Has the MacBook Air finally met its match?July 9, 2013: 9:40 AM ET
Sony's new Sony Vaio Pro laptops are lighter than MacBook Airs and (almost) just as thin.
FORTUNE -- Clasp Sony's 13-inch VAIO Pro in one hand, and you'll be impressed by how light it feels. It's even lighter than the most svelte 11-inch MacBook Air.
The Air is obviously far from heavy, but thanks to carbon fiber used throughout the Vaio Pro's body, Sony (SNE) trimmed the weight to 1.92 lbs. for the 11-inch version and 2.4 lbs for the 13-incher, trumping Apple's (AAPL) competitor. That's impressive given that the latter Sony model weighs just a hair more than the 11-inch Air but manages two more inches of screen real estate.
For testing, Sony loaned us the entry-level $1,249 13-inch model stocked with Windows 8, Intel's latest-generation Haswell processor running at 1.6 GHz (with speeds up to 2.29 GHz), 4 gigabytes of RAM, a 128 GB solid state drive, 2 USB 3.0 ports, an SD card slot and an HDMI output. Available in two shades -- silver and carbon black -- this notebook looks like highly evolved versions of predecessors. If Lenovo's X1 Carbon, reviewed last September, with its safe, innocuous design, is the Lincoln Town Car of ultrabooks, the Sony Vaio Pro in black is a Tesla Model S.
PC road warriors more concerned with making a visual statement will find the Vaio Pro offers that and more. The 13-inch touchscreen display, with a maximum resolution of 1,920 x 1,080, responds instantly to taps and finger swipes. It also sports "Triluminos" technology, fancy jargon for a kind of lighting method that translates into what the company promises are rich, authentic colors. I wouldn't say colors onscreen appeared more accurate, but they were more vibrant than most ultrabook displays -- an observation onlookers made in passing. At the very least, viewing photos and movies was a treat.
The keyboard with built-in lighting is large enough so even loud typers like me who attack the keys can quickly bang out emails or write typo-free; the trackpad works just fine for the most part, but sometimes there was a serious delay lasting several seconds when trying to scroll down web pages with two fingers. It happened often enough to be annoying. Indeed, while PC trackpad makers have covered some serious ground in catching up with the trackpads featured in Apple's notebooks, they're still not quite there yet.
As for the carbon fiber body, it's durable, though not impermeable. It'll probably handle drops and scrapes like a pro -- one scenario I wasn't eager to test -- but with that extreme thinness also comes some noticeable bending and flexing while typing or even just applying pressure to most of the keyboard area. It slightly cheapens the otherwise premium industrial design and is one of the two knocks I can make. The other? A loud built-in fan that whines when using the notebook for anything more strenuous than web browsing.
With Intel's (INTC) Haswell processor, performance is more than enough for everyday tasks. (Like other Haswell-equipped notebooks, smooth gaming experiences are now possible on medium graphics settings.) Sony claims the 13-incher gets up to 7 hours of battery life in between charges. And with the screen dimmed to 75% or so, music streaming off and on, a half-hour of Netflix Instant streaming, and web surfing, I managed to get 5 hours and 35 minutes. Just viewing websites during another trial run afforded another hour before having to plug in. That's above average and much longer than the Carbon X1 running last year's Intel chip, but it's still roughly two-plus hours shy of what this year's 13-inch MacBook Air can do under the same pressure.
When looking at the Sony Vaio Pro, consider this: It's $150 more than the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Air and has a few significant quirks, but it offers a fine, sharp touchscreen display that pairs well with Windows 8. It's also noticeably lighter, something the most seasoned of road warriors, über-conscious of every ounce of baggage they haul, will appreciate. But if the touchscreen and the software operating system don't matter -- and to many they might -- the 2013 MacBook Air remains an excellent option for its best-in-class battery life and a quieter day-to-day user experience.