Thinner screen bezels are a good thing, but they’ve made a once-popular laptop category—the 12.5-inch ultraportable—an endangered species. The 12.5-inchers are being replaced by laptops that squeeze a 13.3-inch display into a compact chassis. (A prime example? How the Lenovo ThinkPad X280 was succeeded by the ThinkPad X390.) Dell still sells the 12.5-inch Latitude 5290 and 7290, but their screens have cringeworthy 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution. However, VAIO’s new SX12 (starts at $ 1,199, as tested) shows there’s life yet in the 12.5-inch segment. It combines a crisp 1,920-by-1,080-pixel display with a slew of ports in a mini notebook that’s a featherweight 1.97 pounds. If you’re serious about traveling light, and have lots of gear to plug in, check it out.
VGA (Yea), Thunderbolt 3 (Nay)
The SX12 is not cheap. Clad in eye-catching pink aluminum, my $ 1,199 base model features a 1.6GHz (3.9GHz turbo) Core i5-8265U processor, 8GB of memory, a 256GB NVMe solid-state drive (SSD), and Intel UHD Graphics 620 integrated silicon. The non-touch 1080p screen and Windows 10 Pro are standard.
An extra $ 100 gets you a silver unit with a 512GB SSD. Black Core i7-8565U models with 16GB of RAM are $ 1,599 or $ 1,899 with 512GB or 1TB drives, respectively. A $ 2,199 limited edition wears “kachi-iro”—a lustrous deep indigo that VAIO says harks back to the pride and honor of the samurai.
At 0.71 by 11.3 by 8 inches, the SX12 is even more of a space-saver than the Dell XPS 13 (0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches), while weighing considerably less than that 2.7-pound ultraportable. It’s dwarfed by the ThinkPad X390 (0.7 by 12.3 by 8.6 inches, 3 pounds).
It’s also a handsome design, with the flowing VAIO logo in chrome on the lid and tabs on the back edge that prop the keyboard at a handy typing angle when open. I’d like to feel a more solid build, though, on the upper half: There’s notable flex if you grasp the screen corners, though not much if you press into the keyboard deck. A petite fingerprint reader on the palm rest works with Windows Hello to bypass passwords, though it’s not integrated with the power button, so you can’t switch on and log in with one press.
Two USB 3.0 Type-A ports and an audio jack are on the laptop’s left edge, along with a security lock slot and the socket for the AC adapter. On the right is a veritable panoply of ports: an SD card slot, an Ethernet port, HDMI and VGA video outputs for monitors or projectors, and USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports. The last two are marked with lightning-bolt icons, not to indicate that the USB-C port has Thunderbolt 3 functionality but to show that they can charge handheld devices.
We frown on over-$ 1,000 notebooks that lack Thunderbolt 3, but VAIO still deserves credit for cramming so many ports into such a small package. This thing is outfitted more like a mini desktop than an ultraportable.
Hard to Hear
The 720p webcam is adequate enough, and no more. It captures reasonably bright, slightly soft-focus images with a bit of grain but accurate colors. The bottom-firing speakers, though, are simply not up to snuff: barely audible, and unable to fill a small room even when cranked to top volume. Even with my ear pressed to the keyboard, I couldn’t make out overlapping tracks or detect any bass in the distant, muffled sound.
One plus is the keyboard layout. Despite the laptop’s trim size, the SX12’s keyboard is not cramped—the A through apostrophe keys span the regulation 8 inches—and it has a snappy typing feel despite shallow travel. It earns points for having the cursor-arrow keys in the proper inverted T rather than a row, and for putting the Ctrl and Delete keys in their proper opposite corners. But it also loses some points: first, for the almost invisible key backlighting, and second, for the keys’ somewhat stiff feel and noisy feedback.
Like on many ultraportables, the layout here pairs the cursor arrows with the Fn key for Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down. It also lets you toggle the function keys between their F1 through F12 usage and to control system settings such as screen brightness and volume. On the cursor-control side of things, also some caveats: The touchpad is too small for expansive gestures, and both the pad and its two buttons require a firm rap instead of a gentle tap to click.
With Windows 10’s zoom set to 125 percent out of the box, the display’s 12.5-inch diagonal size and 1080p resolution make for rather small text and icons, calling for sharper eyes than most 13.3- or 14-inch laptops do. Fortunately, the screen makes fine details very clear, with good contrast and a matte finish that wards off glare. The brightness is acceptable if not brilliant, and colors are decently saturated. The screen doesn’t, however, tilt back quite as far as I’d like.
VAIO backs the SX12 with a one-year warranty and provides a Control Center utility that lets you adjust CPU and fan modes, customize the function keys (designating dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys, if you like), and control USB charging.
