Sony VAIO F Series Review
Combining Core i7 muscle with Nvidia graphics, this big-screen multimedia laptop is a pleasure to use.
Lowest Price: $1,019.99
There are notebooks made for travel, and there are notebooks made for entertainment. Sony’s latest VAIO F (VPC-F136FM/B) falls in the latter camp. Boasting a high-resolution, 16.4-inch widescreen, the latest Core i7 processor, robust NVIDIA GeForce 3D graphics, and even a Blu-ray drive, the VAIO F ($1,299 at Best Buy) offers plenty to love. Meant for users who often roam from room to room, the VAIO F provides lots of computing power and multimedia prowess minus the size of a traditional desktop rig. Still, $1,299 is nothing to sneeze at. Check out the full review below as we delve into this machine’s strengths and weaknesses to help you decide if it’s worth the splurge.
Design-wise, the Sony VAIO F plays a very conservative game. Our model’s chassis sports a smooth, matte gray lid, with the only embellishment being the understated Sony branding and larger VAIO logo writ in metallic silver. Weighing in at a hefty 6.4 pounds, the VAIO F has a decidedly sturdy feel to it. Measuring 15.3 x 10.4 x 1.6 inches, the VAIO F can be stuffed into most laptop bags. However, this laptop’s girth will make you think twice about lugging it anywhere for long. That said, the VAIO F is lighter than other desktop-replacement laptops on the market, such as the HP Envy 17 (7.5 pounds).
The VAIO F is crafted from black and dark gray plastics. While this lends a sober, business-like style to the laptop, it also isn’t what we’d call terribly premium; other machines in this price range offer metallic finishes. There is a little bit of flair here, such as the power button that sits in the circular hinge and glows green when the laptop is on and slowly pulses orange when asleep. Above the keyboard is a long speaker grille which subtly blends into the VAIO F’s dark gray color scheme. The expansive palm rest area is delicately textured.
The VAIO F didn’t get hot under the collar. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, we measured the temperature at the center of the keyboard to be 93 degrees. The touchpad returned a slightly cooler reading of 90 degrees, and the underside of the chassis registered 89 degrees. However, once the laptop really starts to flex its muscle, fans begin to audibly pump air out of vents on the VAIO’s left side.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The VAIO F’s large, comfortable keyboard is virtually identical to the previous F series model we enjoyed before. Featuring big, black, chiclet-style keys that are similar to those found on MacBooks, the keyboard offered satisfying feedback with a nice soft pop with each stroke. Another welcome feature is the backlighting. Illumination is set to adjust automatically by default, but you can also toggle brightness manually to suit your tastes.
To the right of the keyboard is a full number pad that will please home accountants and gamers alike. An unfortunate side effect of this addition is that the keyboard is shifted a little left on the deck. As a result, the touchpad sits directly below the spacebar and is positioned on the deck’s left side; this alignment can take some getting used to. Still, the touchpad provides friction-free navigation as well as multitouch gestures. Though not as big as the MacBook’s or the HP Envy 17, the VIAO F’s 3.2 x 2-inch touchpad is also on the large side and offers lots of room to maneuver. The two mouse buttons below are big as well.
Outfitted with a 16.4-inch display, the VIAO F’s expansive screen pumps out a sharp resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels. While its pixel density is not quite high enough to natively display 1080p video content, movies looked great on the laptop’s screen. After popping in our Apocalypse Now Blu-ray disc, we were treated to an impressive show. The glossy screen delivered deep blacks in nighttime segments and rich colors especially during the pivotal chopper attack scene. Viewing angles were not bad either, letting groups gather around to enjoy the experience. That said, the VAIO’s display didn’t appear as bright as other large mainstream notebooks we’ve tested, specifically the HP Envy 17 and Dell Studio 17.
Audio and Optional Headphones
The long speaker grille positioned directly below the screen and above the keyboard generates a sizeable amount of volume. Unfortunately, bass was noticeably lacking. Playing Slacker Radio tracks from electronic to Motown stations resulted in a tinny, alarm clock radio sound. For music appreciation and proper audio treatment of movies, we suggest opting for a good set of headphones.
Speaking of which, Sony sells a new Digital Surround Headset System ($200) which promises to provide a virtual surround-sound experience. The system consists of a DR-GA500 processing unit and a specially designed gaming headset. Essentially acting as both an external audio device and breakout box, the DR-GA500 supports analog audio inputs from stereo all the way up to 7.1 channels. For digital input, the DR-GA500 connects to PCs via USB.
We tested this Digital Surround System with the VAIO F and found it improved our audio experience a good deal. The bundled headphones are light and comfortable, provide a decent amount of bass, and sport a flip-down mic for audio chat during gameplay. Also cool are the DR-GA500′s surround audio effects. While not quite the amazing virtual surround as advertised, these cans did expand our perceived sonic field and made music, movies, and games more enjoyable.
Ports and Webcam
Due to this laptop’s large size, the VAIO F comes well equipped with connectors. Running along the left side you’ll find Ethernet, VGA, and ExpressCard ports. There’s an HDMI connection for outputting HD video and sound to home theater systems. There’s also a combo eSATA/USB port and iLINK for connecting extra peripherals. Two more USB ports and the Blu-ray drive can be found on the VAIO F’s right side. There are headphone and mic jacks plus a S/PDIF port here as well. The front lip features Memory Stick and SD Card slots, plus a physical switch for activating the wireless radios.
The laptop’s 1.3-megapixel webcam is standard fare and identical to the one we saw on the previous VAIO F Series earlier this year. It snaps colorful images, but photos and videos possessed the typical grainy quality we tend to see from notebook webcams. To control the camera, Sony bundles the ArcSoft WebCam Companion 3 software. We like this tool’s sleek black UI and its inclusion of some neat extras, such as Masques, which humorously lets you merge your mug with the body of, say, a baby or wizard.
Like other laptop vendors, Sony has outfitted the VAIO F’s webcam with motion-sensing technology, called Motion Eye. It automatically identifies your face and pans the camera accordingly to keep you in the frame and in focus. You can also set the notebook up to operate in sentry mode. If movement is detected, the VAIO F automatically snaps a picture. These features worked fairly well, but the camera took a few seconds to lock on to faces.