Ultrabooks, TRANSFORM! Sony slides into something better with the Sony Vaio Duo 13

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Sony has a long standing reputation as a not-always-leading but always good electronics manufacturer. Their products are predictably good, but the Sony Vaio Duo 11, while a good-looking and ultimately functional convertible Windows 8 tablet, was not very well received by reviewers. It suffered from a cramped keyboard, a lack of a track pad (substituting an optical track-nub), a complex conversion mechanism that had many exposed parts (sturdier than it looks, but one always felt like you were about to break it just by using it for what it was for), and most damning of all, a sub-5 hour battery life (4 and a half hours seemed to be the norm in reviews.

The Story:

If you were to look at the Vaio Duo 11, your opinion might vary. Mine was: “It’s a good idea, but sorry Sony. It needs MORE. No sell.”

Coincidentally, I did not buy a Vaio Duo 11 back in 2012. In fact, despite the fact that my Dell Inspiron 17r was aging and fast disintegrating under my rough and tumble treatment of all things gadget, I stuck with old “Banged-Up-Betty”, opting instead to replace the Win7 install with a Linux Mint 15 install for that “new computer feel”. After a happy as all get out year with Linux though, Betty had met her match and while still functional, the muleish Dell was no longer suited to travel around with me, being held together with duct tape and hope.

I needed a new computer.

I am a fastidious shopper when it comes to expensive things. Unlike many reviewers, who are actively sent testing machines for their reviews for cheap or free, I only get one shot at a computer, so it better be a good one.

Show me a campy 1980′s vampire flick in a $10 bargain bin and I will plop the Jefferson on the table immediately with no issues. But Betty cost me a plump $900 at the time, and had been carefully chosen based on my hardware wants and needs at the time. She’s still no slouch, but the light-gaming I’d expected to do with pulsing regularity never materialized in the face of a new PS3, and I kept it all in mind. The 17r was big, with a (at the time) gorgeous 1600 x 900 17.3 inch display and 6GB of DDR2 RAM (which is still ample enough) and a 2.2GHz Intel Second Gen Core i5 CPU and Intel HD 3000 graphics.

But as my life had taught me, big was not better, and I opted to downsize the screen size to a more manageable Ultrabook. If I was going to spend big bucks on an Ultrabook, I needed to balance price and features against my needs.

For reference, these were the primary contenders: The Lenovo Yoga 11s, The Yoga 13 Pro 2, and the Dell XPS 12. The Vaio Pro 11 and 13, as well as the new Duo 13, joined that list later, and rocketed to the top of that list immediately.

Ultimately, the Duo 13 won, and I’m happy it did.

My Configuration:

$1200 dollars and a very fidgety waiting period later, I had my shiny Vaio Duo 13.

Here’s what that hard-earned and spent cheddar bought me:

Windows 8 64 Bit (now upgraded to Windows 8.1)

4GB of DDR3 RAM

A shiny new Intel 4th Gen Core i5 “Haswell” processor currently clocked at 1.6 GHz (an optional maximum of 2.6 GHz if I feel the need for speed upon me)

Intel HD 4400 Integrated Graphics

128 GB of Solid State Drive Storage

A full sized SD card (and Sony Memory Stick) slot

A full size HDMI output port (none of that pesky “micro HDMI” here!)

A 1080p Touchscreen using Sony “Triluminos” technology with 5 point multitouch

An active N-Trig digitizer and included digital pen

And two USB 3.0 ports

Software:

Sony didn’t bother to mess too much with the software. I’ve found most everything they’ve included to either be useful or unobtrusive, and the rest is stock Windows 8. Sony’s Note Anytime app is well suited to the N-Trig pen, and perfect for a quick sketch or jot of note taking. ArtRage Studio Pro 3 is included, and runs in the desktop environment, and is a perfectly usable painting program tailored to your pen as well. Vaio Care is a very nice system care app that helps in the troubleshooting process immensely, and Vaio Update is of course Sony’s proprietary update software to download Vaio and Duo centric drivers and updates. You’ll want to hang on to that one.

