Sony VAIO Pro 13 Subjective Evaluation

First impressions of the Sony VAIO Pro 13 are good if not exceptional, and I definitely like the look of the laptop. Sony has gone with a very thin chassis that uses carbon fiber, and it’s one of the thinnest Ultrabooks around (though not quite as thin as the Acer S7). Unfortunately, the choice of materials and the thinness feels a bit too flexible to me. Sony would counter by saying that a bit of flex rather than bending or breaking is a good thing, and that the added weight of more rigid materials is undesirable; some people will agree with them. I personally like something that feels a bit more solid, but the VAIO Pro 13 isn’t so far off that I wouldn’t at least give it some thought.

As far as the subjective evaluation goes, I’m happy to report that the keyboard works well and other than the lack of dedicated document navigation keys I have no real complaints. Considering how thin the VAIO Pro chassis is, I wondered if the keyboard would suffer. Thankfully, unlike the Acer S7 it’s still a comfortable typing experience. Key travel is decent and you get the usual backlighting that’s found on any modern non-budget laptop. There’s a bit of flex to the keyboard when typing but nothing horrible – the flex is endemic to the chassis design.

The touchpad isn’t quite so good, and it’s a bit baffling how many companies miss in this area. I’ve had inadvertent “zoom” gestures register quite frequently (instead of the expected scrolling), including when the drivers are “coasting” on a scroll and I happen to press the Control key. On the bright side I haven’t had a ton of accidental touchpad activations, and Sony uses a Synaptics Clickpad for the hardware. It’s also a large touchpad area, which means the lack of accidentally clicks while typing is even more impressive. The touchpad gets a pass, but I’d rate it a B rather than an A.

The touchscreen works well, though as usual you’ll first have to overcome the desire to avoid putting a bunch of fingerprints on your display (which is a personal pet peeve of mine and something my children seem to love doing). As I’ve discussed in the past, touchscreens are something that makes perfect sense to me on a tablet or smartphone, but on a laptop it’s something I don’t find necessary at this stage. Using a laptop is a different experience than using a tablet or smartphone, and with no true tablet mode to speak of I don’t have a huge need for the touchscreen. Others are sure to disagree, and since it’s easy enough not to use the touchscreen if you don’t want to, it’s mostly a moot point. However, given it's a $100 price increase I'm sure some will appreciate the option to skip the inclusion of a touchscreen.

The real benefit to the Sony VAIO Pro 13 is when we start discussing mobility. The VAIO Pro 13 comes with a relatively small, internal 37Wh battery, but even with that battery it still manages to deliver up to eight hours of usable battery life (in our Light benchmark – and that’s 90 minutes longer than the 6.5 hours Sony claims), while moderate to heavy loads will give you three to six hours depending on what you’re doing. If you need more than that, Sony also supports an additional sheet battery that basically doubles battery capacity and battery life. There’s also intelligence with the battery subsystem, so the laptop will first drain the sheet battery before using the integrated battery, and when charging the integrated battery will get charged to 80% before the sheet battery begins charging.

Basically, battery life is awesome on the VAIO Pro 13 – with or without the extra battery. The only problem I have is with the connection for the sheet battery, which just feels a bit flimsy to me – it always worked, but if the laptop felt a bit too flexible before, the added sheet battery only serves to emphasize the problem. The extra battery adds over half an inch to the back of the laptop and around half a pound, which isn't too bad but it would be nice if the sheet battery integrated better into the overall design. Oh, and the sheet battery adds another $149 to the cost of an already expensive laptop. That's pretty steep for a battery, but the extra intelligence that Sony includes (for charging/discharging) is at least partly to blame.

The mobility aspect isn’t just about battery life, though. I find 13.3” to 14” to be just about ideal for me when I’m on the road – but I’m pretty tall so you can hopefully understand when I say 11.6” laptops tend to be smaller than I like. 13.3” screens are a good size for keeping mobility while also being large enough that you can fit plenty of content on the screen – and 1080p is still usable. Given the screen size, you might expect the weight to be in excess of three pounds, but in fact it’s far less than that – 2.34 lbs. (1.06kg) to be precise. That’s only moderately heavier than a lot of 10” tablets, and you still get a keyboard and a larger display. This goes back to the material choices of course, and the lack of rigid metal on the chassis definitely helps keep weight down.

