Sony VAIO SE: IPS for Under a Grand

When I saw the VAIO SE at the Sony booth at CES 2012, it was already a slightly older laptop and normally I wouldn’t have given it much time, but one thing clearly stood out from all of the other laptops I’ve reviewed in the past several years: the display. I’ve seen some really poor TN panels over the years, and I’ve also seen a few good TN panels, but it took all of two seconds to determine that yes, this laptop actually had something other than a TN display. The Sony rep confirmed that it uses an IPS display, and at that point I made it very clear that we really wanted to review this laptop. Even though it first launched back in September 2011, IPS displays are such a rarity that I had to try and get one for review. Thankfully, Sony fulfilled our wishes—sending along their VAIO Z2 as well as an added bonus. (Dustin already handled that review, if you missed it.)

On paper and at first glance, there’s a lot to like with the VAIO SE. Unlike most laptops in this size range, the LCD is actually a 15.5” panel (as opposed to the many 15.6” and the older 15.4” offerings). While some might want something slightly smaller like a 14” laptop, for 1080p displays this seems to be the sweet spot. Get any smaller and the prices start to skyrocket (e.g. the VAIO Z2), and for those of us with less than perfect eyesight it can also be a bit of a strain to read text on a 13.1” 1080p display. Besides a great display, the SE also includes plenty of memory, switchable graphics that will let you decide between (gaming) performance or longer battery life, and the main body of the laptop tips the scales at just 4.40 lbs. (2kg) and is slightly less than an inch thick (24.6mm). And if you need more battery life, Sony even offers a sheet battery that basically doubles the battery capacity (at the cost of thickness and weight). Let’s hit the spec sheet first, where we’ve bolded the items in our ~$1250 review sample as well as listing the alternative configuration for the basic $930 model.

Sony VAIO SE Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-2450M (dual-core 2.50-3.10GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i5-2540M (dual-core 2.60-3.30GHz, 35W)
Intel Core i7-2640M (dual-core 2.80-3.50GHz, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM67
Memory 4GB (1x4GB onboard + empty SO-DIMM slot)
6GB (1x4GB onboard + 1x2GB DDR3-1333)
8GB (1x4GB onboard + 1x4GB DDR-1333)
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6470M 512MB or
AMD Radeon HD 6630M 1GB DDR3
(480 cores, 485/1600MHz Core/RAM clocks)
Display 15.5" WLED Matte 16:9 1080p (1920x1080)
(Unknown: MS_0025)
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 7200RPM HDD
750GB 5400RPM HDD
(Toshiba Toshiba MK7559GSXP)

256GB RAID 0 SSDs (128GBx2)
512GB RAID 0 SSDs (256GBx2)
1024GB RAID 0 SSDs (512GBx2)
Optical Drive CD/DVD Burner
Blu-ray Combo Drive (Matshita UJ152)
Blu-ray Burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet(Realtek RTL8168/8111)
802.11n WiFi (Intel WiFi+WiMax 6050)
Bluetooth 3.0 (BCM2070)
WiDi 2.0 Ready
Audio Stereo Speakers
Headphone jack
Capable of 5.1 digital output (HDMI/SPDIF)
Battery 6-cell, 11.1V, ~4.4Ah, 49Wh
6-cell, 11.1V, ~4.4Ah, 49Wh Sheet Battery
Front Side WiFi On/Off Physical Switch
Left Side Optical Drive
Headphone Jack
Right Side Memory Card Readers
Gigabit Ethernet
HDMI 1.4a
1 x USB 3.0
2 x USB 2.0
Kensington Lock
AC Power Connection
Back Side Exhaust vent
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Windows 7 Professional 64-bit
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Dimensions 14.97" x 10.08" x 0.97" (WxDxH)
(380mm x 256mm x 24.6mm)
1.84” (46.7mm) high with sheet battery
Weight 4.40 lbs (2.0kg)
5.77 lbs (2.62kg) with sheet battery
Extras HD Webcam
103-Key backlit keyboard (1.7mm stroke)
Flash reader (SD, MS Pro Duo)
MS Office 2010 Starter or Home/Student
120W Power Adapter
Optional 49Wh Sheet Battery
Optional Dock
Warranty 1-standard warranty
2- and 3-year extended warranties available
Pricing Starting Price: $980
Reviewed Configuration: $1530

Our unit has the newish Core i7-2640M instead of the older i7-2620M, not that the extra 100MHz matters much. Graphics consist of Intel’s HD 3000 from the CPU, with an AMD HD 6630M available via a manual switch. “Stamina” selects the IGP and “Speed” selects the discrete GPU, and after a 5-10 second delay (and assuming you don’t have any programs running that prevent the switch), you can swap between the two. As far as performance goes, the HD 6630M is a decent entry level laptop GPU—don’t even bother with the HD 6470M/6490M for gaming, as they’re not powerful enough to handle anything more than low quality, low resolution gaming—but with a 1080p display we certainly would have liked to see the option for something a bit beefier.

