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Vaio Z Canvas review: This Windows tablet is more powerful than a Surface Pro 4

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The Good The Vaio Z Canvas offers the performance of a 15-inch MacBook Pro in a 12-inch Windows 10 tablet, with a unique design that makes it suitable as a mobile workstation.

The Bad Vaio's included stylus isn't as responsive as those on competing tablets. It's pretty pricey for a PC.

The Bottom Line Creative professionals may be tempted by the Vaio Z Canvas, but a more comfortable MacBook Pro or Surface Pro will generally be the better buying decision.

7.5 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 6

I've never wanted a tablet. Never saw the point. If I'm at home, I've got a desktop. On the go, I want a laptop for typing. But there are those people for whom the pen is mightier -- people who paint and draw and sketch. These are the people who might consider the Vaio Z Canvas.

vaio-7644-001.jpg

The Vaio Z Canvas.

Josh Miller/CNET


Last year, Sony's stylish, pricy Vaio PCs quietly disappeared when Sony sold off the brand. Now, Vaio is back -- as its very own company -- with a tablet aimed at professionals. Starting at $2,200 in the United States, the new 12.3-inch Vaio Z Canvas is a full Windows 10 computer with a detachable keyboard, a battery-powered stylus, a ultra-high-res screen and enough horsepower to run video editing software and to create 3D animation.


We're talking about a 47-watt, H-series Intel Core i7 processor with Intel's most powerful Iris Pro graphics on tap, up to 16 gigabytes of memory and 1TB of solid-state storage. It's fast. I hooked it up to a pair of 1080p monitors and used it as my work desktop for a week, using its factory-calibrated screen (which displays 95 percent of the Adobe RGB color spectrum) to compare photos from different smartphone cameras while also dealing with dozens of Chrome browser tabs. It didn't break a sweat.

But again, I'm not the target audience for this computer. So I found someone better.

CBS Interactive art director Viva Tung at her workstation.

Sean Hollister/CNET


Viva Tung is an art director at CNET. She creates pieces of attractive, functional 3D art that appear in our videos, and she uses a stylus every single day. She has a Wacom Intuos4 tablet : a huge, flat drawing surface which she hooks up to her Mac Pro to control two monitors simultaneously. She's gotten so good at using that stylus that she prefers it to a mouse.

Could the Vaio Z Canvas replace her Mac Pro and Wacom Intuos 4?

The answer was no. "My Wacom is way more responsive," said Tung, the first time she took the Z Canvas stylus for a spin. Sure enough, watching her work, I could see the Z Canvas's mouse cursor lagging behind her movements. It just couldn't keep up.

Tung also didn't enjoy how small the 12.3-inch surface could feel under her pen. "Aiming at something is difficult without looking at the tablet," she related. And when she discovered that her stylus could only control one of her external monitors at a time -- not both of them -- it was pretty clear the Z Canvas wouldn't be a good desktop replacement for her.

Press this button, and up pops a menu filled with customizable touchscreen shortcuts like Cut, Copy and Paste.

Josh Miller/CNET

But what if Tung had a tough deadline and needed to take some work home? As small as her Mac Pro might be, the jet black canister isn't exactly portable, and a MacBook Pro doesn't have the stylus she prefers using. I wondered if she could work more comfortably with a Vaio Z Canvas in her bag, and figured the answer was no.

I underestimated the Vaio's potency. The key, she told me, would be if the computer could render 3D animation on the go. (Tung got her new Mac Pro when it turned out a MacBook Pro couldn't handle her intensive workflow.)

We tried rendering out nearly 2GB of animation she'd created for a CNET Smart Home video using a program called Cinema4D. We started it on the Mac Pro and Z Canvas simultaneously, and watched as each of the Core i7 processor's CPU cores lit up to render the scene. The Mac Pro finished far faster, of course, in just 2 and half minutes -- but it only took 6 minutes for the Z Canvas to complete. "It's pretty good!" Tung exclaimed. Not bad for a computer that fits in a tiny messenger bag.

The Vaio Z Canvas vs. the Wacom Intuos4.

Sean Hollister/CNET

When all was said and done, Tung still had some reservations, like the annoyance of switching to Windows 10 when she's so used to OS X on a Mac. But she could see herself taking a Z Canvas home. "Now that I see how it renders, I would. To finish up something."

So, what's the Z Canvas like to use as a general-purpose computer? That's a question I am qualified to answer.

Design

Take the strong anodized aluminum base of a MacBook Pro, squeeze it down to 12 inches, then insert a touchscreen. That's the Vaio Z Canvas in a nutshell: a squat silver slate. You'd find it pretty thick and heavy next to a iPad, but it's actually remarkably thin and light compared to laptops with the same amount of processing power.

