Sony is selling the Vaio Duo 11 as being the best of both worlds: a full-HD laptop and touch-screen tablet in one. And it is both of those things -- sort of.
It does have a full-HD 11.6-inch display. The display is a touch screen. The Duo can be used as a tablet and, thanks to Sony's Surf Slider design, the screen can be lifted and slid back to reveal a keyboard. It's the "best" part we object to, because while it sounds cool, the design is disappointing for several reasons.
Outside of the design, the rest of the Duo -- components, performance, battery life, Windows 8 usability -- all adds up to a good tablet/computer. But we expect there will be many more convertible tablets like the Duo coming soon, so you may just want to take a wait-and-see approach with this category for the time being.
No one we showed the Duo 11 to was impressed with the design. The idea, yes; everyone was in agreement that a device that works as a full Windows 8 laptop and a tablet is solid. But the Duo isn't it and comes off as a tablet cobbled together with a makeshift keyboard.
Used as a tablet, the screen -- while really nice and responsive -- is a little too big to hold comfortably, so it's best used on your lap or on a table. Certainly not the end of the world, but if you're looking for a tablet to use while walking around, you'll definitely want to lay hands on a Duo to try out before you buy.
The real disappointment comes when you slide back the display, though. First, if you hand it to someone who's never opened it, they can't figure out how. And even if they do know how, it's not terribly easy. You need to lift up on the display from the back, but there's nothing really to pull up with and if you're not paying attention, it's all too easy to attempt to lift from the wrong side and potentially rip the screen off its hinges.
With the display up, you'll see a keyboard that looks not unlike the type made for an Apple iPad. However, because of the wide-screen display and the need to counterbalance it when up, the keyboard is wide and slim, resulting in some very small keys. Unless you're a very accurate typist, it's probably going to take a lot of practice to type efficiently on it. At least it's backlit.
There's no touch pad, but instead there's an optical pointer. It's a little touch-sensitive nub between the G and H keys along with three mouse buttons at the bottom below the spacebar. Not having a touch pad mainly proved a problem when using the traditional Windows Desktop interface, since the Windows 8-style interface is designed more for touch-screen use. In other words, for one interface the Duo is great, for the other, not so much.
Sony includes a digitizer stylus, which can be used instead of the nub or for writing and drawing on the screen with certain applications, including a note-taking app called Note Anytime and the excellent ArtRage Studio Pro. The problem with using the stylus instead of a touch pad is that you have to keep picking it up and putting it down. Also, when you're not using it, there is no place on the body of the Duo to stash it.
Lastly, the screen support mechanism itself is a bit of an issue for me. From the side, you can see two ribbon cables coming up from the body of the keyboard section to the display. You can also see its hinges and springs, the inside of the plastic back panel, and, well, it just generally looks unfinished. Plus, there's no adjustment of the screen angle, which makes some sense because the keyboard section has to balance the screen when upright. It also means, though, that if it's not at a good angle for how you're seated or your lighting, you're out of luck.
On the inside, the Duo 11's main components aren't different from those of other ultrabooks we've tested, including a third-gen Core i5 processor, 6GB of memory, and a 128GB solid-state drive (SSD). The display, on the other hand, is.
|Price as reviewed||$1,199.99|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||6GB, 1,333MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||128GB SSD|
|Chipset||Intel HM76 Express|
|Graphics||Intel HD 4000|
|Operating system||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
|Dimensions (WD)||12.6x7.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2.9 pounds / 3.5 pounds|
Yes, it's a touch screen, but it also has a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution using in-plane switching technology for excellent viewing angles and color consistency. Many of the ultrabooks we've reviewed have used 1,366x768-pixel-resolution screens that wash out or invert colors off-angle. The glass goes edge to edge, too, which allows swiping in from the edge of the screen for Windows 8 features like quickly switching to previously used applications.
Helping mark the bottom and top of the display are a Windows Start Menu button and a 2.4-megapixel Webcam with a Sony Exmor R sensor. The screen automatically -- and slowly -- changes orientation depending on how you're holding it, which can be irritating as it pops into different views. There were several times when sliding the display up that the picture would rotate upside down, forcing me to tip the computer forward to get it to right itself.
Under the front edge (or on back when closed) are volume buttons; an Assist button that launches Vaio Care, a service for diagnosing and fixing problems; and an orientation lock. It's a horrible place for these controls as it forces you to tip the computer up to use them, and they're flush with the body so they aren't easy to use by feel alone.
Also on back/underneath are two tiny, tinny speakers and a second 2.4-megapixel Webcam. The video quality, by the way, is pretty good, but still soft and noisy in low-light conditions.
|Sony Vaio Duo 11||Average for category [11-inch]|
|Video||VGA plus HDMI; Intel WiDi-ready||VGA plus HDMI or DisplayPort|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 3.0, SD/Memory Stick card reader||2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, Bluetooth, 802.11n Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||None||DVD burner|
Just as if this were a regular laptop, the Duo's ports and connections are scattered around the sides; USB and HDMI ports on the right, VGA out and card reader on the left, and power and Ethernet out the back.
The assortment is what you'd find on other ultrabooks in its class, including two USB 3.0 ports, one of which can be used to charge devices while the computer sleeps. Sony added NFC (near-field communication) capabilities as well, so you can tap the Duo against other NFC devices to wirelessly share things like photos. It is also Intel Wireless Display-ready.
If you're expecting the battery life of a tablet from the Duo 11, you'll be disappointed. Remember, this might be best used as a tablet, but the components are those of an ultrabook. However, even by ultrabook standards, the Duo falls a little short of expectations.
Running our video playback battery drain test tapped out the Duo's battery after 4 hours and 46 minutes. It measures up well against other ultrabooks, but falls an hour and a half short of matching the 11.6-inch MacBook Air. The full HD IPS touch display probably doesn't help battery life, but with some power management, breaking 5 hours of work time shouldn't be a problem, though it probably wouldn't be by much.
It's really a shame that the keyboard isn't better on the Duo because it does have plenty of power when used as a laptop for work and entertainment. Despite opening and running several applications, it never seemed to slow down and the touch-screen performance never got laggy, either. It also starts very quickly, taking less than 11 seconds for a full boot.
The Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics can't handle mainstream PC games all that well, but for casual gaming it's sufficient. It did well in our benchmarks, too, beating out similarly configured ultrabook competition, and besting the MacBook Air on our Photoshop test. However, part of the reason for it scoring below the Air on the other tests is that those tests use iTunes and QuickTime, native Apple software.
Sony includes a standard one-year warranty with toll-free 24-7 phone support. Online and e-mail support is available as well.
As a tablet running Windows 8, the Sony Vaio Duo 11 is good if you're OK with its weight and size. But saying it's both a tablet and a full laptop is a stretch. It's certainly powerful enough to do both, but in the end its design is too limiting for those who want the best of both worlds.