Comparing Quad-Core Compacts
I couldn’t find current 12.5-inch ultraportables to benchmark the VAIO against, so I went with 13.3-inch models. Two, the Lenovo ThinkBook 13s and Asus ZenBook 13, have the same Core i5 processor as my SX12. Another two, the Dell XPS 13 and Lenovo ThinkPad X390, have the Core i7 chip found in upscale versions of the VAIO. All rely on Intel’s integrated graphics, as you can see in the comparison table below.
The SX12 didn’t set any speed records nor topple the Core i7 systems, but it showed itself a capable productivity partner. Neither it nor any of the other ultraportables proved capable of playing games, but I expected no less from their integrated graphics.
Productivity, Storage, and Media Tests
PCMark 10 and 8 are holistic performance suites developed by the PC benchmark specialists at UL (formerly Futuremark). The PCMark 10 test we run simulates different real-world productivity and content-creation workflows. We use it to assess overall system performance for office-centric tasks such as word processing, spreadsheet work, web browsing, and videoconferencing. The test generates a proprietary numeric score; higher numbers are better.
PCMark 8, meanwhile, has a Storage subtest that we use to assess the speed of the boot drive. The result is also a proprietary numeric score; again, higher numbers are better.
The VAIO finished in the middle of the pack here, just shy of the 4,000 points we consider excellent in PCMark 10—it’ll have no problem with Word, Excel, or PowerPoint. All five laptops’ solid-state drives earned top marks in PCMark 8’s storage exercise, typical of laptops with current speedy PCI Express SSDs.
Next is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.
The Core i5 Asus was a surprising overachiever while the SX12 was an underachiever, but still within the respectable range for spreadsheet work. It doesn’t pretend to be a mobile workstation.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video-editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It’s a timed test, and lower results are better.
The Core i7 ThinkPad and XPS 13 were predictably quickest, with the VAIO copping the bronze medal. I don’t anticipate users doing a lot of video editing on a 12.5-inch 1080p system without a Thunderbolt 3 port, but I give the SX12 credit.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time (lower times are better). The Photoshop test stresses the CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
The ThinkPad X390 was the fastest to complete the task, with the VAIO and ThinkBook bringing up the rear. Still, occasional photo touch-ups should be no trouble.
3DMark measures relative graphics muscle by rendering sequences of highly detailed, gaming-style 3D graphics that emphasize particles and lighting. We run two different 3DMark subtests, Sky Diver and Fire Strike, which are suited to different types of systems. Both are DirectX 11 benchmarks, but Sky Diver is more suited to laptops and midrange PCs, while Fire Strike is more demanding and made for high-end PCs to strut their stuff. The results are proprietary scores.
Low scores across the board, just as we’ve seen a thousand times from notebooks with integrated graphics. Your after-hours entertainment will be limited to casual or browser-based games or video streaming, not hardcore gameplay.
Next up is another synthetic graphics test, this time from Unigine Corp. Like 3DMark, the Superposition test renders and pans through a detailed 3D scene and measures how the system copes. In this case, it’s rendered in the company’s eponymous Unigine engine, offering a different 3D workload scenario than 3DMark, for a second opinion on the machine’s graphical prowess. For lower-end systems, maintaining at least 30fps is the realistic target, while more powerful computers should ideally attain at least 60fps at the test resolution.
Did I say 30 frames per second? Well, one-sixth that tells you all you need to know about ultraportables as gaming rigs.
Battery Rundown Test
After fully recharging the laptop, we set up the machine in power-save mode (as opposed to balanced or high-performance mode) where available and make a few other battery-conserving tweaks in preparation for our unplugged video rundown test. (We also turn Wi-Fi off, putting the laptop into airplane mode.) In this test, we loop a video—a locally stored 720p file of the same Tears of Steel movie we use in our Handbrake trial—with screen brightness set at 50 percent and volume at 100 percent until the system conks out.
True, the VAIO placed next to last—with the only worse finisher, the Dell, handicapped by its power-hungry 4K display—but its 11 hours of stamina isn’t terrible for such a small system. It should get you through an average workday.
A Miracle of Miniaturization
The VAIO SX12 is a marvel of space efficiency, right down to its full-size SD instead of microSD slot (which, to its credit, doesn’t leave cards protruding to snag in your briefcase as some do).
If I hesitate to endorse it, it’s mainly because of the typos I made on its firm keyboard and the fierce competition from several fine 13.3-inch ultraportables, which are slightly easier on the eyes and slightly more affordable, albeit a tad heavier. But nothing beats it for admiring glances per ounce.