 MB/s (reads); 255 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Pro 13 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,502 4,413

E1,177 / P636 / X203

1.04 GB/s (reads); 479 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Duo 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,440 6,047

E1,853 / P975 / X297

546 MB/s (reads); 139 MB/s (writes)
Samsung ATIV Book 7 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000) 4,418 4,045

E1,081 / P600

626 MB/s (reads); 137 MB/s (writes)
ASUS Transformer Book (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 4,414 3,840

E924 / P512 / X177

482 MB/s (reads); 317 MB/s (writes)
Toshiba Kirabook (2.0GHz Core i7-3537U, Intel HD 4000) 5,275 5,272

N/A

553 MB/s (reads); 500 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire S7 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 5,011 4,918 E1,035 / P620 / X208 934 MB/s (reads); 686 MB/s (writes)
MSI Slidebook S20 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000) 4,043 3,944

E1,053 / P578

484 MB/s (reads); 286 MB/s (writes)
ASUS TAICHI 21 (1.9GHz Core i7-3517U, Intel HD 4000) 4,998 4,818 E1,137 / P610 / X201 516 MB/s (reads); 431 MB/s (writes)
Microsoft Surface Pro (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 3,811 E1,019 / P552 526 MB/s (reads); 201 MB/s (writes)
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,422 4,415

E917 / P572

278 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)
Dell XPS 12 (1.7GHz Core i5-3317U, Intel HD 4000) 4,673 4,520 N/A 516 MB/s (reads); 263 MB/s (writes)

Because we reviewed a pre-production unit, we don't necessarily see the Pro 11 as a harbinger for other Haswell Ultrabooks. In speed benchmarks, at least, it scored toward the high end of what we'd expect from one of last year's Ivy Bridge machines -- a bit better, but not leaps-and-bounds better. As you'll see, it's in the battery life department where the Pro really shines, but then again, Intel always promised Haswell would deliver a significant boost in runtime.

Whether the Pro 11 is representative of Haswell Ultrabooks in general remains to be seen, but we know this: there aren't any metrics by which the Pro could be considered slow. It boots in seven seconds, which is slightly faster than other Ultrabooks, and its SSD delivers peak read speeds of 558 MB/s, on average. Its average writes of 255 MB/s are respectable too. Throughout, the machine stayed fairly quiet, but the fans definitely pipe up once you get a game rolling, especially at max frame rates. Even then, though, the noise is minimal compared to what we heard on the new Toshiba Kirabook. As for heat, the keyboard area gets warm, especially farther back toward the function keys, but the hottest area is obviously the vent, located on the left side, near the back. Fortunately, it's easy enough to avoid that spot with your fingers, though you might well feel the heat if you decide to work with this thing in your lap.

Battery life

Sony VAIO Pro 11 6:41
Sony VAIO Duo 13 9:40
Sony VAIO Pro 13 8:24
Acer Iconia W700 7:13
Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012) 7:02
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012) 6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)
Dell XPS 14 6:18
Sony VAIO T13 5:39
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 5:32
Dell XPS 12 5:30
Samsung Series 5 UltraTouch 5:23
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch 5:15
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX51Vz 5:15
Toshiba Satellite U845W 5:13
Toshiba Kirabook 5:12
Toshiba Satellite U845 5:12
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3 5:11
Toshiba Satellite U925t 5:10
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5 5:05
Samsung ATIV Book 7 5:02
ASUS Transformer Book 5:01 (tablet only)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch 5:00
Sony VAIO Duo 11 4:47
Acer Aspire S5 4:35
MSI Slidebook S20 4:34
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A 4:19
Acer Aspire S7 (13-inch) 4:18
Acer Aspire S3 4:11
Lenovo ThinkPad Twist 4:09
HP Spectre XT TouchSmart 4:00
Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch, 2012) 3:57
ASUS TAICHI 21 3:54
Microsoft Surface Pro 3:46

If you take a look at that battery life comparison table above, you'll see the two worst results we've logged recently both come from 11-inch devices: the ASUS TAICHI 21 and the Microsoft Surface Pro. In general, too, regardless of screen size, touchscreen PCs have so far yielded pretty dismal runtimes. So, if you throw in a 1080p screen and a smaller chassis with less room for a battery, you can expect particularly weak performance -- about four hours on a charge, if that. If we didn't know better, we'd have expected the Pro 11 to give a similar showing.

Of course, though, we do know better: the Pro isn't just another first-generation Windows 8 Ultrabook. Nope, this guy ships with a Haswell processor, which promises up to a 50 percent boost in runtime compared with last year's Ivy Bridge chips. Indeed, we breezed past the four-hour mark, squeezing out an incredible six hours and 41 minutes. And that's with a Core i7 processor! Imagine what this thing can do with a slightly less heavy-duty Core i5 chip?

