When one talks about ultra-portable laptops one simply does not look beyond the Apple MacBook Air. It’s the benchmark and since its inception no Windows OEM has even come close to delivering a product that matches its immense quality in terms of design and usability. That was until Sony’s Vaio Pro came along, which according to the company is the lightest 13-inch UltraBook on the planet and manages to eclipse even the MacBook Air. The question many want us to answer is that weather it is better than the MacBook Air. While the answer to that question is not as clear cut as one might hope, the final result is quite intriguing. Read on to find out more.
Purely in terms of industrial design the Vaio Pro 13 is absolutely gorgeous and dare we say it’s a better looker than the MacBook Air which has flaunted the same design for five years and now feels a tad boring.
Where the Vaio Pro 13 really stuns is in its build quality and weight. It smashes the 13-inch MacBook Air in terms of weight as it just weighs in at 1.06kg while the MacBook Air is a good deal heavier at 1.35kg. This difference may not sound much, but it is a deal maker in daily usage especially for ultra portable notebooks. We are told that Sony managed this Herculean feat by using Carbon fibre instead of Aluminum, which is a much lighter material.
One may think that to achieve such weightlessness, Sony might have skimmed on build quality, but the answer is a simple no. Prior to the Vaio Pro, we have seen the Acer Aspire S3, which has always gunned for size zero, but has always flattered to deceive, because of its horrid plastic build. The Vaio Pro, on the other hand, brandishes a carbon fibre chassis which is tough as nails. It’s a rock solid product which brings a fresh design sensibility to the table in a market that is flooding with MacBook Air clones.
Sony implements a handsome metallic accent on the hinge that looks beautiful, but in practice has sharp edges that tend to poke into ones lap, which can be a bit awkward. We received the black model which looked really nice, though at times we felt the top lid of the laptop was a smudge magnet.
On the left, one only gets the power cable port and the air vent which is there to dispense heat. The right side is home to the twin USB 3.0 compliant ports, a HDMI port, a SD card reader and a 3.5 audio jack. Overall, we feel that Sony has delivered a brilliant UltraBook in terms of design, weight and looks. We kind of prefer it over that MacBook Air in this regard.
In terms of hardware, the comparison with the MacBook Air 13 has results favoring the Sony Vaio Pro 13. We received the 13-inch model which was powered by an Intel core i5-4200U dual-core processor clocked at 1.6GHz. It’s the Intel fourth generation variant, so one will get the benefits of the Haswell architecture that include, massive battery life improvements and better onboard graphics. Sony does not equip this model with discrete graphics, so one only gets the onboard Intel HD graphics 4400. This actually the same as what one gets with the MacBook Air. Additionally, there is 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD drive that keeps everything humming along swimmingly.
The one area where the Sony Vaio Pro 13 trumps the MacBook Air is in terms of display quality. We get a 13.3-inch Triluminus display with a resolution of 1080p, which is miles ahead of the 13.3-inch LCD panel on the MacBook Air which also has a lowly resolution of 1440×900.
There is no comparison between the two panels. The one on the Vaio has deep blacks, brilliant viewing angles and natural colors, and it’s also incredibly crisp. Yes, its probably not in the same ball park as the 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina, but still is very good. We also get a touch panel to boot considering it runs on Windows 8.
Long story short if one uses the Vaio Pro 13, then going back to the MacBook Air will result in one entering a pixelated world.
Other features include, NFC connectivity which is rare in a laptop and also the speakers on the machine are surprisingly loud especially for a product of its size. That said, there is still is not substitute for a proper speaker system, but when compared to the MacBook Air, the speakers surely sound better and don’t sound as tinny.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The keyboard on the Vaio Pro 13 is rock solid. We have typed this very review on it and we used the laptop for more than a week for a daily work and we faced no difficulties transitioning from the MacBook Pro 13-inch Retina Display.
In our testing the keyboard was a bit shallow, and the key did not have a satisfying travel, but generally it did the job. Sony has implemented an island style keyboard, which is LED black-lit. We managed to type at decent clip in excess of 60 words per minute which was actually faster than our work computer.
One should also note that Sony probably was forced to keep the keyboard travel shallow as the laptop itself is so thin. In the world of Windows laptops, obviously, the benchmark is set by Lenovo for keyboards, but this certainly is not a bad effort by Sony.
