VAIO SX12: Developers discuss VAIO’s pursuit of a new standard in laptop mobility.

Versatility without sacrificing compact design.


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Shuji Eguchi
PC Division PC Design Department Project Leader Section Project Leader
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Takashi Sonehara
PC Division, PC Design Dept., Mechanical Design Division, Mechanical Project Leader
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Hiroshi Hisatomi
PC Division Technical Unit Mechanical Design Division Chief Thermal Engineer
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Shuichi Yanagisawa
PC Division PC Design Department Electrical Design Division Electrical Project Leader

On the perception there is a compromise of form over function.

First, what factors affected your decision for the size of the VAIO S12?

Project Leader, Eguchi: The VAIO SX12 is based on the VAIO S11 which was released in September 2017 with a 11.6-inch display. In January of this year, we released the VAIO SX14 which was one display size larger than the 13.3-inch display on the VAIO S13, also released last September. We chose a different approach with the VAIO SX12. We aim to provide users with the most versatile laptop in the evolution of mobile PCs.

Although the VAIO S11 was popular due to its remarkably light weight and versatility, some of the feedback from customers suggested they were choosing form over function. Specifically, they mentioned issues with the display size and comfort while typing. Therefore, with the VAIO SX12 we strived to address these problems while also creating a truly standard mobile laptop with an easier to use display and keyboard.

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So, was the size a priority when it came to making the VAIO S11 a truly mobile laptop?

Eguchi: Yes, and the first decision was the size of the display. We adopted the narrow frame technology used in the VAIO SX14 to use the largest display possible, 12.5-inch, without sacrificing mobility. While the body is slightly larger than the 11.6-inch VAIO S11, they are almost visually indistinguishable. And because of the lighter weight, which will be discussed in depth later, we consider the mobility to be unimpaired.

That must have helped to accommodate a full-size keyboard. Is this the exact same keyboard used in the VAIO SX14?

Mechanical Project Leader, Sonehara: Not exactly. The width of the leftmost modifier keys such as Shift and Tab in the VAIO SX12 are 1/4th of a key shorter. However, all the middle character keys are the same.

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And because we angled the pitch of the keyboard approximately 19 mm, up from approximately 16.95 mm on the VAIO S11, you experience the same effect as typing at desktop or on a large notebook PC.

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Keyboards from left to right: VAIO S11/, VAIO SX12, VAIO SX14. The VAIO SX12 has an angled pitch of about 19mm.

What were the challenges associated with implementing a full pitch keyboard?

Sonehara: It should be obvious by looking at the laptop, but with the VAIO SX12, the keyboard is the entire width of the unit. So, we first had to see what would happen if we cut the current model’s aluminum top panel to that size. The result was the laptop’s rigidity degraded, making it the biggest challenge to the mechanical design this time.

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What specifically did you have to do to meet this challenge?

Sonehara: Two major measures were undertaken. First, the back plate of the keyboard was fully extended to both the left and right of the main unit to improve overall strength. Then, the top panel, resin components, and back plate of the keyboard are fastened at the time of assembly to enhance overall strength. But with VAIO SX12 it is not possible to secure the edges with adhesive, like they do for conventional laptops, because the keyboard extends to both the left and right edges. We didn’t know what to do until I was inspired to try using the space between the keyboard rows. I was very happy when this idea came to me. (laughs)

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Back of keyboard. Top: VAIO S11. Bottom: VAIO SX12. Notice how the keyboard extends to the left and right edges of the VAIO SX12.

Sonehara: The other change was to the bottom of the laptop. On the VAIO S11 the resin was cut to accommodate certain ports, but in the VAIO S12 these have been replaced with a molded beam to enhance strength.

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Right side view. Top: VAIO SX12. Bottom: VAIO S11. The resin has been molded to form a beam around the top of the side terminal.

Sonehara: Because the keyboard was extended to the full width of the laptop, the port had to be lowered by 1 mm to prevent the back plate from interfering. In other words, if left as it was, the thickness would have increased by 1 mm. To not reduce the mobility and still have balance, we were able to make it thinner in another area. Unfortunately, the laptop is still about 0.1 mm thicker.

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A 0.1 mm increase doesn’t seem like it would be noticeable. Since you mentioned it, how did you make it thinner?

Sonehara: The large LAN and VGA ports were a particularly difficult challenge. For the LAN we trimmed the part where the cable is inserted as much as possible. The LAN port of the VAIO SX12 has a large opening in the center of the cover where the cable is secured when inserted. By thinning the material creating the hole, this no longer must be internal.

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The VGA port was enlarged by cutting resin from the bottom of the VAIO S11, so reducing the width by 1mm would have pierced the casing. For the VAIO SX12 the base of the terminal is thickened slightly, increasing the entire width by a bit more than 0.1 mm.

Is it practical to focus on such a thin margin for the casing?

Sonehara: It wasn’t a problem. VAIO has focused on adopting tilt-up hinges for mobile PCs since it became a privately held company again. The keyboard is elevated during use because of this, so if the VGA cable plug you are using is a size larger it still won’t interfere with the desk surface.

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VGA terminal connection image of VAIO S11 (2015 model). By utilizing the tilt-up function that elevates the keyboard, it prevents interference with the desk surface while maintaining a thinner profile.

Eguchi: Both the VAIO S11 and VAIO S13 used the same internal substrate for increased production efficiency. Of course, we were thinking of doing the same thing with the VAIO SX12 and VAIO SX14 this time, but in order to realize the device Sonehara had imagined, the VAIO SX12 motherboard had to be redesigned.

