MacBook Air: Apple’s cheapest and lightest notebook is the easy choice
This year, every PC manufacturer is determined to change that. Toshiba’s Kirabook offers the specs, size, and even service of Apple’s best; nearly every other manufacturer has renewed its focus on quality as well. Rather than race to the bottom and leave Apple alone at the top, Windows-powered PCs are creeping back up to Apple’s level.
My go-to laptop buying advice has been the same for the last two years, at least for anyone who doesn’t know their PRAM from their Linux kernel. Oh, you’re looking for a new laptop? Buy a MacBook Air. Apple’s cheapest and lightest notebook is the easy choice — it’s fast enough, has a fantastic keyboard and trackpad, has solid battery life, and comes with few of the quirks and issues that plague nearly every Windows device.
Sony’s not even pretending about its designs for the new VAIO Pro lineup. “We’re going to war with the MacBook Air,” VAIO product manager Travis Furst told me. Its weapons? 13- and 11-inch laptops that are lighter than Air — not to mention higher-res, with better specs and a near-identical price tag ($1,149 for the 11, $1,249 for the 13).
Lighter than Air
You can’t beat the MacBook Air ithout being insanely thin and light, so Sony made sure the Pros were both. The 13-inch model weighs just 2.34 pounds, and is 0.68 inches thick – it’s exactly as thin as the comparable Air, and more than a half-pound lighter. The 11-inch Pro is equally thin, but weighs an astonishing 1.92 pounds — when I first took it out of its box I hunted for a battery, because I figured there was no way it could be as light as it is. Given everything inside the Pros, from a touchscreen to an impressive set of internal specs, these laptops are incredible feats of engineering.
Thin and light are good — so is sturdy
Thin and light takes a toll, though. Both Pro models feel flimsy and breakable — every time I picked my Pro up by its corner, its carbon fiber body flexed a lot more than I’m comfortable with. The lid gives backward when you tap on the screen; the whole tray moves downward as you type. The problems are far worse on the 11-inch model than the 13 — the 13 flexes a little while the 11 appears to be on the verge of coming apart at all times — but in both cases I have this nagging fear that I’m either going to break off a piece of the computer or accidentally press straight through it and come out the other side. The Air feels much more durable, as does Toshiba’s Kirabook, which is probably the VAIO Pro’s most direct competitor at the moment.
Update: I initially believed there was only one color option for each Pro model. I’ve changed my thoughts here and in the keyboard section (the color affects the keyboard, believe it or not), and changed the score to reflect what’s really going on.
Each size comes in one of two colors, a chrome silver or chrome black. I much prefer the black, not least because it disguises the scratches and dings the laptops seem to pick up very easily. (My silver 11 already looks like my iPhone 5, with tiny blemishes littering its edges.) It’s also just a sleeker, cooler look, with the big reflective VAIO logo shining on the otherwise dark, almost ominous device. The matte keyboard tray and brushed-metal palmrest give it a unique two-toned look I quite like. My review units each have two blue stickers on the palmrest, but Sony says they’ll be black or silver to match your computer — I’d rather them be gone, but at least they’ll match.
The wedge-shaped sides taper toward nothingness, ending in a tiny, sharp corner that digs a bit into your palm as you hold the Pro by its corner. The corners dig into your leg, too, if you use the Pro on your lap — the screen rotates slightly down below the base, propping the keyboard at the slightest of angles, and the sharp corners might either catch your jeans or scrape your bare legs. Between that and the build-quality problems, you’re definitely better off using this laptop on your desk.
The two colors and sizes of VAIO Pro share most features, most strengths and weaknesses, but there’s one glaring difference between the two: the keyboard. Namely, the 13’s is decent and the 11’s is terrible. The 13’s propensity for flexing downward with every keystroke makes typing feel a bit mushy, but the keys are big and well-spaced, and while there aren’t enough function buttons (and they’re the secondary options on their respective keys) the basics are at least covered. It’s a perfectly solid keyboard.
The Pro 11, on the other hand, is a mess. The computer itself is so small that the keys have to be tiny and cramped, but the real problem is the backlight in the silver version. The light shines brightly and haphazardly out the sides of the keys, and through the letters themselves on the translucent silver keyboard (the 13’s keys are black and opaque).
With the backlight on, it’s hard to even see the labels on the keys. Not only is it ugly, it makes it feel like you’re typing on an empty keyboard, left only to your own touch-typing devices. It’s clear not a single ounce of attention was paid to the backlight here — it single-handedly kills the aesthetic appeal of my Pro 11 when it’s on, and makes it harder to use besides. I can’t stress this enough: buy the black VAIO Pro.
