If you look at most of Sony's VAIO laptop lines, it's easy to be impressed with the company's design chops. For instance, who wouldn't like the S-series, with its very thin, elegant design?
The VAIO F-series, however, has as unattractive a physical design as I've seen in a long time. The display and the body shell are different sizes, and when closed, the whole laptop seems to have an underbite. The VGA port bulges out the left side, as if it were an afterthought. And the way the top and bottom are beveled makes the two parts look as though they are poorly mated.
However, once you get past the ugly exterior you'll find much more to like. The display is bright and renders colours with reasonable fidelity. High-definition movie content and photographs look gorgeous if you're sitting in the sweet spot; off-axis viewing angles are predictably poor, but that's a common shortcoming of laptop LCD panels. The display supports the 120Hz refresh rate necessary for 3D stereoscopic support and Sony bundles Corel WinDVD with full support for 3D Blu-ray.
I checked out several 3D Blu-ray discs, including a Disney demo disc and IMax's Deep Sea 3D, and all of them worked very well. The LCD shutter glasses that Sony includes with the unit are a cut above the stock Nvidia 3D Vision glasses and they fit over regular glasses a bit better.
When I fired up the on-board speakers with music for the first time, I almost shut the system down. The default sound quality was atrocious - simultaneously loud, harsh, and tinny sounding. Digging into the VAIO control panel, however, I noticed the Dolby Home Theater logo, with a checkbox next to it. Enabling that feature substantially improved our test unit's audio quality, leaving me to wonder why Sony doesn't enable it by default. Even with Dolby HT enabled, the sound isn't especially accurate, but at least it's fairly pleasing - and it does get reasonably loud.
The keyboard is a pleasure to use, with good tactile feedback and excellent spacing between the Chiclet-style keys. The cursor keys are on the small side, however. The trackpad is located off-centre (but centred relative to the space bar) and is extremely touch-sensitive. On the other hand, mouse clicks sometimes didn't register even after several button pushes. Using a portable mouse with this unit is probably a good idea.
The VAIO F-Series offers a couple of intriguing features that we couldn't test. You can use the VAIO as a keyboard for the PlayStation 3, using the included PS3 connection software. Other software bundled with the system includes Norton Internet Security (60-day trial), Evernote, and Microsoft Office Starter, plus added Sony utilities.
The VAIO F-Series laptop that we tested included 6GB of RAM plus an Intel Core i7 2630QM CPU. In our PC WorldBench 6 testing, the unit was slightly slower than other laptops equipped with the same CPU; this may be due in part to the somewhat sluggish Toshiba hard drive. Game performance was about the same as for the Digital Storm XM15, which isn't surprising, since both carry the same Nvidia GeForce GT 540M mobile GPU. Unfortunately, you must dial down the system's resolution and detail settings with current generation DX10/11 game titles in order to obtain acceptable frame rates. And while the unit theoretically can run games in stereoscopic 3D, you'll have to crank the resolution down to 720p - and sacrifice some detail settings - if you hope to do any stereoscopic gaming.
As configured, our laptop cost just under $1900 (£1,150), which is fairly pricey for what we got. Overall, the VAIO F-Series appears to be a solid multimedia PC with limited gaming chops and a crisp display that is perfectly capable of showing off stereoscopic 3D movies. But the beauty is entirely under the hood: If you don't mind the unsightly exterior and are willing to pay the Sony premium, the F-Series is worth a closer look.