Sometimes time makes a decision for you. This happened to me today. I needed a notebook. Now. My ageing Acer netbook (Aspire TimelineX, a 1st generation Intel Core ULV) has served me well for almost three years, but it will not last much longer: a battery charge does not last as long as it used to; the fan makes screeching noises; the intense use has taken its toll on the cheap case: the rubber feet have gone and the plastic is cracked. While I have a solid track record of keeping notebooks running past their expected life using only a Swiss Army Knife, I can’t afford downtime in the coming months. Time for a new notebook.
It’s a good time to be in the market for a notebook. Last month Intel released Haswell, the 4th generation Intel Core that promises big efficiency gains (i.e. longer battery life) and better graphic performance. Manufacturers have followed suit, refreshing their line-up and presenting their new models, sometimes with big fanfare. There are a few good trends: the race to the bottom of the last five years is over. Quality products are no longer a rare sighting. Solid State Drive (SSD) technology is gaining acceptance. Gone are the days of the low resolution 1366×768 “HD” displays. FullHD 1920×1080 is the standard (I would prefer a more productivity-oriented aspect ratio such as 16:10, or, even better, Google’s Chromebook Pixel 3:2) and higher density displays are becoming common, mimicking Apple’s Retina display. Touch technology has unleashed designer’s creativity with tablets and hybrid form factors, but I decided to stay with a tried and tested ultrabook.
So which ultrabook did I buy? I started with a visit at the local computer stores. Best Buy had the best choice, but the only Haswell-based models in stock were the new Apple MacBook Air in 11″ and 13″ sizes; and SONY’s Vaio Pro 13. At this time, the choice between Apple and SONY is easy: SONY wins. The MacBook Air has come in age and the refresh did not address its weaknesses: low display resolution (1440×900 and 1366×768 for the 13″ and 11″, vs. 1920×1080 for all SONY’s models) and no touch. Apple is falling behind. Its only questionable advantage is the use of higher-end Intel CPUs (Core i5-4250U and i7-4650U vs. the i5-4200U and i7-4600U generally used by the competition). The difference: better graphics performance (Intel HD5000 vs. Intel HD4400) at an added price of $50. Unless you are a gamer, the difference is much less important than the difference in display resolution.
Online the choice was a little bit wider. On its shop, SONY offered an 11″ version of the Pro, but the Canadian site does not sell an 8GB RAM model (lucky Americans; when will these companies with global supply chains stop the ridiculous geographic discrimination?). Although the 11″ form factor is my favourite, 8GB RAM are a necessity. The 4GB RAM on my old netbook are used to capacity, even if I switched to a spartan LXDE desktop). SONY also offered a convertible tablet, the Vaio Duo, with similar specifications and slightly more expensive. I think that such hybrids are too heavy for a tablet and too akward for a notebook. Probably one day one designer will crack the secret for the new form factor (maybe at Apple?), but until then I need to be productive and use the keyboard extensively on the road. I’ll buy an Android tablet for media consumption (although, I have tried and returned a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 half a year ago because it did not really feel “complete” to me).
The only other ultrabook meeting my requirements (FullHD or higher resolution, max. 13″, 8GB RAM, 128GB SDD, 4th generation Intel Core) and immediately available was Acer’s S7, with very similar specifications to the SONY and $150 more expensive (before SONY’s $100 discount coupon — enter the code SONYCJP at checkout, it worked for me today and I heard it is valid throughout August 31, 2013, but it may not work by the time you try it). Web reports say that Acer has improved its build quality over the past two years, but I will believe it when I actually touch and see it. The 3rd generation S7 model on display at Best Buy did not convince me. Other manufacturers have announced their plans or even shown their Haswell-based lineups, but they have not trickled down the distribution channel yet.
I really wanted a higher density display. At home I dock my 1366×768 Acer to a 1920×1200 display and I use both. On the road I feel restricted by 1366×768 and I estimate that I will get along OK with 1920×1080. Just OK. Web reports talk of an Acer S7 model with a QHD+ 2560×1400 display. That’s MacBook Pro Retina territory. No trace of it in Canada. The one I would have really wanted to try is Samsung’s 3200×1800 in the much publicized Ativ Book 9 Plus, traditional clamshell, or the more adventurous convertible sibling Ativ Q. While the many reports are promising, there was no pricing or estimated availability. At first I thought I could wait a week or two. Then I looked at my schedule for the next five months and I realized that I will need time to make the notebook productive: decrapify and shrink the Windows partition; install a Linux variation; iron out the inevitable hardware compatibility issues. Decision made. I ordered a SONY Vaio Pro 13. I have not owned a SONY Vaio since an SR7K, back in 1999, that died an undeserving death inside a transatlantic container in 2003 after an adventurous life that has taken it to high mountain peaks in winter and diving boat expeditions in summer. The SONY Vaio Pro 13 will be my first notebook with a decent display resolution since 2005 (HP nc6120 with a 1400×1050 SXGA+). Can’t wait to try it!