Review: Sony VAIO S Series Laptop – VPCSE13FX

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Sony VAIO S Series – VPCSE13FX

Editor: Sony approached the Amateur Traveler recently offering a Sony VAIO S Series laptop with the hope of seeing how this computer would work for travelers. This assignment went to part time Amateur Traveler Editor Juliette.

When Chris asked me if I wanted a laptop, I thought, “very funny”. When it was apparent that he was serious, I thought, “it figures”. (After some stream of “duh” and “yes”, of course). My history with laptops is one rife with a lack of control and choice on my part, either given a computer or forced, by necessity, to purchase whatever was cheap and available. First, a laptop for college provided by my father, about which I unfortunately recall little, beyond that it was a Dell and had a fun polka-dot backing. A few years ago, an attempt to upgrade the RAM resulted in it refusing to turn on, regardless of the RAM inserted. I then used my mother’s laptop, one she had purchased from QVC. A mysterious virus (read: none shall tell that I spilled milk on my mother’s laptop, however little she actually used it) made it impossible to type on, even with an external keyboard. Intending to return to school, a need for a reliable device and my mother’s QVC addiction combined, as she urged me to purchase (as she likewise would) the wonderful laptop currently available for x-easy payments of look-how-affordable. I chose the largest of the Dells available, the Inspiron 1750 that, at 16.5” (by 11”). pleased my love for big screens but proved a menace when traveling. Massive and heavy, it would not fit into the computer compartment of my travel backpack without much wrestling. Its size and quick battery drain further deterred from taking it on casual outings. Roughly two years after the order, an actual virus took it down; system restore helped, but it remained slowing and dysfunctional, bug-ridden and resistant to Windows Update ever since.

Just as I began considering saving toward a nice desktop/notebook combo, one I would select with care (I have long had an interest in computer gaming, but mediocre graphics cards has made it difficult to pursue), Chris approached with the Sony VAIO. Who am I to turn down a laptop? Lucky for me, the VAIO has been, by far, the best of the laptops that have fallen into my lap. The passage of time and improvement of technology as a whole might help, but to my limited knowledge and experience, the VAIO stands out regardless. I had high expectations: thanks mostly to Playstation, I have long been a fan of Sony products. (The inclusion of Media Go as a starter program was a plus, but I expect I’m very niche in that). My Windows and Sony double bias should have made this break tantamount to ascension, but before fleeing from such a skewered perspective know that, alas, the VAIO does not reach perfection.

Let’s Get Shallow

The magnesium alloy coating it boasts is advertised as increasing durability; I’m sure it does that, but it also feels nice. I’ve always had a bizarre attraction to books without glossy finishes, with a sort of smooth texture. Inquiries into what to call it, other than “not glossy”, have been met with puzzlement, but it feels a lot like the VAIO. In dim lighting, the keyboard lights up. This optional feature has proved extremely useful, and as I’m easily impressed, is plain cool. As attractive is the thin, sleek design. At 15” (by 10”), one might still consider the VAIO a little too big, or at least not much smaller than that Inspiron.  But, as evidenced by the photo, the VAIO fits inside the Inspiron, and weighs much less to boot. Not only does it fit easily into my backpack’s computer compartment, but I’ve gotten it into my shoulder bag as well. Mind, not a small shoulder bag, and with some cost to room and comfort. This laptop looks and feels great, and at under 5 pounds, proves very portable.

 These pluses do have their drawbacks. As nice as the alloy feels, as resistant to certain staining as it doubtless is (I’ve become much more careful to keep food away from my technology, so I cannot comment with experience), it also shows fingerprints quite starkly. Not dirty or greasy fingers, not anymore than the usual oils, so the inevitable shows of wear on overused keys and the right-click appear much faster. A good soft cloth can remove some of it, but expect that right-click to be permanently smudged, or greased, early on. As a dubious bonus, you’ll also know if the rats living in your New York home have been on the table at night.

Battery Life, Half-Life, and Everything In-Between

As for the weight, the VPCSE13FX comes with an external sheet battery that doubles the battery life of the computer. While it only adds about a pound, during a long day of travel with other items in the bag, one begins to feel it. It also makes it a little less sleek, and a little less suited for quick packing and removal. Although its features boast up to 12 hours of combined battery life, it should come as no surprise that that depends upon the type of usage. Further, a handy feature complicated things for me. Upon first booting the VAIO, it recommended that I enable the “Battery Care Function”, which would prevent battery degradation by only charging the battery(ies) to 50% capacity. Having experienced degradation with every single one of my previous laptops, then been reluctant to replace the pricey battery, this setting thrilled me. It lost some of its appeal once I was traveling to and from New York. With both batteries at 50%, one is able to watch a solid two hour movie, with about a half hour (at the same demanding usage) left over. With both at 100%, on a relatively low brightness setting, expect a little under six hours of battery life while watching videos or performing other demanding tasks. Probably less if playing certain games. Thus, three without the external. Of course, if one primarily hopes to use office programs, working at a low screen brightness, then “up to 12 hours” may be quite possible, closer to six without the extra battery. Flipping the hard-switch from “Speed” to “Stamina” helps to conserve battery life by adjusting the system’s performance settings, so if doing light computing on the go, one might really reach 12. Either way, when preparing for a long trip, one might want to sacrifice the risk of battery degradation and charge to 100%, then evaluate just what one intends to do, and for how long, before attaching the (minutely) less convenient battery sheet. Not all airlines provide sockets on board!

