Sony VAIO S 13” Review (2012 Model)


The Sony VAIO S 13” (VAIO S13) is a 13” ultra mobile notebook released in Spring of 2012.  The VAIO S13 comes with the latest Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 CPUs for top mobile performance. The S13 offers buyers a wide range of configuration options, ranging from the sparsely equipped base unit, which has a street price of around $800, to the much more expensive models with HD+ 1600 x 900 displays, carbon fiber lids and dedicated GPUs. The S13 is aimed at shoppers who want a reasonably thin, durable notebook that gives them the best performance in a light mobile package. Below we’re going to dissect the pros and cons of the VAIO S 13” to hopefully determine whether the S13 makes a good fit for you.

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Specs

Here are the specifications of the model under review:

  • Model: SVS13112FXB
  • Operating System: Windows Seven Home Premium x64
  • CPU: Intel 2.5GHz Core i5-3210M(3.1GHz Turbo) 35w
  • Memory: 6GB DDR 1333MHz(16GB Max)
  • Hard Drives: 640GB Seagate 5400RPM
  • Optical Drive: DVDRW(Slot Loading)
  • Screen: 13.3” 1366×768 Matte LED LCD
  • Graphics: Intel HD 4000 Integrated
  • Webcam: 1.3MP
  • Network: Realtek Ethernet, Intel 6235 WiFi Card and Bluetooth
  • Inputs: Six Row 81 Key Island Style Keyboard and Clickpad with Integrated Buttons
  • Buttons: Power, Speed/Stamina Control, CD Eject, Assist, Web and Viao
  • Ports:  Three USB Ports – Two USB 3.0 and One Powered USB 2.0 (All Right Side), Ethernet, VGA/HDMI, Combo Headphone/Microphone Jack, SD Card Reader, MagicGate Card Reader
  • Battery: Six-Cell (4400 mAh)
  • Dimensions: Width 13.04”, Depth 8.85” and Height .95”
  • Weight: 3.8 Pounds
  • Warranty: One Year
  • Base Price: $725

Design and Build

DSC00038-001Sony offers the VAIO S13 in eight different color choices, so you can pick the color that best suits your mood. Pink, gold and white are a few of the colors options . Whatever color you chose, the entire case is clad in it. Our review unit came in black, giving it a sort of ThinkPad look. The outside of the S13 has a simple look with only a medium sized Vaio and small Sony logos decorating the the lid. When you open the VAIO S 13” the keyboard is recessed slightly inward. When I first saw it, I thought I had broken it because it’s creased between the keyboard and screen. The S13 has what Sony calls a full-flat design. It’s completely flat on the bottom, except the rubber feet. Most notebooks have something sticking out the bottom these days, which you can feel when it rests in your lap. The S13 is deigned for mobility, so it’s thin and light at just 1” thick. It doesn’t seem all that impressive next to some extremely thin Ultrabooks that are out nowadays, but the S13 also gives users an optical drive, which you’d never see on an Ultrabook. The S13 weighs just under four pounds, 3.8 pounds to be exact. While that’s not the lightest 13” notebook on the market, it should meet the needs of most mobile users.

The VAIO S 13 feels very solid. You can pick it up by the side and it doesn’t creek or groan at all. The lid is made of magnesium alloy and carbon fiber is used on the higher end models. One plus for the mag alloy on the S13 is it is not prone to smudging or fingerprints. While you can make the screen wrinkle a bit if you press on the back, particularly in the middle, it feels well protected nonetheless. The screen is firm when in use, never moving at all. The screen uses a latchless design, but there’s little chance it’ll pop open.  Overall the fit and finish on the S13 is excellent.

Display

The VAIO S 13 has a 13.3” TN LED backlit display. The screen is matte, which thankfully means there’s no annoying reflections when there’s a light source nearby. There are two resolution choices – 1366×768 and 1600×900. We have the lower resolution HD resolution screen. Higher end models will have the HD+ LCD. There are 17 brightness levels on the S13, which range from dim, but usable, to pretty bright. I’d estimate the brightness to be about 300 nits. It seems pretty close to my ThinkPad X220i, which is rated at 300 nits. The S13 screen itself is quite nice, It offers above average contrast, so colors and images look good. Side to side angles are fairly wide and while the vertical angles aren’t as extensive, there’s a sizable effective zone. If you’re not moving too much, the screen looks pretty good. The biggest issue I had with the screen is the screen liked to adjust the brightness all by itself. I’m not sure if it was just a problem with this particular S13 or is a larger problem with all S13s, but the when using the S13, the screen dimmed to a lower brightness for just half a second or so, then would go back to the original setting. At first I thought it was some sort of power management issue, but I turned off all power saving settings and it still did it. I wouldn’t say it’s a huge problem when using the S13 and it may be limited to our S13, but it can be distracting when it occurs.

