At this point in PC history, it's almost more surprising to see a new high-profile laptop without some sort of bendy, twist hybrid design than one with it. That's why you won't be shocked to see that Sony's new flagship midsize Vaio is more than simply another slim clamshell.
The Vaio Flip 15 still faces the same question that has bedeviled other hybrids before: How do you solve the age-old (or at least a few years old) problem of building a tablet and laptop into a single device? We've certainly seen plenty of possible solutions over the years, from fully detachable screens, to slide-out keyboards, to screens that twist or rotate around, but there's still room for improvement.
As one might guess from the name of the Flip, the system's transformative abilities come from a screen that, well, flips. On paper, that sounds a lot like Lenovo's successful Yoga line, with a two-way hinge that folds all the way backward, forming a slatelike tablet. The main issue people have with that design is that the keyboard, while deactivated, ends up pointing out from the bottom of the tablet, which can be awkward and uncomfortable.
The Flip solves that particular problem by adding a hinge to the center of the upper lid, forming a horizontal line from left to right. The lid folds back along that line, allowing the screen to tilt back. First, it flips back to form a kiosk mode, with the screen pointing out from the back of the system (away from the keyboard and touch pad). Then the lid can be pushed shut to form a slate-style tablet, and unlike the Yoga, the keyboard is on the inside.
In practice, it works a lot more like Dell's XPS 12, which also has a horizontal center hinge, although in that case it rotates the entire screen through a static outer rim. It's also very similar to the Acer Aspire R7, which instead has its hinge on the end of a free-floating arm connecting the lid to the base. The Vaio Flip is sleeker-looking than either of those, and also has the advantage of being available in 13-, 14-, and 15-inch models, making it one of the only midsize hybrids.
The Flip, in all three sizes, is slim, well-built, and looks and feels very high-end, and is made of silver-and-black aluminum, with a backlit keyboard, optional active pen stylus, and optional Nvidia graphics on the 14- and 15-inch versions. Our $1,199 configuration of the Flip 15 includes a fourth-gen Intel Core i7 CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive, but no discrete GPU. Entry level Core i3 versions start at $799.
Unlike many hybrids, the Vaio Flip wisely doesn't compromise the laptop form, and in its clamshell mode, you'd be hard-pressed to even tell that this is a part-time tablet. As a tablet, it's somewhat less successful, as the screen does not fold down exactly flat, leaving its screen at a bit of an angle, making it awkward to hold or carry.
|Sony Vaio Flip 15||Vizio CT15T-B1||Acer R7-571-6858 Touch Notebook|
|Display size/resolution||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,082 touch screen||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||15.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.8GHz Intel Core i7 4500U||2.4GHz Intel Core i7-3635QM||1.8GHz Intel Core i5-3337U|
|PC Memory||8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||1,792MB Intel HD Graphics 4400||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000||32MB Intel HD Graphics 4000|
|Storage||1TB, 7,200rpm hard drive||256GB solid-state drive||500GB, 5,400 rpm hard drive|
|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)|
Design and features
The Vaio Flip 15 is a slim 15-inch midsize laptop with a silver brushed-aluminum lid and keyboard tray and black accents. It's one of the sharper-looking 15-inch laptops I've seen this year, and has a bit of a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro vibe.
The lid and keyboard tray both extend out from the sides of the base slightly, creating the optical illusion that the system is even thinner than it is. At a hair over five pounds, this isn't a carry-it-around-every-day laptop, but it's fine for occasional trips to the office or coffee shop.
The interior is eye-catching in that it's nearly monochromatic. The same brushed-metal look from the lid extends to the wrist rest and area surrounding the keyboard, which has silver keys against a silver base, and is backlit in white, creating a bright, clean overall look.
The keyboard is similar to Sony's other island-style keyboards, a style the company has been using longer than even Apple. The key size and spacing are excellent, although there's a lot of unused space on all sides, meaning that a larger keyboard or a separate numberpad could easily fit.
A large touch pad works well, especially in conjunction with the touch screen. Multitouch gestures, usually a sticking point for Windows laptops, are smooth here, especially the all-important two-finger scroll.
Sony packs in a lot of bonus software with the Vaio Flip (and much of it also appears on other Vaio laptops as well). The highlights include ArtRage Studio, a painting and drawing program, and Movie Studio, Acid, and Sound Forge, which are long-standing video and audio recording/editing apps. There's an optional active stylus available, which seems like a natural tie-in to using ArtRage in the system's tablet mode, although we really do live in a post-stylus world now, for the most part.
