Sony VAIO Pro 13: Exceptionally Portable

As our first non-Apple Haswell Ultrabook, the Sony VAIO Pro 13 has a high bar to clear. We’ve seen a few Haswell systems that have delivered on the promise of improved battery life, and in some cases we’ve even seen improved performance. The performance improvements mostly come in the form of faster iGPUs, at least for the GT3 and GT3e processors. Sadly, the GT3 and GT3e are only being used in a few products right now, which leaves us with GT2 mobile offerings. For these parts, Intel’s 4th Generation Core CPU line is more about reducing power use while keeping performance more or less the same.

Sony has often been on the forefront of extremely portable laptops, and Anand has some great stories of $2000 laptops back in his college days that were terribly slow but delivered great mobility. Sony’s VAIO Pro 13 is the latest example of this, only now performance has reached the point where it's plenty fast for most users. Taking cues from Intel's targeting of mobility with Haswell, the VAIO Pro 13 isn't really any faster than last year's Ivy Bridge Ultrabooks – in fact, on the iGPU side of things the VAIO Pro 13 actually underperforms compared so some Ivy Bridge U-series CPUs. It appears Sony is focusing more of their efforts on managing thermals/noise than they are on squeezing every last bit of performance out of the processor. I don’t really fault them for taking such an approach, as the GT2 Haswell ULT solutions are generally going after providing acceptable performance in non-GPU workloads while delivering improved battery life. But we're jumping ahead.

As usual, there are various models and upgrades of the VAIO Pro 13 available. Here’s the configuration we received for testing:

Sony VAIO Pro 13 Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-4200U
(Dual-core 1.6-2.6GHz, 3MB L3, 22nm, 15W)
Chipset Haswell ULT
Memory 4GB onboard (DDR3-1600 11-11-11-28 timings)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4400
(20 EUs at 200-1000MHz)
Display 13.3" Glossy IPS 1080p Touchscreen
(Panasonic VVX13F009G00)
Storage 128GB SSD (Samsung PCIe MZHPU128HCGM)
Optical Drive N/A
Networking 802.11n WiFi (Intel Dual-Band Wireless-N 7260)
(Dual-Band 2x2:2 300Mbps capable)
Bluetooth 4.0 + HS (Intel)
Audio Realtek HD
Stereo Speakers
Headset combo jack
Battery/Power 3-cell, 37Wh
3-cell, 36Wh Sheet Battery
65W Max AC Adapter
Front Side N/A
Left Side Exhaust Vent
AC Power Connection
Right Side Flash Reader (SD)
Headset jack
2 x USB 3.0
HDMI
Back Side N/A
Operating System Windows 8 64-bit
Dimensions 12.68" x 8.5" x 0.60-0.68" (WxDxH)
(322mm x 216mm x 15.2-17.3mm)

1.34" (34.1mm) at rear with sheet battery
Weight 2.34 lbs (1.06kg)

2.97 lbs (1.35kg) with sheet battery
Extras HD Webcam (Sony Exmor R CMOS sensor)
82-Key Keyboard
Pricing MSRP: $1250

The CPU is Intel’s mainstream i5-4200U; that should deliver better CPU performance than the non-Turbo Core i3-4100U but it’s interesting to note however that Intel lists the same tray price of $287 on both CPUs (though that’s not what a large OEM like Sony would actually pay). There are quite a few Core i3/i5/i7 U-series processors of course, and many of them are more interesting than the i5-4200U. The i5-4250U gets GT3 graphics, with a tray price that’s $55 higher, and the i5-4258U and i5-4288U get GT3 along with a 28W TDP, which would really help with graphics potency. However, the VAIO Pro appears to be hitting some internal limits even with GT2, so without some tweaks to the firmware and/or other aspects the i5-4200U provides a reasonable starting point.

One of the best aspects of the VAIO Pro 13 is the display, which continues the recent trend of Ultrabooks in going with a 1080p IPS panel, with 10-point capacitive multi-touch. Of course the speakers, ports, and chassis are all standard as well. Sony does skimp on the WiFi, going with Intel's Wireless-N 7260 solution, a dual-band 300Mbps chipset with Bluetooth 4.0 support (and let me just say that the marketing people at Intel that decided having Wireless-N 7260, Dual-Band Wireless-N 7260, and Wireless-AC 7260 as model names need a swift kick in the rear).

Sony does have the option of getting the VAIO Pro 13 with Windows 8 Professional if you choose the configurable model, and you can also select Sony's Fresh Start option that skips all the VAIO utilities and other trial software – it's interesting that Sony recognizes that many businesses want that option, but they don't give consumers (or non-Professional users at least) the same chance. The only other areas you can configure your component choices are RAM, SSD storage, and the CPU...and this is where Sony starts to run into trouble.

The base model has 4GB RAM and that’s a bit of a concern; it’s dual-channel memory, but 4GB is awfully small for a new laptop in 2013. The 128GB base SSD is also a bit small, but it’s a start at least; I’m just not sure about why that’s considered reasonable in 2013 on a laptop that starts at $1250. Interestingly, the SSD Sony uses is PCIe-based, and that means some of the fastest transfer rates for a single drive you're likely to see. Upgraded models can be configured with 8GB RAM, 256GB and even 512GB SSDs, but prices will jump quite a bit. It’s important to note however that the RAM is soldered onto the board, so whatever you get at purchase is what you’ll be stuck with, and I’d strongly recommend making the move to 8GB at this point.

