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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  • vision33r - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    I rather get this ultrabook than the compromised Surface Pro. What I found is that Win8 is terrible on a small screen, smaller than 12" is no good. Much better with more real estate.

    Surface Pro has a terrible keyboard cover it is so spongy how could anyone type on it. Then the Surface Pro tend to heat up when you watch movies and it has a very poor cooling system, think of it as a hot griddle that you can cook eggs on if it gets hot.

    Just like the PS3 vs Xbox 360, the PS3 was a better designed hardware overall. Microsoft is bad with hardware, all those defective RROD 360 is the reason why I wouldn't trust them as a device maker.
    Reply
  • DukeN - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Ugh, glossy screen = deal breaker.

    Will stick to my Thinkpad.
    Reply
  • juhatus - Friday, October 18, 2013 - link

    Actually the touch-enabled is glossy and non-touch is matta. Reply
  • eamon - Saturday, October 19, 2013 - link

    You can get the non-touchscreen version (which I have and minimal glare) for around 100$ less; as a bonus: it's 130g lighter; mine weighs in at just 0.93kg. Reply
  • juhatus - Sunday, October 20, 2013 - link

    Jared: might want to add its 0.932kg withouth touch. I weighted it and yes thats how much it weights. Reply
  • foxalopex - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Sony's high end laptops are usually pretty impressive. I own a VPC-Z11 laptop that's about 3 years old now and amazingly few laptops can compare to this ultraportable even today. Sony often uses completely custom designs and their high end laptops are often assembled in the US or in Japan.

    The biggest downside with Sony is because it's all custom you're going to need to pray if you break it. At least in Canada where their repair service is dismal and expensive. Even the parts cost a fortune due to custom design.
    Reply
  • Hrel - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Good review, seems like too many compromises. Then you factor in the price and I agree with your conclusion entirely. Really looking forward to that Gigabyte review, barely bulkier than this to carry around with significantly better hardware for the same price. Seems like the laptop to beat in this generation. Reply
  • Hrel - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    My bad, it's $150 more. Given what you're getting though it's EASILY worth that extra $150. I'd prefer the P35K, 15" instead of 14". You doing a review on that as well or just the 14"? I assume they're pretty comparable. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    I'll see if Gigabyte wants to send the P35K once I wrap up the P34G... stay tuned! Reply
  • ajp_anton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    I'd like to comment on your battery life tests.

    - For web browsing, do you do any scrolling? I'd imagine that would drain the battery a bit as well.
    - "minutes per Wh" has no real meaning. Why don't you simply show "watts" instead? It would be the same (invert the graphs and multiply by 60), and we would see numbers that actually mean something.
    Reply

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