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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  • goobah - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    Thank you for the reply Jarred :)

    Much appriciated but I ment the castle name itself not the picture. That hilly out cropping on the sea is just so weird wanted to try google earthing it and look around:)
  • jmunjr - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    The se13fx/b is the original version of the SE series that is basically identical aside from some minor CPU/GPU upgrades on the new Se2. Mine has the i5-2430M, 4GB RAM, 6470M and same display... So yeah you can get this laptop for well under $1000 from a very reputable vendor.

    Oh and btw the Lenovo X220 with an IPS has sold for ~$750 on many occasions...
  • jabber - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    ...seemed to give middling performance.

    Still seems to be a toss up between a really good TN panel or a below average IPS as the best options.

    Not a good position really.
  • Snotling - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    My only beef with sony is the lack of availability of keyboards other than english on many of their models. Why the hell did they send a 5400rpm drive equipped unit for review is a mystery to me. Maybe they just can't avoid being stupid.
  • effingee - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    "NVIDIA’s Optimus Technology switches on-the-fly between IGP and discrete graphics as needed, you can still get driver updates from NVIDIA and Intel without worrying about compatibility issues"

    Will those driver updates have to come through Sony? If so, it could take a while and they might only release a couple of them.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    No, that's the beauty of Optimus: all the major OEMs participate in NVIDIA's Verde driver program, so basically every laptop with NVIDIA graphics (Optimus or discrete only) can use NVIDIA's reference drivers. The only laptops that aren't part of the Verde program (AFAIK) are laptops with manually switchable graphics--like the old ASUS UL80VT (I think that's the correct model) or the early Sony VAIO Z with GT 330M.
  • Zoomer - Saturday, April 14, 2012 - link

    Manually switchable graphics does have an edge in compatibility. No software support is needed; but a reboot might be needed to switch graphics around.
  • Christopher29 - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    That was really kind review for this laptop - I mean THIS quality (or lack of it), faulty cooling design, flexible screen and overal issues that this hardware has ... it is Amazing that it got Editors Choice.

    Well ... I highly recommend less "influenced" (biased?) reviews on notebookcheck.com. They do some serious tests and if something lacks quality, stablility (Anand do You really think that this laptop will not throttle down with this temps?) then it is always pointed clearly in bold, not "mildly mentioned".

    I've also experienced many issues with those laptops, warranty policy is ridiculous, and there are (were) cases in court in my country regarding refuse to service laptops. Sony states that after selling laptops there is no their responsibility but only company that service for them is responsible and also decide whether free repair is granted or not. Also they will not exchange LCD if there are badpixels , less than three as I remember in "central part of screen". Servicing company for SONY is sued because they refuse to repair broken lcd (vaio hinge desing and lack of sturdines brought cracking tension to screens) here is link: http://www.twojeartykuly.info/rozne/laptop-sony-va... (Or english via GTranslate: http://translate.google.pl/translate?sl=pl&tl=...
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    First off, while this is AnandTech, Anand doesn't review all the hardware. I wrote the review, and I clearly spelled out the potential concerns. The hardware did not throttle for most use cases. If you want to run Furmark or do heavy 3D rendering or video encoding, then I'd stick with other options -- Dell's XPS 15 comes to mind as a competitive solution that can handle a quad-core CPU.

    Claiming bias just because someone likes a laptop that you haven't even used or probably seen is... well, biased. As for Notebookcheck, all they have is links to external reviews of the same laptop, most of which give the SE an 80%+ rating. That's a pretty good score in my book.

    Sounds like you just have an ax to grind with Sony, with your complaints about customer service, dead pixels, etc. If you buy a laptop in the US and you don't like it, you can pretty much always return it for a refund -- worst case you pay a 15% restocking fee. For Poland (I assume that's where you're from), maybe they're not as willing to take back hardware. But once again, you're biasing your review off of your own location.

    VAIO SE summary:
    Good IPS display, a display that's better than any TN laptop IMO, reasonable cost, good performance
    Not perfect colors, questionable exhaust location, loose hinge

    The editor's choice is almost purely for the virtue of including an IPS display for a laptop that costs less than $1000. There are many users who want exactly that. "OMG bias -- you like good displays!" Yup. Sorry.
  • Zoomer - Saturday, April 14, 2012 - link

    The temps are likely a design decision, not random. The fan probably is running at the minimum speed while keeping temps below some threshold. Sony's engineers probably decided that 90-ish degrees is acceptable.

    Screen wise, some idiot manager/marketer probably forced that through to shave an extra 0.5 mm off the thickness.

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