Top 10 ultraportable laptops

With screen sizes under 14 inches and weight under 4 pounds, ultraportable laptops strike an appealing balance between portability and performance

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Rating:

rating_icon_4.5_stars.gif

Pros:
Excellent performance
Long battery life

Cons:
Poor vertical viewing angles
Expensive

Bottom Line: We're not sure how Sony crammed so much hardware into such a thin and light laptop. If you have the money, this is one of the fastest ultraportables we've ever tested.

REVIEW:
Sony's VAIO SB series, as configured in our review unit (model VPCSB1BGX), offers the best overall performance of any ultraportable laptop we've yet tested. It's light, thin, and a pleasure to use despite a few minor annoyances. Pity, then, that this configuration costs $2500. The base model starts at only $900 (as of August 12, 2011), but that configuration wouldn't dominate our benchmarks as our review model does.

The VAIO SB is a 13.3-inch ultraportable that weighs a modest 3.7 pounds, perhaps a touch less for lower-end configurations. The high-end model we tested may cost $2500, but you get some pretty impressive hardware for that price. Start with a Core i7-2620M processor, a dual-core CPU with hyperthreading that runs at a base clock speed of 2.7GHz. In addition to that very capable processor, toss in 8GB of RAM, switchable graphics (an Intel integrated chip plus a Radeon HD 6630M with 1GB of graphics RAM), and a fast 256GB solid-state drive. Not enough? How about dual-band 802.11n networking, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, a combination BD-ROM and DVD burner, and support for Intel's WiDi wireless display technology? How Sony crammed all that good stuff into a sub-4-pound, 1-inch-thick 13-inch laptop is beyond me.

All that hardware was enough to deliver a WorldBench 6 score of 144, higher than any mark we've seen from other laptops of this size and weight. Does all that power destroy the battery life? Far from it. In our rundown test the VAIO SB's battery lasted an impressive 7 hours, 19 minutes. A physical switch above the F3 key allows you to change between 'stamina' (integrated graphics) and 'speed' (discrete graphics). We ran our battery-life tests with the switch on the 'stamina' setting; enabling the Radeon discrete graphics will cut battery time in half or worse. We also tested the optional slice battery that fits neatly across the bottom of the laptop and makes the machine a third of an inch thicker and almost a pound heavier. This optional accessory adds about 5 hours of maximum battery life.

There's a lot to like about the design of the VAIO SB series. The matte display has a resolution of only 1366 by 768, but that's typical for a 13.3-inch screen. Color, contrast, and brightness are pretty good, and horizontal viewing angles are better than on most laptops I've seen. Vertical viewing angles are predictably poor, though: The screen will either get washed out or too dark if you open the lid too far, or not enough. The island Chiclet-style keyboard is quite good. Key travel is a bit on the short side, but spacing is nice and the keys have a good, tactile, clicky feel. The touchpad is similarly good. It tracks smoothly and accurately, with two distinct buttons on which it's hard to accidentally register clicks. It supports a fairly wide variety of multitouch gestures, though two-finger scrolling is not on the menu.

The left side of the system is sparse, featuring only the BD-ROM and DVD-burning combination optical drive. All the action is along the right edge, which has a Memory Stick slot, an SD Card slot, VGA and HDMI outputs, one USB 3.0 port, two USB 2.0 ports, gigabit ethernet, and the power jack. Those who like having a physical switch to disable Wi-Fi will be happy to know that the VAIO SB series offers one at the front edge.

As usual, Sony loads down its system with a little too much software for my tastes. I'm not a fan of the pop-out dock at the top of the screen, or of the way Norton Internet Security constantly nags me to pay up once the 30-day trial is over. It's great that Sony bundles Photoshop Elements 8, Premiere Elements 8, and PowerDVD, though. Also included are ArcSoft webcam software, Sony's media gallery, and Microsoft Office Starter 2010. If you're like me and you prefer your laptop a little more lean and mean, it's easy enough to remove most of this stuff.

It's a little disappointing that the VAIO SB's fit and finish aren't quite up to the standards we'd expect from a $2500 laptop. It just doesn't have the perfectly clean lines and premium build materials we usually find in systems this expensive. In this case, it's because our test unit is at the very upper end of a line that is meant to start at $900--and at that price, the overall design is about average. In other words, I'm really impressed by the outstanding performance and usability of this very expensive ultraportable laptop, but oddly enough I'm a little underwhelmed by Sony's sense of style.

This story, "Top 10 ultraportable laptops" was originally published by PCWorld.

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