Remember VAIO? What was once a premium computer label from Sony, designed to be the Windows alternative to Apple’s Macbook has certainly been through the ringer for about a decade. Largely independent from their original creator now, the brand has returned to the United States primarily in Walmart (and Sam’s Club) stores, no doubt eager to reclaim that coveted glory in a very different world of mobile computers.
But how does this once-iconic brand formerly known for its ridiculously high build-quality standards, exclusivity and stratospheric pricing redefine itself as a (gasp!) budget-focused alternative? Can a VAIO still be a VAIO in today’s competitive market? After spending some time with the VAIO FE 14.1 Notebook, I am able to see their nuanced intention, but the execution lacks expected finesse.
I’m focusing this review on the VAIO FE 14.1 (VWNC71429) model, this highest-spec $899 iteration comes equipped with a 12th-gen Intel Core i7-1255U CPU, a 14.1-inch 16:9 Full HD (1920 x 1080) IPS non-touch panel, along with a 1TB SSD and 16GB of memory. There are more affordable $699 (VWNC51427) and $799 (VWNC71419) models available as well offering Core i5-1235U or i7-1165G7 CPU options with specific internal storage and RAM configurations, and in different fashionable colors (black/silver/blue/rose gold) for individuality. Regardless which you choose, Windows 11 Home, THX Spatial Audio, and Intel Iris Xe integrated graphics are identical across the board, unfortunately, OLED is not available here.
That VAIO Look
The general appearance of the VAIO FE definitely retains that now-classic VAIO look. This means the exterior flaunts a strong professional Japanese look, held over nicely in metallic blue sheen from an era when Sony used to manufacture these computers themselves. Some might argue the VAIO FE comes off as dated, but I appreciate how effectively styling and practicality are paired here. The minimalistic aesthetic focuses on functionality, especially in the way the bottom lip of the screen lid doubles as a physical riser that slightly props up the keyboard to aid in typing comfort and ergonomics in potentially reducing potential carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS).
Weighing in at 3.5 pounds and just 0.78 inch thick, the build quality of the VAIO FE is a combination of aluminum and hard plastics. This heft effectively keeps it just out of the ultraportable category, but also adds undesirable body flex on the lid corners and keyboard deck depending on how you handle the laptop. Obviously, the chassis could benefit from more rigidity, but I found these to be minor issues that never impacted my use.
One thing I instantly liked about the VAIO FE is its connectivity as you get two USB-A 3.1 ports, a old-school USB-A 2.0 port and a single USB Type-C 3.2 port to work with. There’s even a SDXC card reader for budding photographers. VAIO was even kind enough to include a full-size HDMI output and a proper gigabit-capable (1000BASE-T) ethernet jack. Wireless connectivity is also good with WiFi 6 (AX201/160MHz) and Bluetooth 5.1. Another random addition are the dedicated indicator lights for HDD access and battery charging activity, things I haven’t seen in any other laptop for a while.
While the VAIO FE may remind you of its signature panache from prior generations, this isn’t the same type of laptop you fondly thirsted over. The layout is compact with a backlit keyboard and largely spaced keycaps, along with a convenient row of navigation buttons on the right-hand side. Typing on the VAIO FE has a shallow feel but still has a snappy bottoming action for decent feedback, while the smaller touchpad is an old-school affair with clickable buttons and an embedded fingerprint reader over the top-left corner that slightly reduces its cursor operating area.
Living with the VAIO FE means productivity first and everything else a distant second. If you’re a college undergraduate or have a white collar career then the VAIO FE be will able to get the job done. I managed to make this my everyday laptop for office, email and very light Photoshop tasks with few issues and can easily accomplish most work errands with relative ease. However, the VAIO FE will chug in heavy multitasking or when attempting to complete editing for H.265/4K videos or perfecting extensive vector layers on Adobe Illustrator.
For video calls and audio, the webcam is a 2MP module and does 720p with 16:9 aspect ratio. Image quality is clear enough for Zoom and Skype calls, but mediocre for everything else with muted hue vibrancy, although the physical sliding cover for webcam privacy is a welcome touch. Sound quality in its default mode is unusually soft with a distinct lack of bass, favoring vocal clarity over volume depth for entertainment purposes—which makes sense if you’re mainly doing Zoom meetings. A preinstalled THX Spatial Audio utility can help fill in the driver range with preset modes and an equalizer, but I recommend using headphones instead.
Battery life is acceptable with the VAIO FE packing 55W module estimated to achieve 10 hours of power from 100% charge. Between web browsing, streaming YouTube and Netflix, and occasional Photoshop editing I got 7.75 hours before needing a recharge, which falls a little short of the target but still enough for regular workdays.
Gamers shouldn’t even consider this laptop, but it is generally possible with below-average performance in some lightweight benchmarking. Many retro-style and 2D titles can easily reach at least 720p/30 thresholds with medium graphic presets; Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredder’s Revenge and Capcom Fighting Collection ran well up to 60fps, mainly due to its pixel-based graphics and low spec requirements. Turn things to 3D polygonal graphics on minimum presets and the VAIO FE can still manage to play Minecraft and DOOM 64, but newer and demanding titles will throttle this little laptop and push the Iris Xe GPU to its limit.
Conclusion: Style Versus Substance
VAIO was once an aspirational brand, a Japanese-made computer that implied you had a more luxurious palette and were envied as a fashionable technophile. The VAIO FE 14.1 Notebook, however, is a compact laptop devoted to productivity and little else. I like the functional chassis despite the frame flexing, a generous array of interface ports and the familiar clean appearance the brand is known for. However, weaker performance outside of office work and a mediocre webcam means the VAIO FE faces stiff competition as its immediate competitors offer vastly better hardware.
It’s hard to recommend the FE unless you really love the way this looks and need it for work, though the company informed me they’ll gradually release more higher-end models later in 2023—hopefully equipped with HDR displays and integrated 4G/LTE connectivity like its international models already enjoy. Right now, we’ll have to wait and see if VAIO can recapture that magic and move upmarket again.