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screen tilted forward side view

Audio

One of the first things I do when getting a notebook for review is plug in my USB drive to dump my Mp3 collection over. I install iTunes and listen to some music, hoping to hear something better than the last notebook I reviewed. On occasion, I get a notebook that rises above the mediocrity that is most notebook speakers, the Dell XPS13 would be an example of this, but mostly they all sound about the same. The S13 would fall into the mediocrity category. While the S13 is pleasant enough for some music or videos, it’s a bit tinny and there’s not much bass to be had. As with most notebooks a good set of headphones or speakers will greatly enhance the audio experience.

CPU, Performance and Storage

Sony offers the Vaio S13 with the latest Intel Core i5 and i7 Intel Ivy Bridge dual core CPUs. Unlike the larger 15” model, there’s no quad core option for the 13” model. It’s a shame there’s no 35w quad option as that would have made the S13 a true portable power house. Our review unit had the base Core i5-3210M dual core CPU. In addition to the Ivy Bridge CPUs, you get a minimum of 4GB of memory on the base model.  Our review unit had 6GB of memory, which should be fine for most users unless you’re running some memory hogging applications. All VAIO S13 configurations have minimum of one 4GB stick soldered to the motherboard with one open slot on the underside of the notebook. That means the maximum amount of memory you can have is 12GB.

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With the latest Ivy Bridge CPUs and 6GB of memory, the S13 is no lazybones in the performance department. I was able to power through some Photoshop filters while listening to some music and surfing the web. The S13 didn’t sweat at all. One interesting feature the VAIO S offers on the performance side of things is a switch on the keyboard deck that allows you to toggle between speed and stamina performance modes. I think it’s mostly a gimmick. I could not discern a difference between the two modes when doing regular stuff.

The biggest performance bottleneck on the S13 is the slower 5400RPM hard drive. With 640GB of storage, the drive offers plenty of space, but it’s not quick. Boot times were just over a minute and applications don’t pop up as fast as when using a faster drive or SSD. That’s not unexpected, but the good news is the drive is fairly easy to swap. It sits under a panel on the bottom of the notebook. There’s only a couple screws to remove to gain access to it. Unfortunately, there’s only one drive bay and no mSATA slot, which would allow for two drives. It also looks like you cannot remove the optical drive for another hard drive like on the bigger S15 model. While our review unit came with a slot loading DVD-RW drive, a Blu-ray reader or Blu-ray burner is an upgrade option for movie buffs or those who need to do large backups.

Sony offers two graphics card options on the S13, the integrated Intel HD 400, which our review unit has, and a dedicated nVidia GeForce GT 640M LE. If you opt for the Intel solution you should be able to play older games and some newer games on low settings. The Intel card should also offer buyers better battery life. If you want to do some gaming on the S13, the dedicated nVidia card is the way to go. While not a top card by any means, it should allow users to play newer games while on the go, but battery life will take a hit.

Keyboard and Touch Pad

The VAIO S 13” uses a chiclet or island style keyboard that is the norm these days. It’s a full sized keyboard. Being it’s a 13” notebook, there’s no 10 key number pad. The keyboard on the S13 is fairly firm, you can make the keyboard give if you press down on it hard, but that’s not an issue during regular use. The keys on the S13 have a smooth feeling to them. The spacing is off from what I’m familiar with using, but buyers should adjust to that quickly. The depth is also a bit on the shallow side. One nifty feature the S13 keyboard does have is the keyboard backlight. It’s an auto backlight. There’s no on or off switch to the backlight, but when you use the keyboard, the backlight comes on. If you don’t use for a minute or so, it turns itself off. That should help preserve battery life and you don’t have to remember to turn it on or off.

VAIO S13 keyboard

The touch pad on the S13 is a click pad, meaning anywhere except the lower right corner, which is the right click, registers as a left click. The S13 has one of the widest touch pads I’ve seen, measuring over 4.5” wide and just under 2.5” top to bottom. The touch pad on the S13 has just the slightest bit of coarseness to it like a very fine sandpaper, but it works well enough. There’s no lag between what your finger does and what happens on the screen. The button mechanism is much stiffer than I’m used to, making dragging items across the screen a chore, which I didn’t like. I did quickly learn how to use tap to click on the S13, which greatly improved the likeability factor for the touch pad. The S13 has all the gestures like two-finger scrolling, pinch to zoom and tap to click buyers have come to expect when purchasing a notebook and they work well for the most part, but aren’t quite as fluid as the best touch pads I’ve seen like those on the MacBook Air or the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

Backlit keyboard

Battery

The VAIO S has a six-cell battery. The battery is accessible beneath a panel on the bottom of the notebook. Some screws need to be removed to exchange the battery. While buyers won’t need to send the battery to Sony for replacement, it’s not the most user friendly process. You wouldn’t want to attempt it on say an airplane tray. In addition to the standard battery, Sony offers a sheet battery for the S13 that plugs into a port on the bottom of the laptop. It’s also a six-cell battery and should double the battery life the S13 can offer users, but it also adds a pound and half to the weight, which lessens its mobility. To test the battery on the S13 I charged it fully, placed the switch on the keyboard deck to stamina mode and Windows to battery saver mode since Sony doesn’t offer much in the way of battery management software. The screen was set to half brightness and WiFi was on. With these settings I was able get 4 hours and 16 minutes of battery life. While that’s probably twice what I personally need, it’s a bit on the low side for more recent Intel Ivy Bridge based notebooks that have come across my desk. The ThinkPad T430 for example doubled that, though it had a larger battery. Attaching the sheet battery should get S13 users the same battery life as the T430, but with the added weight, the S13 will be heavier than the T430.

