Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013)
Alienware 14 (Core i7, 16GB, 256GB SSD, Nvidia GTX765M)stars
No complaints about the performance, but the design changes don't go nearly far enough.
Of all the new laptop designs that attempted to break into the mainstream with the launch of Windows 8 at the end of 2012, none was bolder than the slider-style PC. This handful of brave systems attempted to bridge the gap between laptop and tablet not by adding a detachable screen, but by engineering a slide-out keyboard that snapped into place at (best-case scenario) a flick of the finger.
The main entries in this category were theand the . Both reminded us more of old-fashioned slider phones than anything sleek and modern, and neither was particularly favorably reviewed.
I hadn't expected to see any new slider-style Windows 8 PCs, at least for a while, but Sony has surprised me with an updated and expanded version of the Duo. This new version bumps the screen size up to 13 inches from 11 inches, adds new CPUs from , and is called the Vaio Duo 13.
While it's still not going to be a mainstream device, the new Duo 13 takes a stab at rebooting the slider and correcting some of the things that were so irksome about the original Duo 11. Most importantly, the sliding mechanism for exposing the keyboard is much improved and actually opens and closes easily with a single finger. It's a much smoother experience, whereas the Duo 11's hinge confused some people.
This is also a larger 13-inch screen in a fairly compact body. The Duo 11 felt like a chunky 11-inch ultraportable laptop/tablet, whereas the new 13-inch design is as thin and light as any ultrabook-style 13-inch PC (except for Sony's new , which is amazingly light).
Also a big step forward is the touch pad. The previous Duo model couldn't fit one on, instead relying on a small pointing stick (actually a tiny optical sensor) in the middle of the keyboard. That style of cursor control still has its fans, mostly in the ThinkPad community, but it's not exactly mainstream-friendly. The touch pad here is far from perfect -- it's small, like a very short rectangle, but it's far better than not having a touch pad at all.
However, the single biggest problem with the Duo line remains, and that's the nonadjustable screen. It has two angles: flat, as in tablet mode, and up, with the screen angled well past 90 degrees. If you need to adjust the angle, or just prefer a more vertical display, you're out of luck.
Starting at $1,400 (and going all the way up to $2,700 if you max out the solid-state drive, CPU, and other options), the Duo 13 is on the expensive side for an experimental laptop-tablet hybrid. Acer'salso plays with laptop and tablet design preconceptions, but for only $999.
For a more traditional PC experience, Sony's other new systems, the
|Sony Vaio Duo 13||Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook||Sony Vaio Pro 11|
|Display size/resolution||13.3-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel touch screen||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel touch screen||11-inch, 1,920x1,080-pixel touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U|
|PC memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||1,659MB Intel HD Graphics 4400||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||1,748MB Intel HD Graphics 4400|
|Storage||128GB SSD||500GB, 5,400rpm hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
Folded flat, the Duo 13 looks at first glance like any other shut ultrabook -- it may take a moment even to tell that the glossy surface you're looking at is actually the front of the screen, rather than an overly glossy laptop lid.
At around 2.8 pounds it would make a great ultrabook, but at 0.77 inch thick, it's chunky for a tablet, and a bit heavy and unwieldy to hold in one hand. Like the original Duo 11, it's fingerprint-prone, and outside of a, I'm not sure anyone has come up with a way to efficiently carry a Windows 8 tablet without either a specially made sleeve or bag. (Special tablet-handling gloves? Might be a good Kickstarter idea.) A stylus clip hangs off of the right side for an included active stylus, but if you're not a stylus person (like me), the whole thing pops right off, giving you a sleeker silhouette.
To Sony's credit, the mechanism for opening the system and exposing the keyboard and touch pad is much improved in the new Duo. Lift up with a single finger right behind the center of the display's top edge, and the spring-loaded hinge goes into action, and two small metal hooks grab the bottom edges of the display and hold them in place. Pushing it back down into tablet mode is a little tougher to pull off quickly, but once you figure out the exact angle and amount of pressure to use, it's seamless.
At the same time, it still feels too mechanically complex, and while I didn't have any trouble with it over the course of several days, I know from past experience that the more complex a mechanism is, the more things can possibly go wrong with it.
Once open, the keyboard that you see has large, flat-topped island-style keys, a style Sony used for many years before it became the default industry standard. The keyboard design and size are great for a 13-incher, but the keys are extraordinarily shallow. The original had a similar issue, but on the larger 13-inch size, it feels more pronounced, and the shallow keys just don't feel like they offer enough tactile feedback for extended typing.