2010-08-04

Review: My New Sony VAIO F Series


On July 22 I ordered a new black Sony Vaio F series laptop from Sony Style's website.  I played with the display models at Best Buy a few times before deciding it was the right choice for me.  Sony impressed me by offering me free 2-3 day express shipping for talking to a representative and it arrived on July 29.  Considering there was also a weekend in there I thought this was a speedy delivery.

The specs of the laptop I built and now have in my possession are:

  • 16.4" Full HD Premium Display
  • Large Capacity Battery
  • LED Backlit Keyboard
  • Blu-Ray Disc Player/Burner (it's a Matshita BD-MLT UJ240AS)
  • Intel Core i7-740QM (1.73 GHz) with Turbo Boost to 2.93 GHz
  • NVIDIA GeForce GT 330M GPU (1GB)
  • 6GB (4GBx1 + 2GBx1) DDR3 1333 (it's Samsung memory P/N# M471B5273BH1-CH9 and Elpida memory P/N# EBJ21UE8BDSo-DJ-F)
  • 500GB 7200rpm Hard Drive
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • Bluetooth 2.1
  • Atheros AR9287 802.11 b/g/n WiFi

I knew I wanted to get a laptop that had enough horse power to handle applications like EnCase and Adobe Premiere with ease and I wanted a full keyboard and a big enough screen to make working easy and not so cramped.  I also wanted to be able to use the laptop as a media center to take my Blu-Ray movies on trips and watch Hulu and Netflix.  I found the Vaio F series to be more than capable of filling all of these roles.

Build:
A lot of reviews knock the F series for its weight.  I find the F series to fairly light and mobile at 7.3 lbs.  It feels a lot lighter on my shoulder than my 5 year old Alienware m5550 and maybe that's why I'm so pleased by the weight.  Sony says it weighs 6.9 with the standard battery and the extended battery adds roughly 1/4 pound.  The extended battery extends down and tilts the laptop towards you.  The added benefit is the laptop is slightly raised and allows for more ventilation.

The body is really very sharp.  It feels durable and strong.  Nothing about the laptop feels cheap.  Even the VAIO logo on the lid looks good.  The vents are well placed along the bottom and sides and after using the laptop for over 9 hours at a time for work I can say I have yet to feel the laptop get very warm.  However, my work involves mostly email.

Ports, Lights and Switches:


I like the port placement on the F series.  On the right you get 2 USB ports, a Mic input and a headphone jack that doubles as an optical output.  On the right you get an HDMI output, VGA output, 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet port, iLink connection port, and a third USB port that also double as an eSATA port.

The F series also has an Express card/34 slot on the left and a Memory Stick Duo with MagicGate reader and SD memory card reader on the front.  These memory card slots are really very nice.  They function just like the slots in most cameras.  You slide the card in and push it to lock it in,  When it's time to remove it you just push it in and it pops out.  My old m5550 had a slot that required you to carefully line up the card and slide it in and it didn't lock in place.

The WiFi switch is also on the front.  It's a simple one that just slides left and right.  There is a green LED that lets you know the WiFi is enabled.  The battery and hard disk activity LEDs are just to the left of the WiFi switch.

Finally, the power switch and LED are both located on the right end of the right side.  The power LED is another nice touch.  The button glows green or orange depending on the battery and PC (e.g. it turns orange when the PC is in standby mode) the glow is visible along the top, too.  It's one of my favorite little details.  The power adapter port is opposite the power switch on the left side.

You'll notice I have not mentioned any ports on the back side.  The VAIO has no ports along the back, only at the sides and the front.  This is another detail that I really like.

Screen:


The screen is gorgeous.  There has been a lot of argument on various forums over whether or not the screen looks "milky" and if the US version of the VAIO has a poor screen compared to the UK version.  I never did find a definite answer to this question, but I do not find the screen to be milky.  I think colors appear quite vivid and watching videos, DVDs, and Blu-Rays is a joy.

After sitting by a window for 5 hours I feel confidant saying the screen works well in sunny weather.  The screen is reflective so I did have to lean in on a few occasions when digging through some log files, but overall it was easy to read from a comfortable distance (about an arm's length away).

Keyboard and Touchpad:
Let me just say the keyboard is honestly the best keyboard I have ever used.  It's a full keybaord with a 10 digit keypad and 103 keys.  Sony says the keys have a 2.0mm stroke and 19.05mm pitch.  I find them very easy to type on and the "island" style gives the keys just the right amount of spacing and nothing feels cramped.  The backlit keys are very easy to read in the dark.  This is a poor picture of the backlit keys, but it was taken in complete darkness with a cell phone camera:


My only complaint would be the media keys don't glow, so you can't easily find the Play/Pause, Stop, or track forward/back keys in the dark.  On the other hand when you do press the buttons they work very well.  There is no lag between the button press and the response.  I have found them very responsive for both Corel WinDVD, Zune software, Windows Media Player, and Windows Media Center.

