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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  • Conficio - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    I'm really concerned about the hinge issue that Anand reports especially in combination with blocking the exhaust.

    I see my current 2004 laptop die of heat issues and the hinge is really loose. I don't know if I want to go back to the same problems. The laptop before that died of hinge issues as well.

    Also, why not offer this with an i3 and make the AMD Graphics optional. I really want to lower the entry price ~ $850 so I can swap the hard disk to external and replace it with an SSD internally. Then we are talking Sony!
  • Conficio - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    Apologies, should read "... that Jarred reports ..."
  • Guppy - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    Another issue with this particular type of design occurs when the thermal exhaust port is in the back of the notebook, and very close to the screen itself.

    With prolonged exposure, the hot exhaust can end up producing a discolored patch on the LCD. I have a Compaq with a rear exhaust port that experienced significant darkening on the adjacent patch of the screen, which became noticeable after perhaps 7-8 years of use -- so it's a slow process, but will eventually happen if you keep the notebook around long enough.
  • Hrel - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    From the way all of you at Anandtech go on and on and ON AND ON about IPS displays I was expecting WAY WAY more. There are TN panels in your chart that out-score the IPS panel. AND IPS panels have more latency. I am thoroughly confused as to why you STILL insist IPS is the way to go. Viewing angles are better, fine, I get that. But on a laptop I don't even want good viewing angles, I prefer for other people to not be able to, or at least have a hard time, seeing what I'm doing.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    TN sucks for so many reasons, that any display that's not TN is almost certainly going to be better. Yes, a good TN panel can can deliver scores in an ideal setup that are better than a decent IPS panel (e.g. the VAIO SE LCD), but viewing angles REALLY matter for me on a laptop. As an example, I used an XPS 15 on a flight and because of the angle of the seat and laptop, I ended up needing to slouch down just to see the display properly. Sure, the display had theoretically better contrast and colors, but only if you're looking straight at the display.

    As for latency, IPS is fine and anyone going on and on about latency in a display isn't talking about a laptop. "Oh no, I have 5ms more latency on my IPS display...on a laptop running at 25 FPS and moderate detail settings!" Furthermore, this isn't a gaming laptop, so there's no real concern with a fractional increase in latency. The only displays I've ever really had issues with on latency are S-PVA, but no one is putting those in laptops.

    Finally, if you're worried about privacy, IPS has wider viewing angles and that would be "bad", but TN panels have reasonable viewing angles from the left and right as well so you don't even get privacy with them. It's only above and below that get completely whacked out on TN, and with a laptop on your *lap*, you will often end up with the "viewing from above" issue. If you really want privacy, don't sit next to people and use your laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone! Good luck with that....

    Incidentally, I've used computers with "privacy screens" before, and while it does make it very difficult for anyone other than the person sitting right in front of the display to see what you're doing, such screens also look like crap. While you might want privacy, I'd rather the person next to me be able to glance over and see what movie I'm watching (or what I'm typing if they've got really good eyes and don't mind being rude) while I can actually enjoy the movie/work from a variety of angles. You'd have to be accessing very sensitive information to think that someone is going to spy on you and read it. It's pretty easy to tell when someone is staring at your laptop unless you're totally oblivious to your surroundings. "Um, excuse me, sir, but you've been staring at my computer for the past five minutes. Please go away."
  • azntwboy - Thursday, April 5, 2012 - link

    I took comparison shots of my own between the SE1, SA2, HTC desire, and HP monitor. there is no red at all on this screen. I can't even see the difference when viewing these photos on the SE. I have to look at them on my HTC. the violets do not show, and there is a yellow tint to everything. to reduce the yellow, I set in Intel graphics properties a hue shift of +8 and blue gamma to 1.2. HP reportedly will fix this problem but haven't said how yet. Sony won't tell me anything about it.

    the SE also has a problem with the headphone jack. it will not work with headsets with microphones unless the plug sits inconveniently halfway out or the call answer button on the microphone is depressed. its odd because none of the older vaio I tested today in the Sony shop have this problem. I emailed Sony but they deny this problem exists. my vpcse13fx and the vpcse15gb in the shop both had this issue. someone on notebook review says he has this also on his se1. I wonder if its been fixed on the se2?

    also note that se and sa have sata3 disabled on BIOS newer than r1031h4. you'll be stuck with sata2 unless you flash to the old BIOS.
  • Guppy - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    >>"the SE also has a problem with the headphone jack. it will not work with headsets with microphones unless the plug sits inconveniently halfway out"

    This exact behavior can happen in certain cases where there are certain kinds of damage to your headphone's wiring (or the jack itself), I fixed an identical issue with my friend's laptop just recently (in his case, the defect was in the headphone wiring)

    By hanging the plug partway out, you change where the segments of the plug make contact with their contacts -- I would recommend checking out the headphones and jack with a continuity tester for shorts and open pathways.
  • azntwboy - Thursday, April 5, 2012 - link

    One other issue I have with the SE is the placement of the usb ports. They're too close together and I can't attach multiple usb drives because they're too wide for the too closely spaced ports. They're also inconveniently located on the right side where cables get in the way of my mouse.

    I'm also getting a buzzing sound on my right speaker. It's only 2 days old.

    I was trying to decide between the sa and se but I decided on the se. The se has much better viewing angles and contrast but had bad color problems and Is a bit big for traveling. The SA is the perfect size but the viewing angles are horrendous and colors are washed out. I think the perfect laptop would be the SA with a screen from the Z2. With both the SA and SE you can install your own drives, expand the RAM, and swap the odd with a hdd caddy.

    The red problem is very disconcerting.
  • thebumblebee - Thursday, April 5, 2012 - link

    I got the Lenovo X220 with IPS display and i5 CPU (2.4 GHz) and 4GB Ram under a grand last June and nowadays you can buy it for even cheaper.
  • yaxattax - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    I've got the SE and I installed Linux onto it. The first thing I have to say is that I don't use the switchable graphics, I run from the IGP all the time - as a result, I was led to believe the Stamina/Speed swwitch would be useless. This is not correct, and I discovered that the Speed/Stamina switch does something to change the thermal budget, as throttling will occur while the laptop is in Stamina mode, but it goes away as soon as the switch is moved to the Speed position. I don't know if this switch is changing thermal budget via BIOS (by being some kind of interface to motherboard jumpers), or if Linux has a driver to perform this based on the switch, but I observed the same behaviour in Windows.

    Second of all, two finger scrolling. Two finger scolling works just fine in Linux, which means that the drivers for windows are not very good. This is probably a result of the base hardware in the touchpad already having support in Linux.

    I did as recommended in this review, and performed memory and SSD upgrades by hand, as it was cheaper. I took a gamble with the memory, hoping to be able to replace two SO-DIMMS, but I found out the hard way that 4GB is soldered in, which is a shame as I wanted to fit 16GB in, but 12GB is reasonable.

    I love the display, the viewing angles are fantastic and I'm not finding myself distracted by contrast shifts, which was the main reason for my choosing of this model.

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