Dissecting the Sony VAIO SE

We’ve covered the basics, but now it’s time to get into the specifics. We’ll start with the obligatory exterior shots as well as a quick dismantling of the laptop to get at the important components. We’ve got the black model, though the SE is also available in silver.

The design doesn’t really break any new ground, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Without the sheet battery, the SE is actually quite thin considering the hardware inside. The front has a WiFi switch, the left side is home to the optical drive and headphone jack, and the right side has all of the interesting ports: flash memory readers (MS Pro Duo, MMC, SD), Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, USB 3.0, two USB 2.0 ports, the Kensington lock, and AC adapter.

Where Sony does veer off the beaten path is with the back of the laptop, where the exhaust vent is located. That’s not really a problem for most laptops, but the hinge on the SE has the cover pivot down to actually obscure/block the vent, leading to potentially higher temperatures. I didn’t experience any stability issues caused by heat—or any stability problems at all for that matter—but I can see no reason for the current hinge design. It doesn’t feel particularly sturdy/stiff, it blocks the exhaust, and from an aesthetics point of view it doesn’t accomplish anything noteworthy. It’s not a complete deal breaker, but a slight retooling of the chassis to move the hinge up to the normal “top” location would easily solve this.

As mentioned earlier, the SE has an optional sheet battery that basically doubles the battery capacity from the integrated 56Wh battery by adding an additional 49Wh. For the size of the sheet, it’s actually quite light (1.1lbs) and doesn’t have as much capacity as I would have liked. My feeling is that anyone willing to carry the extra battery around likely would have been happier with a 90+ Wh sheet that weighed a bit more, but Sony informed us they felt the current design offered a good balance of battery life vs. size. Even at just 49Wh, with the sheet battery you’re looking at a whole lot of battery life for basic tasks. Again, it’s a minor complaint, but I do feel the latching mechanism for the sheet battery could be a bit more robust—it feels a little loose when installed—but I didn’t experience any problems.

One interesting aspect of the sheet battery is that Sony has equipped the laptop/battery with some intelligence. When you use battery power, the laptop will first use the sheet battery and only when that has been drained will it start to run off the main battery. Once you hit 50% battery life, then, you could stow the sheet battery and carry around a thinner and lighter laptop. Likewise, when charging the battery the laptop will charge the sheet battery up to 80% (which is the fastest portion of the charge) and will then charge the main battery to 80% as well, after which the remaining 20% charge on the two batteries can take place.

If you’re interested in additional expansion options, the SE also supports an optional port replicator that connects to the bottom of the laptop—and yes, it can be installed with the sheet battery in place (which explains the “hole” in the middle of the sheet). The port replicator costs around $180 and includes four additional USB 2.0 ports, two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a VGA port, and an HDMI port.

Moving on to the user experience, the VAIO SE doesn’t really have any major flaws. The chiclet style keyboard is a bit springier than I like, but it’s comfortable enough to type on and the layout is good—including a full 10-key on the right. The keyboard also has backlighting, which is always a plus, and the backlight intensity can be set to vary according to ambient light if you’d like. (I actually don’t like auto-adjusting backlight intensity, but it can be disabled on the SE.) The touchpad is a similar story: it’s a Synaptics model and works fine, with several gestures, tap zones, and Chiral scrolling available. It doesn’t have two finger scrolling (at least, not that I could find), but otherwise I don’t have any complaints with using the touchpad.

With all the good aspects, there are a few areas where the VAIO SE could still be better. While the IPS display is a great improvement over typical TN panels, colors (and the color gamut) aren’t as good as the best displays out there—though I’d still say an “average” IPS display trumps even a high quality TN panel, personally. The build quality of the LCD/cover is also rather flimsy, and the hinge location and design left me scratching my head wondering what engineer thought it was a good idea. The main body of the laptop feels much more solid—Sony’s website says it uses a magnesium alloy chassis with a brushed aluminum palm rest. I have no reason to doubt the former, but if the palm rest is brushed aluminum then they’ve got a thick coating of paint to hide it; probably it’s more noticeable on the silver model. Anyway, I don’t mind the palm rest or body, but the display/cover/hinge feels loose and I’m not sure how well it will hold up after a few years of use. (Have you ever used a laptop where the hinge is so loose that the display just flops open/closed? I could see that happening in a year or two with the SE, as the hinge already moves quite easily.)

Perhaps the biggest complaint however has little to do with the build quality and hardware and more to do with the software. Yes, there’s a lot of bloatware and extraneous utilities preinstalled (I had just over 100 running processes at first boot), but I’m not even talking about that—15 to 20 minutes will have most of that junk uninstalled. My biggest concern is with the switchable graphics. It’s not quite as bad as the dynamically switchable graphics that I discussed in the VAIO CA, and Sony did update the drivers at least once since the launch, but those drivers are now about four months old and there are already a few titles that have issues running properly. Read up on the history of Sony VAIO laptops and driver updates and you’ll find that the likelihood of getting additional driver updates is slim at best, so you basically need to plan on running the November 2011 video drivers. I’m also not sure how things will play out with the launch of Windows 8 (presumably) later this year. In short, while this is a great business or multimedia laptop and it can handle gaming reasonably well, it’s not a gaming laptop and you shouldn’t buy one with the assumption that you will always be able to run the latest AMD Catalyst drivers.