The rest of the specs include all the typical stuff, along with a USB 3.0 port and Blu-ray combo drive ($80 extra for Blu-ray). Sony also shipped us the sheet battery (a $150 extra) and 8GB RAM ($85 extra). The weakest link in the specs is easy to spot: that Toshiba 750GB hard drive has plenty of capacity, but the 5400RPM spindle speed is going to put the dampers on some tasks and definitely doesn’t help with boot or shut down times.

Other than the hard drive, what’s not to love? You can get a decent quality IPS display in a mainstream laptop, with switchable graphics providing the ability to game or run for hours off the mains. If you stick with the base model, you can get almost everything you really need from a modern laptop for under $1000 (the VPS-SE290X we received currently starts at $979, though we’ve seen the price drop as low as $929). The main sticking point with the entry model is the downgraded HD 6470M GPU, which is only a minor upgrade from Intel’s HD 3000. It’s pretty easy to spec out a unit with less memory and storage but get a 7200RPM 500GB hard drive with the HD 6630M graphics for roughly the same price of $1020. (And if you don’t like to deal with bloatware, you can pay $50 extra for Windows 7 Professional and get the laptop with Sony’s Fresh Start—no Norton Antivirus, and possibly a few other missing “extras”.) All told it’s a pretty promising package, but let’s dig a little deeper and see if there are any concerns.

Dissecting the Sony VAIO SE
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  • Conficio - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    I'm really concerned about the hinge issue that Anand reports especially in combination with blocking the exhaust.

    I see my current 2004 laptop die of heat issues and the hinge is really loose. I don't know if I want to go back to the same problems. The laptop before that died of hinge issues as well.

    Also, why not offer this with an i3 and make the AMD Graphics optional. I really want to lower the entry price ~ $850 so I can swap the hard disk to external and replace it with an SSD internally. Then we are talking Sony!
  • Conficio - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    Apologies, should read "... that Jarred reports ..."
  • Guppy - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    Another issue with this particular type of design occurs when the thermal exhaust port is in the back of the notebook, and very close to the screen itself.

    With prolonged exposure, the hot exhaust can end up producing a discolored patch on the LCD. I have a Compaq with a rear exhaust port that experienced significant darkening on the adjacent patch of the screen, which became noticeable after perhaps 7-8 years of use -- so it's a slow process, but will eventually happen if you keep the notebook around long enough.
  • Hrel - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    From the way all of you at Anandtech go on and on and ON AND ON about IPS displays I was expecting WAY WAY more. There are TN panels in your chart that out-score the IPS panel. AND IPS panels have more latency. I am thoroughly confused as to why you STILL insist IPS is the way to go. Viewing angles are better, fine, I get that. But on a laptop I don't even want good viewing angles, I prefer for other people to not be able to, or at least have a hard time, seeing what I'm doing.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, April 4, 2012 - link

    TN sucks for so many reasons, that any display that's not TN is almost certainly going to be better. Yes, a good TN panel can can deliver scores in an ideal setup that are better than a decent IPS panel (e.g. the VAIO SE LCD), but viewing angles REALLY matter for me on a laptop. As an example, I used an XPS 15 on a flight and because of the angle of the seat and laptop, I ended up needing to slouch down just to see the display properly. Sure, the display had theoretically better contrast and colors, but only if you're looking straight at the display.

    As for latency, IPS is fine and anyone going on and on about latency in a display isn't talking about a laptop. "Oh no, I have 5ms more latency on my IPS display...on a laptop running at 25 FPS and moderate detail settings!" Furthermore, this isn't a gaming laptop, so there's no real concern with a fractional increase in latency. The only displays I've ever really had issues with on latency are S-PVA, but no one is putting those in laptops.

    Finally, if you're worried about privacy, IPS has wider viewing angles and that would be "bad", but TN panels have reasonable viewing angles from the left and right as well so you don't even get privacy with them. It's only above and below that get completely whacked out on TN, and with a laptop on your *lap*, you will often end up with the "viewing from above" issue. If you really want privacy, don't sit next to people and use your laptop, tablet, or even a smartphone! Good luck with that....

