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Our primary impression when unpacking Sony's VGN-NS30E/S 15.4in Laptop was one of déjà vu: on the outside it's completely identical to the Sony VAIO VGN-NS20E/S we reviewed a few weeks ago. However, not only has the model number jumped up by one, price has also taken a hike from the £450 the NS20E/S currently demands to £550 for this model. We're about to find out if it can justify the £100 difference.
As before, the Sony's bulky silver-and-black chassis feels very well-built, making this one of the sturdier budget laptops around. The heavily-textured finish that covers most of it not only lends a unique and somewhat stylish look, but also means fingerprints won't be a problem.
Typing is a pleasure thanks to the excellent tile-style keyboard. Layout is good, while the large, shallow-profile keys sport a black matte surface that lends a nice feel. Keys have a decent amount of travel and positive click. Thankfully the touchpad also remains unchanged. It's large with a nice smooth surface and its chromed buttons offer excellent feedback, though they are a tad on the noisy side.
Touch-sensitive media controls are all the rage on laptops these days, but Sony follows Dell's Inspiron 1545 in breaking this trend. Above the keyboard you'll find two buttons, the first of which mutes the volume while the second calls up an XMB-like interface like that seen on the PS3 or PSP, which gives an alternate way of accessing multimedia, Internet, the laptop's webcam and Skype.
Though the higher price might have had you hoping otherwise, connectivity is also the same as on the NS20, so there's no eSATA or any form of digital video output. This was disappointing enough on a laptop under £500, but inexcusable on one that's £600 direct from Sony.
At least the rest of what's on offer is decent. On the left we have VGA, headphone, microphone and two USB ports, as well as a mini-FireWire input and 34mm ExpressCard slot. Though one would have hoped for a more flexible 54mm slot in a laptop this size, Sony makes up for it a little by including a hinged flap to keep the dust out - a tidy solution we wish more manufacturers would implement.
Moving onto the VAIO's front, we find a handy wireless switch with its own little LED, one SD memory card reader and another for Sony's proprietary Memory Stick format. Three LED indicators for power, battery and HDD activity are visible with the laptop closed. On the right are the DVD-Rewriter and a further two USB ports giving a generous total of four, while modem, Ethernet and power inputs are found around the back.
Sony has kept the same 15.4in screen too, so we're looking at a glossy-finish 16:10 affair with a resolution of 1,280 x 800. Bright colours and just above average black levels with nary a hint of backlight bleed make for pleasant viewing. Viewing angles also seem to be slightly better than on the NS20E/S, though this is likely due to minor manufacturing variability rather than an upgrade of some kind. On the other hand there was some banding in gradients which wasn't so evident on the NS20E/S, though text is still very sharp.
Audio, meanwhile, is just as mediocre as before. The speakers manage okay volume levels, but when not distorting everything comes out sounding very flat and lacking in bass, so as usual you're better off using headphones or external speakers.