Sony's midrange Vaio laptop has inexpensive Blu-Ray options and textured styling. Is this the choice for movie buffs on a budget? Find out in our in-depth Sony Vaio NW review.
Review summary of the Sony Vaio NW:
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The Sony VAIO NW is a classy-looking midrange laptop with a solid selection of features, and even some advanced options available if you want to configure your own, which we'd highly recommend. At its base, the machine doesn't really standout, but pop in a Blu-Ray drive for less than $100 and you've got a much more capable addition to your home theater setup. Throw in a discrete graphics card from ATI and then you'll really be flying along, but you'll also increase the base price to almost $1000, which is still competitive, but not cheap. Overall, we liked the design and options we found on the Sony Vaio NW, though many of the extras seem to be conceits for Sony fans, like the extra Memory Stick slot or the choice of i.Link (Sony's brand name for FireWire) over eSata for an expansion port. Out of the box, the machine is loaded with bloat, and even Sony's own first-party software additions to control the Vaio NW's settings weren't much of an improvement over the standard Windows Vista Home edition. Even top-shelf extras like the nearly instant-on Splashtop Web browser, which lets you surf the Web without fully booting the machine, were inconsistent. In the end, the Sony Vaio NW is a stylish machine, and a good choice if you want an inexpensive Blu-Ray laptop, but there's room for improvement in every direction. Release: July 2009. Price: $880.
Pros: Inexpensive Blu-Ray option available. Splashtop instant-on browser lets you surf the Web in seconds. Slick design, especially in white.
Cons: Performance was average for this price range. Battery life could be better. Had trouble with some Wi-Fi networks. Lots of bloat and redundant extras.
Full Sony Vaio NW Review:
Design – Good
Sony's new Vaio NW is a laptop that's all about texture. In brown, the brushed, textured finish on the laptop's plastic casing make it look more like wood, but our white review unit was more subtle, with a tactile feel all around. The shell is textured, the cover is textured and even the trackpad has raised dots that tickle your fingers as you move the pointer around. We're so used to smooth glass trackpads, we didn't love the texture, but if you're not a trackpad master you might appreciate the bumpy feel and the ridged edges that make it easier to use the trackpad for scrolling. The keys on the Sony Vaio NW are 'island style,' little Chiclets that individually break the dipped surface of the laptop, and we found using the laptop to be very comfortable. The buttons on the trackpad were a little too raised and stiff for our taste, though. We prefer a more in-line feel, rather than the abrupt jutting buttons we found on the Vaio NW.
This isn't an especially small or light laptop, though the Sony Vaio NW feels appropriately dense and not too heavy for a 15-inch machine. The build quality is very good, even with the plastic outer shell, and it never felt flimsy or cheap.
The Sony Vaio NW uses Sony's XBRITE Eco screen technology in the LCD display. Basically, while normal Sony Xbrite displays use 2 backlights, the Eco display uses one and tries to distribute the light evenly. While we were very impressed with the colors and clarity on the Sony Vaio NW's screen, the lack of extra lighting was obvious, especially compared to higher-end LED backlit displays.
Otherwise, the Sony Vaio NW keeps a clean look with few design extras or surprises. There's a surprisingly useful set of buttons just below the screen that let you startup the Vaio NW into the Splashtop browser instead of Windows Vista Home, another button that mutes the laptop, and one that deactivates the display, useful for when you're using an external monitor or projector. All other system functions, like volume and brightness, are handled with the function keys.
Hardware Specs and Ports - Good
The spec sheet for the Sony Vaio NW is fairly average for a machine in this range, though the low end base model lacks enough key features that we would recommend skipping it. Our review model packed an Intel Core 2 Duo T6400 processor running at 2GHz, with 4GB of DDR2 RAM in the memory slots. The base model ships with Intel's integrated graphics option and a DVD burner, but a step-up model improves on both. For an extra $150, you get an ATI Mobility Radeon HD4750 discrete video card as well as a Blu-Ray player. That's not a bad deal, and there aren't many laptops of this caliber offering Blu-Ray for just under a grand. Our review unit came only with the Radeon 4570, and no Blu-Ray drive, but Sony has since upped this to the Radeon 47xx family. On the inside, then, the Sony Vaio NW offers solid, but not earth-shaking, performance for both games and multimedia fans for a competitive price.