Next to the media keys are the"Assist", "S1", and "VAIO" keys.  The Assist key launches VAIO Care.  You can use it to contact Sony support or to troubleshoot problems.  It's actually not a bad feature or a gimmick.  It's not going to tell you much that Windows can't tell you, but it centralizes a lot of information and your recovery and restore options are here as well.

The S1 button will launch an application or fire an event.  You can set the application or action you want it to launch in the VAIO Control Center.  For example, you can have it toggle automatic screen brightness on or off or launch Thunderbird.  I have it set to open Thunderbird with my primary profile.


The VAIO button launches the VAIO Media Center.  This is actually a nifty piece of software.  It collects all of your videos, photos and music and organizes it.  I let the Zune software do this for me, so I don't use it much, but it's worth checking out.  It has some neat features like facial recognition and organizing pictures by smiles.  No, really.  You can filter your photos to only show photos with faces or only show photos with faces that are smiling.

Finally, the trackpad.  I have found the trackpad to work well.  It can sometimes feel too small if you're using a lot to move around the screen, but it's accurate and I have yet to feel like it didn't respond to my finger.

The one problem I have is a squeaky space bar.  I can almost ignore it, but then it'll start to get on my nerves.  I expect that whatever is rubbing against the body will eventually wear down and the squeaking will stop.  If not I may have to request a new keyboard.  I think it started to really annoy a guy who sat at the table next to mine at Starbucks.  Even so, I couldn't bring myself to send it back to Sony for something so small.

Performance:
My biggest concern was battery life.  My Alienware m5550 lasted maybe 1.5 hours with light use while it was brand new.  Today I'm lucky if I get half of that with it, so I needed a laptop with some power.  The VAIO F series isn't going to last for hours of gaming or heavy usage, but the extended battery's 4.5 hours is pretty good.  It may not be excellent compared to some of today's 12" to 15" models and netbooks (the 13" VAIO Z series boasts 10.5 hours), but it's solid for traveling to Starbucks for a few hours to work away from an outlet.  You can't expect too much out of a battery powering a 16.4" screen.  Big screens are big battery hogs.

The Core i7 740 QM is an excellent processor.  It nearly rivals the Core 2 Quad Q9550 in my desktop PC.    It only has an 820 point lower Passmark score.  When I work on the VAIO instead of my desktop I don't feel like I'm trading power for mobility.  The VAIO just feels fast.

If I perform any benchmarks then I will post the scores, but I feel like the VAIO has enough outlets benchmarking it already.  I'm just here to tell you that the VAIO is enjoyable to use and easily matches the speed and capabilities of my desktop.

Sound:
This is the one drawback of the VAIO.  The speakers aren't bad, but if you're very picky about how your music sounds or plan to watch a lot of Blu-Ray movies then you may be disappointed.  There are no subwoofers or high-end speakers here.  You have two speakers above the keyboard with Dolby Home Theater v3.

However, this is easy to fix.  Just plug in a nice set of headphones.  The sound quality is also much better if you keep the volume set to 80% or lower.  Any higher seems to cause some distortion with some audio.  For example, the Tech News Today podcast sounds fine at 75 or 80%, but at 90 or 100% the voices become a little distorted.  They are still easily understood, but it sounds bad.

I did run into one problem.  In a very quiet room I would constantly hear a high pitch electrical buzzing sound.  It was just high enough that I would drown it out and then pick it back up again when I least expected it.  It became a concern.  I say I *would* hear it because I did manage to fix it.  I followed the directions I found over at SonyInsider.  It turns out this is a known problem and it is caused by the webcam's microphone.  I had to go into the Windows Control Panel and mute the microphone.  The buzzing stopped as soon as I hit the Apply button.

It's an odd problem that may not even be noticed by a lot of people unless it was pointed out to them, but worth mentioning.

VAIO Control Center:

The VAIO Control Center might be considered bloatware at first, but I like it.  Power settings, battery information, display settings, system information, and other settings are all available in one application.  The Control Center doesn't offer anything ground breaking, but it is does have some great battery functions.  The Control Center can display the battery's health status and you can enable Sony' "Battery Care Function".

