Sony VAIO T Ultrabook Review
This unit has been tested partially as a factory unit and partially as a modified unit. I tried my best to wait until the end of the review process to modify the unit but this was beyond my control when my Windows partition became unbootable and inaccessible via Linux. I could not find the cause of the problem as my Recovery partition worked properly. I used the Vaio Rescue/Recovery feature from the ASSIST button but took hours to reach 50%. This is where I decided to attempt the modification I will detail later in this review.
Ironically, it started with the PlayStation 3. Initially wanting to buy a PS3, I heard about the free PS3 offer that Sony was honoring with the purchase of a new laptop. I have been considering getting a new laptop, since all of my previous laptops were used goods, except my netbook. I knew that I would be limited to Sony Vaio laptops and so I made a decision to buy the cheapest unit I could afford, which happened to be the Vaio T.
At the time of my purchase, I considered the Vaio S but the MobileTechReview’s overview of the Vaio T sold me on its portability and work-centric setup. Although, I did end up installing Fallout: New Vegas, strictly for real-world benchmarking of course. I have also brought the Vaio T with me to a conference where I was able to utilize its very quick boot from sleep and hibernation features. This is with the laptop’s factory setup. The problem I had with laptops in the past is that they not only booted too slow but provided very little processing power for basic to mid-range tasks like video processing using Microsoft Movie Maker 2.
Why the Vaio T?
It was mainly because of the SSD, or Solid State Drive, and ports of course. The laptop was not only sturdy, it was also lightweight, updated with the latest third-generation Core i5 Ultra-Low Voltage (ULV) 1.7 GHz processor from Intel, has a USB 3.0 port with mobile-charging capabilities, built-in gigabit Ethernet, full-size HDMI, VGA, and a hybrid SD-card and Memory Stick Pro Duo slot. Every time I think about these features, I think the Vaio S has all these features too plus an extra USB port and DVD drive. What makes the Vaio T worth the loss in the keyboard backlight, the loss of a USB 3.0 port and the DVD drive is the mSATA III port which sports a 32GB Samsung SSD. The lack of a DVD drive also means the keyboard is fully supported by the motherboard meaning no keyboard flex while you type. This is a problem discussed by some regarding the Vaio S. The lack of information on this machine when I decided to buy it worried me but it also gave me an opening to provide this review for others considering it.
The next best thing is the included 32GB SSD is large enough to support an OS such as Windows 7 64-bit and is removable.
Four GB of DDR3 RAM is built-in but an additional RAM slot is available for expansion. The fact that this machine has the words “ultrabook” tied to it and yet has more surprises than some of the more expensive ultrabooks on the market is greatly appreciated.
Some of my frustrations started to show when I booted the laptop and realized the SSD was nothing more than a cache and hibernation drive to the slow hard disk drive (HDD). I was somewhat shocked but after thinking about it realized it made sense. Sony would not sell a cheap laptop (by their standards) if it cut into their margins on their higher-end Vaio S Premium and Z models. The ultrabooks are also a way for Intel to market their Rapid Storage Technology, which essentially caches important applications to the SSD from the HDD for faster access. The Samsung SSD (MZMPC032HBCD) included in the unit is not only removable but it uses the aforementioned mini-SATA slot, which looks exactly the same as a mini PCI-e slot but provides support for storage modules such as mSATA SSDs. This unit supports the SATA III (6 Gb/s) standard on the mSATA port. To date, it is one of the very few laptops on the market to not only support mSATA but the only one, I have found, to support the latest SATA-III specification in the mSATA slot. For example, the faster, business-focused ThinkPad X230 with third-gen Intel processors only supports SATA II (3Gb/s) on the mSATA port. The included SSD is positioned by Samsung specifically for caching operations and is not the fastest but it is significantly faster than the traditional HDD when reading but is just as terrible when writing as the figures below will show. Although it does have an advantage at 4K Random Write speeds, which are about 17x better than the included HDD.
