And it begins: back-to-school season. Even though some students are still embroiled in finals, and even though Intel has yet to formally launch Haswell, the next few weeks will see multiple PC makers unveiling their summer lineups.
First up: Sony. The company just introduced some new mainstream notebooks, dubbed the “Fit” family. These laptops, which replace the current E series and most of the T line, include the lower-end Fit 14E / Fit 15E, which are made of plastic, and the Fit 14 / Fit 15, which step up to a thinner aluminum chassis and optional SSDs. Either way, Sony is standardizing on certain specs across its entire summer lineup, including 1080p displays, backlit keyboards, NFC and Exmor R webcams for better low-light images. We’ve just spent a week testing the Fit 15, which will be available later this month for $700 and up. (The rest of the Fit line starts as low as $550.) Head past the break to see if it’s worth a closer look once it hits store shelves.
LOOK AND FEEL
“ The Fit is prettier than its predecessor, if not necessarily better-made. ”
Given that the Fit series is the spiritual successor to the entry-level VAIO E series and the mid-range T line, it’d be reasonable to suppose it ranks somewhere in between, with a design that’s a loose mash-up of the two. In fact, though, it actually consists of two very different notebooks: the Fit E, which replaces the E laptops (natch), and the Fit, whose premium stylings make it most similar to the existing T series.
We’ll put the lower-end Fit E through its paces some other day, but for now, we’re here to tell you the higher-end Fit is prettier than its predecessor, if not necessarily better-made. While the Fit and T series laptops both have brushed-metal lids, the Fit follows up with a matching brushed-aluminum palm rest — a more dapper touch than the T series’ plain magnesium, which could easily be mistaken for plastic. Available in black, silver and pink, it also has an extra-long lid that covers the hinge. To be honest, we’re not sure unsightly hinges were really a problem that needed solving, but we dig the seamless look nonetheless.
What you might appreciate, however, are the hidden fans: they’re not on the sides or even on the bottom, but tucked improbably into the area between the screen and the keyboard. You wouldn’t know they were there unless you knew to look (or if you got the laptop so hot and bothered it started to spew hot air, which is also a possibility). In general, too, the Fit does away with a lot of the decorative extras used to dress up last year’s T series. Gone is the shiny chrome strip along the hinge, along with the plastic band lining the lid. Even on the keyboard deck, there are noticeably fewer buttons, with the only holdovers being the glowing green power button and the VAIO Assist key. (Even that’s less conspicuous, now that the lettering is white instead of red.)
As we hinted, though, a sharper design somehow doesn’t equate to improved durability. One of the first things we noticed about the Fit is that its screen wobbles when you first set the machine down — something the older T15 doesn’t do. There’s also lots of give throughout the machine, from the lid to the hinge area, and it can be particularly tough to ignore when you’re carrying the machine around in your hands.
Before we get in the weeds with our comparisons against the T15, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: the T15 is an Ultrabook, and will continue to be sold for the time being. The Fit 15, meanwhile, is not an Ultrabook but rather, a full-fledged laptop — a more powerful, all-purpose sort of thing. As such, it weighs a good deal more than the T15 (5.73 pounds versus 5.18), though it’s about as thin (0.89 inch, compared with 0.9 inch for the T series). So, it’s a fairly stationary machine, then — the sort of thing you can shuttle from room to room, but will probably keep plugged in most of the time. (And believe us, our battery life results are a testament to that.) Even so, it’s slim enough that you can easily carry it around in the crook of your arm. We’re pretty sure that hidden hinge doesn’t have anything to do with that, but again, a pretty design never hurt.
As you’d expect, because the backside is covered by that oversized lid, all of the ports are located along the right and left edges. Actually, make that the left: the right side is home to a tray-loading DVD burner, with no other sockets or openings sitting nearby. That means the left side is pretty tightly packed. From back to front, you’ve got the power port, an Ethernet jack, HDMI-out, three USB 3.0 ports, a headphone / mic jack, a memory card reader and a Kensington lock slot. Anything else you would have wanted? Because that about checks off everything on our wish list.
KEYBOARD AND TRACKPAD
At first glance, the six-row keyboard on the Fit is nearly identical to the one on the T15: same chiclet-style keys, same lettering on the buttons. The arrangement hasn’t changed much either, except that the Function keys here are tinier, as are the arrow buttons, which now sit flush with the space bar. In general, the new layout is about as wide as the old one, but shorter, partially owing to those shrunken Function buttons. Fortunately, none of the major keys (Shift, etc.) appear to have gotten smaller.