Getting to pricing, the base model that we’re reviewing has an MSRP of $1250 (there's also a configurable model that omits the touchscreen that starts at $1150), and that jumps to $1500 for the next model up (4GB RAM, 256GB SSD), then $1800 (i7-4500U, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD), $2300 (i7-4500U, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD), and even $2600 (the same as the $2300 model but decked out in red). The pricing from Sony’s online store is frankly a lot higher than I feel is warranted by the hardware – Sony is adding $250 extra for a $100 SSD upgrade, and another $300 for a $30 RAM upgrade and a $100 CPU upgrade.

The good news is that MSRP isn’t always what you’ll pay; the Microsoft Store for instance has student discounts on some of the models that will drop the $1800 model to a more palatable (but still expensive) $1619. The $1250 model is also available at the Amazon Marketplace for $1230, but that’s hardly a significant savings. Hopefully if you’re interested in the VAIO Pro 13, you’ll be able to find one on sale. Bottom line then is that the VAIO Pro 13 is going to cost more than other laptops out there. The only question: is it worth it?

Sony VAIO Pro 13 Subjective Evaluation
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    I don't know about the Tri-luminos tech confusing my colorimeter, but I have verified on a couple laptops that the calibration just looks really off, so I've held off doing any more potentially flawed testing.

    As for build quality, I noted that it's by design, but I disagree with the design. Yes, it should hold up reasonably well, but laptops like the ASUS U-series, MacBook Air, heck even the Acer S7 all feel better (though the keyboard on the Acer is not at all good in my book). It's a sacrifice of rigidity in favor of being ultra lightweight, and that's fine -- I can live with it and not complain too much. Still, I wish Sony would reinforce the chassis just a bit more. Carbon fiber is not at all heavy, so another layer or two bonded on there would do wonders.

    SSD performance is good, and really maximum transfer rates start to become meaningless past a certain point. I would rather have a somewhat slower 256GB SSD than a faster 128GB SSD, simply because I need more capacity. But the VAIO Pro 13 does boot and load programs very fast (other than Windows 8 Apps, which as usual take far too long to load).
    Reply
  • teiglin - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    My 256GB unit has a Samsung, and I got 1GB/s sequential read and 825MB/s sequential write just now, if you're curious. Is the Toshiba worse?

    As for the build quality, I didn't think Jarred was too harsh on it--he mentioned that he liked a more "solid" feel as a matter of preference and not that there's anything inherently wrong with the flexible chassis. I can get a noticeable amount of flex even when mine is closed though, if I squeeze it--again not problematic necessarily, but I can understand if people would like a more rigid design better. Obviously increasing rigidity isn't going to keep the laptop at 2.3lbs.
    Reply
  • juhatus - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    When I was ordering, I picked the free 256gb option. I just checked the sony webstore again and now they are offering msata and pci-e options for SSD atleast in Europe. (256gb pci-e upgrade is free btw).

    I remember the Toshiba being very similar to 840pro speeds, maybe its the msata version. But anyhow its plenty fast. SSD is just something that people should make note because there are alot of different versions Sony ship with these.
    Reply
  • SetiroN - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    You really need to re-think your benchmark suite.
    Who gives a crap about how far an ultraportable goes below 20fps in games.
    We need to know how its SSD performs, how long it takes to elaborate files, zip them, copy them. How fast network transfers are. REAL WORLD USE, not freakin' cinebench.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    The PCMark scores more or less encapsulate all of the data points you're after. I noted that the SSD is quite fast, and has very good boot times. The CPU results are there just as reference points, and the gaming tests are there to show that, no, this is not a gaming laptop. You'll notice how much time I spent discussing the benchmarks, and that's because for the most part the benchmarks (outside of battery life) simply aren't important. It's more than fast enough. If you have to know how much faster it is than other laptops, you're probably going to want something with a quad-core CPU and a dGPU. Ultrabooks for the most part target the mainstream user that values mobility over performance, so that's the focus of the review. Reply
  • piroroadkill - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    ASUS UX301: with the desired i7-4558U (which is also what I'm interested in) is available in Germany.
    http://www.amazon.de/Zenbook-UX301LA-Ultrabook-Int...

    Since it's publicly available, there's no NDA. I say buy one from Germany and get it shipped. You know people want an indepth review on it.
    Reply
  • piroroadkill - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Also, I mean the i7-4558U is what I'm interested in. The Asus Zenbook Infinity (UX301) does look good, too. I'd love to see it released properly so I could play with the available configurations.
    However, pretty much any laptop with this CPU that is 13" is worth reviewing.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Now if only I had the money to buy things and have them shipped to me for review.... Reply
  • Fatality - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Great review, But where is the mention of bloatware? Does this thing come with lots of it? I ask this because specs and presence of Bloatware are the primary factors I base my buying decision on. I know a lot of people who do that as well. Has Bloatware? no buy. Reply
  • juhatus - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    I think win8 has generally reduced bloat, but on this vaio pro 13 Sony has put few modern app's and mcafee virus protection (witch i instantly uninstalled and went with win8 defender) Also i think there was the office365 trial included, have not even started that. But id say very little bloat. Reply

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