The trackpad was a different story altogether. The difference between a glass trackpad on the MacBook Air and the Sony Vaio Pro 13 is like night and day. There was discernible latency in commands like pinch to zoom or scrolling or even basic swipe gestures. We also found the buttons on the trackpad to be on the stiffer side.
Honestly, there is no competition between the MacBook Air and Sony Vaio Pro 13 trackpad, and this is a problem more related to optimization of the drivers of the touchpads on Windows-based machines, rather than a folly on Sony’s part. This issue will be greatly resolved when OEMs start shipping Windows 8.1 powered laptops that have high precision trackpads. This is something Intel wants to build into the UltraBook spec and we will soon see this happen by the end of the year.
As far as this product is concerned, one has to admit it offers one of the better trackpads for a Windows machine. One can easily execute the Windows 8 gestures, but scrolling as usual is fuzzy at best. The main problem is that the trackpad does not act like a mini touch screen like one experiences it on MacBooks. The frailties of the decoupled hardware and software union come to the fore here.
It’s a Windows 8 UltraBook and there is nothing new about this. The song remains the same, and the duality of the OS is a love or hate affair for the user. For this reviewer, the duality can also be a boon at times, because certain Metro style applications can be snapped alongside a full desktop app, which makes for a compelling multitasking paradigm. For instance we always had our Twitter feed snapped on one side while on the other, we ran full desktop apps like Microsoft Word or Chrome.
That said, due to the lack of compelling applications on the Windows Store one has to say that the touchscreen is not much of use. Adding to the problems is the high density of the screen, which does not play well with Windows 8, as it does not adapt to high DPI screens as well as OS X or Chrome OS.
These all are major issues, because the touch points become too small for the user to touch. These issues will likely get resolved with the Windows 8.1 update that is expected later in the year. If need be a user can download that update now from the Windows Store and make the experience better, but one has to be mindful that the update is not final and is in the form of a release preview, and one will need to probably reinstall all desktop applications once the final update is released.
Sony unfortunately preloads the machine with a lot of crapware, which slows it down a wee bit. Most people will not notice this abomination as the machine is darn fast for most tasks, but if you push it like us then you might face the odd lag.
When one’s laptop is powered by the latest generation Intel i5-4200U dual-core CPU clocked at 1.6GHz, with hyper threading support built in then one rarely should worry about performance. At least, this holds true for most average users who just want a machine that works and is responsive for most tasks. Adding to the under the hood grunt of the machine, there is 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 128GB SSD drive. This also means that start up times are super fast and generally the laptop is incredibly responsive.
In our testing we used a copy of Adobe Photoshop for some image editing, Microsoft Word and Excel for daily tasks and the Chrome browser and for these tasks, the machine performed sublimely. Gaming performance was not great and while we did manage to install games like BioShock, the frame rates were quite horrendous. It was more like watching a stop motion movie. Suffice to say, this is not a laptop meant for gamers.
We managed to clock around 7 hours and 30 minutes on the laptop regularly on a single charge. Sony claims 8 hours and 30 minutes on a single charge. So this was not way off from what Sony claimed, though this number would change from user to user. The 13-inch MacBook Air easily crosses the 10 hour mark, but then again Apple has does a lot of plumbing on the OS side to ensure this.
Even 7 hours and 30 minutes is a lot of battery backup and it would probably be more, if one did not not push the machine to its limits like us. For instance we kept the screen at maximum brightness levels and always had the Wi-Fi engaged.
Returning to the question we asked initially – Is the Vaio Pro 13 better than the 13-inch MacBook Air? Even after taking the OS preference out of the equation, the answer remains a confusing yes and no. If you are looking for best in class battery life, and a no frills experience then answer is a flat no. But if one wants the a better display for watching movies, which by the way also supports touch and perhaps a slightly better design with the underlying app library of Windows, then the Vaio Pro 13 is easy to recommend.
In our books at Rs 74,990, the Vaio Pro 13, is the best Ultra portable Windows 8 powered UltraBook in the market. It also offers better features than the MacBook Air, with a much better touch display, a better design, but sacrifices greatly on battery life and touchpad performance.