WiFi tesitng of the VAIO Pro 13 showed good transfer rates, with around 100Mbps on a 2.4GHz network and as much as 200Mbps on a 5GHz network. I also had no trouble using the VAIO Pro 13 within my entire house, which is a relatively modest two-story 2400 square foot abode. However, connectivity outside of my house is basically non-existent unless I'm outside of my office window. In fact, throughput and range on the 5GHz band is generally better than on the 2.4GHz band, which is not how things should be. I also had issues with the occasional WiFi dropout that required disabling/enabling WiFi to resolve (and an updated driver from Intel appears to have fixed that problem). The range question ends up being something you'll have to decide how important it is; I've seen better range on a lot of other laptops, but most of the time I don't tend to stray that far from my router (the farthest point inside my home is probably 40-50 feet away, through a couple interior walls and one floor). If you're looking for something that can work on a campus or in an office setting where the access point might be 100-150 feet away, the VAIO Pro 13 will likely not maintain a suitable connection.

The last thing I want to mention before moving on is that Sony has really done some work on tuning the boot process, plus the use of a PCIe SSD helps in reading large amounts of data. Turn on the VAIO Pro 13 and you might almost think it’s just waking up from sleep it boots so fast. Windows 8 definitely helps as well, but boot times of under seven seconds are very impressive. Elsewhere, performance is generally okay for typical home/office tasks, but the one area where the VAIO Pro comes up short is in gaming or graphics workloads. We’ll see this in the benchmark results, but for a Core i5 Haswell part, I just expected more from the GT2 iGPU. The CPU and SSD don’t have any such problems, but graphics performance is actually a step down from what we saw on most Ivy Bridge U-series parts. It's basically the only real shortcoming in terms of performance, and it's the one thing that's missing when we compare the VAIO Pro 13 with Sony's VAIO Z laptops.

Sony VAIO Pro 13: Exceptionally Portable Sony VAIO Pro 13: Performance
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    The battery life testing is all done automatically, so no scrolling. While that's not a perfect representation of how people use laptops, coming up with a way to simulate interaction with a laptop that's repeatable and consistent is far outside of our abilities. (No, I'm not going to sit in front of a laptop using the touchpad every minute or so for the duration of the battery tests -- especially not on laptops like this where it takes 15 hours to run down the battery in the Light test!)

    As for Min/Wh, of course it has meaning: it's how many minutes of battery life you'll get for every Watt-hour of battery capacity. Yes, we could convert that to simply "watts" if we wanted, but considering we're normalizing to battery capacity it makes more sense to me to keep that fact in the numbers. If we simply put "watts", someone is going to take that to mean we're actually measuring power draw in some fashion, when in reality I'm merely taking the battery life and dividing it by the capacity.

    Put another way, you're smart enough to post the above comment asking about scrolling, so please don't pretend to be incapable of understanding the meaning behind "minutes per watt-hour". Saying it has "no meaning" would be like saying 1 Joule per second has no meaning... except that's what we now call a Watt (after James Watt). And of course Joule is named after James Prescott Joule, and it stands for the energy expended in applying a force of one Newton through a distance of one meter (or kg*m^2/s^2). Oh, and a Newton is named after Sir Isaac Newton, and represents kg * m / s^2. Whee! Maybe someday someone will come up with a name for Min/Wh -- I propose we call it a Walton. </sarcasm>
  • ananduser - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    Great review Jarred... I have some questions regarding battery life/testing.

    1. Which browsers are you using for Windows/OSX testing ? Native for each, IE/Safari, or crossplatform Chrome for both ? I trust that using the native solution for each platform is the most battery efficient option.

    2. And at your normalization charts... specifically under full load... do you reckon that 1080p and the 1.6GHz might be the culprit behind lower efficiency compared to the MBA in the chart(with the lower CPU and the lower res)?

  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    Yes, Safari and IE (now IE10 with Win8) are used. I also use Windows Media Player for the music (which is more power friendly than the Windows Music App), but I switch to Media Player Classic - Home Cinema for the video. I don't know what Anand uses on OS X for the movies or music -- probably iTunes for music, and some standard video player?