Somehow, though, typing feels a little different, which is strange since the pitch of the keys hasn’t changed, so far as we can tell. Still, Sony clearly did some re-tooling beneath the surface. The buttons here don’t feel shallower, per se, but they are quieter. All told, it’s a comfortable keyboard, though we sometimes found ourselves wishing for a little more travel. Depending on how accustomed you are to number pads, too, you might need some time to adjust to the off-center layout, along with the left-aligned trackpad.
It’s worth repeating that the keyboard here is indeed backlit. Everything in the Fit series is, actually, even the lower-end Fit E models. In fact, everything in Sony’s back-to-school lineup will be backlit, save for all-in-one desktops. And that makes sense: Sony doesn’t dally much in budget machines, and it’d be a pretty big no-no to leave this feature out of higher-end systems.
A laptop with this big a footprint leaves room for a pretty expansive trackpad, and we’re happy to report it generally works reliably. Pinch-to-zoom in the Bing Maps app feels exceptionally controlled, as does two-finger scrolling in IE10. The pad also responds smoothly to the various Windows 8 gestures, like swiping in from the right to expose the Charms Bar.
The problem, as is often the case with Windows touchpads, is that it can be awfully stubborn when it comes to single-finger tracking. Sometimes the cursor didn’t go where we wanted it to, or it came to a halt while we were trying to drag it across the screen. Also, the touch button itself doesn’t offer much give, so even if you do successfully move the cursor, left- and right-clicking can still feel a little labored. In any case, it’s hardly a dealbreaker, especially if the touch drivers are behaving as they’re supposed to.
DISPLAY AND SOUND
If you hit Ctrl-F to zero in on mentions of “1,366 x 768,” this is the only instance you’ll find pertaining to the Fit series. With its new generation of laptops, Sony is more or less standardizing on 1,920 x 1,080 resolution, with the one exception being the Fit 14 notebooks, which start at 1,600 x 900. In any event, 720p is a thing of the past, at least for Sony.
As you might expect, the pixel density of a 15-inch display with 1080p resolution isn’t quite as high as on a smaller machine — say, one with an 11- or 13-inch screen. From a desk chair’s distance away, objects like desktop icons tend to look sharp on this LED panel, and videos in particular look great. In general, too, we had no problem watching movies or reading text from slightly off to the side (good news if you plan on hosting a Game of Thrones marathon in your dorm room). We did notice that colors start to wash out as soon as you push the lid forward, so be sure to fiddle with the angle before leaning back to watch a movie.
If you compare specs across the Fit line, you’ll see one of the models has a subwoofer — a first on Sony’s mainstream laptops. Oddly, though, that model is notthe premium Fit 15 we’re reviewing here, but rather, the entry-level Fit 15E. Presumably, space constraints were the deciding factor here — the Fit 15 is the one that’s supposed to be slim, which means trade-offs like sound quality are almost a given. In any case, unless your musical tastes skew heavily toward hip-hop, you should be satisfied with the setup here. For one thing, it’s loud — we fired up some big band music with the volume at 61 / 100, and actually cringed at how forceful the sound was. In quiet spaces, we tended to keep the volume around level 15 or 20, which is low compared with most notebooks we test.
Of course, loud sound doesn’t necessarily equate to pleasant sound, but in this case, the quality is fairly balanced too. We enjoyed listening to everything from The Clash to the Les Mis soundtrack to various jazz numbers. There was one Louis Prima track where the nasal horn section slightly overpowered the other instruments, but other than that, it was easy listening on our end.
Normally, we don’t have much to say about the webcams on the laptops we test — it’s not like anyone expects them to produce high-quality images. Or do they? Going forward, every new Sony PC will make use of an Exmor R CMOS sensor (yep, the same one Sony is already using in its digital cameras). In fact, the promise of brighter low-light photos is one of the laptop’s bigger selling points. And to some extent, that’s a gimmick: it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have no choice but to Skype in the dark. If you do, though, you can expect results like that sample above, which makes it appear as if I were sitting in a room with the lights on (they were, in fact, off).