Vaio Z Canvas spec comparison

Vaio Z Canvas Surface Pro 4 Surface Book 13-inch MacBook Pro 15-inch MacBook Pro
Starting price (USD) $2,199 $899 $1,499 $1,299 $1,999
Price with keyboard $2,199 $1,030 $1,499 $1,299 $1,999
Display 12.3-inch 2,560x1,704-pixel resolution 12.3-inch 2,736x1,824-pixel resolution 13.5-inch 3,000x2,000-pixel resolution 13.3-inch 2,560x1,600-pixel resolution 15.4-inch 2,880x1,800-pixel resolution
Pixel density 250 267 267 227 220
Dimensions (imperial) 11.85 x 8.39 x 0.54 inches 11.50 x 7.93 x 0.33 inches 8.67 x 12.3 x 0.30 inches 12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71 inches 14.13 x 9.73 x 0.71 inches
Dimensions (metric) 301 x 213 x 13.7mm 292 x 201 x 8.4mm 220 x 312 x 7.7mm 314 x 219 x 18mm 359 x 247 x 18mm
Weight 2.67 lbs (1211g) 1.69 lbs (766g) for Core M, 1.73 lbs (786g) for Core i 1.6 lbs (726g) 3.48 lbs (1580g) 4.49 lbs (2040g)
Thickness with keyboard 0.71 inches (18mm) 0.51 inches (13.1mm) 0.9 inches (22.8mm) 0.71 inches (18mm) 0.71 inches (18mm)
Weight with keyboard 3.42 lbs (1551g) 2.33 lbs (1057g) for Core M, 2.37 lbs (1075g) for Core i 3.48 lbs (1579g) 3.48 lbs (1580g) 4.49 lbs (2040g)
Operating system Windows 10 Pro Windows 10 Pro Windows 10 Pro OS X El Capitan OS X El Capitan
Processors 2.2GHz 4-core Intel Core i7-4770HQ Up to 6th-gen 2-core Intel Core i7 Up to 6th-gen 2-core Intel Core i7 Up to 5th-gen 3.1GHz 2-core Intel Core i7 Up to 5th-gen 2.8GHz 4-core Intel Core i7
Graphics Intel Iris Pro 5200 Up to Intel Iris 540 Intel HD 520 or Nvidia GeForce Intel Iris 6100 Up to AMD Radeon R9 M370X
Storage 256GB / 512GB / 1TB 128GB / 256GB / 512GB / 1TB 128GB / 256GB / 512GB / 1TB 128GB / 256GB / 512GB 256GB / 512GB / 1TB
RAM 8GB / 16GB 4GB / 8GB / 16GB 8GB / 16GB 8GB / 16GB 16GB
Battery No mfgr estimate Up to 9 hours video playback Up to 12 hours video playback Up to 12 hours video playback Up to 9 hours video playback
Networking 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 2x USB 3.0, 1x Mini DisplayPort, 1x HDMI, 1x SD card reader, 1x Gigabit Ethernet 1x USB 3.0, 1x Mini DisplayPort, 1x SurfaceConnect (charging and docking), 1 x headset jack 2x USB 3.0, 1x SD card reader, 1x Mini DisplayPort, 1x SurfaceConnect (charging and docking), 1x headset jack 2x USB 3.0, 2x Thunderbolt 2, 1x HDMI, 1x SD card reader, 1x headset jack, 1x MagSafe 2 (charging) 2x USB 3.0, 2x Thunderbolt 2, 1x HDMI, 1x SD card reader, 1x headset jack, 1x MagSafe 2 (charging)
Cameras 720p front webcam, 8MP back 5MP front, 8MP back, Windows Hello face authentication 5MP front, 8MP back 720p front webcam 720p front webcam
Hinge Freely positionable from flat to upright Freely positionable to 150 degrees Freely positionable to 125 degrees, tablet reversible Freely positionable to 135 degrees Freely positionable to 135 degrees
Touchscreen Yes Yes Yes No No
Extras Included stylus and detachable wireless keyboard cover w/ built-in touchpad Included stylus, $129 Type Cover, $159 Type Cover with fingerprint sensor Included keyboard dock with built-in Nvidia GPU, included stylus Force Touch trackpad Force Touch trackpad

While I wouldn't say the Canvas is attractive, it's got a certain workmanlike sensibility. I haven't tried dropping it or bashing it with tools, but it feels like it would survive a couple beatings. Vaio claims the tempered glass screen is designed to withstand a fall from any angle. Which is good because -- at 2.67 pounds -- this tablet weighs more than some laptops .

