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As far as interesting laptops go, the transforming tablet/ultrabook (or 2-in-1s, as Intel recently renamed the category at Computex 2013) is easily the most exciting. Each manufacturer approaches the issue of transformation using radically different engineering, and Sony's attempt with the Duo 13 is a prime example. Using a sliding mechanism, it delivers one of the thinnest tablet transformers around, but it's built using intricate pieces that feel a little fragile.
Design and features
In tablet mode, this device is a mere 19mm thick. Combined with the light weight of just 1.325kg, it's one of the most mobile Haswell platforms around. Converting it to ultrabook mode simply requires the user to lift the screen upwards and back, locking it in place at a 45-degree angle. This angle is just right if the Duo 13 is sitting at waist height, but place the laptop any higher or lower, and the screen is hard to read. Accordingly, there's just one perfect viewing position thanks to the lack of adjustment in the hinge. On the flipside, it's rock solid when placed in ultrabook mode, so the screen won't wobble when touched. Closer examination of the hinge reveals a myriad of small components all working harmoniously to deliver the smooth sliding motion; if a single one was to fail, the entire mechanism would go kaput. We've seen similarly complex hinges on other Sony transformers, so their continued reliance upon complicated solutions hopefully means they aren't seeing too many returns for repairs. Still, there's a lot to be said for a simple 180-degree rotating hinge.
In either mode, the Duo 13 looks a lot smaller than it actually is, thanks to the sharp lines and inward-curving keyboard. Built primarily from plastic, only the keyboard face uses tougher aluminium. The stunning 13.3-inch display packs a full HD resolution of 1920x1080, which makes such a small screen look absolutely razor sharp. Touch controls are extremely accurate and responsive; a godsend, given that much of Windows 8's interface is very small on this HD postage stamp of a screen. As expected, image quality is sublime, par for the course for Sony laptops.
The keyboard makes good use of its limited space, but can't compare to the full-sized keys found elsewhere. With a little practice, the smaller keys will become second nature, and the lack of any flexing combines with just the right amount of travel to provide positive feedback to indicate when a key is depressed. If there's one weakness in the overall package, it's the dinky audio system; there just isn't room in such a tiny package to fit decent speakers. The touch pad is also tiny, making it hard to determine where the pad ends and the buttons begin.
Unique to the Duo 13 is the inclusion of a stylus, which turns the tablet into a very capable notebook or image manipulator. Windows 8's excellent handwriting recognition worked wonderfully alongside the accurate screen, and it's a feature that few other tablets can match.
Connections, performance and battery
Looking at the photos, you'll notice how thin each edge of the chassis is, making the inclusion of ports tricky to say the least. We can understand why this means there's no Ethernet port, but it doesn't make the reliance upon 802.11n any less painful. When you're transferring several gigabytes of benchmarks, Wi-Fi just can't compete with a good old-fashioned cable. All of the ports can be found on the rear of the chassis, with just twin USB 3.0 ports residing alongside an HDMI out and a combination SD/memory stick duo slot, you know, just in case you're one of the six people in the world who uses a memory stick.
Considering the interior of the Duo 13 is extremely cramped, the use of a high-end Haswell CPU simply isn't possible. Instead, Sony has used the 4th Generation Core i5-4200U CPU, a dual-cored, HyperThreaded chip limited to 2.6GHz under load. The frequency isn't too shabby, but relying on twin cores will likely hurt the Duo 13 under more strenuous multitasking situations. There's obviously no room for a GPU, so the Duo 13 makes do with the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU. Memory is also limited, weighing in at just 4GB. If you think that's anaemic, prepare to be shocked by the tiny 128GB SSD. We managed to fill this during testing, simply by installing four programs.
Given the relatively average specs, we were pleasantly surprised at the benchmark results of this clever little transformer. Ignore the gaming tests, as something this small is never going to be useful for gaming. PCMark 8, which tests overall system performance, showed that this laptop isn't that far behind machines with much more powerful specifications. This test was backed up by normal use of the Duo 13, where we found that it responded almost instantly to any request.