The trackpads on both models are fairly similar — they’re center-located, slightly recessed, glassy clickpads that feel great but don’t always work right. Generally they’re fine, smooth and responsive, but as I’ve seen with too many Windows 8 laptops, they can be crotchety. Edge gestures are inconsistent, working once but not again two seconds later, and the cursor would occasionally just stopped moving for a while, then jump to some random spot on the screen, then freeze again until you reboot the computer. (This happened three or four times in a week.) Suffice to say I switched to using keyboard shortcuts rather than edge gestures.
I also found myself leaning on the touchscreen a lot — but that had its own issues.
Display and speakers
Now you see me
I’ve spent months railing on PC manufacturers for using low-res screens, defaulting to 1366 x 768 resolutions while their best competitors moved up to 1080p and beyond. Sony’s jumped wholeheartedly onto the high-def train, and has as such given both Pro models a 1920 x 1080 screen. Both are good displays, with solid viewing angles and accurate, contrast-rich colors. Things that look good look great, but until Microsoft makes Windows scale better to accomodate higher-res displays, pixel density isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
Every screen size has a right resolution — and it’s not always higher
On the 11-inch Pro, for instance, most websites render absolutely tiny, with almost unreadably small text and a huge amount of white space. For instance, The Verge is 1020 pixels wide, which means that unless you zoom way in you’re left with 450 pixels of white on either side, and our site only takes up about half the screen. Text is sharp and clear, and the pixel density is ridiculous, but everything from icons to websites is just small. Even 1080p video renders things so small on the 11.6-inch screen that you just can’t see small details — it’s kind of like watching your TV from six rooms away. You can change the DPI to 150 percent (in the Control Panel, under Appearance), and you probably should — though that sort of defeats the purpose of such a high-res display, and doesn’t affect every app anyway. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d almost rather have a 1440 x 900 display, or maybe something like the MacBook Pro’s 1680 x 1050 screen. Apple and Google have figured out how to scale their operating systems to high-res displays. So why does it appear to be so hard for Microsoft?
Just by virtue of screen real estate, the 13-inch model avoids most of these problems. And with enough room to operate, the VAIO Pro’s display is fantastic. Touch response is excellent, the screen is viewable from even the most insane angles, and as Microsoft and its developers adapt to this crazy new high-res world we live in, you’ll probably want a 1080p display. Just get ready for a lot of squinting in the meantime.
The Pro’s sound comes through speakers just above the keyboard, and here’s one place where Sony copies Apple to its peril: the speakers aren’t anything to write home about. They’re not very loud, or very clear — they’re not necessarily any worse than most laptop speakers, but that’s not something to be particularly proud of.
Software and performance
The Windows effect
Both VAIO Pro models run Windows 8, to varying effect. The 11 starts on a 1.6GHz Core i5-4200U processor and 4GB of RAM, while the base 13 has a 1.8GHz Core i7-4500U and 4GB of RAM — both are Intel’s new Haswell chips. The 13 also comes with a PCIe SSD, an even faster drive than a standard SSD. (My 13-inch review unit came with 8GB of RAM and a larger 512GB drive instead of the baseline 128GB.) The base-model 11 is plenty capable for most things, but I noticed stutters and lags in places I didn’t on the 13-inch model — you might want to go beyond the base model of either machine, because a 1080p screen clearly needs a lot of power. 8GB of RAM made for a better multitasking experience, too — that’s always a worthy upgrade.
Both Pro models do share a couple of troubling issues. Wi-Fi is the worst: neither laptop ever connected to a Wi-Fi network on the first try, they’d often not see networks other devices recognized, and I saw the infuriating “Limited Connection” icon way too many times. I have no idea why it happened, but along with the trackpad’s skittishness it made for a number of really annoying moments using these devices.
The bloatware story is the same on both Pros, as well as on most Windows laptops. There are a dozen or so pre-installed apps, from Sony’s own Music by Sony and Album by Sony (clever names, right?) to iHeartRadio and a handful of Microsoft games. The only two I really used were Socialife, Sony’s surprisingly useful app for managing all your social networks in one spot, and Sony’s impressive ArtRage Studio drawing app. Kaspersky Internet Security and Intel Anti-Theft rear their annoying, popup-loving heads, reminding you every few minutes that your computer is definitely going to explode unless you upgrade from their trial mode to the real thing. Everything can be uninstalled without too much effort, should you so desire.
Haswell, Intel’s latest generation of PC processors, promises big improvements in both graphics performance and battery life. In the former case, I noticed only slight improvements — you’re still not going to want to play games on the VAIO Pro, and anything as intense as Bioshock Infinite or even Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 is completely unplayable. Battery life, on the other hand, appears to be a wonderful upgrade. The 11-inch Pro lasted 6 hours, 30 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of popular websites and high-res images at 65 percent brightness; the 13-inch model chugged along for 6 hours, 53 minutes before giving up. Those are fantastic, MacBook Air-beating numbers, and they bode well for Haswell processors in general. There’s an optional sheet battery for each device that promises to double the battery life, but unfortunately I didn’t have one to test.