I don’t understand anybody’s gripes with the changes Microsoft made to Windows here. I disregarded the manual entirely and just threw myself in immediately. Adapting to Microsoft’s new Windows vision is rather like traveling to another country: you’ve got to stop living in the guidebook and wishing for your old country. Throw yourself in! Try the crazy new foods, get lost, ask a few complete strangers for directions, figure your way back to the beaten path, and relax at the end of the day with your new found experience (that you taught yourself, by the way. Pat yourself on the back!)

Windows 8 is to Windows 7 as Britain is to America: there’s actually a lot that’s rather similar, but they will always be fundamentally different and you will never mistake one for the other.

I later updated the machine to Windows 8.1, which is largely the same Windows 8, but with more start button, a smoother interface, and lots of tweaks that make it more intuitive. It also includes a much nicer tutorial for getting you familiar with the system, but it took a LOT of driver upgrades to get the system ready for 8.1, so be prepared for a lot of restarting.

Because this is full Windows 8/8.1, it can run Windows 7 apps in the desktop environment, so you shouldn’t have to worry about  compatibility with software you’ve already purchased. If you’re making the switch from Vista or Xp however… well… sorry.

Hardware: Chances are, you are reading this review because a) you really love my blog that much or (more likely), b: you are here to find out just how Sony pulled off the Duo slider-style convertible the second time around.

Worry not. They’ve learned a lot this time.

The Sony Vaio Duo 13 is a gorgeous, science fiction looking machine that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Star Trek movie or a gleaming sci-fi epic like Mass Effect (one of the reasons it caught my eye, actually). It has some sharp and space-age lines on it that fit perfectly with Sony’s typical future-chique design language.

In tablet mode, the view is dominated by the massive (by tablet standards) 13.3 inch 1920 x 1080p Triluminos display. Due to the way slider PC’s work, the screen is always exposed, so Sony used some tried and true tactics from the mobile sphere of things and reinforced the screen with the ever trusty Corning Gorilla Glass. It still won’t handle a drop onto a concrete floor with any measure of grace or physical integrity, but you can bung it around in a messenger bag just fine with few worries (various slip covers are available if you just don’t trust fortune to be on your side though).

A 2 megapixel webcam and a hardware (a physical button, rather than a touch button) Windows Key adorns the front, and on the bottom, you’ll find an “assist” button useful for calling aid to some of the more Sony-centric features, as well as some volume buttons that sit rather flush against the speaker grille. At least on my machine, the volume down button is a bit hard to find when going in blind, and also a bit difficult to wedge my fingertip into to press; oddly the volume up button does not have either of these issues, despite being made in exactly the same manner. On the upper left hand side, you’ll find a cooling intake, and a flush power button for powering on and off (long press) or putting to sleep and waking up (short press). The right side features another cooling intake, and a notch for a plastic clip with which you can attach the included digital pen (more on that later), but I just leave it off most of the time for a better tablet feel. Directly above this notch is a neat little retractable “ink well” to dip your pen in when in laptop mode so you’re not using the clip all the time. On a personal note, I find that it has a very classy and artsy flair which does not exactly irretrievably damage my ego.

The top edge features the primary heating vent and all your connectivity ports, which include full-sized HDMI and SD card ports. Kudos to Sony for keeping everything organized and in one place.

On the back, you will be treated to an 8 megapixel camera, and an NFC chip for bump file transfers.

