Sony barreled into CES earlier this year flaunting a 3D monster laptop boasting a 16-inch 1080p display, a built-in 3D transmitter and a fancy button that promised to instantly add an extra dimension to your boring "regular" 2D movies. It was the latest in the outfit's VAIO F Series, and it was ready to snatch $2,000 straight out of your wallet -- but not all of us can throw down that kind of scratch. Still looking for a suitably powerful desktop-replacement that won't decimate your bank account? That same 2011 VAIO F Series rig just might be your ticket, sans 3D trickery -- and knocked down to a base price of $980. Does this somewhat more budget-friendly variant still pack enough punch to knockout your hefty desktop PC? Let's find out.
Look and feel
Although it doesn't invoke the Camaro-like aggression you see in some of Alienware's rigs, the VAIO F Series is a touch edgier than than Sony's more diminutive VAIO laptops. As a desktop-replacement, it can afford to be a bit wider, bulkier and thicker than the other kids on the block. Its matte black lid closes with a slight underbite, leaving a handful of status LEDs exposed. The wedge shape design is accented with an inwardly angled screen, and a rising palm rest and concave speaker grill. The design is different enough to be eye-catching, yet subtle enough that it won't draw unwanted attention your way. It's a clean, comfortable design with a hint of elegance. Professionally suitable with a touch of cool. We like it.
Opening the rig's jaw reveals exactly what you'd expect: a touchpad, keyboard and a row of media controls to headlining whole shebang. The power button hangs over the right edge of the machine, leading the way to the optical drive, a standard USB port and a pair of analog audio jacks. The opposing side holds a VGA port, HDMI-out, an Ethernet jack and two USB 3.0 ports. An IEEE 1394 Firewire port, a WiFi toggle switch and a MemoryStick Pro / SD card reader line the front edge of the machine. Measuring 15.69 x 10.68 x 1.70 inches and weighing in at 7.85 pounds, the VAIO F is a pretty hefty laptop. It tapers toward the rig's front lip (1.31 inches at its thinnest), but this restricts sideline ports to lining up single-file. It would be nice to have room for a fourth USB plug on the right edge, but the existing trio is hardly anything to scoff at. The Ethernet port runs quite a bit farther up the laptop's left side than we expected, and is only a few inches from the machine's front edge -- an odd place for this kind of connectivity port when there's a full inch of unused space hiding behind the machine's optical drive.
Display and sound
The VAIO's 16:9, 1080p digital window fades to black if you look at it from too far below, and bleeds a dingy yellow if you look down upon it from on high. Unless you're eye level with the keyboard or peering down from a 150-degree angle, however, you won't see anything amiss -- the display's hinge doesn't tilt far enough back to reveal its fault. These nitpicks notwithstanding, the F's LED backlit display boasts sharp, vibrant colors and excellent horizontal viewing angles. There's a slight loss of contrast at perpendicular perspectives, but if you regularly look at your monitor sideways, you've got bigger problems than an offset light / dark ratio. Web videos, Blu-ray movies, video games, documents and webpages all looked marvelous. The display is even fairly readable in direct sunlight, thanks to an anti-glare coating and a bright backlight. We can't complain.
Nestled in a recessed groove just south of the display is the rig's discrete speaker / sound bar -- an asthetically pleasing, if ultimately tinny, noisemaker. It's not to say that the VAIO's speakers are bad; they're just unimpressive. When using the rig's default settings, higher pitched sounds can be painfully piercing, and bass feels notably shallow. Filtering the audio through Dolby Home Theatre takes the edge off the high end and strips down the canny tinge, but even this only brings the F Series' speakers up to average. Again, the VAIO doesn't sound awful, but we expected more from a rig with a product page that promised to blow us away with simulated five-channel surround sound and bass boosting speakers; we just didn't hear it. To its credit, the rig exhibits fantastic volume control, with loudness levels varying from door-mouse quiet, to inconsiderate-roommate loud. Still, serious gamers and discerning audiophiles will definitely want to invest in a pair of quality headphones.
Aspiring vloggers won't want to rely on the Series F's webcam for capturing their greatest YouTube hits -- at least not unless they're doing a series on white noise. The webcam's microphone picks up loud hazy background noise in quiet spaces, and its high resolution doesn't make up for its grainy picture. We played around with a few different lighting scenarios and wound up with dark, grainy and dimly colored pictures every time.