    Incidentally, I've used computers with "privacy screens" before, and while it does make it very difficult for anyone other than the person sitting right in front of the display to see what you're doing, such screens also look like crap. While you might want privacy, I'd rather the person next to me be able to glance over and see what movie I'm watching (or what I'm typing if they've got really good eyes and don't mind being rude) while I can actually enjoy the movie/work from a variety of angles. You'd have to be accessing very sensitive information to think that someone is going to spy on you and read it. It's pretty easy to tell when someone is staring at your laptop unless you're totally oblivious to your surroundings. "Um, excuse me, sir, but you've been staring at my computer for the past five minutes. Please go away."
  • azntwboy - Thursday, April 5, 2012 - link

    I took comparison shots of my own between the SE1, SA2, HTC desire, and HP monitor. there is no red at all on this screen. I can't even see the difference when viewing these photos on the SE. I have to look at them on my HTC. the violets do not show, and there is a yellow tint to everything. to reduce the yellow, I set in Intel graphics properties a hue shift of +8 and blue gamma to 1.2. HP reportedly will fix this problem but haven't said how yet. Sony won't tell me anything about it.

    the SE also has a problem with the headphone jack. it will not work with headsets with microphones unless the plug sits inconveniently halfway out or the call answer button on the microphone is depressed. its odd because none of the older vaio I tested today in the Sony shop have this problem. I emailed Sony but they deny this problem exists. my vpcse13fx and the vpcse15gb in the shop both had this issue. someone on notebook review says he has this also on his se1. I wonder if its been fixed on the se2?

    also note that se and sa have sata3 disabled on BIOS newer than r1031h4. you'll be stuck with sata2 unless you flash to the old BIOS.
  • Guppy - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    >>"the SE also has a problem with the headphone jack. it will not work with headsets with microphones unless the plug sits inconveniently halfway out"

    This exact behavior can happen in certain cases where there are certain kinds of damage to your headphone's wiring (or the jack itself), I fixed an identical issue with my friend's laptop just recently (in his case, the defect was in the headphone wiring)

    By hanging the plug partway out, you change where the segments of the plug make contact with their contacts -- I would recommend checking out the headphones and jack with a continuity tester for shorts and open pathways.
  • azntwboy - Thursday, April 5, 2012 - link

    One other issue I have with the SE is the placement of the usb ports. They're too close together and I can't attach multiple usb drives because they're too wide for the too closely spaced ports. They're also inconveniently located on the right side where cables get in the way of my mouse.

    I'm also getting a buzzing sound on my right speaker. It's only 2 days old.

    I was trying to decide between the sa and se but I decided on the se. The se has much better viewing angles and contrast but had bad color problems and Is a bit big for traveling. The SA is the perfect size but the viewing angles are horrendous and colors are washed out. I think the perfect laptop would be the SA with a screen from the Z2. With both the SA and SE you can install your own drives, expand the RAM, and swap the odd with a hdd caddy.

    The red problem is very disconcerting.
  • thebumblebee - Thursday, April 5, 2012 - link

    I got the Lenovo X220 with IPS display and i5 CPU (2.4 GHz) and 4GB Ram under a grand last June and nowadays you can buy it for even cheaper.
  • yaxattax - Saturday, April 7, 2012 - link

    I've got the SE and I installed Linux onto it. The first thing I have to say is that I don't use the switchable graphics, I run from the IGP all the time - as a result, I was led to believe the Stamina/Speed swwitch would be useless. This is not correct, and I discovered that the Speed/Stamina switch does something to change the thermal budget, as throttling will occur while the laptop is in Stamina mode, but it goes away as soon as the switch is moved to the Speed position. I don't know if this switch is changing thermal budget via BIOS (by being some kind of interface to motherboard jumpers), or if Linux has a driver to perform this based on the switch, but I observed the same behaviour in Windows.

    Second of all, two finger scrolling. Two finger scolling works just fine in Linux, which means that the drivers for windows are not very good. This is probably a result of the base hardware in the touchpad already having support in Linux.

    I did as recommended in this review, and performed memory and SSD upgrades by hand, as it was cheaper. I took a gamble with the memory, hoping to be able to replace two SO-DIMMS, but I found out the hard way that 4GB is soldered in, which is a shame as I wanted to fit 16GB in, but 12GB is reasonable.

    I love the display, the viewing angles are fantastic and I'm not finding myself distracted by contrast shifts, which was the main reason for my choosing of this model.

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