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Sony VAIO SE: IPS for Under a Grand

When I saw the VAIO SE at the Sony booth at CES 2012, it was already a slightly older laptop and normally I wouldn’t have given it much time, but one thing clearly stood out from all of the other laptops I’ve reviewed in the past several years: the display. I’ve seen some really poor TN panels over the years, and I’ve also seen a few good TN panels, but it took all of two seconds to determine that yes, this laptop actually had something other than a TN display. The Sony rep confirmed that it uses an IPS display, and at that point I made it very clear that we really wanted to review this laptop. Even though it first launched back in September 2011, IPS displays are such a rarity that I had to try and get one for review. Thankfully, Sony fulfilled our wishes—sending along their VAIO Z2 as well as an added bonus. (Dustin already handled that review, if you missed it.)

On paper and at first glance, there’s a lot to like with the VAIO SE. Unlike most laptops in this size range, the LCD is actually a 15.5” panel (as opposed to the many 15.6” and the older 15.4” offerings). While some might want something slightly smaller like a 14” laptop, for 1080p displays this seems to be the sweet spot. Get any smaller and the prices start to skyrocket (e.g. the VAIO Z2), and for those of us with less than perfect eyesight it can also be a bit of a strain to read text on a 13.1” 1080p display. Besides a great display, the SE also includes plenty of memory, switchable graphics that will let you decide between (gaming) performance or longer battery life, and the main body of the laptop tips the scales at just 4.40 lbs. (2kg) and is slightly less than an inch thick (24.6mm). And if you need more battery life, Sony even offers a sheet battery that basically doubles the battery capacity (at the cost of thickness and weight). Let’s hit the spec sheet first, where we’ve bolded the items in our ~$1250 review sample as well as listing the alternative configuration for the basic $930 model.

Sony VAIO SE Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2450M (dual-core 2.50-3.10GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i5-2540M (dual-core 2.60-3.30GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i7-2640M (dual-core 2.80-3.50GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 4GB (1x4GB onboard + empty SO-DIMM slot)
6GB (1x4GB onboard + 1x2GB DDR3-1333)
8GB (1x4GB onboard + 1x4GB DDR-1333)
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6470M 512MB or
AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB DDR3
(480 cores, 485/1600MHz Core/RAM clocks)
Display 15.5" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(Unknown: MS_0025)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM HDD
750GB 5400RPM HDD
(Toshiba Toshiba MK7559GSXP)

256GB RAID 0 SSDs (128GBx2)
512GB RAID 0 SSDs (256GBx2)
1024GB RAID 0 SSDs (512GBx2)
Optical Drive CD/DVD Burner
Blu-ray Combo Drive (Matshita UJ152)
Blu-ray Burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet(Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n WiFi (Intel WiFi+WiMax 6050)
Bluetooth 3.0 (BCM2070)
WiDi 2.0 Ready
Audio Stereo Speakers
Headphone jack
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-cell, 11.1V, ~4.4Ah, 49Wh
6-cell, 11.1V, ~4.4Ah, 49Wh Sheet Battery
(Optional)
Front Side WiFi On/Off Physical Switch
Left Side Optical Drive
Headphone Jack
Right Side Memory Card Readers
Gigabit Ethernet
VGA
HDMI 1.4a
1 x USB 3.0
2 x USB 2.0
Kensington Lock
AC Power Connection
Back Side Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Dimensions 14.97" x 10.08" x 0.97" (WxDxH)
(380mm x 256mm x 24.6mm)
1.84” (46.7mm) high with sheet battery
Weight 4.40 lbs (2.0kg)
5.77 lbs (2.62kg) with sheet battery
Extras HD Webcam
103-Key backlit keyboard (1.7mm stroke)
Flash reader (SD, MS Pro Duo)
MS Office 2010 Starter or Home/Student
120W Power Adapter
Optional 49Wh Sheet Battery
Optional Dock
Warranty 1-standard warranty
2- and 3-year extended warranties available
Pricing Starting Price: $980
Reviewed Configuration: $1530

Our unit has the newish Core i7-2640M instead of the older i7-2620M, not that the extra 100MHz matters much. Graphics consist of Intel’s HD 3000 from the CPU, with an AMD HD 6630M available via a manual switch. “Stamina” selects the IGP and “Speed” selects the discrete GPU, and after a 5-10 second delay (and assuming you don’t have any programs running that prevent the switch), you can swap between the two. As far as performance goes, the HD 6630M is a decent entry level laptop GPU—don’t even bother with the HD 6470M/6490M for gaming, as they’re not powerful enough to handle anything more than low quality, low resolution gaming—but with a 1080p display we certainly would have liked to see the option for something a bit beefier.