Keyboard and touchpad
Sony laptops have been rocking chicklet keyboards for some time now, and this backlit typewriter is no exception. The F Series' kyes puts up just a smidge or resistance, but not nearly enough to give one pause. The keys bounce back with a light spring, subconsciously encouraging you to type a bit more vigor than you might on a MacBook Pro's softer keyboard.
Although the F Series' keyboard will do just fine for typing, folks hoping to moonlight the rig as a gaming machine might have some minor beef. The standard WASD setup is comfortable enough, but like most laptops, this machine just doesn't consider anti-ghosting a priority. Although we found a few exceptions, don't expect more than two to four simultaneous key presses to register if you're jumping rows. Still, the rig's ghosting keyboard didn't haunt us during our tests, and we imagine that the average gamer won't have any more trouble than we did. You hardcore folks? Stick with that external board -- you already know why you love it.
The F's touchpad is cleanly embedded in a slightly raised palm rest at the foot of the keyboard -- there isn't a single line or seam separating it from the body. Only a light texture of tiny bumps betray its position, making it one of the most elegantly integrated touchpad designs we've seen in some time. The hardware, however, is a mixed bag. Let's start with the good: the touch surface itself is responsive and precise, reading pinch-to-zoom and rotation flicks as accurately as standard cursor movements. Although we typically find ourselves avoiding trackpad gesture control on PCs, the VAIO's pad made this often frustrating feature feel fresh.
The trackpad's few faults aren't related to the touch surface itself, but all of the pieces surrounding it. Sure, gestures and pointing work well enough, but actually clicking is a disaster of design. The pad's left and right clickers are crippled by a unibody mouse button, a rocking slab that creates an inch-wide dead zone between the toggles. This sleek single-button look is a prime example of form over function -- not only does the dead-space make it unclear where one button ends and the other begins, but the divide can make reaching for a secondary click a three-inch journey depending on where you rest your thumb. Although reaching a few inches might seem trivial, it becomes increasingly frustrating with every missed click. We often found ourselves missing the thin button entirely, and eventually surrendered to tap-clicking the touch surface full time. The trackpad's raised surface can also be a problem, elevating it just high enough to occasionally brush the bottom of our palms as we typed -- this caused random cursor jumps, errant clicks and general havoc. The trackpad can be disabled with a simple Fn shortcut, but we simply can't see toggling the touchpad on and off every time we want to use the keyboard.
Performance and battery life
When a rig holds the title of "desktop replacement," you can usually assume a few things: it's probably going to pack a punch, and it's probably not going very far without an AC adapter. Our machine, running a Intel Core i7-2670QM processor clocked at 2.20GHz (3.10GHz with Turbo Boost) and rocking a NVIDIA GeForce GT 540M GPU, didn't disappoint on the former, and predictably lived up to the latter. The VAIO took about 50 seconds to boot, and when it did, we piled 56 open tabs across 5 web browser windows, each with at least one tab dedicated to streaming video content from Netflix, YouTube or SouthPark Studios alongside IRC, chat clients, word processors, a Blu-Ray movie and a fully playable session of Team Fortress 2 running in a window -- the notebook didn't stutter until we tried to throw an instance of GTA IV into the mix. The few hiccups we did hit in our daily usage were usually a result of our own jittery internet connection, or a result of our hands accidentally scraping the trackpad mid-keystroke.
The very same dedicated GPU that kept TF2 looking classy probably helped suck the battery dry -- the VAIO F called it quits two hours and seven minutes into Engadget's standard battery test. While gaming? The rig rage-quit after 58 minutes. It's certainly not the worst we've seen in a desktop replacement, but take a hint from its desktop replacment status: don't stray too far from your desk -- you'll need the power.
