The Sony VAIO Pro 13 rises from the ashes of the VAIO Z Series, Sony’s legendary ultraportable. With Intel’s Haswell processors and a Full HD touchscreen packed into a 13in chassis that weighs only a little more than a kilogram, the VAIO Pro 13 is an attempt to redefine what we expect from a lightweight, portable laptop.
It’s a subtle evolution rather than a dramatic redesign, though. The same silver flash slashes across the laptop’s rear; the same VAIO logo is writ large across the jet-black lid; and while the VAIO Pro shares its predecessor’s sharp, elegant design, Sony has softened the VAIO Z’s squared-off physique to create a sleeker, more streamlined appearance.
More dramatically, the redesign sees the VAIO Pro emerge as the lightest 13in Ultrabook ever to grace PC Pro’s Labs. Although the addition of a touchscreen means the chassis is a hair’s breadth thicker than the previous model (18mm rather than 17mm) Sony has trimmed down the weight to a featherweight 1.05kg.
As you might expect, there’s a price to pay for such a pared-down design. Despite the liberal use of super-strong carbon fibre, the VAIO Pro’s lightweight frame feels much bendier and more flexible than the Apple MacBook Air or Dell XPS 13. Admittedly, yanking a laptop’s body to and fro is no scientific measure of a laptop’s toughness, but in a field where quality is synonymous with heft and rigidity, the VAIO Pro 13’s ultra-flexible chassis is a mite disconcerting.
In all the key areas, however, the VAIO Pro oozes quality, and Sony has clearly been hard at work improving on the VAIO Z Series’ ergonomics. The Scrabble tile keyboard is far more responsive and comfortable than before, as each key now has noticeably more travel and feedback, and the small, moderately fiddly touchpad has made way for a much larger one with a buttonless design.
The good news continues elsewhere. Accommodating a touchscreen in a 1.05kg laptop is a feat in itself, but the VAIO Pro’s Full HD touchscreen is as good as they get. The Windows 8 Start screen bursts forth in a riot of colour, and reacts instantly to the lightest brush and sweep of a finger, tiles sliding by with delicious fluidity.
The Sony’s 13in display is technically excellent, too. Brightness reaches an ample 345cd/m2, and thanks to the panel’s excellent black levels, the contrast ratio of 932:1 is up there with the very best Ultrabooks. The panel’s colour temperature and gamma are a mere whisker away from perfection. Viewing angles are wide and colour accuracy is very good – the VAIO Pro 13’s display produced an average Delta E of 3.1, which is excellent by laptop standards. The only minor niggle is that the Sony’s touchscreen layer adds a slight graininess to images, but it isn’t distracting.
The VAIO Pro 13 packs ample performance into its stick-thin chassis. Our review unit partnered one of the latest Intel Haswell processors – the dual-core 1.8GHz Core i7-4500U – with 4GB of DDR3L low-voltage RAM and a 128GB SSD. In everyday use, it’s just as responsive as the best Ultrabooks, with ultra-quick start-up times and enough power to whip applications into view in the blink of an eye.
For raw application speed, though, Intel’s Haswell processors are no quicker than their Ivy Bridge predecessors. Performance in our Real World Benchmarks was broadly similar, and the VAIO Pro 13 returned an unremarkable score of 0.62.
Sony’s Control Center application makes it possible to toggle between Silent, Standard and Performance cooling modes, however. We re-ran our benchmarks with the laptop in Performance mode, and while the VAIO Pro’s whiny, high-pitched fan sped up more readily, the extra cooling allowed the Core i7 CPU to eke out a little more performance, increasing the overall result to 0.68.
Graphics performance is also on a par with that of the previous generation. The new Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU saves power by using a lower base clock (250MHz as opposed to 350MHz in the Intel HD Graphics 4000), but with an average frame rate of only 39fps in our low detail Crysis benchmark, its gaming power remains limited.
Performance may not have improved, but Intel’s Haswell architecture has made huge improvements to power consumption. With the screen dimmed to a brightness of 75cd/m2 and Wi-Fi off, the VAIO Pro 13’s 4,470mAh battery lasted for 10hrs 34mins in our light use test – significantly longer than Sony’s claim of seven hours.
A battery life of over ten hours is impressive by any standards, but the optional secondary battery allows the VAIO Pro to last even longer. Spend extra, and the slim, wedge-shaped battery pack clips securely to the VAIO Pro’s underside, tilting the keyboard forward slightly. Sony wasn’t able to provide us with one for testing, but it claims the extended battery more than doubles the VAIO Pro’s usable battery life from seven to 18 hours.
Despite the VAIO Pro’s newly slim figure, Sony has squeezed in most of the essentials. It has a crisp, decent-quality 0.9mp webcam, and its physical ports include two USB 3 ports, HDMI, a 3.5mm headset jack and an SD card reader. Wireless connectivity stretches to dual-band 802.11n, NFC (under the left wristrest) and Bluetooth 4.
There’s no Ethernet socket, simply because there’s no room for one, but Sony offers an optional £60 mini USB wireless access point to deal with the omission. This clips onto the USB port on the Sony’s power supply and, with its single Gigabit Ethernet connection, is capable of creating a single-band 802.11n wireless network you can use to access the wired network.
With the VAIO Pro 13, Sony has taken the essence of the VAIO Z Series and honed it to near-perfection. The flexible construction may raise eyebrows – and only time will tell whether the VAIO Pro 13’s flexible chassis can last the course – but it’s hard not to come away impressed. Despite costing no more than even its most keenly priced competitors, the VAIO Pro 13 crams an equivalent amount of power and versatility into the very lightest Ultrabook chassis money can buy. If you travel a lot but can’t afford to sacrifice performance, we’d dust off that credit card.