Reviewers who were able to get their hands on this laptop focused on the thickness of the unit and I am here to say that the slightly thicker profile is because you are able to remove both the SSD and WiFi+BT cards, although it requires you to remove the back case. The HDD, battery and extra RAM slot are user-accessible using a small Phillips and flathead screw drivers.
The disassembly of this unit is so easy that I didn’t even need a guide to take it apart, once all of the bottom screws are out, the battery, the HDD, the hidden screw which doesn’t hold down the HDD and the two silver screws under the battery below the trackpad are out, the plastic bottom is held down by several clips around the frame of the unit. I recommend starting from the corner with the two USB ports and carefully remove the case. Once off, you will have instant access to the SSD between the hinge and the HDD bay. There is one screw holding it down. Once the screw is removed, you are free to place another SSD. I installed a 60GB Mushkin SATA III mSATA SSD and my Gparted Live Distro recognized it with no problems just like it did the original Samsung SSD. This told me that there were no hardware locks in place for the mSATA slot. The Samsung SSD utilizes a Samsung Flash controller while the Mushkin includes a SandForce Flash Controller. This is good news for modders.
As you can see the write speeds are quite impressive. I was able to get Windows 7 Professional to boot in 15 seconds to the login screen and shutdown in 7 seconds. The fastest I’ve ever seen Windows boot or shutdown; this from an SSD smaller than a credit card and as thick as 3 credit cards. The best part is that I can still utilize the HDD bay for less expensive storage options.
Although, you are limited to 7mm (slim) 2.5″ hard drives and the slot supports only SATA II speeds (3Gb/s). While you are limited to a 7mm (slim) 2.5″ hard drive, the slot supports SATA III speeds (6Gb/s) as well. [Thanks to Tapo for verifying this in the comments!]
The keyboard does not frustrate me but the lack of a backlight on a costly machine like this does. The Vaio Z has a thinner profile and yet has a backlit-keyboard. I guess the old saying, “You get what you pay for” is crossing your mind but I paid a significant amount for this machine and for it not to have such an expected feature is quite displeasing. Even the Vaio E has keyboard backlighting.
The lack of a third USB port or a USB port on the right side of the unit was initially annoying until I learned, through my own exploration, that the USB and speakers bud up against the end of the motherboard providing no extra room for another USB port. Even so, the speakers are not very full. You will find yourself maxing out the system volume and using something like VLC or Windows Media Player to control the audio output to get the most out of the speakers.
The fan is the common complaint across the board about this laptop. The fan can always be heard even during booting, idle or something as simple as writing a document. You may want to consider this if you plan to frequent the quiet section of the library to write a paper.
The BIOS has to be the most disappointing part of this unit. It provides no hardware configuration support other than 3 bootable options, none of which include the SSD or SD cards as an option. Even when Intel Rapid Storage Technology is disabled and the SSD is made into a non-RAID drive, the BIOS still cannot detect it. The HDD must be made non-bootable and the SSD bootable in a Gparted Live Distro. This means that if your HDD becomes bootable by any means, which is possible if you press the ASSIST button while the laptop is off, you will not be able to boot back into Windows without your Gparted Live Distro. This is where this device falls short because you MUST carry this USB or CD with USB CD Drive with you if you happen to access this recovery partition. The regular booting off the SSD to Windows will not cause the HDD to become bootable so you do not have to worry about this.
In an attempt to solve or at least understand why the fan was constantly running, I took off the heatsink to see how much thermal paste was used.