The Vaio Z Canvas has a durable anodized aluminum chassis.

Josh Miller/CNET


But gosh, does the Z Canvas have a gorgeous display underneath that edge-to-edge glass frame. If we're talking about crisp, clear and beautiful displays, the 12.3-inch, 2,560x1,704-resolution panel on this PC is right up there with the Retina displays you'll find on an iPad or high-end MacBook . I'm a bit of an amateur photographer, and it's an absolute joy to look at my pictures on this screen.

Know that 12.3 diagonal inches can make for a pretty small viewing area, and the backlight bleeds a bit, too; if you look at the screen from off-center, you can see bright white lines where the borders of the screen meet the glass-covered bezels. Not a reason for concern, just something to be aware of.

The six-sided tempered glass is designed to survive a fall.

Josh Miller/CNET

The built-in kickstand and keyboard are going to be a major reason to buy or to avoid the Vaio Z Canvas, depending on your perspective. I can't emphasize this enough: this is not a convertible laptop. It's a tablet that belongs on a desk. The clever spring-loaded kickstand isn't designed to prop it up on your lap; it's designed to resist the pressure of your finger or stylus tip as you press down to draw, and yet easily let you lift it up to any angle. (It does that beautifully, by the way.)

Similarly, the detachable keyboard cover doesn't have any kind of hinge to permanently connect it to the tablet. Instead, think of it as a wireless keyboard and touchpad that you can use to enter keyboard shortcuts with one hand while you use the stylus with the other. It does physically connect to the tablet to charge while it's protecting your screen, which is pretty cool.

You can place the wireless keyboard wherever you like, and use the stylus with the other hand.

Josh Miller/CNET

And while you're getting a thin keyboard and a pretty small touchpad here, both of them work surprisingly well. I'm typing these very words on the Z Canvas keyboard, and I'm finding the keys well-spaced and very responsive. I just wish the keys had a bit more cushion; I wouldn't want to write a novel on here.

Not that I ever would. The Vaio Z Canvas makes the most sense when docked with a whole bunch of peripherals, including an external mouse and keyboard. I just prop the tablet up on a stand, hook up a pair of big 24-inch external monitors, an Ethernet cable, a mouse, keyboard and some headphones, and then my three-screen desktop setup is complete. If I want to go to a coffee shop, I just rip out all the cables, slap on the keyboard cover, and fold it under my arm. Easy.

The Vaio's also brilliant for editing my dSLR photos on the fly if I go out on a shoot, thanks to the full-size SD slot and fantastic screen. I also saw it last 5 hours on a charge in our fairly lightweight video rundown test, which probably means you wouldn't want to edit a long video without the AC adapter -- but it should be just fine for a photography session.

Plenty of ports for docking.

Josh Miller/CNET

What's the catch? I can do everything I just mentioned with a 15-inch MacBook Pro ($1,999, £1,599, AU$2,799) just as easily, and without needing a flat surface to prop it up or a power brick. If you ask me, both the $1,028, £858, AU$1,548 Microsoft Surface Pro 4 plus Type Cover and $1,500, AU$2,299 Surface Book -- while a little slower at computing tasks -- have more comfortable keyboards and more responsive stylii than this machine.

Even the new $799, £679 or AU$1,249 iPad Pro has a better stylus. We found the $99, £79 or AU$165 Apple Pencil a little better for handwriting and rough sketching, though its library of professional editing software and keyboard shortcuts aren't nearly as robust as OS X or Windows.

Conclusion

If you only need a few of the things the Vaio Z Canvas can do, it's probably not the computer for you. It's a package deal, and you should know that package comes with a stylus that may not satisfy your needs. You should really try it out first if you get the chance.

But if you're dead set on an exceptionally portable, powerful Windows tablet, it's not a bad choice either. The Vaio Z Canvas is way too expensive for anyone outside a niche audience of creative professionals, but it offers those folks more performance than we've seen in a computer this size before.

And that impressive display of engineering might signal better things to come. Maybe Vaio can make this machine even more powerful, or cheaper, or figure out how to let us use it as a laptop as well. This is just the first generation of the new Vaio computer, and I'm already looking forward to the next one.

Multimedia Multitasking Test 3.0

Vaio Z Canvas
249
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
505
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
519
Microsoft Surface Book
522
Lenovo Yoga 900
586

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Vaio Z Canvas
173
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)
190
Lenovo Yoga 900
212
Microsoft Surface Book 4
213
Microsoft Surface Book
214
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
261

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015)
946
Microsoft Surface Book
684
Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2015)
574
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
392
Vaio Z Canvas
298

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

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