Or how about an extended battery? Sony is selling sheet batteries for the Pro 11 and Pro 13, and it promises to double the runtime in both cases. We unfortunately didn't get to test this, but we're impressed the option even exists. How many Ultrabooks do you know of that can accommodate two batteries at the same time?

In fact, we're tempted to recommend the Pro 11 on account of its battery life alone, but the truth is, if every Haswell laptop is supposed to deliver like this, you're probably better off waiting for other models to come out. After all, if this sort of performance becomes the new normal, you could let other, more subjective factors tip your purchasing decision. You know, like keyboard comfort, or trackpad quality.

Software and warranty

Sony VAIO Pro 11 review

It might appear at first glance that the Pro 11 comes stocked with bloatware, if only because the so-called VAIO apps take up two pages on the Start Screen. Indeed, there are a few unexpected additions, like Slacker, iHeartRadio, Hulu Plus, PuzzleTouch, My Daily Clip and Music Maker Jam, but it's really just that the tiles themselves take up a lot of space. Other than that, you'll find Sony's own Album and Music programs, as well as its Socialife aggregator. There's also a handful of Xbox Live games, including Minesweeper, Solitaire and Taptiles, but we really own count the latter as a true add-on. After all, we can remember a time when Minesweeper came pre-loaded on every Windows PC. It feels like it should be part of the OS, even if it's not.

Moving on to traditional desktop software, Sony threw in ArtRage Studio, which you'll actually find on all of Sony's touchscreen computers this season. Similarly, Sony is bundling its own multimedia suite on every PC going forward, with the full package worth around $200. Finally, the company installed Kaspersky Now as a pre-loaded security solution. Is it more effective than other anti-malware programs? Not for us to say, at least not without some more formal testing. It sure has a lot of pop-ups, though.

Sony VAIO Pro 11 review

As you might have assumed, the VAIO Pro comes with a standard one-year warranty, which includes repairs and 24/7 phone support.

Configuration options

While the particular unit we tested is priced at $1,550, the Pro 11 actually starts with a lower MSRP of $1,150. To start, you get a dual-core Haswell Core i5-4200U processor, along with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. As you can see with our own test machine, it will also be offered with a Core i7-4500U CPU and a bigger 256GB solid-state drive.

If you go with the Pro 13 instead, you'll get a few more options than you would with the Pro 11. That machine starts at $1,250 with similar specs (a Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, etc.), except the 128GB SSD is a PCI Express drive. In addition, there's going to be an 8GB RAM option, as well as a 512GB solid-state drive (also PCIe).

The competition

The Pro 11 is launching at the beginning of Computex, an industry conference that's basically become the premier Ultrabook show. Indeed, we still expect to get hands-on with some new models later on this week, so we suggest you sit tight and see what other companies announce before making any rash purchasing decisions. That said, we're starting to get a clearer picture of what the marketplace will look like over the coming months.

Starting with Toshiba, the company recently started selling the super-light, 2.9-pound Kirabook, which rocks a 2,560 x 1,440 display and comes standard with specs like 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. Of course, it's quite a bit bigger and heavier than the Pro 11, and its battery life isn't nearly as long. There's an explanation for that, but it also speaks to one of the Kirabook's biggest weaknesses: it currently ships with Ivy Bridge, and it might be months yet before it gets an upgrade to Haswell. Until it does, that $1,600 starting price (touchscreen not included!) isn't worth it.

Other than that, we're coming up short on extra-light Ultrabooks that can compete directly with the Pro series. From what Dell has said so far, it seems none of the machines in its summer lineup are really comparable. And though HP teased a premium Ultrabook, it has a 14-inch display, which makes it a competitor to the Pro 13, perhaps, but not the Pro 11 we're reviewing today. Plus, HP hasn't announced full specs for that machine or even given an on-sale date, so for now it doesn't even fully exist.

Wrap-up

Sony VAIO Pro 11 review finally, a new flagship ultraportable to replace the Z

Those of you who have been waiting to retire your old Z-series laptops can rest easy. The Pro series improves on the old Z line in almost every way, with an even thinner and lighter design, a more comfortable keyboard and epic battery life. Most importantly, perhaps, Sony's new flagship Ultrabook comes with a much more reasonable starting price: $1,150, compared with $2,000 or so for the last-generation Z. That's not just a good deal for a Sony machine; it's a good deal, period, especially considering it comes standard with both NFC and a 1080p display.

Ultimately, as you probably gathered, we recommend the Pro without hesitation. Well, maybe there's one thing holding us back: we're curious to see if all the other Haswell machines deliver similarly long battery life. If they do, that's not a reason to go with the Pro, per se. It's also a shame about the Pro's stiff touchpad -- no driver update will fix that. All that said, though, we don't know of anything in the pipeline that's quite this thin, this fast, this long-lasting and this reasonably priced.