The designers of Sony's colourful new VAIO C series notebooks were definitely wearing the brave trousers when they came up with these models. Neon-bright polycarbonate 14" cases in red, green, orange or pink -as well as a more subtle white- that use the refraction of the material to make it look as if the edges and the logo are glowing from within. You'll either love the look or hate it, but what's inside the high-fashion gleam?
The translucent colour isn't just on the lid, it surrounds the keyboard and covers the sides of the case. The front and back are, on our review unit, matching metallic red and the speakers, touch pad buttons and quick launch buttons all echo the curved corners of the lid. That kind of attention to detail makes the black plastic screen surround and keyboard look like a deliberate contrast. That and the fact that typing on a red keyboard would be hard on the eyes, although if you do like the idea, Sony offers rubber keyboard overlays in the same range of colours. The polycarbonate is pretty strong although there's some flex in the lid under pressure, but the chassis and keyboard are both sturdy with no flex.
Keyboard and controls
The backlit, island-style, keyboard has the usual excellent Sony action, with plenty of travel. There's good spacing between the isolated keys and a generally good layout,although we frequently hit the oversized capslock when we were aiming for the A key. The inverted-T arrow key layout is a good size and we like the way it's offset slightly below the bottom row of keys so there's more room around it. The arrow keys also double up as home, end and page up/page down; it's a change from having the navigation keys in different areas of the keyboard but we miss dedicated home and end keys.
The secondary controls on the function keys give you zoom and the option to turn off the touch pad as well as adjust the volume and brightness. There are, sadly, no dedicated media control keys. The backlight reacts to ambient light and turns off when you're not typing; the combination can cause the light to turn off and on when you don't expect it, and you can't control the brightness of the backlighting either. With this kind of design, we'd really have liked the backlight to be colour-coded to the chassis as well, or even changeable.
The indicator lights are split between the front of the case, where you can't quite see them, and in between the speakers for the keyboard indicators. Next to these are the oversized power button and three quick-launch buttons. The first, “assist”, launches the handy VAIO Care utility. The “web” button opens a browser, or, irritatingly, loads your home page in the current tab if there's a browser open already.
You can customise the VAIO button but by default it launches (very slowly) the media gallery app that we've seen on other VAIOs for viewing photos and playing music. The most interesting option here is the 3D gestures. Once you enable them, you can wave your hand forward and back in front of the Webcam to skip to the next photo or song and wave it down to pause or start playing again. To tell if you're making the right gesture the software paints the path of your hand on screen -right over the photos you're looking at- and you have to get your hand 'off screen' before you start the gesture. Far from ideal. Gestures work best for controlling media if you have the VAIO C on a table and you don't want to reach for the touch pad. But while it's fun, it's not the fastest or most accurate way to mute the music in a hurry. The instructions suggest the gestures also work with other software; we couldn't make that happen, even with Media Gallery open in the background.
Compared to many current notebooks the highly textured trackpad is on the small size, but you get more space than you initially expect because it also has actual, physical buttons set into the case. The trackpad is a design highlight, finished in a lighter red with an edge that seems to glow. There's a slight ridge between the polycarbonate surrounding the keyboard into which the touch pad is neatly set and the metal edge of the case. This makes it easy to find the buttons by touch, but quite a long way to pull your hands back if you prefer to click rather than tap.
For once we didn't need to tweak any of the settings to get a responsive cursor that doesn't jump all over the place, perhaps because this is an older generation Synaptics trackpad with few multitouch gestures -not even two finger scrolling, although, oddly, you do get twisty 'chiral' scrolling. Multitouch gestures are smoothly responsive, but we're never sure how useful they actually are: pinch-zoom, rotate (with the option to tap in the corner of the pad or wind your fingers around each other with chiral rotate) and two finger flicks for forward and back in browsers and photo viewers.
Edge scrolling is confusing because it doesn't work on the smooth edge of the touch pad, only the textured surface . This is especially unintuitive because there's a wide, smooth edge all around the touch pad in the same highlighted red which you'd expect to be part of the control surface.
It's unusual to get controls on the front of a laptop, and there's good reason for that; more than once we accidentally moved the wireless slider on the front edge of the VAIO C by leaning in too close to the screen. Having the memory card slot on the front is very convenient though, and as this being a Sony notebook, it takes MemoryStick as well as SD cards.
Ports and specifications
The other ports are on the sides and you get what most people, need with no unusual extras putting the price up. On the right are two USB 2 ports, separate headphone and microphone jacks and the DVD drive. Ethernet and power are neatly out of the way on the left of the case, separated from the VGA, HDMI, USB 2 and USB 3 ports by a vent.
With a Sandy Bridge Core i3 inside, the vent gives out a little warm air but didn't get uncomfortably hot in testing. The 2.10GHz Core, integrated graphics, 4GB of RAM and 320GB hard drive make for a moderately powerful system, Although, it's still a little slower than an original Core i5 but with good battery life. You'll get a full four hours with Wi-Fi on and the screen at moderate brightness. If you want more power and less battery life, there are second generation Core i5 models available in several of the same colours.
Sony screens are normally excellent, but this 1366x768 widescreen panel isn't the best we've seen. The glossy surface does suffer from a lot of reflections and you have to crank the brightness up to enjoy vivid colours. But the contrast is good, even in darker areas. Video performance on both 720p video played locally and 1080p video from the Web was smooth, with clear details and accurate colours. We have seen better screens, but this one is still good enough for most uses. Sound is more disappointing. Although max volume is loud enough, anything below that is on the quiet side. There's little bass, no detail in the midrange and treble is tinny.
You also get the usual wide range of Sony bundled software: Office Starter, McAfee anti-virus and online backup, Photoshop Elements 9 and Premier Elements 9 and Skype. There's also the BBC iPlayer Desktop app plus some blatant advertising for eBay, Amazon and the online Sony Store. There's also the VAIO Gate launcher for organising them along with Sony's own utilities and tools like Media Gallery, and utilities to use the VAIO as a remote keyboard or extra screen for a PlayStation.
This is a fun, funky and functional family PC that's middle of the road in everything but looks. It's a little on the heavy side but still perfectly portable. The performance is perfectly acceptable for mainstream use, just don't try gaming, and the battery life will get you through a movie comfortably. You can't ignore the design statement that screams ‘I love glowing Perspex curves’, but that doesn't obscure the fact that the VAIO C (for colourful, perhaps) gives the average PC user exactly what they need.