While the Vaio Flip, thanks to its slim design, extra software, and solid keyboard and touch pad, works well as a traditional clamshell laptop, how does it work as a tablet? The "flip" hinge is a worthwhile idea, as it maintains the integrity of the clamshell form, a key point for any hybrid. If you didn't already know how it works, the folding mechanism might go by unnoticed, and the fine black line bisecting the back of the lid could be misinterpreted as merely a design flourish.
With the lid open, you first have to slide a physical switch located just above the keyboard from the "lock" to the "release" position (Sony loves having little switches on laptops, going back to its GPU on/off switches on older Vaios). Slide the switch over, and the lid still stays in place, held by a strong magnet. But give it a firm push from the top, and the lid folds back, flipping over 180 degrees. The center hinge is so minimalist, it hardly looks sturdy enough for aggressive flipping, but in several days of hands-on use, it gave me no problems.
A bigger issue is that, when folded down into tablet mode, the system doesn't actually lie flat. Like the Acer Aspire R7, the tablet mode leaves a gap between one edge of the screen and the rest of the base. The resulting shape is fine for lap or tabletop use, and you might even like the slight incline for lap typing, but it's also awkward to hold or carry. I'd call this a laptop/almost-tablet hybrid, as it never quite becomes a slate.
The big 15.6-inch screen is a real highlight. The native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels is what you'd expect, but the image is especially clear, colorful, and bright. First, this is an IPS screen (that stands for in-plane switching), which gives it excellent off-axis viewing. Second, Sony says it uses some of its TV group's display know-how to create laptop screens now, which involves snazzy-sounding marketing terms like Triluminos and X-Reality. On the downside, the screen is especially glossy and glare-prone. There is also a 2,880x1,620-pixel-resolution upgrade option, but our review unit didn't have that.
Audio is good-to-excellent, and is another area in which Sony generally excels. In this case, simply having a larger chassis with room for larger speakers is a big part of the appeal.
|Sony Vaio Flip 15|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack|
|Data||3 USB 3.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Connections, performance, and battery
Not having an optical drive in a 15-inch laptop is still a concept that takes a little getting used to, but the Flip 15 is thin enough to excuse it, especially as it works in a full Ethernet jack, albeit one with a jawlike hinge.
Our review configuration includes a 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U CPU, 8GB of RAM, and a big 1TB hard drive. It's a platter drive, but of the faster 7,200rpm variety. Other recent high-end 15-inch laptops, including the Vizio CT15 and 15-inch Retina MacBook Air performed faster on our benchmark tests, but at these higher performance levels, you'll hardly notice the difference, even under heavy multitasking, such as playing back HD video, surfing the Web, and working on office documents at the same time.
Nvidia's entry-level GeForce 735M graphics card is available as an option on some models, and is an interesting way to make this a more gaming-friendly machine, but wasn't included in this review sample.
While a 15-inch laptop can be forgiven for having unimpressive battery life, if its also being pitched as a tablet, it had better be able to run for a long time in your lap or on the couch. In the case of the Vaio Flip 15, the system ran for 4 hours and 24 minutes on our video playback battery drain test. That's underwhelming, but not unacceptable. The very similar Acer Aspire R7 ran for about 20 minutes less, while 15-inch laptops from Apple and Vizio added more than two hours.
There are few bigger-screen hybrids right now, likely because the mechanics of flipping or folding a 15-inch or larger screen is complicated compared with a smaller 11-inch or 13-inch one. Sony does an excellent job of making its fold-over Flip 15 screen mechanism feel smooth and secure, but the odd decision to not have the tablet mode lie completely flat makes the system's tablet mode awkward to hold or carry.
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Sony Vaio Flip 15
Windows 8 (64-bit) 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U; 8GB DDR3 SDRA 1,600MHz; 1792B (shared) Intel HD 4400 Graphics; 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive
Windows 8 (64-bit); 2.4GHz Intel Core i7-3635QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB Intel HD 4000 Graphics ; HD 256GB 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; HD 1 24GB SSD HD 2 500GB 5,400rpm hard drive
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch w/Retina Display (June 2012)
OS X 10.7.4 Lion; 2.3GHz Intel Core i7-3610QM; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 650M + 512MB Intel HD 4000; 256GB Apple SSD