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Sony Vaio Duo 13 review: Sony upsizes the sliding PC with the Vaio Duo 13

Can a better hinge, bigger screen, and next-gen Intel CPU help the slider-style Vaio Duo?

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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8 min read

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.

Sony_VAIO_13_Duo_35781324_04.jpg
7.5

Sony Vaio Duo 13

The Good

With a better design and bigger screen than the original Vaio Duo, the new <b>Sony Vaio Duo 13</b> is a solid improvement on its predecessor.

The Bad

It's still tough to figure out exactly who the target audience is. The lack of screen angles is especially frustrating.

The Bottom Line

The Sony Vaio Duo 13 is ambitious, but less universally useful than other Windows 8 laptop-tablet hybrids. There may not be a real need for a slider-style PC.

The main entries in this category were the Sony Vaio Duo 11 and the Toshiba U925T. 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 Intel's just-announced fourth-generation Core i-series, 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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 Vaio Pro 13, 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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's Aspire R7 also plays with laptop and tablet design preconceptions, but for only $999.

For a more traditional PC experience, Sony's other new systems, the Vaio Pro 11 and Pro 13, are fantastic no-compromise machines. The Duo 13 is ambitious, if less universally useful, but a definite improvement over the 11-inch original.

Sony Vaio Duo 13 Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook Sony Vaio Pro 11
Price $1,399.99 $999 $1,149
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
Optical drive None None None
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 rotating screen, 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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The touch pad is a big improvement over the original Duo, in that it exists at all. But, it's an unusual shape, basically a long, shallow rectangle. For basic navigation it works, but I found myself using the touch screen more than I normally do on a 13-inch touch-enabled ultrabook.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 13-inch screen has a 1,920x1,080-pixel native resolution, which is increasingly common in laptops of all sizes and prices. It's an IPS screen, which means that it looks good even from side viewing angles -- that's especially important for a tablet.

Sony Vaio Duo 13
Video HDMI
Audio Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data 2 USB 3.0, SD card/Memory Stick reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC
Optical drive None

Unlike detachable-screen hybrids that force you to choose whether the ports will be on the base or the screen, the Vaio Duo 13 has them all along the rear edge. Two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, and an SD card slot (that also accepts Memory Stick cards -- this is a Sony, after all) are fine for a slim tablet-minded system, and I appreciated the physical volume controls, placed on the bottom panel, which is the back of the tablet when the system is in tablet mode.

With one of Intel's new fourth-generation Core i5 CPUs, you're going to get excellent application performance from the Duo 13. In our benchmark tests, the fourth-gen Core i5 gave reasonably close performance to a low-voltage Core i7 from the previous Intel generation. But frankly, in either case it's more horsepower than mainstream consumers need, as systems such as this will spend most of their time Web surfing, playing HD video, or engaging in social tasks. The updated HD4400 integrated graphics may be a bit better than the HD4000 graphics pre-Haswell machines, but keep in mind that some new Intel-powered laptops have even better HD5000 GPUs -- but honestly, none of these are going to come close to even a basic discrete GPU from Nvidia.

One area where the Duo 13 kills the competition is battery life. Each of the initial Intel fourth-generation Core i-series laptops we've tested has turned in impressive battery life scores, but the Duo 13 is especially good, running for 8 hours and 53 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. That's a great score, and it will be interesting to see how the new 13-inch MacBook Air matches up, with Apple claiming 12 full hours from that system.

Conclusion
To its credit, Sony took a system that was better in concept than execution -- the original Duo 11 -- and has made significant upgrades and changes, all of which make it a better product. The 13-inch screen is more useful than the smaller 11-inch version, the addition of a (tiny) touch pad is a big step forward, and the redesigned hinge is better than the overly fussy one on the original.

That said, there's still a major hurdle here. No matter how many improvements have gone into the Duo 13, there just may be no real case to be made for a slider-style PC. For tablet use, a pure slate works better. For laptop use, something with an adjustable screen angle and a full-size touch pad is what you want. And, if you really need a hybrid device, models with detachable or rotating screens are more flexible and don't leave the display constantly exposed to the elements. The Duo 13 is nicely put together, but hard to actually recommend for anyone in the real world.

Find out more about how we test laptops.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

System configurations

Sony Vaio Duo 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,659MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 128GB SSD

Sony Vaio Pro 11
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,748MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 4400; 128GB SSD

Asus Transformer Book TX300
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; HD1 SanDisk 128GB SSD, HD2 500GB 5,400rpm Hitachi

Toshiba Kirabook
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2GHz Intel Core i7-3667U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; 256GB Toshiba SSD

Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U; 6GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 4000; HD1 24GB SSD, HD2 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive

Sony_VAIO_13_Duo_35781324_04.jpg
7.5

Sony Vaio Duo 13

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 8Battery 9Support 7
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