Around the sides of the Sony Vaio NW you'll find the usual array of ports for connecting peripherals and external displays, along with a couple nice additions for the Sony faithful. There are 3 USB ports, spread out on both sides of the machine. On the left side there's a VGA output and an HDMI port for high-def video output. We tried both of these, and connecting the Sony Vaio NW to an external display was especially easy. The Vaio NW found both our projector and our HDTV in separate tests, and video output was solid. We wished for the Blu-Ray option on our test unit, as the HDMI output makes high-def an enticing proposition.
While some laptop makers are including an eSATA port to connect an external drive, Sony is sticking with their i.Link port, which is Sony's brand name for FireWire. We like FireWire very much, though the list of supported devices is still shrinking, and you'll definitely need an adapter to connect your device to the small 4-pin socket on the Sony Vaio NW. Still, our external drives showed up on the Vaio NW without trouble, and if you have a digital video camera with FireWire or i.Link output, you'll appreciate having this fast, stable connection onboard. Around the front of the Vaio NW, there are two slots for media cards. One handles the popular SD format, and one handles Sony's own Memory Stick. As long as Sony includes both, we have no reason to complain, and buyers who already own a Sony camera or camcorder will appreciate not having to reach for an external card reader.
Multimedia – Very Good
More than anything else, the Sony Vaio NW is made for multimedia. Most of the additional programs that Sony bundles with the Vaio NW are multimedia-focused, including Roxio's Easy Media Creator, as well as a number of Sony's own first-party solutions. Most interesting among these are the music playing options. Sony has included software for sharing music and media on your home network, to supplement Windows Media Center, and there is also software that will analyze your music and try to organize it for mood, content, tempo and other characteristics. This was somewhat gimmicky in our hands-on tests, but the first party software options are polished and look great on the Vaio NW's screen. We like that Sony has borrowed some interface elements from other Sony products, like the Playstation 3 and recent Sony Ericsson phones. Of course, most of these programs don't offer much more than is already available on any standard Windows Vista Home machine, but they do provide more options.
In terms of the Sony Vaio NW hardware, the machine does a nice job playing movies, music and video, but the more you can connect to the machine, the happier you'll be. The built-in display is colorful and clear, but not especially bright, and movie buffs will be happier plugging the laptop into a high-definition display. The speakers are hidden under a grill near the display, but we weren't impressed with either the volume or the quality of the built-ins. The sound completely lacked bass, and sounded more like a set of tiny desktop speakers than a robust stereo setup. Again, better to plug in your own cans, or let HDMI handle audio output duties if you're watching on the big screen.
To create your own movies, Sony has included their basic Movie Story software. Similar to Apple's iMovie, Movie Story will help you take video clips, pictures and music and piece them together into a full feature. It's a nice bit of software, with pre-made themes and transition effects to help create a stylish looking movie. Playing with the software a bit, it seemed easy to use, and it was more automated than Apple's ever expanding (and confounding) iMovie.
Productivity - Good
The Sony Vaio NW doesn't offer many bonuses for worker bees looking to be extra productive on their laptop, but that's not really the focus for this machine. There's no extra security features, for instance, like fingerprint or facial recognition, though you get the normal security that comes with Windows Vista. The Vaio NW comes preloaded with Microsoft Works, as well as a 60-day trial run for Microsoft Office.