The rest of the specs include all the typical stuff, along with a USB 3.0 port and Blu-ray combo drive ($80 extra for Blu-ray). Sony also shipped us the sheet battery (a $150 extra) and 8GB RAM ($85 extra). The weakest link in the specs is easy to spot: that Toshiba 750GB hard drive has plenty of capacity, but the 5400RPM spindle speed is going to put the dampers on some tasks and definitely doesn’t help with boot or shut down times.

Other than the hard drive, what’s not to love? You can get a decent quality IPS display in a mainstream laptop, with switchable graphics providing the ability to game or run for hours off the mains. If you stick with the base model, you can get almost everything you really need from a modern laptop for under $1000 (the VPS-SE290X we received currently starts at $979, though we’ve seen the price drop as low as $929). The main sticking point with the entry model is the downgraded HD 6470M GPU, which is only a minor upgrade from Intel’s HD 3000. It’s pretty easy to spec out a unit with less memory and storage but get a 7200RPM 500GB hard drive with the HD 6630M graphics for roughly the same price of $1020. (And if you don’t like to deal with bloatware, you can pay $50 extra for Windows 7 Professional and get the laptop with Sony’s Fresh Start—no Norton Antivirus, and possibly a few other missing “extras”.) All told it’s a pretty promising package, but let’s dig a little deeper and see if there are any concerns.

Dissecting the Sony VAIO SE
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  • ckryan - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    This is some of the best news I've heard in a while.

    My perfect lappy would be something with a 14.1" IPS display at 16:10, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1440x900.

    I don't think that is all that much to ask, and even eIPS is cool with me. Anything better than the awful TN panels out there.

    I don't mind lower resolution as much in a laptop, at least to a certain extent. Windows 7 is ill-equipped to really make the most of high resolution displays in smaller screen sizes anyway.
    Reply
  • peterfares - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    "I don't mind lower resolution as much in a laptop, at least to a certain extent. Windows 7 is ill-equipped to really make the most of high resolution displays in smaller screen sizes anyway. "

    Why do people keep saying this? I've used Windows 7 with high DPI mode and it works flawlessly in my experience.
    Reply
  • freedom4556 - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    You must be nearly blind. It works terribly in my experience across many different displays, VGAs, and DPI settings. It's not Windows' fault, the apps just don't play nice with a DPI change. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 04, 2012 - link

    I'd say it's probably about 50-50 for apps playing well with the DPI setting. Most MS apps are fine, obviously, and the web works well for me. But there are definitely major applications where playing with the DPI setting causes issues. I have a 30" LCD and for a while I used the 125% DPI setting, but eventually I got sick of the glitches here and there and went back to the default scaling. Reply
  • Samus - Wednesday, April 04, 2012 - link

    Windows 7 with big desktop icons and high dpi is no comparison to Windows xp's "stretch only supported GDI objects disproportionally to others". Reply
  • hemmy - Wednesday, April 04, 2012 - link

    I think Windows 7 is great with high-res displays. Everything looks so crisp and small with tons of open screen space. Reply
  • Machelios - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    If only there was a hybrid hdd on this. Though, I think it is a bad decision to do only 1x4GB sticks. The performance will degrade in some applications. 2x2GB is better. I also wish there was an option without a CD Drive. The hinge problem is sad. It could have reached perfection.

    oh... and FIRST!
    I know you guys will hate. I cannot wait.
    Reply
  • kyuu - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    Considering you're not actually first, I fully expect some hate as well. ;)

    But I agree, I wish manufacturers would start including an option for a hybrid HDD. The thing I hate most about buying a laptop is having to pay for the crappy HDD they stick in which I'm going to want to swap out first thing.
    Reply
  • DigitalFreak - Tuesday, April 03, 2012 - link

    "I know you guys will hate. I cannot wait."

    Being stupid is your fate. Now run along home and don't be late.
    Reply
  • peterfares - Tuesday, April 03, 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. Reply

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