The Sony VAIO SA is a 13.3” screen high-end laptop that sits between the cheaper VAIO SB and premium VAIO Z in terms of price and quality. The particular VAIO SA under review is the 3rd generation VAIO SA3 model number VPCSA3AFX 13.3” laptop. It was purchased from B&H Photo & Video while on sale for the excellent price of $799. The specs on the VAIO SA3 under review are as follows:
- Processor: 2.40GHz Intel Core i5-2430M with Intel TurboBoost
- Memory: 4GB DDR3 RAM
- Storage: 500GB 5400rpm Hard Drive
- Graphics: AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB GPU
- Screen: 13.3″ LED Backlit Widescreen Display, 1600 x 900 resolution, matte (anti-glare) finish
- Optical Drive: SuperMulti DVD Burner
- Integrated Webcam & Microphone
- Wireless: 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1+EDR
- OS: Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)
- Ports: 2 x USB 2.0, 1 x USB 3.0, HDMI, VGA monitor out, SD card reader, Memory Stick Duo card reader, headphone out, Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-4)
- Backlit keyboard
- Weight: 3.7lbs
- Dimensions: 13.04” x 8.84” x 0.92” (Width x Depth x Thickness)
The same laptop can of course be purchased and configured via Sony.com, the CTO model is the VAIO VPCSA290x. The standout features on the VAIO SA3 that should be highlighted are the following:
- The 1600 x 900 hi-res screen is very hard to find on a laptop of this size
- Intel Core i5 and dedicated AMD graphics in a 13.3” chassis and for under $1,000 is excellent price to performance
- The VAIO SA3 is thin, light and sleek looking in terms of design
- The build quality of the VAIO SA3 is excellent
Of course, it’s not all roses, we’ll touch on the good and the bad in this review of the VAIO SA!
Design and Looks
First impressions are lasting, and I think most people will be like me and be struck by the sleek looking design of the VAIO SA. It has nice chrome accents in places such as the VAIO logo, touchpad buttons and back hinge. This contrasts nicely with the solid black finish. The backlit keyboard is an instant attention getter, assuming you’re in a darkened room that is, and just the thinness of the screen sets this apart from your standard laptop look. I also like the bright green power button LED lighting.
I think the only disappointment I had with the design is that the optical drive is not slot loading, for some reason I thought it would be and should be for a premium laptop that’s all about style.
The VAIO SA uses a magnesium-aluminum alloy chassis and aluminum case so it has a solid feel to it and you don’t get much flex on the body. In a word, this laptop is solid. The VAIO SA3 is also slim, just under 1” at 0.97” of thinness. The weight is 3.7lbs which reflects the fact there is a lot of metal used in the construction. Still, I don’t consider something under 4lbs heavy even though you could find a lighter 13” laptop. With Ultrabooks currently on the market you can find 13.3” laptops such as the Toshiba Z830 that weigh 2.5lbs.
The screen hinges on the VAIO SA3 are very rigid so there’s no worries about screen wobble. Pushing on the back of the lid does not cause any screen ripples so you know the screen will be safely protected if you throw this in a backpack to take to class.
The VAIO SA3 model under review has the hi-res 1600 x 900 display. Because the resolution is so high for this sized screen it can make text and images rather small, if you have poor eyesight that may cause issues for viewing. However, if you’re a screen real estate junky like me and love to fit as much on the screen as possible then the resolution will be a delight. Another big positive is the screen brightness, at the brightest level the backlight is quite overpowering when indoors so I had to keep it down a few notches from max brightness. You could probably use the laptop outside in indirect sunlight and still see the screen at max brightness.
While the high resolution screen is nice and allows you to see a lot at once, the viewing angles on the VAIO SA screen are disappointing. There’s definitely a sweet spot at which you should view the screen, otherwise colors tend to distort. You really need to be viewing perpendicular (straight on) to get the best colors, once you change from that angle of viewing colors change and are no longer true:
The color saturation on the VAIO SA screen also leaves a bit to be desired, sometimes it’s hard to tell greys from white or yellows from white. This is most apparent when trying to distinguish organic from paid search results in Google, I had a tough time seeing the yellow background that Google uses in their AdSense area above search engine organic results so it was hard to tell how to avoid ads. A picture with a camera is tough to convey this, but here’s an example for what you get after searching on Running Shoes:
The negatives aside on the screen, I do like the fact the screen is matte and avoids annoying reflections. To demonstrate this I took a picture of the VAIO SA3 next to the Toshiba Portege Z830 Ultrabook. You can see in the picture that the Z830 is reflecting the light on the ceiling while the VAIO SA reflects nothing on its screen:
If you’re staring at your laptop screen for long periods during the day this is an important consideration, reflections can cause eye strain after long periods of time.
Keyboard and TouchPad
The Sony VAIO SA has a chiclet / island style keyboard as most laptops these days do. The keys have a nice feel and a good amount of travel and tactile feedback. My favorite part of the keyboard is certainly the backlighting feature. The backlight on the keyboard makes it very easy to see keys at night and even improves visibility and thereby usability during daytime use.
There is a built-in ambient light sensor that will turn on keyboard backlighting when the room becomes dark enough.
The touchpad on the VAIO SA is slightly textured and generous in terms of size. The two mouse buttons below have a rather small fingerprint reader between them, this can be used for laptop login purposes and storing passwords for websites using the built-in Sony utility. The buttons themselves feel ok though are slightly too stiff for my tastes and have a slight clicking noise that can be annoying in a quiet room. Though the chrome accent on the buttons looks nice when clean, they do collect greasy fingerprints and are annoying to keep clean.
The VAIO SA3 under review came with the following important performance specs:
- Processor: 2.40GHz Intel Core i5-2430M with Intel TurboBoost to 2.90GHz
- Memory: 4GB DDR3 RAM
- Storage: 500GB 5400rpm Hard Drive
- Graphics: AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB GPU
The VAIO SA3 has switchable graphics, meaning it can use integrated Intel HD3000 graphics when being used for everyday work tasks and switch to AMD 6630m graphics if extra 3D performance is needed. This results in performance that outdoes larger 15-inch laptops that only have integrated graphics and yet battery life is preserved because most of the time Integrated graphics, that are more power friendly, are used.
I ran a few benchmarks to demonstrate how the VAIO SA stacks up to other laptops of varying sizes and configurations.
PCMark Vantage is a benchmark that provides an overall system performance score, the VAIO SA outdid many Core i5 equipped 14-inch laptops with its 7,007 PCMark score:
|Laptop||PCMark Vantage Score|
|Sony VAIO SA (Intel Core i5-2430M 2.50GHz, AMD Radeon 6630M, 4GB RAM)||7,007 PCMarks|
|Dell Vostro 1440 Review (Intel Core i3-370M, Intel HD, 6GB RAM)||4,931|
|Lenovo IdeaPad Y470 – Intel Core i7-2630qm, Nvidia 550M 1GB, 8GB RAM, Intel SSD||12,160 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E420 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM||6,056 PCMarks|
|Dell Vostro 3450 – Intel Core i5-2410m 2.30Ghz, 4GB RAM||5,901 PCMarks|
|Dell Inspiron N411z – Intel Core i3-2330m 2.30GHz, 4GB RAM||5,285 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T420 – Intel Core i3-2310m 2.1GHz, 2GB RAM||3,204 PCMarks|
WIth the newer PCMark 7 benchmark the VAIO SA achieved a 2,022 PCMark score:
|Laptop||PCMark 7 Score|
|Sony VAIO SA (Intel Core i5-2430M 2.50GHz, AMD Radeon 6630M, 4GB RAM)||2,022 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad W520 – Intel Core i7 2720QM, 4GB RAM, Nvidia Quadro 2000, Intel 320 SSD||4,299 PCMarks|
|HP Envy 17 3D – Intel Core i7-2670QM, AMD 6850M 1GB, 8GB RAM, 7200RPM HD||2,592 PCMarks|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U400 – Intel Core i5-2430M, AMD Radeon 6470M, 6GB RAM, 5400RPM HD||2,287 PCMarks|
|Dell XPS 15z – Intel Core i7-2620M, Nvidia GT 525M, 8GB RAM, SSD||3,604 PCMarks|
To test the 3D performance of the VAIO SA and its AMD 6630M graphics we ran 3DMark 11, while the 997 score fell short of gaming laptop style notebooks it’s still a respectable score and indicates you can play just about any modern game if you’re willing to adjust settings to medium and up the resolution to 1366 x 768:
|Sony VAIO SA (Intel Core i5-2430M 2.50GHz, AMD Radeon 6630M, 4GB RAM)||997|
|Lenovo ThinkPad W520 – Intel Core i7 2720QM, 4GB RAM, Nvidia Quadro 2000, Intel 320 SSD||1,438|
|Dell XPS 14z – Intel Core i5-2430m 2.40GHz, 8GB RAM, Nvidia GT 520M, 7200RPM HD||639|
|Alienware m14x – Intel Core i7-2630QM, 8GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce GT 555, 7200RPM||1,331|
These benchmarks will give you the idea that the VAIO SA can indeed compete with bigger notebooks in terms of performance and is more than capable enough for a work-a-day laptop. Multi-tasking will be a breeze. Performance will especially pick up if you go with an SSD drive for faster bootup and application opening. Uninstalling a few of the Sony bloatware applications will also do miracles. Even if you don’t do performance tuning, out of the box the VAIO SA is going to be very fast.
