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A raft of hybrid laptop/tablets are about to hit the market, taking advantage oftouch-optimised interface, but none have the unique slide-away keyboard of the Sony Vaio Duo 11.
With a Full HD 11.6-inch screen on board this ultrabook-cum-tablet and powerful specs under the hood, it could be an ideal solution for touch-based work on the go.
My review model sits at the top of the range, with an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid state drive for £1,500. If you don't need that amount of power then the base model packs a Core i3 chip, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, starting at £1,000.
Should I buy the Sony Vaio Duo 11?
The Duo is not going to be to everyone's taste. With its 11.6-inch display, it's a little too big and heavy to use as a tablet in one hand as you would an iPad. If you only really want a touchscreen device to swipe around websites, then it's not going to be for you. An iPad or even the tablet would be better and you'd save yourself a grand.
Sony hasn't made it larger than your average tablet for nothing though. Lift the screen up and you'll find a physical keyboard, turning the Duo from a tablet into a laptop. It allows you to type for much longer periods than is realistically possible on an on-screen keyboard, letting you easily write documents or long emails rather than just Twitter updates. The keys are quite small though -- about the size of a netbook's -- so it's worth having a go on one in store if you have massive hands. But it does come with a handy stylus for writing on screen.
It's running on Windows 8, which brings you the colourful metro interface and the Windows 8 app store. It's designed primarily for touch input and I found swiping around the tiles and using the navigational gestures while typing on the keyboard to be an extremely natural way of interacting -- it certainly beats the more usual keyboard and trackpad.
Inside you'll find the latest Intel Core i7 processor, a hearty 8GB of RAM and a generous 256GB SSD. Those are the top-end specs and as such come with a high £1,500 price tag. The range starts at £1,000 though, if you don't need that much grunt. All models offer a Full HD display that I found to be delightfully bright and bold.
My review model was extremely potent, easily tackling essential office tasks and playing back high-definition video without the slightest hiccup. It was also able to turn its hand to more demanding tasks like high-resolution photo editing and played the brand new XCOM: Enemy Unknown game at an enjoyably smooth frame rate.
The Duo 11 might come with a steep asking price, but its great Full HD screen and superb power do a lot to justify it. The transforming design won't suit everyone, but if you're after a Windows 8 touchscreen device and need a physical keyboard for work, then it's a great option to consider.
Vaio Duo 11 as a tablet
When you first take the Duo 11 out of the box, it's not immediately different from most tablets. The whole front is dominated by edge-to-edge glass with a small Windows home button on the bottom.
Sporting an 11.6-inch screen and a thickness of around 17.9mm, it's quite a lot bigger than tablets like the iPad, but it is, of course, packing a full keyboard. It's arguably more akin to an ultrabook (the name given to Intel-powered thin and portable laptops), so compare it to the Lenovo Ideapad U410's 21mm thickness and it's not too chubby.
Its large size means it's not easy to hold in one hand while swiping around with the other -- at least not for more than a few seconds. Resting it across your forearm while jabbing at it is fairly comfortable, but it's not ideal. Far better to have it laying flat on a desk or propped up at a slight angle. I actually found propping it up on a banana offered an extremely comfortable angle for swiping at -- and you have a healthy snack ready for when you're done.
The 11.6-inch display is very responsive and accurate, which makes hitting small links in your web browser that much easier. There's also a stylus included for those times when you need more accuracy, or you fancy handwriting or doodling in one of the sketch apps from the Windows 8 app store.
Like Samsung's S Pen on the, the stylus has a narrow hard end that's much better for accurate poking than the wide, squashy tips found on many styluses -- the difference is like writing with a Biro or with a felt-tipped marker.
Awkwardly, there's no port for you to stow the stylus away when not in use. You have to remember to carry it around which, if you're like me, will mean you lose it within a few days. There is, however, a port in the clip-on battery extender base (sold separately). Sony hasn't indicated exactly how much it will cost, but if you particularly need your stylus with you and are cautious about losing it, it's worth looking into.
Along the bottom edge are buttons for controlling the volume, locking the screen orientation and booting into Vaio Care if your computer breaks. They're not well placed as you need to tilt the machine up to see which button to press. They also sit too flush with the surrounding plastic for you to judge which button is which just by touching.
Vaio Duo 11 as a laptop
While tablets are fine for the essentials of web browsing and looking through all the photos you don't remember taking from that Saturday night out, when it comes to getting down to serious work, their touchscreen keyboards just don't cut the mustard.
Luckily then, the Duo 11's screen lifts up and backwards, revealing a keyboard hidden beneath, turning it quickly from a regular tablet into something resembling an ultrabook.
The screen lifts upwards more than it does backwards, resulting in the bottom of the screen roughly meeting the middle of the base. That means the overall depth of the base doesn't get much longer so if you can happily fit it on your knee as a tablet, you won't struggle with it when it becomes a laptop.
It doesn't take up much space in laptop form, nor does it require much room to transform, so if you need a device that you can use on a cramped economy class flight or busy train carriage, then the Duo will be worth a look.
As the screen meets the middle of the base, there's only about half of the space available for the keyboard to fit in. Although it's spread evenly across the whole width, the keys have had to be made rather small in order to fit. It's not as cramped as typing on a tiny netbook, but you do need to be more careful about which of the little keys you're hitting, particularly if you have gigantic bin lid hands.
I have fairly average mitts and I found it was easy to get used to -- I ended up writing much of this review on its keys. The most annoying thing, however, was the right-hand shift key, which has been cut in half and plonked next to the up arrow key. I regularly found my cursor jumping up numerous lines every time I tried to capitalise a letter. I'm sure you'd get used to it over time, but if keyboard comfort is your primary concern, then you might be better off with a normal laptop.
There's no trackpad as Windows 8 is designed for touchscreen interaction. Navigation is built around swiping through big metro tiles and using gestures to bring up multi-tasking bars and menus. The best way to use the Duo is to swipe and poke your way around and type on the keyboard when needed.
I found it to be extremely easy to get used to and was able to load apps, select settings and do all my usual tasks much faster than with a regular mouse. Part of that is down to the Windows 8-specific apps that use large touch-friendly buttons. But even in the regular Windows desktop, I found touch trumped mouse. If you really miss the mouse, you can always plug one into one of the two USB 3.0 ports.
Around the edges you'll also find an Ethernet port, VGA-out, HDMI-out, headphone and microphone jacks and an SD card slot. There's a front-facing camera for video calling, as well as a rear camera for quick snaps of your pets. Storage is taken care of by a 256GB SSD.
Unlike hybrids like the, the screen and keyboard don't detach, so you can't leave the keyboard behind if you want to travel light. The sliding mechanism also means that you don't need to hurriedly clip two sections together when rushing to write an email.
Sadly though, you aren't able to adjust the angle of the screen -- it's either up or down. I found the angle to be fine for use on a flat desk, but when typing on my knee, I'd like it to lean back more.