Performance, Where Dreams Come True

Speaking of playing games, the VAIO performed beyond my wildest dreams. As a rule, it runs smoothly and quickly, the processor and memory swift and powerful. Whenever I return to the Inspiron for file transfer purposes, I realize the difference. The inclusion of a 3.0 USB has made the external drive I purchased, that claimed it would work on 2.0 USB ports, now usable, to my ever augmenting glee. Windows runs well on VAIO, and both are extremely user friendly, with the on-computer guide very helpful, and a number of programs (informative and upkeep/update type) from both Windows and VAIO geared toward helping the user; almost too many. But, what really delighted me was the Hybrid graphics feature. The VAIO implements a number of energy saving features, disabling certain drives and functions when unplugged. The “Stamina-Speed” switch serves as another example. When plugging in and aiming for high performance, the Radeon graphics are fantastic. The VAIO, although offering compatibility with the Playstation 3, has not been publicized as a gaming computer, nor is it. Its performance impressed nonetheless. On my Inspiron, Bethesda’s Elder Scroll V: Skyrim claimed it would run on Low settings, but was unplayable, the graphics skipping and far too slow. On the VAIO, with other programs open, it runs flawlessly on Medium. With nothing else running, it glides on High with ease. No, it could not reach Ultra, but a general purpose laptop operating as demanding a game as Skyrim on High settings still stands as an achievement. Finally, I can game!

Webcam Woes

With such quality performance elsewhere, it shocked me to use the webcam. Perhaps my VPCSE13FX does not have the HD-camera the site features. Perhaps expecting a good webcam on a laptop is expecting too much. I doubt my complaints will have much weight for those who do a lot of recording via webcam, as doubtless, they have long since invested in a quality external web camera. But, to acquire a Sony VAIO laptop in 2011, and find that its web camera can barely compare to the webcam on the Dell Inspiron 1750 of a couple of years prior, came as a giant surprise. I first noticed when taking ‘inaugural laptop’ photos with my dog (a necessity with webcam equipped laptops, and my dog, of course, is contractually obliged to appear in 80% of my photos). At the time, my hair was pink, and I knew precisely what shade of pink it was; the pale, pathetic rendition that the VAIO webcam offered was nothing like it. The pictures provided are those taken with a Fuji digital camera (left) and with the VAIO, after I’d already toyed with the settings (such as saturation) to try and get a closer color. Comparing a webcam to a digital camera isn’t fair, so I experimented further with a colorful sweater, with both laptops (webcams on default settings) in both daylight and artificial light (which has always hurt my webcam photos). The results speak for themselves. While the VAIO’s camera takes larger photos, the quality isn’t very good, and even with tampering with the settings, the color quality falls short. While the sweater tends to look radioactive even in photos taken by a digital camera, I should not need to turn the saturation up to its maximum amount to reach something close to accurate. Further aggravating: sometimes, the camera cannot be found. I have had to restart the computer or reinstall the software in order to use it.
 

Again, those for whom web camera quality is a major concern, have probably acquired a decent external camera. But, I wouldn’t advise Sony to use the webcam as a selling point; my experience with the camera and its otherwise promising ArcSoft Companion software has been so disappointing, the amount of spammish pictures I take (obnoxiously with the dog) will probably decrease. That might be a good thing for the world, except having a webcam should make one want to take more stupid photos, not less. Or, I’ll use the camera on my Droid 2 (dog fulfilling contract).

My last complaint lies more with Windows 7 and its infuriating power plans, more specifically, the impossibility of changing them without it reverting to its preferred, even if I’ve already gone into the registry through its own troubleshooting recommendation and changed the preferred plan to the one I created. As I am otherwise fond of Windows 7 and very pleased with the VAIO, I consider this (if at times extremely annoying) problem a small one, and not much of a drawback.

That Said…

In all, this laptop of the Sony VAIO S Series stands tall as a great machine. The issues I have are relatively minor in the grand picture. It is pretty, powerful, light weight, and the various energy-saving implementations are not only cool and efficient, but appropriate for the time.  If it hadn’t been a gift, I would be sorely tempted to buy it. 

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by Juliette T

Juliette Todd is making her way, one setback at a time. She's moseying a slow path toward a Communication Studies degree, with aspirations to either law school or teaching in China.

2 Responses to “Review: Sony VAIO S Series Laptop – VPCSE13FX”

john

Says:

This is a great travel site, packed full of useful information, including things to do, events and places to see. I travel as much as possible, and I always check out your site first to see if I can pick up any travel tips or general information about destinations. Keep up the good work!

Mark

Says:

After only 1 cup of coffee, I found this review. A truly amazing accomplishment on my part. The article was IMO well written, entertaining and informative. I am fortunate enough to have several laptops all for different purposes. I will buy a Vaio S series based on this article Thank you, mark

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