The VAIO Battery Care Function will shorten the battery life by 80%/50% per charge.  The idea is to reduce the degradation and increase the battery's lifetime.  The 80% option is designed for using the laptop on battery power and the 50% option is for people who mostly use their laptop plugged in.  I choose to use the 80% option and my battery life is roughly 3.5 hours.  The consensus seems to be that this really does increase the number of recharge cycles for the battery, so I think I can live with 3.5 hours.  I can trade 1 hour for more hours down the road.


Summary:
I'm very pleased with my choice to purchase a Sony VAIO F series.  I seriously considered some of the HP business notebooks and the Dell Studio XPS 16, but I really liked the VAIO's design.  It definitely helped that I could go into a Best Buy and check out the VAIO product line first.  I love the design and performance and I have no qualms about recommending a VAIO to anyone looking for a a new laptop.

### If you enjoyed this article, please consider leaving a comment! Thanks for reading.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I was trying to decide if I should buy a F series, and your post has helped a lot!
Thanks!!

Joshua said...

Very good review! Honest and fair. I purchased a VAIO F back in March, and I don't regret it one bit. Had a problem with the motherboard (tests showed one of the RAM chips was faulty) but SONY replaced almost ALL of the internal chips free of charge.

Word of caution, make sure that your BIOS is up-to-date! SONY issued a recall on this model for overheating problems, but it can be fixed with a simple software patch. Apparently where my prior problem came from.

And yup, my spacebar squaks as I type this. :-)

Christopher Maddalena said...

Thanks for the comments guys! Hope you enjoy your VAIOs.

Thankfully my space bar no longer squeaks as much as it did. It's no longer very noticeable above the regular tapping sound of my typing.

Also, my VAIO shipped with the latest BIOS version, so it looks like any new purchases will already have the latest updates. However, it's still a good idea to check.

Anonymous said...

Hello, firstly, I find your article amusing because I too bought an F series in July... upgrading from and Alienware M5550!

Your article is great. Im not sure how I feel about my F series though. I love its power... but Im having issues. I have the squeaky spacebar for one thing which is driving me crazy! Its embarassing when Im in class taking notes and you can hear SQUEAK SQUEAK. I hope mine wears out like yours did. I see a lot of people hae this problem but I dont know who to fix it with a backlit keyboard.

Another issue is how loud it is! I was actually looking forward to a quiet laptop after having my beastly alienware. This thin seems to have its fan constantly one and it kind of revs up... not loud but enough to notice if you are paying attention. It does this within seconds it revs and then dies down. I don't know if this is normal for this laptop or not but these 2 issues are really bothering me :( Other than that it IS a powerhouse and I love that. I cant send it in to sony to look at because I need my laptop for college and all my office programs and whatnot are already installed on here. *sigh* do you have any tips for me?

Christopher Maddalena said...

I haven't had a problem with the fan. Maybe your VAIO is running a little hotter than mine because of how it's sitting. I almost never actually use it on my lap and it's always elevated by the battery. The fan runs, but I can only hear it if I place my ear near the side by the vent. It gets louder if I'm running a game. I don't notice any revving, though. It's a constant quiet fan. It sounds like you might you're hovering near a trigger point for the fan and the fan kicks on to cool it down and then turns off.

This could be caused by the heat issues the older models had. Have you checked your BIOS version? I have the latest version, vR111oY6. You can use CPUID's CPU-Z app to check it by looking under the Mainboard tab.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, it says my BIOS version is: BIOS Version/Date American Megatrends Inc. R1110Y6, 5/31/2010

which is the latest bios version number, I believe. I talekd to a sony rep through the chat and they told me to change the power settings... which did nothing and then told me if was a defective hardware! I cant send it out... I need my laptop for school. This is so frustrating! I WANT to love my laptop :(

Christopher Maddalena said...

You should check Windows Task Manager and CPU temps. This morning I noticed the fan running as soon as I started it up and saw my CPU was stuck at 14%. Cores 1 and 2 were over 50 Celsius, so the fan was running to cool them. ElbServer.exe and SpfService.exe were using the most CPU. These processes belong to the VAIO Media Gallery.

I went into the Media Gallery (press the VAIO button) and unchecked "Make program resident" in the settings. Both processes disappeared and CPU utilization went down. After a few minutes the cores cooled and the fan stopped.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the VAIO tips, Chris - especially with elbserver.exe. I also didn't notice the VAIO button since most of the time I am using an seperate backlit keyboard and huge screen! DinyM

M Puffle said...

great review and easy to read - charmingly funny in a dorky sort of way :)

I just purchased one - have to agree with the squeaking space bar...I think my guinea pig thinks it is trying to communicate.

The real issue is that my DVD wont open. It opened once. I inserted the installation disc which made a racket when running, and now it won't open and is holding the disc captive. Any ideas?

Cheers,
Kathi