VAIO Y Series: Fantastic netbook, so-so ultraportable

Upon first seeing the new Sony VAIO Y Series laptop (model VPCYB15KX), your first thought will likely be, “That is a very pink laptop.”

Virtually everyone in the PCWorld offices who saw our test unit felt the need to express just that thought. Of course, that’s just this particular test system. If you’re neither a 13-year-old girl, nor especially into promoting breast cancer awareness, you can get the system with silver styling instead.

The Y Series is Sony’s first foray into using AMD’s new Fusion CPUs. It utilizes the fastest of the lot, the E-350: a dual-core CPU that runs at 1.6GHz and integrates a Radeon HD 6310 graphics unit. Sony equips the system with a nice 4GB of RAM and a 320GB hard drive, though the drive only spins at 5400 rpm, which makes launching apps and loading large amounts of data a little on the slow side.

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On the performance of this processor, I’ll just echo what I have said before: it’s an absolute killer to Intel’s Atom processors, both on core CPU performance and on graphics performance. Compared against more substantial ultra-low-voltage processors often found in more expensive ultraportable systems, it simply can’t keep up. If one calls this a “netbook,” its performance is fantastic. If one deems this an “ultraportable”(as Sony does) and charges more money for it (as Sony also does), it’s a letdown.

And price is really the issue here. At $600, the Y Series makes a relatively inexpensive 11.6-inch ultraportable laptop, but it’s way too expensive to be competitive with most netbooks.

Even if I were willing to pay more for the great relative performance of the AMD E-series processor, I can’t see spending more than $450 to $500 on a system like this. It would be easier to splurge if the solid-feeling construction was married to a similar attention to detail throughout the design, but quite a few of this laptop’s key attributes are disappointing.

The Webcam supports up to 640-by-480-resolution video capture in a world where our cell phones are shooting hi-def video. The keyboard’s overall size is good, but individual keys are smallish and spaced far apart; I often slipped off keys or struck two at once. The touchpad has a nice gliding feel to it, but it’s absolutely tiny. The screen’s 1366 by 768 resolution is appropriate for its size, but colours are a little washed out, and viewing angles are poor. I never expect such small laptops to deliver really high-quality audio, but the sound that pumps from the VAIO Y Series’s speakers is especially thin and tinny.

Sony builds in 802.11n wireless, gigabit ethernet, Bluetooth, and three USB 2.0 ports, in addition to front-mounted card readers. That’s good, but par for the course these days. On a system this small, it’s no surprise to find no optical drive at all. Battery life is on a par with other small Fusion-equipped laptops at about 5.5 hours. Sony tends to install a lot of value-added software on its VAIO computers, including a drop-down toolbar with access to VAIO programs like Media Gallery, Picture Motion Browser, and VAIO Care, along with third-party applications like Norton Antivirus (30-day trial), Evernote, and ArcSoft Webcam Companion 4. Whether you find these useful or not is a matter of personal taste, but they’re easily removed if unwanted.

If it were just more useable, I’d have an easier time recommending the Y Series laptop, even at the somewhat steep price of $600. But it’s a big stretch to ask that much for a laptop with a keyboard that makes typing difficult, a really small touchpad, and a standard-definition Webcam.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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