The VAIO SA is a portable laptop and as such the battery life is an important consideration. WIth the standard 4400mAh battery I was able to get 4 hours and 50 minutes of usage when setting the screen to two notches below full brightness, wifi on Bluetooth enabled. Under more battery friendly conditions with brightness all the way down and wireless off the battery life was 6 hours 28 minutes. That’s very good, but not realistic. If you want to get battery life of over 10 hours Sony has a great option in the form of a sheet battery that simply attaches to the bottom of the VAIO SA. Sony quotes battery life of up to 12 hours when you attach the sheet battery that retails for $150, my guess is realistically it’s closer to 10 hours in real world usage. See the graphic below for a demonstration of how the sheet battery slots onto the bottom of the VAIO:
Input and Output Ports
The ports selection on the VAIO SA is excellent for a 13.3” screen laptop, you get everything you can possibly want for an on the go laptop. Let’s take a tour of the VAIO SA and see what’s on each side:
On the left side is just the optical drive
The right side of the VAIO SA is where all the action is. You get 2 x USB 2.0, 1 x USB 3.0, HDMI, VGA monitor out, SD card reader, Memory Stick Duo card reader, headphone out, Gigabit Ethernet (RJ-45) and the power jack. If you don’t like ports on the right side, you’re kind of out of luck!
On the front side of the VAIO SA is just a wireless on off switch and some indicator lights, no ports.
Heat & Fan Noise
The VAIO SA has its fan located on the back and as such the heat is kept away from the user, no worrying about a fan blowing heat onto your left or right hand that’s holding a mouse. The fan did run fairly frequently, but it was not loud or annoying. In a room with ambient noise you would not be able to detect the fans.
On the back side you will find the heat vent, which is a great location for a laptop as it blows heat away from you and not onto your hand
The system itself never got too hot, the palm rests in particular stayed very cool and never got uncomfortable. The bottom of the laptop did get somewhat warm, up to 95 degrees when under stress running a benchmark test. This could be mitigated by using a lapdesk or simply sticking to use of a desk.
The web camera on the VAIO SA is a 1.3 Megapixel camera. While that’s a high MP for a lowly web cam, the low light performance leaves much to be desired. When I was in a room with no natural light during the evening the quality was grainy and quite poor. Bottom line, the camera is great if you’re in a room with a lot of light, otherwise the picture quality is going to suffer the darker it gets.
The VAIO SA is inevitably going to be compared to the 13.3” MacBook Pro as a thin and light performance laptop. Does the VAIO SA offer a better option than the Apple MBP 13”? I think most of that depends on your preference of OS. Design and build wise I think these two are close, though the MacBook Pro certainly has a cleaner look and the touchpad is nicer. Performance wise the two will be close, but if you’re into gaming the VAIO SA would be the better choice simply because Windows is where the games are.
For the price paid of this configuration, $799 on sale, the VAIO SA is an excellent choice and gives a great dollar to feature ratio. With a powerful Intel Core i5 and AMD 6630m graphics you’ll have no issues doing more demanding tasks, or even several at the same time. The high resolution 1600 x 900 display is great for those that want to fit as much as possible on a 13.3” screen, though the color contrast and viewing angles leave room for improvement. The VAIO SA is an excellent choice for both business professionals thanks to its matte screen and professional look, but can also suit students that have a high enough budget as it’s small enough to carry around campus and offers all the computing performance you’ll need for school work.
- Well built and durable thanks to magnesium-aluminum chassis and aluminum case
- Excellent performance for a 13” laptop, Intel Core i5 and dedicated AMD graphics
- 1600 x 900 standard high resolution screen with anti-glare matte finish
- Nice design, professional looking
- Screen has poor viewing angles and color contrast
- Speakers are so-so
Where to BuySony VAIO SA $899 @ Sony.com