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Sony Vaio Tap 20 review: Crazy enough to work

Mashing together tablet and desktop, the Sony Vaio Tap 20 might just be the most interesting Windows 8-launch PC.

Rich Brown Former Senior Editorial Director - Home and Wellness
Rich was the editorial lead for CNET's Home and Wellness sections, based in Louisville, Kentucky. Before moving to Louisville in 2013, Rich ran CNET's desktop computer review section for 10 years in New York City. He has worked as a tech journalist since 1994, covering everything from 3D printing to Z-Wave smart locks.
Expertise Smart home, Windows PCs, cooking (sometimes), woodworking tools (getting there...)
Rich Brown
8 min read

What, you thought desktops were immune from the tabletization sweeping over Windows 8 laptops?

Sony Vaio Tab 20

Sony Vaio Tap 20

The Good

By slapping a battery inside a 20-inch touch-screen all-in-one to make the <b>Sony Vaio Tap 20</b>, the company has given birth to a new PC category with great potential in tech-savvy homes.

The Bad

The touch screen has some frustrating drag, and Sony made a few missteps among some otherwise reasonable sacrifices for portability and price.

The Bottom Line

A compelling experiment in tablet-desktop hybridization, the Sony Vaio Tap 20 is a great fit for home tech enthusiasts willing to try something new.

You could reasonably feel skeptical about the Sony Vaio Tap 20. For a 20-inch all-in-one touch-screen desktop with no optical drive and a low-voltage Core i5 chip, $999 seems like a lot to ask. But thanks to a built-in battery and a semiportable design, the Tap 20 might be the most unique Windows 8-launch PC.

The appeal of this desktop-tablet hybrid is that it addresses a problem that has nagged all-in-one makers for years. Often pitched as a kitchen PC, a secondary home entertainment center, or some kind of family organizational kiosk, the all-in-one has always fallen short of its ambition to elevate the humble desktop PC. A tablet or a laptop can do all of those things, often at a lower price, and more conveniently due to their smaller size. Those mobile devices also don't require a power cable.

By shedding the cord, at least in 3-to-4-hour doses, Sony's new PC can offer true short-range portability. It also brings with it a larger screen than you'll find on most current mobile devices. The Vaio Tap 20 won't be for everyone, but I won't be surprised if its in-home flexibility attracts an enthusiast niche.

One key to straddling the line between desktop and tablet is finding the right display size. If the screen is too small, you might as well just make a laptop. Go too large and you hurt usability. The Tap 20 measures 19.75 inches wide, 12.13 inches high, and, at the thickest point of its tapered back panel, 1.5 inches deep. It weighs just under 11.25 pounds.

You can imagine the Tap 20 or a competing product perhaps weighing less, or having a thinner display, but overall Sony appears to have achieved a reasonable balance between desktop size and power and tablet convenience.

The display itself is covered in glass, but the body is all soft, rounded plastic, with grip-friendly indents along the left and right edges on the back panel. You most likely won't carry the Tap 20 around in a backpack or a briefcase, but the average adult should be able to move it from room to room or up and down stairs with little difficulty. And while 11 pounds is almost eight times the weight of an iPad, the Tap 20 isn't so heavy that it's uncomfortable to use in your lap for an extended period.

When you set the Tap 20 on your lap like a tablet, or lay it down flat on a coffee table, the touch screen becomes the most natural way to interact with it. For general navigation and inputting single commands, the touch screen feels as responsive as that of a typical smartphone. You might notice some physical drag on your finger in apps that require continuous contact, like air hockey or art programs. The drag isn't bad enough to spoil the entire experience, but it's annoying when you encounter it.

In desktop mode, with the stand fully extended from the back panel, the Vaio Tap 20 takes up about 7 inches of desktop real estate, front to back, and not counting the included wireless mouse and keyboard. The power cable plugs into a port on the right side of the system, and leads down to a laptop-size power brick. Anyone with an aversion to cables will welcome the small power brick, although you can imagine an opportunity for wireless charging if the battery-powered all-in-one idea takes off.

Sony Vaio Tap 20 Vizio CA27-A1 HP Pavilion 23-1000z
Price $999 $1,149 $699
Display size/resolution 20-inch, 1,600x900 pixels 27-inch, 1,920x1,080 pixels 23-inch, 1,920x1,080 pixels
CPU 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M 3.6GHz AMD A-6 5400K
Memory 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM 4GB 1,333MHZ DDR3 SDRAM 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM
Graphics 64MB Intel HD Graphics 4000 1GB Nvidia Geforce GT 640M LE 512MB AMD Radeon HD7540D
Hard drives 750GB, 5,400rpm 1TB, 7,200rpm 1TB, 7,200rpm
Optical drive None None dual-layer DVD burner
Networking Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless, NFC Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless
Operating system Windows 8 (64-bit) Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit) Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit)

Looking down the Vaio Tap 20's primary features list, you'll see that Sony made some very clear sacrifices for the sake of portability and price. The 20-inch display makes sense as a way to keep the Tap 20's size and weight down, and in order to manage heat and battery life, Sony chose an ultralow-voltage 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 mobile CPU. The absence of an optical drive is conspicuous, but likely helps keep the Tap 20's thickness in check, and it's not out of keeping with other Windows 8 PCs.