    Regarding normalization, I think resolution may have a very small impact in some tests, possibly a larger impact for the 1080p video playback. I actually did some testing last year and found that Windows 8 seems to have leveled the playing field for 1080p video decoding though -- like, running a display at 1366x768 vs. 1080p had virtually no effect on battery life. That wasn't the case with Windows 7, so the new display driver model may have optimized some stuff in relation to video playback.

    Anyway, it's difficult to say what the exact reason for the drop is at higher loads (the Heavy test), but since we're doing 8Mbps network stream + 1080p 12Mbps H.264 + fast web browsing there are a lot of parts in the system that will be active. My bet is that Apple just manages to keep things at lower power states better than Windows.
  • ajp_anton - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    I understand you don't want to manually scroll. I was just asking if you had some automatic scrolling figured out. No big deal though.

    As for units having meaning... what you just listed are standard units, and they all have their uses. A useless unit would be for example "furlongs per fortnight". It's a unit of speed, and you can make charts with it, showing you nicely how things compare relative to each other, but the numbers themselves would be meaningless and you might as well skip them altogether.
    My point was that while your graph shows the relative power efficiency of the computers, which in itself is kind of interesting, the number "10" in "min/Wh" doesn't really say anything meaningful. It would be more interesting to know that the computer uses 6W.
    How reliable that number is is another matter of course. Like you said, you're not measuring power, and so have to trust the battery capacity numbers, but I think it's still a better way to represent the same thing.
  • eamon - Saturday, October 19, 2013 - link

    A note to the scrolling: I have the reviewed laptop, and I've noticed surprisingly high CPU usage in SynTPEnh.exe (I.e. the touchpad driver). I'd expect that to mean that any touchpad usage - even accidental contact which the touchpad driver (as mentioned in the review) filters out - will cause the CPU to burn power, reducing battery life.

    And in practice, I don't think I've achieved 8 hours of life (even just when web-browsing); sony's estimate of 6.5 hours seems more realistic.

    In short: I think the comment about scrolling and touchpad usage is something that matters.
  • fokka - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    seems i'm about on the same page as you, jarred, when it comes to ultrabooks. i too find 13" to be the sweet spot, but i'm still using my 2010 13-inch mpb, which already gets a bit old in the tooth, if i'm honest.

    i also like the zenbooks very much and am eagerly waiting for the upgraded version/s to arrive. i like some of sony's offerings, but their pricing and flexible, if not flimsy feeling hardware is just too much of a turn-off for me.
    the metal finish of the zenbooks on the other hand is right up my alley and i'm hoping to get my hands on the new gorilla glass covered units as soon as possible, so i can form an opinion.

    i'm looking forward to reading a review here!
  • Einy0 - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Looks a lot thicker than the Lenovo X1 Carbon...
  • teiglin - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Just saw Lenovo's updated Yoga 2--13.3" 3200x1800. Best Buy sells a i5-4200U/128GB SSD/4GB RAM version for $1000 and Lenovo's site currently has the i5/256GB/8GB version for $1150. That's how pricing should be!
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    Dang, that's actually really impressive pricing from Lenovo. Sure, the Yoga 2 is a bit heavier than the VAIO Pro 13, and they currently have a sale going on, but when you can get 3200x1800 and 8GB RAM/256GB SSD for less than this Sony, I have to think that's the way to go.
  • TheSSDReview - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    I am surprised that there wasn't any discussion on SSD types that could be found within the unit, especially since some configured systems contained much slower SATA M.2 SSDs, vice the Samsing native M.2 PCIe. We learned first hand and, whereas our first system contained a SSD capable of 500MB/s, the one we received yesterday (and posted on) reached 1GB/s with a 256GB Samsung. Would love to have seen some SSD results here as they are far and few in between and this is the most powerful storage performance ultra in the world right now, when received with the PCIe M.2. LOTS of unhappy customers who have received the SATA M.2 as well. Other than that nice system and nice review except for the continuous fan (always) and heat emmitted from the fan. I hope you dont mind but I think the storage performance differentiation is significant:

    SATA M.2 SSD:

    PCIe M.2 SSD:

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