At first glance Sony's Vaio SB looks exactly what you'd expect from a business-oriented laptop. Small and light, it mixes a Core i5 processor with AMD Radeon graphics, and wraps it all up in a thin matte black shell. It’s the laptop you imagine Sony making if it made the ThinkPad, at home in any office and ready for the power user to open up on a transatlantic flight. But inside the sleek design there’s also plenty of multimedia power.
Open the lid, and you'll see just how thin the 13.3-inch screen is. There's some flex, but no more than you'd expect from a much thicker lid, and while there's a large bezel around the LED backlit LCD panel, it's not obtrusive. The rest of the case is the same matte black, and while it feels light, it doesn’t feel flimsy. There's a certain solidness to the Vaio SB, something that gives it a very workman-like air. That might be the result of the subtle curves and the big single drop-hinge for the screen, or just overall good design.
Keyboard and trackpad
The keyboard is Sony's familiar Vaio isolated keyboard, with an added backlight. The keys have plenty of travel, with good action that makes typing for long periods comfortable. That's partly due to the recessed keyboard well, which gives you a wide and smooth wrist rest area around the large touchpad. Sony uses the function keys as basic media keys, with brightness and volume controls, as well as the option to turn off the trackpad. There aren’t any media controls, though, so no dedicated play/pause, fast forward or rewind keys - though some keys do double as a numeric keypad for spreadsheet jockeys.
One unusual feature is the slider switch between the keyboard and the screen. Marked ‘Stamina’ and ‘Speed’ this switches between graphics modes and helps control how much power the system uses. Other hardware controls include the eject button for the DVD drive and the usual trio of smaller buttons that launch the Vaio Care management software, the Web browser, and initially the Vaio Control Center although you can also customise this third key, using it to launch whatever you want.
The large trackpad is centred just under the spacebar, with two wide buttons that match the widescreen form factor. The surface is smooth, with a surrounding ridge to separate it from the rest of the case and help you find it by touch, and the buttons have a firm action, with a positive click. There's range of multitouch gestures, including single finger circular scrolling and two-finger pinch-to-zoom and pivot. On this trackpad though, there are no three-finger gestures. The position of the Vaio's fingerprint reader is a little odd. It's in the middle of the trackpad buttons, and can get in the way when you're clicking them, which you do far more often than you scan your fingerprint.
Screen and sound
Like most machines of its size, the Vaio SB has a 1366 x 768 13.3-inch screen. It's one of the best we've seen recently, crisp and clear with excellent contrast. The mix of Intel HD graphics and a Radeon GPU mean that there's plenty of graphics power when you need it. Just slide the Stamina/Speed switch to change between the two graphics platforms - although you need to close all applications to make the change, at least you don’t have to reboot. Video quality is excellent, which isn't surprising with a screen this good. Streaming 1080p Internet video played smoothly, with good detail and plenty of contrast. Local 720p HD content also performed well, with clear renderings and no artefacts. The built-in webcam is less than impressive, with blurred and relatively low resolution images. It's fine for video chatting, but not for detailed work.
Business laptops generally don't have good sound. After all, what do you need hi-fi audio for when all you're doing is listening to webcasts or video conferencing? We were surprised by the quality of the Vaio SB's speakers, which give plenty of bass without losing any definition. It's even more surprising as they're two tiny little speakers, just above the keyboard. With sound like this, underneath the Vaio's business sheep's clothing there's a multimedia wolf trying to get out.
The Vaio SB has a good selection of ports. The left side of the device is taken up with the DVD writer and a single headset port, which means the rest of the ports are conveniently on the right. You get two USB 2.0 ports, alongside a single USB 3.0 connection, both HDMI and VGA connectors, and a pair of separate card slots; one for Sony's own MemoryStick, the other for SD cards. Networking is comprehensively covered with a gigabit Ethernet connection, 802.11 Wi-Fi b/g/n, and a built-in 3G modem. We had problems with the 802.11n drivers though, and ended up having to connect using g only.
Performance is good, as we expect from a Core i5 Sandy Bridge device, especially one with discrete graphics. There's enough power here for video and image editing tools or media transcoding, as well as for many 3D games. You're certainly getting a lot of bang for your buck. Battery life is good too; we saw nearly five hours of use, while connected to Wi-Fi working with online tools, watching video and streaming audio. With Wi-Fi off, you should easily get a day’s work out of it. If you need additional life, Sony sells a thin battery slab that clips underneath the laptop but can be charged separately.
The bundled software is a slightly wider selection than usual, helped along by the usual suite of Vaio utilities and management tools; in fact there’s so much the system feels cluttered. There's the usual set of security tools, with malware protection from McAfee and from backup from Norton. You also get Microsoft's Office Starter and the Live Essentials suite of tools, including photo and video editing applications. If you want more image editing power, the bundled software also includes trial versions of Adobe Photoshop Elements 9 and Premiere Elements 9. There's also a copy of Evernote for cloud-hosted notes, and Skype for online communications. The default Web browser is set to Chrome, and if you want to use Internet Explorer, the Google toolbar is pre-installed.
Sony's Vaio SB is one of the nicer business laptops we've tested recently. It's thin and light, with few or no compromises, and it even fits an optical drive in. We did find Sony's labelling of the SB's GPU switch amusing, but there's a lot to be said for a physical switch to handle shifting between integrated and discrete graphics. You get the benefit of Sandy Bridge in its long battery life and good performance, and multimedia home users won’t be disappointed. That may explain the range of colours; as well as business black, you can get the SB models in pink, silver and grey.