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
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


View All Comments

  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    The battery life testing is all done automatically, so no scrolling. While that's not a perfect representation of how people use laptops, coming up with a way to simulate interaction with a laptop that's repeatable and consistent is far outside of our abilities. (No, I'm not going to sit in front of a laptop using the touchpad every minute or so for the duration of the battery tests -- especially not on laptops like this where it takes 15 hours to run down the battery in the Light test!)

    As for Min/Wh, of course it has meaning: it's how many minutes of battery life you'll get for every Watt-hour of battery capacity. Yes, we could convert that to simply "watts" if we wanted, but considering we're normalizing to battery capacity it makes more sense to me to keep that fact in the numbers. If we simply put "watts", someone is going to take that to mean we're actually measuring power draw in some fashion, when in reality I'm merely taking the battery life and dividing it by the capacity.

    Put another way, you're smart enough to post the above comment asking about scrolling, so please don't pretend to be incapable of understanding the meaning behind "minutes per watt-hour". Saying it has "no meaning" would be like saying 1 Joule per second has no meaning... except that's what we now call a Watt (after James Watt). And of course Joule is named after James Prescott Joule, and it stands for the energy expended in applying a force of one Newton through a distance of one meter (or kg*m^2/s^2). Oh, and a Newton is named after Sir Isaac Newton, and represents kg * m / s^2. Whee! Maybe someday someone will come up with a name for Min/Wh -- I propose we call it a Walton. </sarcasm>
  • ananduser - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    Great review Jarred... I have some questions regarding battery life/testing.

    1. Which browsers are you using for Windows/OSX testing ? Native for each, IE/Safari, or crossplatform Chrome for both ? I trust that using the native solution for each platform is the most battery efficient option.

    2. And at your normalization charts... specifically under full load... do you reckon that 1080p and the 1.6GHz might be the culprit behind lower efficiency compared to the MBA in the chart(with the lower CPU and the lower res)?

  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    Yes, Safari and IE (now IE10 with Win8) are used. I also use Windows Media Player for the music (which is more power friendly than the Windows Music App), but I switch to Media Player Classic - Home Cinema for the video. I don't know what Anand uses on OS X for the movies or music -- probably iTunes for music, and some standard video player?

    Regarding normalization, I think resolution may have a very small impact in some tests, possibly a larger impact for the 1080p video playback. I actually did some testing last year and found that Windows 8 seems to have leveled the playing field for 1080p video decoding though -- like, running a display at 1366x768 vs. 1080p had virtually no effect on battery life. That wasn't the case with Windows 7, so the new display driver model may have optimized some stuff in relation to video playback.

    Anyway, it's difficult to say what the exact reason for the drop is at higher loads (the Heavy test), but since we're doing 8Mbps network stream + 1080p 12Mbps H.264 + fast web browsing there are a lot of parts in the system that will be active. My bet is that Apple just manages to keep things at lower power states better than Windows.
  • ajp_anton - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    I understand you don't want to manually scroll. I was just asking if you had some automatic scrolling figured out. No big deal though.

    As for units having meaning... what you just listed are standard units, and they all have their uses. A useless unit would be for example "furlongs per fortnight". It's a unit of speed, and you can make charts with it, showing you nicely how things compare relative to each other, but the numbers themselves would be meaningless and you might as well skip them altogether.
    My point was that while your graph shows the relative power efficiency of the computers, which in itself is kind of interesting, the number "10" in "min/Wh" doesn't really say anything meaningful. It would be more interesting to know that the computer uses 6W.
    How reliable that number is is another matter of course. Like you said, you're not measuring power, and so have to trust the battery capacity numbers, but I think it's still a better way to represent the same thing.
  • eamon - Saturday, October 19, 2013 - link

    A note to the scrolling: I have the reviewed laptop, and I've noticed surprisingly high CPU usage in SynTPEnh.exe (I.e. the touchpad driver). I'd expect that to mean that any touchpad usage - even accidental contact which the touchpad driver (as mentioned in the review) filters out - will cause the CPU to burn power, reducing battery life.

    And in practice, I don't think I've achieved 8 hours of life (even just when web-browsing); sony's estimate of 6.5 hours seems more realistic.

    In short: I think the comment about scrolling and touchpad usage is something that matters.
  • fokka - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    seems i'm about on the same page as you, jarred, when it comes to ultrabooks. i too find 13" to be the sweet spot, but i'm still using my 2010 13-inch mpb, which already gets a bit old in the tooth, if i'm honest.

    i also like the zenbooks very much and am eagerly waiting for the upgraded version/s to arrive. i like some of sony's offerings, but their pricing and flexible, if not flimsy feeling hardware is just too much of a turn-off for me.
    the metal finish of the zenbooks on the other hand is right up my alley and i'm hoping to get my hands on the new gorilla glass covered units as soon as possible, so i can form an opinion.

    i'm looking forward to reading a review here!
  • Einy0 - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Looks a lot thicker than the Lenovo X1 Carbon... Reply
  • teiglin - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Just saw Lenovo's updated Yoga 2--13.3" 3200x1800. Best Buy sells a i5-4200U/128GB SSD/4GB RAM version for $1000 and Lenovo's site currently has the i5/256GB/8GB version for $1150. That's how pricing should be! Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    Dang, that's actually really impressive pricing from Lenovo. Sure, the Yoga 2 is a bit heavier than the VAIO Pro 13, and they currently have a sale going on, but when you can get 3200x1800 and 8GB RAM/256GB SSD for less than this Sony, I have to think that's the way to go. Reply
  • TheSSDReview - Thursday, October 17, 2013 - link

    I am surprised that there wasn't any discussion on SSD types that could be found within the unit, especially since some configured systems contained much slower SATA M.2 SSDs, vice the Samsing native M.2 PCIe. We learned first hand and, whereas our first system contained a SSD capable of 500MB/s, the one we received yesterday (and posted on) reached 1GB/s with a 256GB Samsung. Would love to have seen some SSD results here as they are far and few in between and this is the most powerful storage performance ultra in the world right now, when received with the PCIe M.2. LOTS of unhappy customers who have received the SATA M.2 as well. Other than that nice system and nice review except for the continuous fan (always) and heat emmitted from the fan. I hope you dont mind but I think the storage performance differentiation is significant:

    SATA M.2 SSD:

    PCIe M.2 SSD:

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