Look and feel
The new 15-inch S Series definitely carries a lot of design DNA from its smaller SA
siblings. If it were closed and you were standing far away, or perhaps aren't so very good at judging the size of things, you'd have a hard time telling them apart. It shares the same thickness as the 13.3-inch SB we recently reviewed
and shares the same angularish design, same magnesium alloy case, and same gigantic, swoopy VAIO logo in chrome on the back of the lid. Proud of your brand choice? You best be.
Open things up and you start to see some differences, most notably in the keyboard area. The extra footprint meant Sony had room to stuff a full number pad in here. This of course will be a boon for future and current CPAs, but the result is an offset QWERTY portion that some may find is not quite worth the compromise. Indeed, sitting slightly off-center from your laptop's display can leave everything feeling slightly askew.
Build quality in general left us with some misgivings, as with the SB. Sony touts the durability of its magnesium alloy case, but it makes an even bigger deal of its lightness. Indeed the 4.4-pound weight is more than acceptable for a laptop this size, but with this comes a feel that, to us, doesn't inspire a great deal of confidence.
Press on the keyboard and it flexes inward, and when you lift the screen open it bows precariously. Sony indicated this was by design, arguing that flexibility ultimately offers more strength than rigidity when it comes to protecting the hinge, but it's still not a perception that leads to a high-end feeling device. We'd rather Sony just built a better hinge.
The company did see fit to offer a satisfying array of connectivity options that includes a full three USB ports on the right side, one of them offering the unmistakable blue hue that can only mean USB 3.0. You'll also find a full-sized HDMI port for some digital video, a VGA port for those who like to keep it analog, Ethernet, and a pair of card readers: SD and the separate MagicGate. On the left you'll find the optical drive, a BD-ROM in our case, but purchasers will be able to choose between a selection of readers and writers.
Keyboard and trackpad
As mentioned above, moving up to the 15.5-inch model nabs you a numberpad to the right of a full-sized, backlit Chiclet keyboard. The island-style design is basically unchanged from the SB in terms of key layout and feel, which means matte keys that match the overall design of the device stylistically. They also have the weight and springy feel that we felt on the SB, meaning they do require a bit more force to hit, but not enough to be a bother. The typing experience is simply a bit more alive than on, say, a MacBook Pro.
The trackpad is quite different-feeling than the usual Apple offerings as well, most notably by eschewing the clickpad trend. Indeed the touchpad does not depress, that functionality handled by a pair of buttons below. The buttons have good weight and feel, but we can't find anything positive to say about the trackpad. For normal dragging and moving of the cursor it does just fine, but two-finger scrolling and other gestures were more often ignored than obeyed, no matter how we tweaked settings.
Display and sound
When it comes to displays, more pixels is almost always better than fewer pixels, and if we're all in agreement there we can start by saying the 15.5-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 display here is better than the 1,366 x 768 unit on the 13.3-incher. That's 1080p, or Full HD as Sony likes to call it, and it'll give you plenty of room whether you're multi-tasking with a few spreadsheets or mono-tasking with Akira
Regardless of duty we found the contrast ratio and viewing angles to be very good, only dipping slightly when we went off axis vertically, but delivering good viewing angles from the sides. It's a matte display, for which we're thankful, and this is the single, standard offering on the 15.5-inch S Series models. You won't need to pay extra to step up to 1080p. You can also stream video wirelessly courtesy of the integrated Wireless Display 2.1 tech from Intel, which manages 1080p sans cabling -- though you'll probably need to buy an adapter for your TV.
We do wish you could pay extra to get better sound, though. For a laptop this size we'd have expected a decent audio experience, but like the SB we're left feeling really disappointed. The speakers are loud enough to fill a modest size room, but even though you can hear it you won't necessarily like what's making its way through your ears. Sound is tinny and it simply sounds like the speakers built in here are struggling -- which they are.
Performance and graphics
Our machine came with a standard configuration of an Intel Core i5-2430M processor running at 2.4GHz. That's paired with 6GB of memory and dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6630M graphics with 1GB of memory sitting along side the integrated Intel stuff.
For general tasking and work we found this combination to be well more than adequate, multi-tasking with aplomb. Blu-ray plays full-screen without a hitch, as you'd expect, and full-screen HD content from elsewhere is no issue. Bootup times are reasonably fast (50 seconds) and overall it's a machine that won't leave you wanting, though it didn't exactly shine on the general-purpose Vantage test. It earns solid marks in its class on the more gaming-friendly 3DMark06, however.
As usual, Sony thoughtfully includes a little switch right above the keyboard that lets you toggle instantly between "Stamina" and "Speed" modes, automatically re-configuring Windows to different settings and, as you'd expect, disabling the dedicated graphics card. We did our testing in Stamina mode, as this is probably the state you'll be in when roaming far away from power ports.
In this mode, and during our video rundown test with WiFi on and the display brightness set to 65 percent, the laptop managed one minute short of four hours. Not bad, but not great. With the $150 optional sheet battery slapped on the bottom we more than doubled that. The slice adds a considerable amount of thickness to the device but, it must be said, not a great amount of extra weight, making it a solid accessory choice for anybody whose flights are the type that usually entail more than one connection -- and whose carry-on or personal item is big enough to accommodate this thing.
Handily, that slice can be charged on its own, even when not attached to the laptop, but you'll need to pack a matchbox-sized adapter to do so.
We don't have final pricing on all configuration options yet, but the 15-inch S Series will start at "around $1,000" according to Sony. On the processor front you have an array of Intel Core i3, i5, and i7 silicon available to you, but choices from the latter two groups of dual-core offerings will be most common. Your selection there can be paired with dedicated AMD Radeon HD 6630 graphics with 1GB of VRAM, which again is disabled when flipping that power switch from Speed to Stamina.
Multiple storage options will be available, with up to 1TB of storage and some solid state offerings too. Our machine has 6GB of memory onboard and a Blu-ray reader, but we're told writers will be on offer as well.
The 15.5-inch S Series comes with largely the same configuration as on the earlier SB. The most immediately notable thing is the VAIO Gate software, a swoopy, wave-like application launcher that hides beneath the upper bezel of your display and flows down when you mouse over it. You can put application shortcuts up there and watch them go.
There's a suite of other VAIO-branded apps, including support apps launched via the dedicated "VAIO" button on the keyboard. You'll also find Norton Internet Security, which will be throwing yellow-bannered warnings in your face from the first time you boot into the machine, but it's BYO productivity suite, as the Office 2010 install here prompts you to buy a license the first time you click on it.
The 15-inch VAIO S Series from Sony is a solid step forward compared to the 13-inch models in many regards, but not enough so that we can say it's the conclusively better buy. Yes, having a bright, clear 1080p screen is a huge advantage, but the increase in footprint is of course not for everybody, nor will the hour you lose in plug-free running.
In terms of cost it's just $100 more to step up to this bigger model, but more of a premium compared to options like the $800 Acer TimelineX AS5830TG-6402
, and for that money you're getting decidedly worse battery life (without the slice, at least). Is it worth the extra cost for that plus a better screen and shinier design? Well, how long do you need to go between recharges, exactly?