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VAIO FE 14.1 Review | PCMag

VAIO FE 14.1 Review |  PCMag

Caviar at Costco? Tiffany in the finish line? VAIO is a notebook brand we associate with two things, elegant construction and premium prices. However, the new VAIO FE lineup consists of affordable laptops sold at Walmart, with the 14.1-inch FE starting at $699 and being $799 as shown in our test model here. It’s a reasonably attractive slimline with a modern Intel processor, but completely unremarkable. The same money will get you a nicer aluminum, rather than plastic, build from one of several suppliers.

Same logo, different manufacturer

If you still think VAIO laptops are made by Sony, you’re eight years behind the times. The move to Walmart represents a market expansion for the current brand owners, whose $699 base model combines a Core i5-1235U CPU (two performance cores, eight efficient cores, 12 threads) with 8GB of memory, a 512GB solid-state drive, and a full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) without touch screen.

VAIO FE 14.1 front view

(Credit: Molly Flores)

Our $799 review unit doubles the RAM and storage to 16GB and 1TB, respectively, while the top of the line — which listed, confusingly, for both $949 and $799 when we checked — replaces the Core i5 chip with a Core i7-1255U. The IPS display and Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics are the same in all devices; no high-resolution or OLED panel is offered.

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At 3.5 pounds, the VAIO FE 14.1 is half a pound above the ultraportable line. It measures 0.78 x 12.8 x 8.7 inches, slightly bulkier than the Acer Swift 3 (0.63 x 12.7 x 8.4 inches and 2.71 pounds). Available in black or rose gold, as well as our model’s silver, the VAIO is easy to carry but prone to bending if you grab the corners of the screen or press the keyboard deck. The chassis as a whole could use more stiffness.

VAIO FE 14.1 rear view

(Credit: Molly Flores)

When you open the lid, the back edge folds down to support the keyboard at a slight typing angle. The screen bezels aren’t particularly thin, especially at the top (home to a webcam with a sliding privacy switch) and the bottom. The camera lacks Windows Hello facial recognition, but there is a fingerprint reader in one corner of the touchpad.

An SD card slot and an old-fashioned USB 2.0 port are on the laptop’s left side, along with an audio jack and the connector for the AC adapter plug. Three USB 3.1 ports, two Type-A and one Type-C, join an Ethernet connector and an HDMI video output on the right. Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth are the standard fare for wireless connectivity.

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VAIO FE 14.1 left ports

(Credit: Molly Flores)

VAIO FE 14.1 right ports

(Credit: Molly Flores)

Not much touchpad left

The backlit keyboard earns points for having real Home, End, Page Up and Page Down keys instead of making you pair the Fn key with the cursor arrow keys, and also for having the arrows in proper inverted T instead for a difficult, HP-style row. The function keys on the top row control volume and screen brightness, but lack a few shortcuts that are often found there, such as airplane mode and microphone mute.

The writing feel is shallow and a bit rubbery, but not unpleasant. The touchpad will be medium-sized, but two rather large chrome buttons and the fingerprint reader reduce the available space, so it is on the small side. The pad glides and taps smoothly, but the large buttons feel flimsy.

VAIO FE 14.1 Keyboard

(Credit: Molly Flores)

The webcam offers the usual marginal resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels with a 16:9 aspect ratio, but sharper 1600 x 1200 pixels if you don’t mind a square 4:3 aspect ratio. The images look weak and washed out. They are at least reasonably clear, without too much static.

If you press your ear against the speaker grille above the keyboard, you can produce surprisingly soft sound; 100% volume on the VAIO FE 14.1 sounds like about 30% on most laptops, hard to hear just a few feet away. The sound itself isn’t bad – there’s no bass, but the sound isn’t thin or harsh, and you can see overlapping tracks – but you’ll definitely want to use headphones. A THX Spatial Audio software tool makes tracks sound less hollow, and it offers music, movie, game and voice presets and an equalizer. But it certainly does not deliver symphonic sound or any 3D effect.

VAIO FE 14.1 left angle

(Credit: Molly Flores)

Like the audio, the FE’s 1080p screen is largely a disappointment. Contrast is decent, and white backgrounds aren’t too dingy if you tilt the screen quite far back to a sweet spot. But the viewing angles are not as wide as we are used to from IPS panels, and the overall effect is weak, with bland colors.

