We answer the question: 'which is better, Apple or Sony laptops?' Here's how Sony laptops and Apple laptops compare in terms of value, specifications, build-quality, performance, software and security. (See also: Group test: what's the best high-end laptop?)
One of the questions were most often asked by our readers is 'what is the best laptop brand?' It's an impossible question to answer, although we do of course publish lots of laptop reviews, laptops buying advice and we regularly ask our readers which laptop brand is most reliable, in their opinion.
It should come as no surprise then that a supplementary question we are often asked is: which are best, Sony or Apple laptops? After all, in a world of commoditised technology there are very few brands that command the respect and attention of Japan's consumer technology giant, but one of them is Apple.
Apple stands above every other PC and laptop maker in terms of mindshare. Ask many consumers and Apple is the only computer brand to which they aspire. So when faced with the choice of two iconic brands, what should you consider?
Sony vs Apple laptops: value and specifications
If you're looking for a bargain these are the wrong brands to hunt down. You're paying for the name with both Sony and Apple, in both cases a name earned over years of making premium products.
The cheapest full-spec Apple laptop is the £999 inc VAT 13in MacBook Pro. The line tops out at a wallet-bursting £2,299 for the 15in 2.7GHz with Retina display MacBook Pro. The ultraportable MacBook Air line is marginally cheaper, ranging from £849 to £1,199. But the question here is 'value', not cheapness: Apple makes high-performance, high-quality products. If you are looking for a £350 bargain web surfer you are in the wrong place.
Sony is also a premium brand, but it does offer something for the more budget-conscious customer. Head over to the UK Vaio store, and you can pick up a Vaio E series for around £399 inc VAT. For that money, however, you get only an Intel Pentium chip with integrated graphics - not great for a pre-Ivy Bridge PC. It'll get you online and allow you to perform basic office tasks. It's a perfectly fine laptop, but it's clearly in no way competing with even the 'basic' MacBook Air, which zips along with a dual-core Core i5 chip and a 64GB SSD.
To make a fair comparison you need to specify two products with similar specifications, so we specced out the top-of-the-range laptops for both Sony and Apple (although we ignored expensive software options such as MS Office 2013 and paid-for security software, of which more later).
The basic chassis 17in Sony Vaio is the E series. Tricked out with 2.2GHz Core i7 chip, Windows 8 Pro, 1TB hard drive, 8GB of DDR3L memory and a Blu-ray Disc writer, with a battery life of 'up to 6 hours'. That will set you back £1,099 inc VAT. Step up to the 14in touchscreen version (albeit with 'only' a 750GB hard drive), and you will shell out £1,139.
But jump up to the most expensive standard Vaio chassis - the S Series - the top of the range model costs £2,182 inc VAT. That rather large wedge gets you a 15in model with Core i7-3540M chip running at 3GHz, Windows 8 Pro, a massive 12GB of fast RAM and a 512GB SATA Flash SSD. There's high-end NVidia GeForce graphics, a Blu-ray Disc writer, dual standard and long-life batteries, and Wireless WAN.
There's no 'basic' Apple chassis, and no 17in MacBook Pro. The top of Apple's shop is the 15in MacBook Pro with Retina display, featuring a quad-core i7 chip running at 2.8GHz, and 16GB of fast RAM. There's also a massive 768GB Flash drive and that Retina display is simply the best you can buy. On the flip side it's not a touchscreen and there's no DVD drive unless you shell out £65 for an external drive.
In the Ultrabook space Sony offers the T Series, the top of the line model of which will set you back £1,489 inc VAT. This offers you Intel Core i7-3537U, 2GHz chip, Windows 8 Pro, a 512GB SATA Flash SSD, 8GB or fast RAM and - unusually for a portable - a Blu-ray Disc writer. All of this with a 15in touchscreen display. (How this constitutes an Ultrabook is a side issue.)
The Blu-ray drive issue is important. Remember that Apple makes a lot of money from selling media via iTunes, software via the Mac app store, and storage in iCloud. Remember also that Sony makes its money from Blu-ray movies and it is the leading light in the Blu-ray consortium. It shouldn't be a surprise that Apple favours media streaming, downloads and cloud storage, and Sony thinks we should all use optical media.
Despite not being officially an Ultrabook, the MacBook Air inspired the genesis of that category. The top-end MacBook Air is a 13in model, with no touchscreen. It will set you back £1,664 inc VAT and offers you a Core i7 chip running at 2GHz, 8GB RAM, and a 512GB Flash drive. That price also includes an external DVD writer.
On the face of it, then, this is an open and shut case - Sony laptops provide better specifications for the money. Indeed, by that rationale Apple loses out to virtually all PC makers. But there is more to it than that...
Sony vs Apple laptops: build quality and performance
There's a phrase in publishing: 'do what you do best, and link to the rest'. It's why you won't find sport or politics on the pages of PC Advisor. And just as we focus only on objective advice for technology purchasers, Apple makes only premium products. Simply put, no-one can come close to Apple in terms of build quality (although Sony is one of the few that makes a good attempt to do so).
Consider, for instance, our recent review of the MacBook Pro with Retina display. Andrew Harrison wrote: "Build quality of this streamlined notebook is unimpeachable. The Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display's unibody construction comprises a main chassis milled from solid aluminium with sculpted bottom plate precison-set below. Lid down, it's just 18mm thick and weighs exactly 2kg."
Compare that with our recent review of the Sony Vaio S series, in which Jim Martin opined: "Although the S series can be specified with a 1600 x 900 screen, this has a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. Viewing angles aren't great, either, especially vertically, which means that contrast varies massively depending how far back you tilt the screen. It's hugely bright, though, and we like the semi-gloss finish which isn't too reflective.
"Another gripe is the backlit keyboard. Light bleeds through around the keys – more so than the labels themselves, which makes it hard to read. At least the keyboard itself is pleasant to type on and has a sensible layout.
"The huge touchpad may support gestures, such as scrolling and pinch-to-zoom, but it dispenses with separate buttons. This means you have to avoid resting your thumb where the mouse button would be otherwise the cursor won't move in certain applications...
"Finally, there's the annoying hard disk. In a quiet room, it's unusually loud. When you're doing anything demanding the rear-mounted fan spins up, and the SVS1311N9E makes a lot of noise."
This is a small part of a positive review (and a review of a lower price product than the top of the range MacBook Pro). The S Series is good, but Apple's build quality is definably better than the rest. You get what you pay for. The same is true of performance - you'll find very little difference between the performance of a Sony laptop with a Core i7 chip, 8GB RAM and SSD and integrated graphics, and that of an Apple PC with similar specs. And the Sony will be cheaper. Although one key differentiator is the software, of which more on the next page...