One of the problems with the Vaio Duo 11 was the weight and the fickle slider mechanism; at 3 pounds, it was actually quite heavy for a mere 11 inch tablet, and the slider was stiff and difficult to actually figure out; I actually gave up trying to achieve a smooth transition during about 15 minutes of hands on time at a local computer store. The weight is just a hair’s mass smaller than the Duo 11, sitting at about 2.9 pounds, but while it is heavy for a tablet, it feels a little more appropriate given the subtly larger dimensions of the screen– the 13 actually has a similar size footprint to the 11, but the bigger screen will always remind you that this IS a tablet that becomes a fully featured laptop– say… 60% tablet and 40% laptop. In that respect, 2.9 pounds is actually something of a minor achievement for Sony here. The weight fits the size of the machine and keeps it from feeling cheap like a featherweight plastic tablet might. And in spite of its awkward tablet dimensions, the Duo 13 is waifishly thin and light in laptop mode, and well deserving of its much vaunted Ultrabook moniker.

Therein lies the other main issue Sony fixed. The new slider is marketed as a “Surf-Slider” to imply how easy it is, and while I may surf like a beached whale surfs, the slider is very smooth. On the top of the tablet is a groove that you hook a finger or two into, and just lifting up with some light effort will activate the slider, which gently springs the Duo into laptop mode, becoming secured by two tiny steel hooks. I actually worried before getting the laptop that the hooks might break if jarred too heavily, but while I refuse to subject my new and rather expensive machine to such stress-tests, I can feel pretty certain that, barring a massive impact which would destroy the rest of the machine anyway, those hooks are not about to bend or break on Sony’s watch.

The durability of the machine is not just limited to a Gorilla Glass screen and some hefty hookage though– Sony once again elected to make a premium laptop out of carbon fiber, which is lighter than metal and stronger than plastic because carbon fiber tends to flex rather than break. The carbon fiber body has a matte, rather than gloss, texture, which does a much better job about hiding the casual fingerprint that so many glass and plastic devices are plagued by. Unlike on the Vaio Pro line, there isn’t much flex as you use this machine, though I did notice some slight flexing in the middle of the keyboard if I was pounding away with extra vigor. Again, don’t drop it on a sidewalk or a street, but if you happen to drop it on a reasonably thick carpet, this will hold together, especially if dropped in tablet mode, and it will laugh at your home’s feeble attempts to murder it.

Unfortunately for some, the laptop mode fixes the screen angle to about a 145 degree angle that is not adjustable. Thankfully, the viewing angles are fantastic (we should all rue the day when Sony gets a display wrong. May such evil never come to pass!), and it brings the touchscreen closer to your hands which makes ouch input easier while not restricting access to the keyboard. As it stands, the pictures may make the tablet look a bit strange in laptop mode, but somehow, it works. And if you REALLY need to adjust the screen angle, you can pop it back into tablet mode (because it’s not exactly difficult anymore) and suddenly you have all the screen angles: you can even face it away from you! What other laptop does that? Put your hand down, Lenovo Yoga, and stop showing off!

When you open the Duo to laptop mode, two more heating vents are exposed, and you might guess from having 2 intakes and 3 vents (none of which face in the paradoxical directly-into-the-table/lap/blanket direction my old Dell favored) that an overheating laptop is not a real concern. You’d be right. This is a computer that really knows how to keep its cool. Also, on most laptops and full Intel Core I-series tablets, the CPU fan tends to make a lot of noticeable noise. Sony has somehow, and I still haven’t figured out exactly how, devised some means of making this the quietest fan I’ve ever heard– I have to actively hold the primary vent flush to my ear to hear it, even at high levels of CPU activity. I could inquire with the manufacturer how this technological devilry works, but I rather like to think Sony employs the services of a master wizard of Gandalf or Dumbledore levels of talent to make sure everything works as designed, and that is undoubtedly more interesting than the actual solution. So you heard it here first folks: Sony hires wizards.

The keyboard here is pretty standard Ultrabook fare: a regular, island style keypad (backlit, which everyone should expect at this price point, though it’s not perfectly even– not that I mind much, but it may concern some of you out there). The keys are flat and quiet, and, assuming you aren’t mashing your fingers into each key as you type, rather comfortable for long writing sessions. The keys are a bit on the small side of things, but they get the job done, especially important as I run a number of side projects as an aspiring novelist, so I type a LOT.

The real star here is the half-sized Synaptics trackpad, which is a huge step up from the tracknub on the Duo 11. It does well enough with major two finger gestures such as scrolling, and despite its cramped and claustrophobia inducing size, is one of the better trackpads I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with, even if it does run a bit on the slow end. It does not stutter or jump, and input is pinpoint accurate, which makes navigating the desktop environment a breeze. If you find it’s not up to a particular task, you still have the touchscreen baked in, as well as a handy pen for even more precise input, and with Bluetooth 4.0, you can of course bring your own mouse to the party if you don’t feel like the included options don’t do the present task justice. In my experience however, the trackpad is fast and accurate enough that I can manage a whole work day in the desktop environment with minimal to no need for touchscreen or pen input. The trackpad is good. It’s teeny and slender like the rest of the computer, but believe me, just like the rest of the machine, it’s better than you might think. A recent driver update by Sony improves the trackpad’s speed and sensitivity, and makes it even better, but it will always be small. But it’s also there.

If you don’t fancy the trackpad, the N-Trig digitizer enables the use of the included digital pen. There was a bit of wailing and moaning from pen enthusiasts that it used N-Trig and not Wacom, but I am not a pen enthusiast, so sorry guys. I can’t share in your lamentations. The digitizer is nice and accurate, and works well for most tasks, although for the most part, it’s basically a more precise finger in this manner. In apps that support pen input, such as ArtRage, the pen has 256 levels of pressure sensitivity, which I am told is a bit on the low side, but it feels natural to me when sketching and painting, so in my mind it’s not that big a deal, but as with all things Duo, your mileage may vary. One point of contention I have with the N-Trig though is that the screen layer that makes it possible gives an odd “shimmer” to the screen overall, which makes reading eBooks on my Kindle app a bit interesting. It doesn’t degrade the image or make it less readable, I would just really prefer that effect not be there at all. But, seeing as it is baked into the hardware, there’s not much that can be done about it. Just putting that out there.

The speakers are reasonably loud and offer clear and accurate sound reproduction without sounding tinny (courtesy of being laptop speakers rather than tablet speakers), but are easily overpowered in a noisy environment. You’ll want to invest in some headphones for this device, but that’s just common sense at this point anyway.

This has been (mostly) one big bucket of refinements and improvements, but the Duo 11 had one unforgivable flaw that outdid every other: a weak as heck battery that tended to give out in under 4 hours. Sony’s made their biggest slide onto the home plate here (forgive me the pun, I was weak), including a much larger battery to accompany the power-sipping Haswell processor. In layman’s terms, this means that if you keep the comically bright screen down to the lowest reaches of the brightness settings (it’s still fully visible if you’re sitting nearby; just don’t watch anything Tim Burton’s ever made at that brightness), the laptop will last a crazy long amount of time in standard operation. I can switch between light to medium web surfing, writing my novel, piddling about in ArtRage Studio Pro 3, and back to surfing, and as long as I keep the screen at a comfortable level of brightness, I can expect a battery life of up to about 8-9 hours from a full charge in the morning (there have also been a few days with lighter use that saw the battery last a whopping 13 hours before giving out!), usually wrapping up my work day with about a 30-20% charge, so in most cases, I don’t bother bringing a charger with me– but that charger includes a USB port on the power brick just in case you need to power your phone or other tablet as well, saving space in your bag. If you do run out of battery, fret not. The computer cold boots in just under 8 seconds, charges quickly, and takes little to no time to begin working once power is back on. For once in my life, I have a computer I can just turn off completely at night rather than hibernate or put into sleep mode. That’s a nice thing too: despite cold booting in 8 seconds, it takes somewhere around 6-8 seconds to resume from sleep mode if it’s actually been that way long enough to spin down the CPU; this length of time can be adjusted in your Power Settings; the computer, being a tablet as well, distinguishes between the states of “screen off” and “sleep mode”, so if you just have your screen off to save a bit of juice while you listen to your tunes, you can rest easy. The only concern I have is how soon the nightly recharges will begin degrading the battery, and how much that will affect performance. That battery is not removable, so if it needs to be replaced, I would imagine one would have to ask Sony pretty nicely to replace it for you.

