Sony Vaio VPC-EB4E1E
With almost everything apart from netbooks sporting a Core series processor these days, you could be forgiven for thinking Intel didn't make Pentium chips any more. They're still in the lineup though, powering budget laptops like this E Series Vaio from Sony; the Pentium P6200 (and the absence of expensive extras like Blu-ray and USB 3.0) explain how you can get a 15.5-inch Sony laptop for under £500, but are we talking bargain or bargain basement?
The design certainly belies the pricetag, with a silvery cover that matches the screen surround, speaker bar and the edge of the case (although the base is basic-black plastic). The white isolated keyboard and slightly glittery translucent palm rest look stylish rather than tacky, but the case is plastic rather than metal, so it may show signs of wear.
The keyboard is excellent - far better than you'd expect on a budget system. The keys are a good size with rounded corners, nicely separated from each other with excellent travel and a firm typing feel. The slope of the case gives them a slight rake for comfort and the palm rest lifts your wrists a little. The trackpad is set directly into the palm rest, recessed and with an aggressively textured surface so it's easy to find without looking. The texture keeps the mouse pointer from feeling jumpy even though the trackpad is very responsive, but you can feel the texture a little too much when making gestures; the two-finger rotate and sideways flick gestures works well but pinch to zoom feels a little jumpy and there's no two-finger up and down scroll - instead you can either swipe or spin your finger at the side or base of the trackpad. You need to keep your finger on the rough surface for this to work reliably. There are none of the complex three-finger gestures of other trackpads; as they rarely work well, you won't miss them.
The trackpad is also set rather far to the left of the case, which positions it centrally under the QWERTY keys; they're also set off to the left because of the numeric keypad Sony has squeezed into the 15.5-inch case. That's ideal for Excel and casual gaming (the E series doesn't have the graphics or processor performance for much more than mainstream gaming) but it does mean the spacebar is unusually narrow and the keys you're typing on all the time are pushed a little to the side. Even with a case this large, you can feel a little cramped at times.
Otherwise we like the keyboard layout; the Enter key is double height, backspace and right shift are extra large and there's an inverted-T set of arrow keys nicely separated from the other keys. There are few secondary function keys; just volume, screen brightness, zoom, sleep and a control for swapping to external screens - we did miss play/pause controls for media. You're not going to hit Insert by accident and the Home/Ed and Page Up/Page Down keys are grouped together over the numeric keypad. Above that are the power button plus three dedicated Sony keys, which launch the Vaio Care software, the Vaio Media Gallery and either your browser (if Windows is running) or a fast-boot web browser (if it isn't).
The 1366 x 768 pixel resolution display is nothing out of the ordinary for this screen size but the screen itself is excellent quality; clear and bright with vivid but no over-saturated colours. The Intel HD graphics deliver good quality for mainstream media use, although they won't satisfy gamers. Video quality for streaming 1080p video from YouTube was excellent; crisp details and textures, smooth and fluid movement in panning scenes and good colour and contrast from the Sony LCD panel. Local 720p video was also good, with unusual amounts of detail and smooth playback. The Intel HD graphics also do well with GPU-accelerated software; if you have a hardware-accelerated browser like IE9, HTML5 video plays back at the full 60fps.
The volume from the two speakers in front of the screen is low and the bass is understated rather than noticeable, with some definite distortion on high volume and bass-heavy tracks. However the sound is good with a reasonable amount of detail in the mid-range. There are notebooks with better sound, but not many at this price.
The dual-core Pentium P6200 that keeps the price down won't limit you if you’re doing the usual everyday computing tasks: creating documents in Office, browsing the Web, playing videos and music or image editing. Transcoding video to copy to your smartphone or doing 3D modeling would definitely slow you down compared to a Core i3 processor (the Pentium runs at the same 2.13GHz as the Core i3-330M and has a 3MB smart cache and integrated memory controller but not have the hyperthreading so it can’t run as many commands at once, and both have a slower clock speed than the latest Core i3 models). The 320GB hard drive is a good size but it's a slower 5400rpm drive, but the 4GB of memory helps keep performance good enough for general computing.
Unlike previous generations of E Series models, the EB4E1E has a generous set of ports and connections; both VGA and HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet (as well as Wi-Fi and the Bluetooth missing from earlier models), three USB 2.0 ports and one combination USB/eSATA port (but no USB 3.0 ports), an ExpressCard slot, separate headphone and microphone jacks, both Memory Card and SD card slots and a DVD writer. With the dropped hinge at the back the ports are neatly and conveniently arranged around the other three sides; power and Ethernet at the back where you can leave the cables plugged in out of the way, USB ports towards the front on either side where they're easy to reach and the memory cards slots and headphone connector on the front to make it easy to plug them in and out quickly. That's the kind of attention to detail that makes your life more convenient, but that you don't often find on budget machines. The VGA webcam is strictly bargain basement territory though; grainy video with a rather blue tinge.
At 2.7kg and a fairly compact 370 x 248mm the E Series is portable at a pinch, as long as you're not going far away from a power socket. Even with the lower power Pentium chip the battery life is on the low side for a 15.5-inch notebook (balancing space for a larger batter with the larger screen it needs to power). The battery life estimates are unusually inaccurate, especially if you're doing something that uses GPU acceleration (you can go from thinking you have 45 minutes of battery left to the low battery alert in about 10 minutes). Although battery life in normal use should be a little over 2 hours, we usually managed to run it down in barely an hour with Wi-Fi on, which may be caused by settings in some of the large array of bundled software.
There's a phenomenal amount of software bundled with this Vaio, from the basics (Office Starter, McAfee anti-virus and unusually, Chrome rather than Internet Explorer) to the less common but still useful (Photoshop Elements 8 and Premier Elements 8, Norton Online Backup, Evernote, Skype and BBC iPlayer Desktop - although the software that isn't already free is only trial versions) to blatant advertising (links to eBay, Amazon and the online Sony Store) to an almost overwhelming assortment of Vaio tools that are easiest to launch from the Vaiogate docking strip that pops-up at the top of the screen every time there's a new item in one of your RSS feeds (thankfully you can turn that option off and just use it as an app launcher).
The Vaio control center is useful, letting you turn on advanced trackpad gestures and the sensor that wakes the machine when you open the lid as well as putting it to sleep when you close it (an excellent feature from higher-end Vaios like the handbag-sized P Series); PlayStation users may like the option to use the Vaio as a remote keyboard or an extra screen and you get not one but four different tools for organising, playing and syncing media, including Vaio Media Gallery which shows photos and videos in timelines and arranges your music by mood and genre (from walking, running or meditating to “slow life” or “rainy day”). If you're not seeing the performance or battery life, check how many of these apps and extras you're loading automatically and trim down to just the ones you need.
Budget and Sony laptop aren't phrases you often put in the same sentence, but if you don't want to pay over the odds for basic computing power with a good mix of ports and connectors and you don't need a great deal of battery life, then the E Series could prove good value. It's well built, reliable, moderately stylish but without the extreme stylings of the latest neon-bright Vaio models; in short, useful if not exciting.