The Splashtop instant-on browser will help you jump onto the Web for a quick peek, if you're in a rush and don't want to wait for Windows Vista to boot up. From a powered-down laptop, just press the "Web" button near the screen and the Splashtop browser boots up. And that's all it is, just a Web browser. You can't access the hard drive to load up files in the browser view, or upload files if need be. You can just surf the Web. In our tests, the Splashtop browser took about 20 seconds to load, while Vista booted up in just over a minute. It's a nice option to have, but the Splashtop browser gave us trouble. While Vista had no problems connecting to our home Wi-Fi network, the Splashtop browser could see the Wi-Fi signal, but could never connect. Plus, it's such a basic system that there's no way to tweak the settings to get them to work on the machine. We were simply out of luck until we plugged in a proper Ethernet cable for networking. Then, everything ran smoothly. The Splashtop browser isn't especially attractive, but it is powered by technology from Mozilla, the same folks who make FireFox, so it was plenty capable of handling all our favorite sites, including Google Docs and YouTube for streaming video.
Typing for long periods on the Sony Vaio NW was an enjoyable experience. The laptop has a very nice keyboard, and we liked the somewhat shallow keys that were soft on the fingers. The keyboard doesn't have a number pad, but there are a few bonus keys lined up down the right side, including Page Up and Down, Home and End.
Otherwise, the Sony Vaio NW also comes with backup and restore software in the Vaio Data Restore Tool. This will backup files to an external drive and restore your data if things go wrong. The laptop also comes with Norton Internet Security to protect your machine from malware.
Fun - Good
While multimedia is the real thrust of the Sony Vaio NW, it can still be a fun machine, especially if you opt for the video card upgrade. With our review unit bearing the ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4570, we loaded up a few games, including recent versions of The Sims and Call of Duty. Games ran very smoothly on this machine with graphics settings set to medium power, and the Vaio NW could even handle Call of Duty maxed out with high-res graphics and effects, though the framerate took an obvious hit.
We also tried plenty of Web browsing and video watching on sites like Hulu. The Sony Vaio NW did a nice job surfing the Web, and even when we were connected to an external display, our Hulu videos ran smoothly, without hiccups or stalling problems. While the Sony Vaio NW delivered benchmark scores that were mostly average, or just slightly above the category average, the machine never felt sluggish as long as we didn't push the gaming performance or video playback too far. Run a slew of programs at once and your high-def (480p on Hulu) videos will slow down a bit, but if you keep to a couple tasks at a time, the Sony Vaio NW will perform smoothly.
Battery Life - Good
Battery life on the Sony Vaio NW was good for simple Web browsing and regular use, but it came up a bit short in media playback from the DVD drive. We got more than 3.5 hours out of a single charge, casually surfing the Web, with the screen turned to half brightness. That's still just shy of Sony's claimed 4 hour battery life, but if you're simply typing on the laptop and not running Wi-Fi, you could probably stretch your battery time to the 4 hour mark. Unfortunately, the Vaio NW let us down with DVD playback. We tried watching "Transformers," which comes in at more than 2 hours, and the laptop quit on us before the movie was finished. So, it's shorter films only for this laptop if you're watching movies on the go.
Value - Good
The Sony Vaio NW is competitively priced, especially for a laptop with a Blu-Ray option. Most 15-inch laptops we've seen with Blu-Ray and discrete graphics come in at just over $1000, so the Vaio NW's $999 price tag is acceptable, though not a bargain. At that price, you get 4GB of DDR2 RAM and a 320GB hard disk drive, plus the added value of Sony's extra software add-ons. The music software may not have been worth extra, but the Sony Movie Story will save you money if you want to produce some simple, polished looking videos without buying extra software. Though the base model can be had for $800 or less, we'd recommend skipping that one for the configuration with Blu-Ray and / or discrete graphics, as that's the best way to really get the most out of this machine.
Price and availability
The Sony Vaio NW is available from Sony and other retailers. The base configuration can be found for as little as $800, or with Blu-Ray and ATI Radeon graphics for up to $1000.