2011 Sony Vaio F Series (2.20GHz Core i7-2670QM, GeForce GT 540M)
MSI GT683DXR (2.00GHz Core i7-2630QM, GeForce GTX 570M)
Sony VAIO Z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6650M)
Dell XPS M15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, GeForce GT525M)
3:41 / 4:26
Qosmio X775-3DV78 (2.0GHz Core i7-2630QM, GeForce GTX 560M)
2011 HP Envy 14 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M)
2010 HP Envy 17 (1.60GHz Core i7-740QM, ATI Radeon HD 5850)
The VAIO F's benchmark score (see above) may tell a story, but it's a sterile, boring story. Let's boot up some games and get some numerics we can relate to: framerates. Naturally, we dipped into the advance display settings of every title we tried and pushed them to the max, with mixed results. Games running on Valve's Source engine ran the smoothest by far, with Team Fortress 2 clocking a respectable 43 fps, and Portal 2 following just behind it at 37. GTAIV, Batman: Arkham Asylum and Crysis, however, struggled to break double digits without making a few compromises. It only took a few tweaks to get these titles running at playable speeds, but we lost some eye-melting magic. The F Series notebook will get you in the game, but it won't always get you there in style. Even so, everything we tried still looked pretty good running on a hybrid of high / very high and scattered medium settings.
As with the SB and S Series VAIOs, the F comes packing the brand's swoopy app dock: the VAIO Gate. This program dock headlines the top of the screen, hiding just out of view until its peeking edge meets the users cursor. This shortcut launcher hasn't changed much since the last time we saw it, and neither has our opinion of it: the Gate is inoffensive, but unnecessary.
What's docked at the Gate? Among common Windows programs such as Media Player and Internet Explorer, you'll find a handful of Sony specifics, including a media suite perched squarely outside of the realm of standard bloatware. The F Series' pre-installed Sony Imagination Suite 2 includes Vegas Movie Studio HD Platinum 10, Sound Forge Audio Studio and ACID Music Studio 8 -- pared down versions of some of Sony's best media editing and music creation applications. Vegas Movie Studio covers your nonlinear video editing (although we still prefer Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere), Sound Forge is a robust audio editor that will meet the needs of most consumers, and ACID Music Studio promises to be a haven for amateur musicians aching to cobble together a home recording studio. We peeked at how Sony prices these applications on their own, and the bundle rings in at about $200. Even if this suite of programs isn't your cup of tea, it's nice to see some pre-installed software that you might actually want to use some day. If nothing else, this package keeps you from wasting time scouring the internet for freeware alternatives, should you want to edit, remix, or create.
The F Series' base configuration hits your wallet at $980, netting you an Intel Core i7-2670QM quad-core 2.20GHz processor (3.10GHz with Turbo Boost), 4GB DDR3 / 1333MHz RAM, an NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M GPU, a 7,200rpm 500GB hard drive and a rewritable CD / DVD disc drive. Our test unit was essentially that same base rig, but with a few upgrades tacked on: $50 for an NVIDIA GeForce GT 570M GPU (currently free, as a promotion), $70 for a Blu-ray drive and an extra $50 for a 640GB HDD.
Looking to knock it up a notch? Feel free to upgrade that processor to a Core i7-2760QM ($150) or Core i7-2860QM ($450). It also wouldn't hurt to top off your memory with either 6GB ($80) or 8GB ($160) of DDR3-SDRAM-1333 RAM. A Blu-ray burner is also available for $170, along with a 750GB hard drive for $90. At its most expensive configuration (replete with $1,380 SSD, $650 16-inch 3D display, $150 Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit, $100 battery expansion and 3D-configuration-exclusive glossy black finish), the VAIO F Series can set you back a whopping $4,039.99. Yikes, didn't we start out trying to save money? Let's take a look at...
There's always another choice, and if you're leaning towards Sony's 3D beast, you might want to take a look at the Toshiba Qosmio x775-3DV78 or the Alienware M17x R3 -- both of these rigs will get you into the 3D game for around $2,000. While you're thumbing around M17x R3's neighborhood, look in on the Alienware 14x, it can either outgun or undercut our headlining rig, depending on how you build it.
If you're looking for a desktop replacement that doesn't break the bank, the Sony VAIO F Series isn't a bad choice -- it packs a satisfying punch, has a gorgeous display and can be had for under a grand. A low-end configuration isn't going to replace a hardcore gaming machine, but it'll pack enough of a wallop to keep you fragging with the current-generation games, with reasonable concessions. You aren't going to get too far with its two-hour battery life, but you can't expect too much more out of a desktop replacement. Despite a set of disappointing, average speakers and a touch button that ruins an otherwise stellar trackpad, there isn't too much to complain about in the F series -- it's a solid, affordable rig that can hold its own for multimedia enthusiasts and gamers who can't quite pony up the dough for a bleeding edge machine. Could you hate a laptop that makes you think twice about uninstalling
bloatware pre-installed software? We can't.