Heat & Noise

When using the VAIO S it stayed cool to the touch whether I was pushing it or not. The bottom back is where it got the warmest, but it was never uncomfortable. The vent on the S13 is located in the middle of the rear, it seems an odd location choice, but at least it’s not on the bottom, which has a tendency to get covered when in use. I wish I could say the S13 ran as quiet as it does cool, but honestly, I can’t. The fan noise on the VAIO S doesn’t get particularly noisy when doing mundane tasks, but it is an ever present fact of life. It has a dull hum that’s on all the time whether you’re just surfing or running more CPU intensive applications. It’s easily drowned out with music or conversation, but if you need quiet, it’s there. I tried setting it to quiet in the software settings and putting the CPU in low power mode, but it had no effect. When pushing the S13 it can get a bit loud, but that’s not unusual for most notebooks.

Ports and Networking

Sony furnishes the S13 with most of the ports typical users will need. Interestingly, almost all the ports on the S13 are located on the right side with the exception of the headphone jack. Hooking up a corded mouse for a lefty might be a challenge. There are connectors on the bottom of the S13 for the slice battery and docking port, but they just have plastic covers that do not attach to the S13, which means they’ll be very easy to lose. The right side of the S13 MagicGate and card readers, VGA and HDMI connectors for video, three USB 3.0 ports(one powered for charging a phone), an Ethernet port and the power jack.

Right side ports

The left side of the S13 has the slot loading DVDRW slot and headphone jack.

Left side

The bottom of the S13 has the slice battery and docking port connectors. The dock only adds a 500GB hard drive for back ups or what not, but doesn’t give you any ports that aren’t on the S13 itself. The dock will add some convenience when using an external monitor or other peripherals at a desk.

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All S13 come with Ethernet, WiFi and Bluetooth, which should cover the bases for most users. I had no trouble with the WiFi at home or work. I was able to connect my phone to play music and my mouse to the S13 effortlessly via Bluetooth.

Software

Our VAIO S 13” came with Windows 7 Home Premium, but Pro is an option for those willing to pay more. Sony does include some software utilities with the S13 like a settings menu and some multimedia software, but they’re not as comprehensive as the ThinkVantage suite offered on ThinkPads. Vaio Gate is an annoying item in the S13 software bundle. It sits at the top of the screen and pops out when the cursor gets close to it. It sort of reminds of ObjectDock. It has a way of popping out when you don’t want it to do so, though is not difficult to disable. One lame feature Sony offers on the VAIO S is what they call Fresh Start. First of all, you have upgrade to Windows Professional to get it, which costs $50. Basically, Fresh Start is a clean install of Windows with no bloatware. That’s how every notebook/PC should come, yet Sony has the nerve to charge you extra to get something it should already have.

Conclusion

The VAIO S 13” model in some sense tries to be all jack of all trades. You’ve got the lower end sub $800 models that are pretty bare and then the higher end models that go north of $2,000. If you’re going for the base and have $800 to spend, the S13 doesn’t hold up against the competition from a cost perspective. The higher end models are so expensive, few are likely to deem them worthy. I think where the VAIO S 13 is going shine is in the middle. If you’re willing to spend a few hundred above the base price, you can the S13 with a HD+ LCD, which is still pretty rare these days on 13” notebooks outside of premium Ultrabooks, and a dedicated graphics card for those who want to game a bit on the go. When you factor in the durable build, attractive design, above average screen and fair price, it’s in the center that the Sony S13 gives end users the best value.

Pros

  • Attractive Design
  • Nice Screen
  • Durable Build
  • Color Options
  • Auto Keyboard Backlight

Cons

  • Noisy Fan
  • So-so Battery Life
  • Not Easy to Swap Battery
  • Can Be Expensive on Higher Configurations
  • Questionable Software

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4 Responses to Sony VAIO S 13” Review (2012 Model)

  1. Tsuki October 19, 2012 at 3:01 am #

    I’m pretty sure the speed/stamina switch is mainly for people with the discrete card and it basically serves as a manual discrete/integrated switch. Also, there shouldn’t be a big hit in battery life with the discrete card if you keep it in stamina mode when you aren’t gaming.

    Anyways, great review!

    • ZaZ October 22, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

      Thanks. I went by what it said on Sony’s website, which made no mention of discrete vs integrated.

  2. Glenwing October 20, 2012 at 11:52 am #

    Good review. You listed the processor as an i5-3310M which does not exist. It has two options which are the i5-3210M and the i5-3320M, not sure which one you tried to type :P

    • Andrew Baxter October 22, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

      Oops, yes you’re right there was a typo there. It was supposed to be the Core i5-3210M and fixed to reflect that now. Thanks!

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