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
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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    The sheet battery raises the back about half an inch (1.34" total height at rear -- 34.1mm) and according to my little food scale the laptop with the battery weighs 2.97 pounds (1.348kg).
  • Amkitsaw - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Thanks so much! It's a great review; I completely agree with your assessment at the end about manufacturers raising the ~$1200 ultrabook spec to 8GB/256GB. It's a little ridiculous so many manufacturers are holding onto 4GB in 2013.
  • teiglin - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Nice review as always, Jarred. One issue though--my Vaio Pro 13 claims to have Dual-Band Wireless-N 7260 (<3 Intel part naming) and has no apparent issues connecting to my 5GHz AP. Is it possible that this varies between models?

    The one other downside of the flex-y chassis you don't mention (maybe didn't encounter?) is that you can actually click the clickpad by pressing down on either side of the touchpad, or by placing a thumb between the touchpad and the edge, and lifting the laptop with your hand underneath it. Practically this is only very rarely an issue (if I'm walking around and holding the laptop by the front, mostly--and the lightness makes this something I do more often than I would have thought), but it bears mentioning.

    On the pricing front, I would love to see Sony come down a bit, but it's been four months and there is still pretty sparse competition. There's the Acer S7--on Amazon, $1300 for the i5/128GB SSD/8GB RAM model, or $1580 for i7/256GB SSD upgrade--or the ATIV Book 9 for $1400, but in order to get its beautiful screen, you have to suffer its ridiculous single configuration of 128GB SSD/4GB RAM. Dell's XPS 13 is still Ivy if you buy it today, and the XPS 12 is neither priced much better (especially with upgrades), nor to my mind a directly competing product. Especially now that you can shave $100 off by dropping the touchscreen, Sony's still at or near the front of the Haswell ultrabook pack in value here. It'll be interesting to see how the rMBP 13 compares--and the Zenbook Infinity, if it ever materializes.
  • teiglin - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Forgot to mention the Surface Pro 2, since you did--if you're comparing to that, you should probably compare the 11" flavor, which starts at $100 less than the 13 and essentially costs the same as Surface Pro 2 when you include a type cover. I do think for roughly the same price, Surface Pro wins that value comparison easily, though again if the tablet-y-ness isn't a factor you save $100 by dumping the touchscreen in the VAIO.

    Also on that topic, you wrote that Surface Pro 2 comes out in "ten weeks"--doesn't it come out next week? The Anandtech article (admittedly old at this point) says Oct 22.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Should have said 10 days. Heh. Wrote that earlier so now I need to edit it....
  • 7heF - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    There is A LOT of Vaio Pro 13 owners that has huge wifi-problems. If you are in the same room as the AP, it can be ok, but some distance a a couple of walls and this pc is one of the worst on the market. No antenna in the screen - just a small cable behind the motherboard.

    I use a usb-dongle for wifi. With the internal solution, some of my 802.11g-based old pc's have much better range. My house ain't that large, but all over the house I can get coverage on the iPhone and the iPad - but with the Sony the performance is very low, unstable or completly without a connection.

    Sony have for months said there will be an software update for this problem. I doubt it. I belive the antenna is the problem and that it really can't be fixed.

    There is a huge thread at the Sony forums about the issue:
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    Text on pages 2 and 6 has been updated. It's odd that the WiFi works so well within my home, but the exterior walls just kill throughput (assuming you can connect at all). I had some similar issues with the Acer R7, though oddly only on the 2.4GHz band.
  • whatever61 - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    You don't mention an important factor, that this laptop has a problematic wifi.
    There's no solution for months and probably the problem is in the hardware.

    To be more specific, the speed drops drastically when the signal is not good. Some say it's because of a bad antenna location. Anyway, it's a very strong factor to take into account before buying this awesome (besides that one flaw) laptop.

    Also, take into account that the back cover is very easily scratchable (way too easy!)

    And yes, the extremely light weight is really exceptional!
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    As noted above, the text on pages 2 and 6 has been updated. Thanks!
  • juhatus - Wednesday, October 16, 2013 - link

    I bought the Vaio Pro 13 (i7-4500, 8Gb, 256gb toshiba ssd, no touch, 3year warranty) almost 2 months ago for 1200€. I must admit that it had it driver problems on start but every update has actually made a difference and now all problems are solved. It had a bit problems with fan, bluetooth and wifi, but as i said, updates solved those.

    I have to totally disagree with the "built quality"-issue, flexibility is by design not because they used sub-par engineering and materials. If you check how big the actual motherboard is, its about half of the depth of the laptop so its not flexing at all. One reviewer also noted that Sony has done these flexible design's before and now few years after those laptops haven't gotten any problems. If you close the lid than vaio 13 isnt bending almost at all. Jarred if you need a crowbar, than use something else than laptop :)

    Jarred could you add some benchmarks about the ssd speed? If you get the samsung model.. its should do almost 1Gb/sec sequantials and the 4k read/writes arent that bad either. I got the 256gb toshiba and it still beats a samsung 840pro.

    One thing about the display and calibration, Pro13 should use Sony's Tri-luminos tech and that surely could confuse the colormeter?

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