As you can see, the thermal paste actually reaches the surface-mounted capacitors on the top of the CPU. I then utilized the line method, common with Intel processors, to reapply Arctic Silver 5. My attempts at using Arctic Cooling MX-4 were unsuccessful as the line, dot and spread method provided me higher temps than Arctic Silver 5. Disclaimer: I have years of experience with Arctic Silver 5 and no experience with Arctic Cooling MX-4. I was unfamiliar with the spread mechanics of MX-4. Do not take my attempt as record of fact. Changing the thermal paste in general also seemed to increase my idle temperatures such that the lowest I can achieve is 40 degrees C. I highly recommend you leave the stock Sony thermal paste as is. Although, I wonder how the paste will hold up 1 to 2 years from now and what will be the best paste to use because I didn’t see an improvement when I changed the paste. This is something to think about for long-term users (like college students in Engineering). I didn’t cover laptop temperature much in my review because of this change. It wouldn’t be fair to hold my changes against the Vaio T. Although, I can say that with GIMP 2, Word, 10 tabs + 1 YouTube Video Tab in Firefox and Avast Antivirus in the background, I get a min of 40 degrees C and a max of 68 degrees C in CoreTemp. These are the results I saw using Arctic Silver 5. I did take measurements before the change but lost them when I lost my Windows partition. Always remember to backup, even on a new computer.
As much as I did not admit it in my videos or this review, this laptop was an impulse buy. While the Sony PS3 deal is no longer valid for this laptop, it made me select this laptop. I selected it first based on price, and the review from MobileTechReview. While I love the laptop because it’s fast, portable, has a great 13″ screen, large trackpad, sizable keyboard and more, the laptop’s fan noise, and somewhat mediocre battery life (~4.5 hours) is troubling. The inability to access the SSD easily via hardware or software makes it quite annoying for anyone who wants to take advantage of the SSD for booting. The fear of voiding your warranty to get the best out of the laptop may not be worth it or worth extending your warranty for that matter.
It is unfortunate that Sony used this first attempt, to build an Intel-specified Ultrabook, as a way to prove that Ultrabooks are below their usual line of laptops. The “Silver Mist” coated magnesium of the laptop and brushed aluminum top makes the laptop not only smudge-free but it makes it nearly scratch-free for those who care about contact durability. The plastic bottom takes most of the abuse during storage and movement.
The inclusion of a mini-SATA port and a HDD bay is a feature only more expensive ultra-portables like the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 have. Even the Vaio S and Z have only a HDD bay and non-standard SSD slots, respectively. This makes the Vaio T the ultimate choice for the road warrior who wants to purchase a Sony for work-related tasks but also needs inexpensive storage options and quick boot times. Sony did make a statement releasing this machine that even at the low-end, they can still provide quality. Now, they need to stick by it and release a BIOS update for the fan.
One last note is that after almost 4 weeks with this laptop, I’m going to return it. I realized that the ULV processor worked great for my day to day operations and that even using GIMP was effective, but the occasional slowdowns that resulted in Firefox and the poor cooling during game play makes me worry about the longevity of this machine. While I vowed to use this machine for work-related tasks, I noticed that even using YouTube could bring this laptop into the 60 degrees C range. Again, this may not be a problem if you do not mess with the thermal paste. Lastly, I noticed that fan noise seems to be common for other users of VAIOs and to wait past the return period for a solution is not something I was willing to do. While I may not be keeping this laptop, it was an enjoyable and surprising experience.
- Portable, light and durable
- Great 13″ screen with decent resolution for those who wear glasses like me
- Seemingly open mSATA port for SSD booting
- Both mSATA port and HDD bay support SATA 3.0 (6Gb/s) [In comments, Tapo verified this!]
- 2.5″ 7mm (slim) HDD bay for storage
- Cool hand rest area even when playing games
- Spacious keyboard
- Memory card slot supports SDXC and Memory Stick Pro Duos
- Mediocre battery life: I usually get 4.5-5 hours from full charge.
- No keyboard backlight or option for one
- Fan is always on and you will hear it in a quiet room.
- SSD inaccessible unless willing to take apart system, which may void your warranty
- Third USB port would have been nice to have.
- Speakers do not sound full and clear at the highest volume. Requires a loud audio source
- SD card slot does not allow you to boot from it even if the SD is bootable.
Make sure to watch all 4 Parts of my video review on the Vaio T to get the full story on this unique device.
Post below if you have any questions.