Of all the new ultrabooks in Sony's Vaio range, the Vaio Pro 13 is the model that could become a reference. Lightweight, elegant, built to last and equipped with the latest generation of Intel processors, it has everything it needs to compete as a Windows 8 alternative to the 13-inch MacBook Air.
Aesthetically speaking, the Vaio Pro 13 is an obvious success. The carbon fibre lining looks great (until it gets smudged, because the material seems to love collecting fingerprints). But besides looks, another advantage with carbon fibre is that it's lightweight—the Vaio Pro 13 weighs 1.05 kg, compared to the 13" MacBook Air's 1.3 kg).
The surface surrounding the keyboard is slightly granular and the touchpad is set within a broad strip of carbon fibre that smudges just as easily as the rest of the computer. We're a little worried about how sturdy this section is, because the centre of the chassis dips in surprisingly far when you push down on it. Let's just hope the Vaio Pro 13 bends more than it breaks.
Along the back edge are two small feet that protect the screen when it's open. Just watch out for scrapes when you have the computer sitting on your lap!
The backlit chiclet keyboard provides nice typing, although the stroke is a bit short. We were somewhat apprehensive about it at first, but we quickly got used to it. For some reason there's no shortcut for adjusting or turning off the backlighting. But there are other shortcuts that are used in combination with the Fn key for things like touchpad on/off, volume, screen brightness and display mode when hooked up to an external monitor.
The touchpad is nice and roomy, and a pleasure to use. It does, however, have a little bit of play compared to the chassis, producing a noise that could get annoying after a while. It recognises touch gestures such as two-finger zooming, scrolling, rotating and the Windows 8 gestures. The lower right- and left-hand corners are clickable so as to act as standard left and right clicks.
The model we tested has a touchscreen that's responsive and precise. However, a touchscreen on a laptop only goes so far, considering how tiring it is to hold your hands in the air for extended periods. A hinge like the one the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 has would have helped.
As is often the case with ultrabooks, the connectivity is skimpy with just two USB 3.0 ports, a headphone/microphone combo jack and an SD card reader. It does have an HDMI out, though, which isn't the case with many ultrabooks, including the MacBook Air. No Ethernet (RJ45) port.
Heat readings with the components under stress
Images taken using a Fluke Ti25 thermal imaging camera
The heat certainly gets high at times, but we've seen worse. It's expelled via the air vent along the left edge of the computer, shown here:
The Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) IPS screen provides a top-notch image for an ultrabook. With brightness up to 380 cd/m², the Vaio Pro 13 is easily legible even in very bright settings, and at 1,060:1 it has one of the best contrast ratios on the market, along with the Asus Republic of Gamers G750.
Grey colour temperature
The colours are practically flawless. The Delta E (which measures colour fidelity) is 3.6. Once again, that's one of the best figures on the market. The colour temperature is also near-perfect at 6,550 K, practically on par with the ideal 6,500 K. This is an outstanding display, sitting in the same pantheon as the Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A and Samsung Series 7 Ultra.
And the audio doesn't fall far behind. The headphone/microphone combo jack offers impressive high fidelity sound. It has high volume (just less than the 13" MacBook Air) and zero saturation.
Frequency response curve: built-in speakers
Green = good / Orange = tolerable / White = heavily altered
Green = good / Orange = tolerable / White = heavily altered
Like the 13" MacBook Air and Lenovo Yoga 13, the speakers located beneath the keyboard are high in volume for a machine this size. The sound is clear, the vocal range is intelligible and we found no excessive saturation. With just a little more low-end, we would have given the audio five stars.
The model we were sent to review features an Intel Core i5-4200U processor, 4 GB of RAM, an Intel HD Graphics 4400 chipset and a 128 GB SSD. Everything mentioned above applies to all variations of the Sony Vaio Pro 13, whereas the Processor Power, Gaming and Battery Life sections below apply only to the configuration we tested.
In our internal rating system we gave the Intel Core i5-4200U processor a score of 122. It's a powerful CPU that enables the Vaio Pro 13 to undertake any task at respectable speeds. The performance is much better than the 13" MacBook Air, whose Intel Core i5-4250U we gave a score of 93.
The MacBook Air took 461 seconds to export a batch of photos, where the Vaio Pro 13 took just 407 seconds to export the same batch. Compressing files took 530 seconds on the Apple and only 206 seconds on the Sony. On average, the Vaio Pro 13 is 25% faster than the MacBook Air.
And the 128 GB SSD makes the computer even more responsive. It starts up in a mere 6 seconds and shuts down in 12.
The Intel HD 4400 chipset (3DMark06: 4317) that Sony chose to handle the graphics isn't much better than its predecessor, the HD 4000. It's a little more powerful, but you still can only play non-demanding games such as FIFA 13 in the screen's native Full HD resolution. Anything more than that and you'll have to compensate big-time by lowering the detail level and resolution in order to find fluid gameplay. StarCraft II, Medal of Honor: Warfighter and BioShock Infinite all run correctly, but only with the graphics options set as low as possible.
Full HD (Blu-ray quality) movies play nice and smooth without any hiccups or choppy movement.
MOBILITY / BATTERY LIFE
Like every other ultrabook on the market, the Vaio Pro 13 finds itself in the very unenviable position of having to compete with the 13" MacBook Air's monster 14½-hour battery life. But it still holds its own, lasting 6 hours and 40 minutes with continuous video playback (in airplane mode with the screen brightness set to 100 cd/m² and headphones plugged in). This falls far behind Apple, but it's ahead of the next-best ultrabooks in terms of battery life, the HP Folio 13 and Asus Zenbook Prime UX31A.