You can count the number of 13" or smaller high powered notebooks on the fingers of one hand... with a few fingers to spare. The venerable 12.5" Lenovo ThinkPad X230, the latest iteration of Lenovo's winning powerhouse portable notebook is always top on the list. It features full Intel Core mobile CPUs rather than low powered and slower ULV CPUs used in Ultrabooks, and it can do the work of a larger notebook. The just minted Sony Vaio S 13.3 offers the same benefits: full mobile Ivy Bridge CPUs, a small footprint and light weight. Beyond that, these two are as different as Android and iOS in their approach to mobile computing. The two notebooks are comparable in terms of CPU performance. The Sony Vaio starts out cheaper, but the premium model is comparably priced to the ThinkPad X230.
Portability and Durability
With the standard 6 cell battery, the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 weighs 3.4 pounds and measures 12 x 8.13 x 1.05 inches. Thanks to the 12.5" display, it has a small footprint and it's not as wide as 13.3" laptops like the Sony S 13.3. But it isn't thin at 1.05". A few years ago, that was considered slim but not anymore. The Lenovo is built like a tank with a magnesium alloy roll cage and virtually no flex anywhere. A looker it's not though. But it can handle lots of abuse.
The Sony Vaio S 13.3 Premium has a carbon fiber casing with magnesium alloy inside. The carbon fiber premium model is 0.90" thick (0.95" for non-premium models) and it looks sleek and thinner than it actually is. The premium weighs 3.7 pounds, but I honestly can't feel the difference in weight between it and the 3.4 pound Lenovo. It has a wider footprint: 13 x 8.85 x 0.90 inches, and that's the same footprint as most Ultrabooks. The Vaio's intentionally flexible lid actually holds up well (I've owned Vaio notebooks with this design for years and never had a problem), but it doesn't instill confidence since it's not rigid. Though the notebook is made of strong materials, it feels delicate compared to the ThinkPad. Then again, most notebooks feel delicate compared to a ThinkPad!
The Sony is a 15" Laptop in Miniature
To make room for the robust internal roll cage and keyboard spillways, the Lenovo ThinkPad X230 loses the optical drive and dedicated graphics. Honestly, Lenovo sees the X230 as a business travel notebook, and not something for graphic designers or gamers.
Sony, always finds a way to fit a huge amount of tech into a small package. The Vaio S 13.3 does everything the larger Vaio S 15.5 and HP Envy 15 do: it has an internal DVD burner (Blu-ray optional) and switchable graphics on all but the base model. The NVidia GeForce GT640M LE with 1GB RAM is powerful enough to play today's demanding games on mid to high settings. Dedicated graphics are also helpful for Adobe CS, CAD and video editing.
If only these two could have children; we'd have the perfect display. The Lenovo ThinkPad X230 has a 1366 x 768 display with a very affordable $50 IPS option (please order that option!). This is an excellent matte display with good color saturation and contrast. Since it's IPS, the viewing angles are excellent.
The Sony Vaio S 13.3 Premium has a 1600 x 900 display--woohoo! Lenovo doesn't offer anything above 1366 x 768. The bad news is that this is a TN panel with limited viewing angles and OK but not great blacks. Happily it too has a matte display and that really reduces eye fatigue.
In the end, these are both really lovely machines and I'd be happy to own either. The Sony Vaio S 13.3 is perfect for gamers and multimedia types thanks to the dedicated graphics and optical drive. The Lenovo ThinkPad X230 is a productivity dream for highly mobile folks thanks to the dreamy keyboard, IPS display and rugged build.
Here's our Lenovo ThinkPad X230 vs. Sony Vaio S 13.3 Comparison Smackdown video.