Testing the VAIO FE 14.1: Nothing special, speed-wise

For our benchmark charts, we matched the VAIO FE against our current budget laptop Editors’ Choice honors, the $519 Lenovo IdeaPad 3 14 and the Asus VivoBook S14. Two other 14-inch laptops, the Acer Swift 3 and Dell Inspiron 14 7415 2-in-1 convertible, represent the more expensive spread at around $1,000 each. You can see their basic specifications in the table below.

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Productivity tests

UL’s main PCMark 10 benchmark simulates a variety of real-world productivity and content creation workflows to measure overall performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, web browsing and video conferencing. We also run PCMark 10’s Full System Drive test to assess the load time and throughput of a laptop’s storage.

Three benchmarks focus on the CPU, using all available cores and threads, to assess a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads. Maxon’s Cinebench R23 uses the company’s Cinema 4D engine to render a complex scene, while Primate Labs’ Geekbench 5.4 Pro simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. Finally, we use the open source video transcoder HandBrake 1.4 to convert a 12-minute video clip from 4K to 1080p resolution (lower times are better).

Our latest productivity test is Puget Systems’ PugetBench for Photoshop, which uses Creative Cloud version 22 of Adobe’s famous image editor to assess a PC’s performance for content creation and multimedia applications. It’s an automated extension that performs a variety of general and GPU-accelerated Photoshop tasks, from opening, rotating, resizing, and saving an image to applying masks, gradient fills, and filters.

The VAIO cleared the 4,000-point barrier that indicates good day-to-day productivity in PCMark 10, so Word, Excel, email and browsing won’t be a problem, but it was an underwhelming performer in our other tests, near the back of the CPU benchmarks. It earned a silver medal in our Photoshop test, but its low-quality display disqualifies it from serious photo editing or digital content.

Graphic tests

We test the graphics of Windows PCs with two DirectX 12 game simulations from UL’s 3DMark, Night Raid (more modest, suitable for laptops with integrated graphics) and Time Spy (more demanding, suitable for gaming rigs with discrete GPUs).

We also run two tests from the cross-platform GFXBench 5 GPU benchmark, which emphasizes both low-level routines like texturing and high-level game-like rendering. The 1440p Aztec Ruins and 1080p Car Chase tests, rendered off-screen to accommodate different screen resolutions, training graphics and data shading using the OpenGL API and hardware tessellation respectively. The more frames per second (fps), the better.

The Core i7-powered Acer was the only laptop to make it out of the basement in these tests; economy notebooks’ integrated graphics are more or less guaranteed to be unable to play demanding games or offer much entertainment besides solitaire and streaming video. VAIO ran with the package, but it’s a very slow package.

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Battery and display tests

We test laptop battery life by playing a locally stored 720p video file (the open-source Blender movie Tears of steel(Opens in a new window)) with screen brightness at 50% and sound volume at 100%. We make sure the battery is fully charged before the test, with Wi-Fi and keyboard backlight turned off.

We also use a Datacolor SpyderX Elite display calibration sensor and Windows software to measure the color saturation of a laptop display—what percentage of the sRGB, Adobe RGB, and DCI-P3 color gamuts or palettes the display can display—and its 50% and top. brightness in nits (candela per square meter).

That was only good enough for fourth place in our five-way competition, but the VAIO FE’s 11.5 hours of unplugged life is enough to get through a full day of work or school. Display color quality was fair at best, although only the Acer did better, but the maximum measured brightness of 265 nits is down in bargain Chromebook territory – we’re not happy with a laptop that can’t muster 300 nits, and not very happy with less than 400.

Verdict: A just serviceable laptop

We’re all for democracy and happy to see more options for Walmart customers, but the VAIO FE 14.1 joins the superstore’s budget Gateway and EVOO house brands rather than threatening Dell, Lenovo or Acer. Nothing about it is bad enough to disqualify it from budget buyers’ consideration, but it’s up against some better built, better performing, as well as some deeper value models, such as the Lenovo IdeaPad 3 14.

The bottom line

The VAIO FE 14.1 (not to be confused with the premium VAIO SX14) is a perfectly serviceable budget laptop, but its display, build quality and ho-hum speed keep it from cracking our top four or five.

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