One last item to quickly discuss is the upgradeability of the VAIO SE. The main battery is built into the unit and can’t be easily replaced or swapped out without a screwdriver—which is not to say that it would be difficult; two screws secure a metal panel on the bottom that provides quick access to the hard drive, battery, and single SO-DIMM slot. You’ll notice that there’s 4GB RAM soldered onto the motherboard, and our test unit includes an additional 2GB SO-DIMM. Note also that Sony charges an exorbitant $60 for a 2GB DDR3-1333 SO-DIMM, or $85 for a 4GB SO-DIMM; yes, you’re far better off making the upgrade on your own (which is why we provided those links to Newegg, if you’re wondering)! And while we’re on the subject, we’d suggest making the upgrade to an SSD on your own as well—the 256GB Samsung 830 can be had for $359, and while Sony will offer you 2x128GB SSDs in RAID 0 (presumably using an mSATA drive for one of the SSDs, though we can’t be sure), the truth is we’d be happier with a single good SSD with full TRIM support.

That’s it for the overview of the laptop itself; now let’s run some benchmarks and show how well it performs against other recently reviewed laptops. We’re mostly focusing on mainstream offerings but with a few others thrown in for good measure.

Sony VAIO SE: IPS for Under a Grand Sony VAIO SE Application Performance
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  • peterfares - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    1 4GB stick of RAM costs $20 or less. Just order it without any RAM stick and put the 4GB module in, leaving you with 2x4GB=8GB. 2GB soldered on would have been horrible. I'm already sick of 8GB and want 16GB in my laptop. I will when I get a sandy or ivy bridge laptop. My arrandale only supports 8GB.
  • piroroadkill - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    A perfectly serviceable specification and a great display, for a reasonable enough price.
    Everyone else needs to pay attention..
  • bunnyfubbles - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    the screen, relative light weight (you'd be hard pressed to find any other 15+" lappy @ 5.4lbs let alone 4.4), and price really were what sold it for me

    I was going to go with the 13.3" S series for its portability, and while the 13.3" S series 1600x900 screen was definitely a cut above all other PC laptops that are stuck with 1366x768, the 1080p IPS of the SE really was that much more gorgeous when comparing them side by side in store.

    The HDD is a disappointment, however I just upgraded my desktop from a 128GB Crucial M4 to a pair of Samsung 830s, so I was able to plug that M4 into the laptop, as well as replace the 2GB module with a 4GB (was less than $20) for 8GB total. Those two simply hardware upgrades along with a reformat with only the essential software and drivers (all of which can be found pretty easily and conveniently from Sony's support site) lead to a very awesome overall computing experience.

    The last upgrade I did was grabbed an external USB DAC. The Speakers on this laptop are extremely anemic, and the onboard sound leaves much to be desired. I have a Creative X-Fi GO! (was less than $30) for when gaming and chatting (has both plugs for headset and mic, laptop itself has only one jack so you can't have both headset and mic, and thus would have to rely on the built in mic on the laptop which is passable but not ideal) and my trusty FiiO E7 when just watching movies or listening to music

    The 128GB SSD might not seem like much, but its certainly enough for the OS and apps, and no laptop will be able to satiate my gaming like my desktop, so very few games get installed to it anyway. Anything else (mostly large media files such as music and movies) can be handled via portable USB HDDs and flash thumbdrives, of which I converted the 640GB HDD to a portable drive with a portable 2.5" USB3.0 enclosure.
  • jigglywiggly - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    I'd take the tn panel 95% ntsc color gamut (The clevo one you were talking about) I have one in my np8130 and it is absolutely amazing. Contrast and brightness is most important thing imo, then viewing angles.
  • piroroadkill - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    I disagree. You're not going to be using a laptop for serious colour sensitive work, but you might have a laptop out to watch a video with a few friends sat around it.
  • charleski - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    On TN panels the gamma changes (usually dramatically) with even a slight movement off-axis. They're completely unsuitable for colour-sensitive work unless you're going to lock your head at the optimum position.

    There certainly are people who need a decent portable screen for reviewing images, but the available options are very limited.
  • Stacey Melissa - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    I'm not quite as worried about the hinge, but after three months with my base SE, I agree with the rest of the review, for the most part. I immediately swapped the HDD for a 128GB Crucial M4, and did a clean Win7 install, so performance is pretty good. I only get about 4 to 4.5 hours runtime, but I'm running the screen at fairly high brightness (82%) and turned off a couple obscure power-saving tricks. I'm very picky about noise. Luckily, fan noise is very low for my typical use, which involves browsing, Visual Studio, and video playback. I usually use a Targus wedge laptop cooler, which I don't plug in. Clicks are noisy. The trackpad is placed too far to the right, and I really miss two-finger scrolling. The keyboard is excellent, except for the spacebar, which often doesn't register left-side presses. It could use dedicated volume buttons. I like the manual graphics switching, except that it takes several seconds.

    Bugs: Scrolling usually quits working after waking from hibernation. To fix, open the mouse control panel, and click OK. The BT hardware sometimes quits working upon resume, even after the driver update that supposedly fixes it. When running on battery, the DVD drive switches on and off regularly and often, which causes the standard hardware attachment/detachment sound notification.

    The screen is easily the best I've used on a laptop. It also bests my old Dell 2405 desktop S-IPS in brightness, contrast, and of course sharpness, but not quite in gamut or accuracy.
  • adece - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    ...is actually appealing! What do you know
  • MrMaestro - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    I bet Dustin wouldn't have minded getting his hands on this laptop to review, how did AnandTech decide who had dibs? Coin toss? Rock-paper-scissors? Fight to the death?
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, April 3, 2012 - link

    Dustin got the Z2, I got the SE... wasn't sure which would be better, but ultimately the Z2 is too costly for what you get and the keyboard doesn't appeal as much.

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