Sony VAIO VGN-S4XP review
If you're looking for a stylish notebook that offers both power and portability, make sure you add the S4XP to your shortlist. It has faults, but remains a great laptop
You can get wafer-thin notebooks seemingly as light as air, but with equally lightweight performance. And you can get high-performance notebooks that would shame many desktop PCs, but they're generally hefty, and the battery will run flat before your coffee gets cold.
Sony's VAIO VGN-S4XP, however, is for those greedy types who want the best of both worlds - in other words, most of us. Stacked inside this chassis is a 2GHz Pentium M 760 processor, together with 1GB of memory and a 100GB hard disk, yet the chassis weighs a smidgen below 2kg. People who spend their lives passing through airport lounges might find this a touch too heavy, but those who just want to travel around town will find the S4XP easily portable.
There's 512MB of PC3200 DDR2 SDRAM on the motherboard, and the same again in the single expansion slot, configured as dual-channel. It's worthwhile having more than 512MB with the graphics card used - an nVidia GeForce Go 6200 - since it uses TurboCache to dynamically augment the modest 32MB of VRAM with system memory. It can only do this thanks to the speed advantages of the PCI Express 16x interface, supplied courtesy of the 915PM Express chipset.
And that gives strong 3D performance for this class of notebook, reaching 20fps in Far Cry and 17fps in Half-Life 2, both at 1,024 x 768 without anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering. That's not much compared to a desktop gaming machine, but by turning down the quality levels the S4XP can play these games satisfactorily. It's no slouch with CPU power either, benchmarking at an astonishingly good 2.08.
Naturally, there are some drawbacks with this level of performance. This chassis is about as small as you'd want to go with the 2GHz CPU, because it produces a lot of heat and needs a large battery to get a useful amount of mobile time. The casing gets warm on the right palmrest, and it also becomes hot underneath, making it uncomfortable on your lap. It gives the fan plenty of exercise when the system is pushed hard too, although it never gets annoyingly noisy. With light use and a dimmed screen, we measured three hours, 12 minutes of battery life - the minimum you'd want away from mains in such a portable machine.
That screen is based on X-black technology, which has an anti-glare coating rather than a light-diffusing layer. The light, therefore, isn't scattered as it leaves the screen, giving a brighter image with richer colours. Reflected light isn't scattered either, and this usually gives strong room reflections, but Sony has minimised the problem here. It's halfway between a standard screen and older X-black samples: not as bright as we've come to expect, but not as reflective either. It's a great compromise, and this 13.3in 1,280 x 800-pixel panel is a successful format. Vertical viewing angles are limited, although horizontal angles are wide. Not helpful to privacy on a plane, certainly, but it's good for desktop presentations when you don't have a projector, and the stereo speakers provide ample support.
However, the lid assembly is so thin that there's little resistance to twisting. It also creaks a little and the LCD moves around inside the bezel. Nevertheless, there's reasonable strength in the lid's backing, and you'd have to be fairly rough to damage the LCD from behind. Of equal practical importance, it's worth noting that the screen sits behind the notebook when open, which means you'll need just that bit more room on the tray table of a train or plane.
But the widescreen display also means there's more room for the keyboard, and none of the keys have been excessively trimmed down, as they so often are in smaller notebooks. The important auxiliary keys are in easy-to-find places, such as Control in the lower-left corner and Delete in the upper right. There isn't a great deal of key travel, which may disappoint some buyers, but there's sturdy support below the board and it's a comfortable unit for regular typing. Silver colour coding from the surrounding casing is repeated on the touchpad, although the narrow mouse buttons are a fraction too low in their recesses, requiring accurate thumbing to engage.