I’m not going to cover benchmark tests. I don’t trust them, and even more so, it’s just numbers, and as Samsung has repeatedly proved, numbers can be faked and forged with ease. If you want benchmark results, there are a million other reviews out there. I advise you to read them, even if you are sold by the review alone.  Lisa Gade over at MobileTechReview.com has given this thing the most comprehensive, honest, and unbiased review I have ever seen: it was her review that ultimately swung me in favor of this machine, so if you are still on the fence, her review can be found here.

So. What’s the competition? Well, if you’re in for a digital pen and slightly more tablet than laptop, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 uses a Wacom digitizer and pen, and Sony produces the Vaio Tap 11, a slightly smaller 11 inch tablet with the same N-Trig pen and artistic software that the Vaio Duo 13 has bundled. Both will run you somewhere in the $1,100-1,300 range based on hardware configuration and accessories (there’s a cheaper Tap 11 option, but a Pentium CPU?! Really Sony? This isn’t 1999 anymore!) If you’re in for just a decent tablet-laptop 2 in 1, Lenovo still leads the pack with the IdeaPad Yoga 11s and IdeaPad Yoga 13 Pro 2, and their ThinkPad Yoga 13 is well tailored for the more business folk-ish among us. The Dell XPS 12 was recently given a Haswell refresh for stronger battery life, though like the Duo 13 is a bit on the heavy side for a tablet. The upcoming Dell XPS 11 should also be a strong contender. Sony also has the new Vaio Flip line of laptop-tablet 2 in 1′s out, starting at 13 inches and going all the way to a massive 15 inch display, but you can imagine convertible laptops with those dimensions aren’t really for everyone (though they’d sure as heck like to be). If you prefer the Android side of things, Samsung offers the Galaxy Note 8.0 and Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition with a Wacom digitzer and pen as well. If you liked everything the Duo 13 offered but just wish to high heaven that it came as a clamshell laptop, look at Sony’s Vaio Pro line. They’re lighter AND thinner, have no pen, but are otherwise virtually identical in terms of loadout and specifications.

Is the Vaio Duo 13 for everyone? Most definitely not and while the ads say that it is, the hardware and software say something else entirely. So who is this tablet laptop for? The bright and colorful 1080p screen, the inclusion of ArtRage, and also a digital pen screams that this is for painters and sketchers. The light weight and superb keyboard (especially considering how slim a profile the machine cuts) are perfect for typists and novellists on the move, and given how I use it, I would say this is a machine stealthily aimed at creative sorts. If you are an artist, a DJ, or a writer, and you like to move and not be held down by the tyranny of the electrical outlet, then I would say this machine is for you. Everyone else can probably give it a pass.

Just save up before you make a decision. $1200 is steep, and that’s the cheapest I’ve ever seen this machine. It’s available in the traditional Sony black and a white/silver combo.

Final score: 3 out of 5 for general laptopiness– upgraded to a 4 out of 5 if you’re into artistic creation.

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One thought on “Ultrabooks, TRANSFORM! Sony slides into something better with the Sony Vaio Duo 13

  1. Jules

    As you well know, I am no computer geek. I can barely “computer” past word processing. In spite of that, I enjoyed reading your review. It is a bit long, but I managed to hang on until the end. If I were truly interested in plunking down $1200 on a computer, I’d reread for the numbers and comparisons. Without the need to read it for all the details, I still enjoyed the read. Thanks!

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