It’s fitting — and sad — that Sony brought up the rear in this year’s Best & Worst brands report, as the company is exiting the laptop business. Sony sold its VAIO division to another firm, which will presumably attempt to build on some of the brand’s strengths. On the plus side, Sony offers best-in-class tech support, but it has a mixed track record with Windows 8 hybrids, and its keyboards are subpar. Based on our reviews, Sony simply didn’t offer the quality to match its premium prices.
We reviewed six Sony notebooks this past year, of which its four top performers earned a rating of 3.5 stars, and two received 3-star ratings. That was enough to boost the company’s 2014 reviews score by 4 points. While hybrid designs such as the Flip 14 and the Duo 13 were innovative, we ultimately found these machines somewhat impractical.
For the second year in a row, Sony wins the “Best Tech Support” category. We continue to like Sony’s well-organized website, which is chock-full of useful information, efficient Live Chat service, and strong and responsive social media presence. On the phone, Sony’s representatives are quick, responsive and knowledgeable, answering all our questions in an average time of 9 minutes and 36 seconds over three different test calls.
Launching two of the lightest notebooks of the year, the VAIO Pro 13 and VAIO Pro 11, wasn’t enough to keep Sony from dropping from 13 points to 9 in the design category this year. Those same ultra-svelte notebooks were guilty of the cardinal sin of featuring sharp edges that made typing uncomfortable. The VAIO Duo 13’s awkward button placement didn’t help matters. Although it’s more of a tablet, the VAIO Tap 11‘s magnetic keyboard design was unwieldy at best.
Sony provides first-class tech support, but when it comes to keyboards, Sony is the one phoning it in. Nearly all of the Sony laptops we tested, from the $1,899 VAIO Duo 13 to the $850 VAIO Fit 14, suffered from some combination of shallow travel, weak feedback or serious flex. The company’s touchpads weren’t bad as a group, but a couple failed to consistently recognize complex gestures such as two-finger scroll and rotate.
With an average light meter reading of 267 lux, Sony’s laptops are generally brighter than your standard notebook (242). And thanks to Sony’s Triluminous display technology (borrowed from the company’s TVs), the notebooks tend to offer realistic hues. That’s not to say the viewing experience was perfect — we criticized the VAIO Fit 14’s glossy, 1366 x 768-pixel display for its distracting glare, and the VAIO T Series 15‘s 1080p screen suffered from narrow viewing angles. Both the high-end VAIO Pro 11 and 13 struggled with darker scenes; there wasn’t quite enough contrast.
Audio sounded crisp and vibrant across Sony’s VAIO notebooks, and Sony’s VAIO Control Center helps to improve audio quality and to ease harshness. On average, Sony’s notebooks scored 84 decibels during the LAPTOP Audio test, which is just below the laptop category average of 85 decibels.
Like ASUS, Sony took some design risks in 2013, but the results weren’t always successful. The tech giant’s appropriately named VAIO Flip series brought users a flip-screen design that utilizes magnets to let users transition among Laptop, Tablet and Viewer modes. However, you have to flick a lock switch before you transform. The VAIO Tap 11 offered another unique take on hybrids, featuring a tablet display and a Bluetooth keyboard that doubles as a magnetic screen cover. Unfortunately, you can’t comfortably use the device on your lap.
A budget of less than $500 won’t buy you a Sony laptop. Available via Sony.com or authorized resellers such as Best Buy, Walmart and Newegg, the company’s offerings mostly hover around the $1,000 mark. Its Pro and Duo (convertible) lines of ultrabooks start at $1,049 and $1,399, respectively. While these laptops are solid choices, other Ultrabooks, such as the $699 Toshiba Satellite E45T, offer equal, if not better performance at more affordable prices. Sony’s lower-cost options include its basic Fit line (starting at $579) and its hybrid Flip laptops, which start at $799. But those looking for basic rigs will find cheaper and better options with other brands. Each Sony laptop comes in several different configurations, but some of those upgrades involve costly price jumps.
Sony software options continue to impress, thanks to a bevy of multimedia programs. The recent VAIO Pro 13 packs apps such as PlayMemories for photo sharing and ArtRage studio for making some touch-screen masterpieces. Sony’s Imagination Studio, found on such hybrids as the VAIO Flip 14, features programs for burning DVDs, making movies and creating pro-level audio. The Duo 13 comes with ArtRage Pro to make the most of the included pen. The VAIO Care app allows you to keep your system up to date and to troubleshoot issues.