Bonnie Cha

Sony’s Vaio Pro 13 Takes on MacBook Air, and Mostly Delivers

When it comes to laptop-buying advice, Apple’s MacBook Air is a pretty easy recommendation. It’s lightweight, fast and has solid battery life. But it’s not without faults, and not everyone wants an Apple computer.

Over the past year, Windows PC makers have been working to bring similar design and performance to their own laptops called Ultrabooks, and this week I’ve been testing a new competitor from Sony, called the Vaio Pro 13.

There’s much to like about the Vaio Pro 13. It boasts an extremely sleek design with a vibrant touchscreen, and delivers good performance. Like the new MacBook Air, which was announced earlier this month, it also features Intel’s latest processor, which brings longer battery life and improved graphics performance. (My colleague Walt Mossberg offers a deeper dive into the chip’s battery life benefits in his column here.)

It’s the best Ultrabook I’ve tested to date, but there’s one thing that gives me pause, and that’s price.

The Vaio Pro 13 starts at $1,250 — about $150 more than the base model of the 13-inch MacBook Air with the same amount of internal memory and flash storage. (Sony also offers an 11-inch version that starts at $1,150). In the grand scheme of things, the price difference isn’t huge, especially considering that the Vaio Pro includes a higher-resolution touch display.

That said, the MacBook Air has better battery life right out of the box, which I’d argue is more important. To get similar battery life on the Vaio, you need an extended battery pack, which costs an additional $150 and adds extra bulk, so unless you’re married to Windows 8, the MacBook Air is the better choice.

Giving credit where credit is due, Sony deserves props for coming up with an eye-catching design — one that is thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air. The Vaio Pro 13 measures 12.7 inches wide by 8.5 inches tall by 0.68 inch deep, and weighs 2.34 pounds. By comparison, the 13-inch MacBook Air measures 12.8 inches wide by 8.94 inches tall by 0.68 inch deep, and weighs 2.96 pounds.

At that size, the Ultrabook was easy to carry around in my backpack, and the carbon fiber construction felt durable. My only quibble with the design — and it’s a minor one — is that the corners of the laptop are pretty sharp.

The 13-inch, 1,920 by 1,080 pixel touchscreen is bright and sharp. I watched several 1080p video clips, and the picture was clear and showed good detail. For example, when viewing the trailer for Pixar’s “Monsters University,” I could see fine details like Sulley’s (John Goodman’s character) fur and blades of grass, even with the laptop a couple of feet away from me. The display also offers good viewing angles.

Apple chose not to upgrade the screen on its new MacBook Air, so it has the same 1,440 by 900 pixel resolution. But, to be honest, you have to look at the two screens really closely to see a difference.

The Vaio Pro 13 does have the benefit of a touchscreen, and that’s because the Windows 8 operating system allows for it, whereas Apple’s Mac OS does not. The touchscreen was responsive. I often used it to launch applications rather than using the touchpad, which I found to be a bit stiff. The chiclet-style keyboard is roomy, and adequately backlit for easy use in darker environments.

With the exception of the power connector, all of the Vaio Pro 13’s ports are located on the right side. You get two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI connector and 3.5mm headphone jack. The speaker is located along the hinge. Though it pumps out plenty of volume, I found the audio a bit harsh, even with Sony’s audio-enhancing feature turned on.

The Vaio Pro 13 I received from Sony had an Intel Core i5 processor, four gigabytes of memory and a 128GB solid-state drive. There are upgrade options, with the highest-end model offering a Core i7 processor, 8GB of memory and a 512GB solid-state drive, for $2300.

In my testing, I found it to be very responsive. It only took about five seconds between the time I turned on the laptop and the time the Start screen appeared, which blew me away, and it takes less than a couple of seconds to wake up from sleep mode.

Most days, I use my laptop to check email, work on Office documents, browse the Web and watch some videos, and the Vaio Pro 13 handled all those tasks without problem. I also downloaded a couple of games, like Endless Skater from the Windows Games Store. Game play was smooth and graphics looked good, but the laptop got quite warm and the fan can be noisy. I wouldn’t recommend playing any high-performance games like Call of Duty on this machine.

The Vaio Pro 13 runs Windows 8, and comes preloaded with a bunch of extra software, such as iHeartRadio, My Daily Clip (an app that serves up different clips from Sony Pictures’ movie catalog) and antivirus software Kaspersky Now. With the exception of a couple of apps, I didn’t find any of the extra software to be particularly useful.

Sony estimates battery life at up to 6.5 hours. In his harsh battery test, where he turned off all power-saving features, turned the screen brightness to 100 percent, kept Wi-Fi on to fetch email in the background and played a continuous loop of music, Walt Mossberg was able to get five hours and 56 minutes of battery life from the Vaio Pro 13. That’s almost an hour and a half better than the Toshiba Kirabook, which uses Intel’s older processor.

In the same tests with the extended battery, the Vaio Pro 13 lasted 11 hours and 52 minutes. But this option isn’t ideal. Aside from the additional cost, it requires you carry around another accessory, and attaching the battery pack to the laptop makes it heavier (2.98 pounds) and nearly doubles the thickness. It also props the laptop at an angle, which you may not want.

Without the battery pack and with more normal usage, I was able to get about seven hours of use out of the Vaio Pro 13, but that wasn’t enough to get me through a full workday. Meanwhile, the new MacBook Air’s 10 hours and 14 minutes of battery life right out of the box is impressive — enough for a day at the office and then some.

If you’re a Windows user, the Sony Vaio Pro 13 is a beautifully built laptop that offers speedy performance and good battery life compared to other Windows Ultrabooks. But in terms of overall value, you’ll get more from the MacBook Air.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus