Sony has been releasing powerful ultra-portables under the Vaio Z moniker since 2008 and the tech giant’s decision to bin the Z line last year was a shock for many deep-pocketed travellers, clamouring for the best performance in the smallest possible package. Luckily for them, Sony has managed to give the best attributes of the Z series a new home in the Sony Vaio Pro 13 - which is a formidable player in a crowded Ultrabook market.
The Z series was one of the first 13” ultra-portables to introduce high-end performance technologies such as quad RAID SSDs, 1920x1080P display and dedicated graphics card on board, all the while maintaining a ridiculously thin and light profile even by today’s standards. Sony also introduced an equally thin external Power Media Dock accessory for its 2011 Vaio Z models which packed a heftier GPU, a Blu-Ray drive and a bevy of ports.
Happily, the Sony Vaio Pro 13 bears a lot of the hallmarks that made the Z series such a desirable Windows ultra-portable including a carbon fibre build and a razor thin profile that weighs in at only 1.06 kg. As expected, we also get a multi-touch display to drive the touch centric Windows 8 OS and Intel’s 4th generation core processor, Haswell.
Unlike the Z series, however, Sony has this time around gone with a much more palatable pricing structure for the Pro range with the base 13” Intel Core i5 model retailing for $1399 and the Core i7 model topping out at $1999. Sony has also set the Vaio Pro retail prices to almost level with US market prices, a trend that we hope to see continue with other PC manufacturers.
But does the Vaio Pro 13 have what it takes to stand out against Apple’s MacBook Air and Samsung’s Series 9?
A real lightweight and lightning fast boot up
The first thing that grabbed us about the machine is the weight, especially when held side-by-side with other 13 inch Ultrabooks. The machine is almost 300 grams lighter than the 13” Macbook Air and while the difference in weight might sound negligible on paper, it is something that regular travellers will appreciate.
Something this light naturally raises durability concerns and although the Vaio Pro 13 demonstrated signs of flexing on the base of the chassis, it’s robust enough for everyday use.
The next thing that got our attention is the super quick boot up times. It took us only eight seconds to cold boot into the Windows 8 start screen. Wake from sleep times were also impressive at just under three seconds, meaning we could resume working almost immediately after we opened the laptop.
Dazzling display but dodgy gestures
The 1080P IPS display also stood out with clear text and rich but natural looking colour reproduction. Sony has incorporated the TRILUMINOS DISPLAY tech from the Bravia television side of the business and it’s certainly one of the more impressive displays we have seen on a Windows Ultrabook in recent memory.
Being an IPS panel, the viewing angles were great and while the screen lacks a matte coating, text, images and video were still serviceable in outdoor environments. We also didn’t find much issue with screen glare while indoors and near a sunny window.
The touch display felt responsive and performed well overall, though as is the case with other Windows 8 Ultrabooks equipped with touch screens, most will opt to use the keyboard and mouse for the majority of tasks. Sony has also implemented some of Samsung Galaxy S4-like air gestures that use the webcam to sense your hand gestures for tasks such as navigating images, pausing and playing video and adjusting the volume.
A great idea in theory but the experience is just as painful as it is on the Galaxy S4, with the webcam often struggling to register hands unless you hit the very limited sweet spot.
Windows laptops have so far struggled to get the trackpad right and the frustrations continue with the Vaio 13. The surface of the trackpad has far too much friction for our liking and the scrolling felt largely unresponsive and temperamental.
Bloatware ahoy and botched NFC
Another unfortunate reality for Windows laptops is the amount of unnecessary software OEMs load up on their machines. The Vaio Pro line doesn’t escape the bloatware treatment which is a shame when you consider that Sony offered its Vaio Z customers the option of a “clean” version of Windows.
You can, of course, take matters into your own hands and perform a clean installation yourself but this is an unnecessary hassle especially after you drop a decent amount of coin on a new laptop.
Sony is the first to bring Near field communication (NFC) to market for laptops with the Vaio Pro, promising a quick and easy way to wirelessly transfer pictures and videos between your laptop and an NFC-equipped smartphone. It also means a fast and painless way to pair other NFC-enabled devices, such as wireless headphones, by simply tapping the NFC area on the laptop.
Unfortunately, Sony’s execution leaves a lot to be desired.
We didn’t have any luck in pairing a set of NFC headphones which incidentally were also made by Sony, and the most we were able to share between the laptop and our NFC equipped smartphone was web links. According to a Sony Vaio representative, they are working with Microsoft to enable pairing and transfer of media over NFC but for now, it remains largely useless.
A worthy contender?
Sony claims 8.5 hours of use on a single charge but our real world battery rundown tests came to just under six hours which is quite good when compared with other Windows Ultrabooks but poor against Apple’s 13” Macbook Air, which scored 11 hours in our tests.
It’s worth noting that you do have the option of equipping the laptop with a $250 sheet battery accessory to extend the battery life to just under 11 hours. But it does add unwanted bulk to the otherwise petite frame of the Vaio Pro 13.
Sony’s decision to opt for Intel’s HD 4400 integrated graphics chip instead of the more capable HD 5000 used by the cheaper 13” Macbook Air is a bit of a letdown as well. The Vaio Pro 13 is still perfectly capable of playing HD videos and even 4K content but running a modern day PC game is out of the question unless you're willing to substantially dial down the graphics settings.
So a few missteps from Sony here, but the Vaio Pro 13 is still one of the best Windows Ultrabooks in the market for under $1,400. While it isn’t quite the modern day Vaio Z we were hoping for, it’s still a great option for business travellers who desire an extremely light but relatively powerful workhorse.
Krishan Sharma is a Brisbane-based Freelance Journalist and writes for a number of different publications covering Business IT and Consumer Technology.