PERFORMANCE AND BATTERY LIFE
|PCMark7||3DMark06||3DMark11||ATTO (top disk speeds)|
|Sony VAIO Fit 15 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000)||4,160||5,222||E1215 / P664 / X223||151 MB/s (reads); 89 MB/s (writes)|
|Sony VAIO T15 (1.8GHz Core i5-3337U, Intel HD 4000)||3,861||5,050||E1099 / P603||114 MB/s (reads); 87 MB/s (writes)|
The Fit 15 starts at $700, and goes all the way up to $2,210, so the $949 model we tested falls more toward the low-end range (if a nearly thousand-dollar machine can really be called low-end). For the money, you get a 1.8GHz Core i5-3337U processor (that’s Ivy Bridge), along with 8GB of RAM, a 750GB hard drive and integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics. As you can see, performance is right in line with (if not slightly better than) other machines with the same or similar specs. It slightly outranks a Core i5-enabled T15 in almost every benchmark, though if you peruse our Ultrabook reviews, you’ll see it keeps pace with many Windows 8 ultraportables too. (Well, in everything except disk performance, anyway — most Ultrabooks benefit from all-solid-state storage.)
Predictably, the 750GB hard drive can’t compete with an SSD in either read or write speeds, but the Fit 15 at least manages to pull away from the T15, whose read speeds were, on average, almost 40 MB/s slower. Even more impressive, the Fit 15′s startup times match, second for second, what we’ve been observing on much faster Ultrabooks — in just 11 seconds you should be fully loaded into the Start Screen. That’s par for the course on a $1,200 ultraportable, but not so on a mainstream laptop: the T15 takes closer to 20 seconds to boot up.
|Sony VAIO Fit 15||3:37|
|Acer Iconia W700||7:13|
|Samsung Series 9 (13-inch, 2012)||7:02|
|MacBook Air (13-inch, 2012)||6:34 (OS X) / 4:28 (Windows)|
|Dell XPS 14||6:18|
|Sony VAIO T13||5:39|
|Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13||5:32|
|Dell XPS 12||5:30|
|Samsung Series 5 UltraTouch||5:23|
|ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch||5:15|
|ASUS Zenbook Prime UX51Vz||5:15|
|Toshiba Satellite U845W||5:13|
|Toshiba Satellite U845||5:12|
|Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M3||5:11|
|Toshiba Satellite U925t||5:10|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon||5:07|
|Acer Aspire Timeline Ultra M5||5:05|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch||5:00|
|Sony VAIO Duo 11||4:47|
|Acer Aspire S5||4:35|
|MSI Slidebook S20||4:34|
|ASUS Zenbook Prime UX21A||4:19|
|Acer Aspire S7 (13-inch)||4:18|
|Acer Aspire S3||4:11|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Twist||4:09|
|HP Spectre XT TouchSmart||4:00|
|Vizio Thin + Light (14-inch, 2012)||3:57|
|ASUS TAICHI 21||3:54|
|Microsoft Surface Pro||3:46|
Sony rates the Fit 15 for up to three hours and 45 minutes, which is on the money, at least according to our tests. The unit we tested lasted through three hours and 37 minutes of video playback (that’s with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent). That’s not great for a 15-inch laptop but then again, it’s heavy enough that you’ll likely have it plugged in at your desk most of the time anyway.
SOFTWARE AND WARRANTY
Sony’s bundled apps span the equivalent of eight small tiles on the Start Menu — not exactly a small load here. As on other machines, you’ll find an assortment of third-party programs like Hulu Plus, Slacker Radio, iHeartRadio, My Daily Clip, PuzzleTouch and Intel’s AppUp store. At the same time, Sony’s included a good deal of its own software, including VAIO Update, PlayMemories Home, VAIO Movie Creator, VAIO Control Center and its usual Metro-style apps built just for Windows 8 (that would be Socialife, Music and Album).
Sony also threw in its Imagination Studio package, valued at about $200, which includes ACID Music Studio 9.0, Movie Studio Platinum 12.0, DVD Architect Studio 5.0 and Sound Forge Audio. As it happens, Sony plans to bundle that suite on every new PC it releases this summer, so file that away in the back of your head, even if you decide to hold out for a different model. Finally, wrapping things up, Sony has included ArtRage Studio, which you’ll find on Sony’s other touch-enabled systems too.
The Fit 15, like all Fit models (and all consumer PCs in general), comes with one year of warranty coverage, including 24/7 phone support.
The Fit 15 starts at $700 with a Core i3-3227U processor, 4GB of RAM, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics and a 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive paired with an 8GB SSD. From there, you can upgrade to a Core i5 or i7 CPU, up to 12GB of RAM and an NVIDIA GeForce G735M GPU with either one or two gigs of video memory. If you want more storage space, you can get a 750GB or 1TB drive, also with an 8GB SSD. Or, you can ditch the hybrids entirely and go with a 256GB or 512GB SSD. Other adjustments you can make: getting Windows 8 Pro instead of Windows 8, or choosing a Blu-ray burner over a DVD drive. Technically, that touchscreen is optional, but only on the black model; the pink and silver versions are touch-only.