Redesigned to become the new standard.

Tell us more about the redesigned motherboard on the VAIO SX12/VAIO Pro PJ.

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Electrical Project Leader, Yanagisawa: Even though the motherboard position was lowered by 1 mm, the overall thickness of the VAIO SX12 was increased by just 0.1 mm. This narrowed the available space beneath the motherboard so that component connections could not be inserted as before. We decided to move the larger plugs to the top of the motherboard, which also proved to be a challenge since it meant having to increase the density of the top surface while also creating the additional space.

On top of that, we minimized the mass of other components such as those that power the CPU. Since they require higher voltage for more power consumption, we redesigned each one by one to achieve an overall lower profile. Of course, then we had to ensure these changes didn’t interfere with the fit of the motherboard into the body of the VAIO SX12 or effect performance.

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Sonehara: In fact, a lot of the detailed mechanical parts, even those that look the same as the VAIO SX14, were reworked into new thinner and lighter versions.

I see. It sounds like there was a lot of work put into areas that aren’t visible to the consumer. Did any of these changes affect the CPU thermal design?

Thermal Design, Hisatomi: Of course! (laughs) The fact that the device is smaller overall, and the substrate is reduced by 1 mm made it impossible to use the same heat dissipation component used in the VAIO SX14.

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What did you do to resolve that issue?

Hisatomi: As I mentioned before when discussing VAIO SX14, a sheet of metal attached to the bottom was cut out in the cooling fan area so that the space under the fan was increased by one sheet width. This improved the amount of air evacuated and boosted heat exhaust efficiency. If we were to do the same thing with VAIO SX12 with its 1 mm lower profile, the bottom of the device would become too hot. Instead we cut the sheet metal around the shape of the cooling fan, achieving the same effect but without losing efficiency.

Hisatomi: Additionally, you will notice if you look closely, there is a slight projection where the sheet metal has had a rib added on the bottom. We could have avoided it but chose to request the overlap to increase the strength. It not only helps the aluminum sheet to distribute heat evenly, it also stops heat from reaching where the customer comes into contact with the bottom of the laptop.

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Bottom case. Left: VAIO S11. Right: VAIO SX12. For the VAIO SX12, the metal sheet is cut to accommodate the shape of the cooling fan.

I see. If the motherboard was lowered by 1mm it should mean there is a little extra space above it, is that correct?

Hisatomi: Yes. In the past, the space above the substrate was narrow, and in order to improve air flow around the CPU, holes were created in the can shield right up to the corners, which can be difficult for air to reach. Because we have a bit more space this time, we increased the air flow to maximize cooling and changed the shape of the air intake located inside the hinge mechanism. VAIO S11 has a full width air intake port but VAIO SX12 has the left side closed on purpose. While this will lower the fan’s efficiency a bit, the added internal air flow over the motherboard will result in better cooling overall.

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VAIO SX12 keyboard with its top cover removed. It draws air from the display side and releases via the keyboard to the user’s fingertips.

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Intake ports. Left: VAIO S11. Right: VAIO SX12. With VAIO SX12, the left half of the air intake is cut (the photo shows the top part turned over, so the left and right are reversed).

It appears the material used to make the exhaust fan has been changed from copper to aluminum in VAIO SX12. Was this change made to improve heat dissipation?

Sonehara: That came as a request from Mechanical Design. Engineers on VAIO SX12 were tasked to achieve the same level of performance as VAIO SX14, but they could not give up trying to reduce the weight to less than 899 g. Because copper is heavier than aluminum, they went with aluminum to reduce the weight.

Hisatomi: It is best to use all copper if thermal design is your only focus, but a lightweight device is also important. We tried several combinations of plate and fan materials, and finally discovered that even with fans made of aluminum we experienced no loss in performance, so that’s what we chose.

Eguchi: With VAIO SFX12, it was necessary to improve the quality of parts used and the accuracy of the mass production process to achieve this aggressive design agenda.

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VAIO SX12 makes you appreciate its value more with each use.

It sounds like VAIO SX12 is an easy to use, high performance, lightweight device that packs features and benefits into a compact body. What sort of message would like to send users of this model and the customers who are considering a purchase?

Eguchi: I have loved using the VAIO S11 during many business trips, but even I experienced problems with the keyboard. My hands are on the bigger side so I would mistype more than normal. VAIO SX12 will get none of those complaints. And after several months of testing prototypes, the 12.5-inch display was more comfortable than I expected. It feels like you’re looking at a 13.3-inch display. I think it is the best option for mobile PC notebook users and is the kind of laptop where its value becomes more apparent each time you use it.

Sonehara: It sounds like all the important topics have been discussed (laughs), but as Mechanical Design, let me add one thing. VAIO’s mobile notebooks are designed so that the keytops fit easily inside the display bezel when folded, but this model was made with keys almost to the edge of the keyboard. It’s not very noticeable, but as an engineer, the effort to fit them under the display bezel here is just another cool attention to detail that I hope customers appreciate.

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The keyboard frame and the display bezel that have been pushed to the edge.

Hisatomi: We agonized over things in thermal design too. I thought that I had done it all with VAIO SX14, but I went a step further, and I hope
it will please customers who expect VAIO to push the limits.

Yanagisawa: From the electrical point of view, VAIO SX12 has a limited internal space packed with components that use cutting-edge technology. The weight balance is exceptional, and I am proud to say this is an exceptional product made from a demanding design agenda.

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(Originally Published July 9, 2019 on vaio.com)