The cuts for price are another issue. Among those, I count the 1,600x900-pixel-resolution display, the 750GB hard drive, and the absence of an HDMI input. Sony can reasonably argue that keeping the price under $1,000 makes the Tap 20 easier to consider as a tablet or laptop alternative. The screen also looks good enough and the hard drive is large enough that they don't present huge stumbling blocks to the Tap 20's functionality.

The absence of an HDMI input hurts. With that port, you could have connected the Sony to any video source in your home and used it as a secondary display. You can expand the Vaio's video capabilities with a USB-powered optical drive, or even a USB TV tuner, but a true HDMI input would make it far easier to connect the Sony to a cable box, a game console, or other entertainment devices, and without the hassle of a Windows installation.

It also has a dubious feature in its Near Field Communication "capability." I use the quotes because the Tap 20's NFC doesn't seem to work. I tried sending photos from an NFC-equipped Sony laptop, a Sony smartphone, and smartphones from Nokia and Samsung. I got as far as the Tap 20 making an electronic trickling noise when it recognized the existence of another NFC device. With the laptop, I also saw a pop-up window asking for permission to receive the file. That's as far as it got.

I'll grant that the NFC experience could improve with the right software update. I'd still rather have an HDMI input.

Other features include a 800p/1-megapixel Webcam, an SD card slot, a pair of USB 3.0 jacks, and analog headphone and microphone inputs. Sony also boasts a video engine from its Bravia TVs in the Tap 20. The impact on video was the same as with the Vaio L-Series all-in-one I reviewed earlier this year. The Bravia engine can improve color vibrancy in some cases, but overdoes the sharpness in others. Overall the benefits aren't particularly game-changing. At least the Tap 20's Dolby-assisted audio output gets sufficiently loud, although you will need to dig into the settings to address some tinniness from the default setup.

I mentioned the Tap 20's small power brick earlier. It can be small thanks in part to this PC's low-voltage variant of an Intel Core i5 mobile processor. Yes, low voltage means slower performance, and that's reflected in the Core i5's 1.7GHz core clock speed. Standard-voltage third-generation Core i5 mobile CPUs start at 2.5GHz. The lower voltage, which also reduce the speed of the embedded Intel HD Graphics 4000 graphics processor, improves the Tap 20's battery life, and also limits its heat output. Both benefits are important for the Tap 20 as a mobile device.

Despite its low-power CPU, the Tap 20 gives respectable performance running standard Windows applications. It even trades wins with the slightly more expensive Windows 7-powered Vizio CA21-A1 and its full-powered Core i5 CPU.

In a first for our desktop benchmarking regimen, we also ran our battery drain test on the Vaio Tap 20. It posted 3 hours, 42 minutes of battery life in our video-focused battery drain test, giving you plenty of time to watch a movie. Expect more time if you're just browsing around, less for 3D gaming. But since you're not meant to take the Tap 20 too far afield, chances are the power cord will be nearby if you end up needing a recharge.

Should you ever want to change the battery, Sony was smart enough to make it user-replaceable. A plastic panel on the back of the case pops off easily to reveal the battery compartment.

For its gaming capabilities, I found the Tap 20 was able to play the forgiving Torchlight II with no problems at maximum detail settings. I dialed the image quality down to low in Borderlands 2 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and while neither game was completely smooth, both were still reasonably playable. As noted earlier, touch gaming can be awkward for games like Air Hockey that require sustained contact with the screen due to occasional drag, but it works fine for games and other programs that rely on tap-based input.

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio Tap 20 (Core i5-3317U, October 2012)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio Tap 20 (Core i5-3317U, October 2012)

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
Sony Vaio Tap 20 (Core i5-3317U, October 2012)

Cinebench score
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs  
Rendering single CPU  
Sony Vaio Tap 20 (Core i5-3317U, October 2012)

I'm not sure about the level of demand for large, mobile touch-screen PCs, but a Lenovo product manager told me that his company is working on a design similar to the Vaio Tap 20. If that Lenovo product emerges, it suggests that Sony isn't the only vendor that sees some value in these hybrid desktop-tablet waters. If there is demand, one has to ask: if you can build an ultrabook with a long-lasting battery, a fast CPU, and a high-resolution screen, why not a desktop equivalent that's sleeker than Sony's design?

Which is not to say that the Vaio Tap 20 is unattractive or that its design is flawed. Sony's rounded plastic chassis practically invites you to grab it, and it's sturdy enough that you feel confident lifting it up and and moving it around. This PC is also fast enough, and generally capable enough that I can recommend the Vaio Tap 20 to those who are willing to experiment with its unique mobile possibilities.

If this concept does catch on, it's tempting to explore how it might improve. It's almost as if this battery-equipped all-in-one desktop is showing that the PC industry still has room for innovation.

Performance and battery testing conducted by Joseph Kaminski. Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

Comparison systems:

HP Pavilion 23-1000z
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (SP1); 3.6GHz AMD A-6 5400K; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 512MB AMD Radeon HD 7540D embedded graphics chip; 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Vizio CA21-A1
Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (SP1); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-3210M; 4GB 1,333MHz DDR3 SDRAM; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 640M LE graphics card; 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive

Sony Vaio Tap 20
Microsoft Windows 8 64-bit; 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U; 4GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM; Intel HD Graphics 4000 embedded graphics chip; 750GB 5,400rpm hard drive

Sony Vaio Tab 20

Sony Vaio Tap 20

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 6Performance 7Support 7