If you’re looking for something slightly more portable, the 14-inch Fit 14 offers the same specs, but starts at a slightly lower price of $650. While we’re here, it’s also worth going over what the Fit E models have to offer. The two start at $550 and $580, respectively, with a 1,600 x 900 screen on the Fit 14E and a 1080p panel on the Fit 15E. Like the higher-end Fits, they’ll be offered with Core i3, i5 and i7 Ivy Bridge processors, though in this case, there will also be a Pentium CPU offered at the lowest end.
Other specs have been downgraded too: RAM is capped at 8GB, not 12GB, and the standard hard drive offering is a 500GB HDD, with no SSD attached. (You can also get a 750GB or 1TB drive, or a hybrid setup.) As on the higher-end Fit notebooks, Intel HD 4000 graphics are standard, but you can upgrade to discrete (an NVIDIA GeForce GT730M GPU with 1GB or 2GB of VRAM, in this case). Here, too, you can add a Blu-ray drive. As you’d expect, touchscreens aren’t here either, but with these lower-end models you can get a non-touch configuration in either black or white; pink is the only color that’ll be available exclusively with touch.
If other PC makers refuse to match this, they might well lose, at least in a war of spec sheets.
Within a matter of weeks, almost every PC maker will be refreshing its mainstream laptop lineup with Haswell, if not replacing their existing systems altogether. So, it’d be pointless to attempt a thorough comparison with other machines on the market, given that we’re not quite sure which will be discontinued. That said, we can think of some other mid-range 15-inch systems that came out very recently, which gives us confidence they’ll be available for at least a few months yet.
Starting with Dell, there’s the Inspiron R series, with the 15R ($550 and up) being the most relevant of the bunch. Like the Fit series, it’s highly configurable, with touchscreens, Core i7 processors and 1TB of storage offered at the high end. It’s also significantly lighter than the Fit 15, at 5.12 pounds. Keep in mind, though, that the screen resolution is capped at 1,366 x 768, and the hard drive isn’t paired with an SSD. In terms of specs, then, the Fit 15 is the clear winner, but you might want to keep the Inspiron 15R in mind anyway if you end up shifting your attention to the lower-priced Fit 15E. You can also check out the higher-end Dell XPS 15, but we’re not sure how long it’ll be sold, as it’s already been out for quite a while.
Samsung also recently outed some new models, including the ATIV Book 6, a 15.6-inch system with a Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 1080p display. Unlike the Fit 15, though, it comes standard with discrete graphics (an AMD Radeon HD 8770M GPU, in this case). It’s also lighter, at 5.18 pounds. All that said, we’re not yet sure how much it will cost here in the US, so for all we know it could be priced a cut above the Fit series. Also, until we test one, we can’t vouch for the claimed 4.7-hour battery life, or say how it compares to the Fit 15′s runtime.
Acer’s also got some hot-off-the-press machines — the new V5 and V7 laptops were unveiled just last week. The difference between the two lines mainly comes down to fit and finish, though both will be offered with 1080p screens and optional discrete graphics, more or less matching what Sony is offering on the higher-end Fits. Keep an eye on these, too — Acer is known for setting low prices in a way that Sony perhaps isn’t.
Should you buy the VAIO Fit 15? It’s tough to say conclusively, since we still don’t know what other companies like HP and Toshiba are going to sell this summer. We do know this: the Fit 15 kicks off back-to-school season on a strong note. We applaud Sony for standardizing on certain specs, like backlit keyboards and higher-res screens. In fact, if other PC makers refuse to match this, they might lose, at least in a war of spec sheets.
What’s more, the keyboard is a clear improvement over the one on last year’s VAIOs, even if it is still a bit shallow. And hey, who can argue with that 11-second boot time? We already know the Fit 15 offers performance that’s equal to or slightly better what you’ll get from other machines with similar specs; we don’t need to see HP’s new systems to tell you that. As you can see, then, our list of complaints is short, though we do wish battery life were longer (ditto for almost every touchscreen laptop with Ivy Bridge). And the design, while pretty, also suffers from some minor flaws — a little too much give here, a little too much wobble there. Particularly since this isn’t a total slam dunk, you’d be smart to wait a few weeks, if possible, and see what other companies announce. Even then, though, the Fit could be a tough act to follow.