In the coming crush of hybrid ultrabooks – all made to make the most of Windows 8 – Sony has the distinction of being the first to reach our test labs with the Sony Vaio Duo 11. It comes with a touchscreen that takes advantage of Windows 8 touch functionality, as well as a fast 128GB solid-state drive (SSD) and a third-generation Intel Core processor. However, the hybrid design of the Duo 11 stills has some kinks to work out, and the device’s cause isn't helped by a short battery life.
The Vaio Duo 11 is a convertible ultrabook, meaning that it functions both as a laptop and as a tablet. The transformation relies on what Sony calls the “Smooth Surf Slider” design, a spring-loaded sliding hinge mechanism. Lift the back edge of the screen and pull back and up, and the screen slides up into a laptop-like position. Unfortunately, those are the only two positions available, and adjusting the screen angle in laptop mode is out of the question.
Also, be careful not to stick anything in the gap behind the screen, below the hinge – exposed springs and ribbon cables could easily be damaged if you tried to close the system on a foreign object.
The 11.6in screen adds capacitive touch and 10-finger tracking to the gorgeous 1920 x 1080 resolution IPS display. This not only looks great, but is also fashioned from Gorilla Glass to protect the screen from scratches and scuffs, which is important, because even when closed – in tablet form – the display is exposed. One maddening quirk: The touchscreen would occasionally stop registering touch input while in laptop mode. Sometimes this could be fixed by switching into tablet mode and back; other times it required power-cycling the laptop. When touch is a major feature in your device, you really ought to make sure that it works properly.
When closed in tablet mode, the Duo 11 measures 320 x 200 x 18mm (WxDxH), and it weighs only 1.3kg thanks to a lightweight magnesium-alloy frame and glossy black plastic chassis. It's thin and light enough for use as a tablet, but weight isn't the only factor to consider. The burnished black plastic gathered not only smudges, but also scuffs, which you don't want to see on a device that will be handled constantly.
The angular lines of the Vaio Duo 11 are in keeping with the design philosophy used throughout the Vaio line. It looks great while the Duo is in laptop mode, but the jutting angles and sharp edges aren't comfortable to hold in tablet mode. If there's a flaw in the design, this is it.
The chiclet keyboard is smaller than those usually seen on 11in laptops, with no palm-rest to speak of, and a shallow typing depth, even for an ultrabook. The full-size keyboard also has slightly undersized keys, making the spacing a bit wider than you'll find on most chiclet keyboards. In the centre of the chiclet keyboard is an optical mouse, similar to the optical trackpoint on the upcoming Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2.
The optical sensor has a polished, rounded surface, which fingertips glide over easily, but it's a different experience than you'll have with a regular trackpad because it's highly sensitive. The mouse buttons are located on the edge of the keyboard, just below the spacebar. The size and dimensions of the hybrid laptop don't provide room for a palm-rest.
Finally, Sony overlooked what should have been a basic detail. The Duo 11 comes with a digitiser stylus for handwriting and drawing with the tablet, but nowhere on the tablet will you find either storage for the stylus or any sort of tether point to attach it to. Sony does offer an accessory sleeve for the Duo 11, which includes stylus storage, but without it, the average user will find their laptop and pen separated rather quickly. Thankfully, any Wacom digitiser stylus can be used. Aside from this oversight, using the stylus is great, with 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and automatic palm-rejection letting you rest your wrist on the screen as you would with pen and paper, without causing any problems.
Because the Vaio Duo 11 doubles as a tablet, you'll also find ports and buttons all over the device, rather than having them grouped entirely on the right and left sides of the chassis. Some of these connections are standard for ultrabooks, like two USB 3.0 ports (one with power for charging devices while the system is asleep), a card slot (SD/MS), a compact Ethernet port, and 3.5mm stereo headphone jack. Bluetooth 4.0 lets you pair the latest Windows 8 peripherals, and 802.11n Wi-Fi keeps you connected as you roam from room to room. An HDMI port and VGA output allow for the connection of an external HDTV or monitor, but the Duo 11 is also WiDi-capable.
Business users aren't left out either, as the Vaio Duo 11 has integrated Trusted Platform Module (TPM), Symantec Validation and ID Protection Service (VIP), Intel Anti-Theft Technology, and a connection for a desktop port replicator.
Others features have clearly come from the tablet side of the equation, such as the front and rear-facing 2.4-megapixel cameras, and the screen rotation lock button. Internal sensors now include GPS, Accelerometer, Gyro, and Digital Compass. Newer features not seen on previous laptops or tablets include the soon-to-be-ubiquitous Windows Key button, effectively a physical home or start button on the front of the tablet, which duplicates the function of your keyboard's Windows key. Other physical action buttons include volume controls and a screen orientation lock button. Finally, Sony has also incorporated Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, used for pairing the Duo 11 to any device with Sony One-Touch technology, such as the Sony SRS-BTM8 Bluetooth wireless speaker or MDR-1RBT Bluetooth headphones.
Sony has outfitted the base model of the Vaio Duo 11 with a 128GB SSD, which makes for speedy two-second boot and wake times, and boosts day-to-day performance. There's no room for an optical drive in the slim confines of a convertible ultrabook, so those still using DVDs will need an external drive.
Sony doesn't waste the chance to share a number of preinstalled programs and apps. When you first see the Start Screen, you'll be greeted by a number of Vaio branded apps (Vaio Care, Vaio Message Centre, Vaio Update, and Vaio Control Centre), along with app tiles for Kaspersky Now, Skype and other bits and pieces. The Kaspersky app is tied to a 30 day trial of Kaspersky Internet Security, and you'll also find a trial version of Microsoft Office 2013.
Sony PlayMemories Home provides a simple hub for organising, viewing, editing and sharing images and videos. Sony Album and Sony Music let you organise your media and stream to DLNA compatible TVs and audio systems. Sony SocialLife is more of a meta-app, consolidating social media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) and news feeds into a single attractive interface. For showing off the digitiser stylus mentioned above, Sony includes Sony Note Anytime, a handwriting recognition app for note taking, and it also throws in a copy of ArtRage Studio Pro, letting you doodle and draw to your heart's content.
Sony covers the Vaio Duo 11 with a one year warranty. Additional accessories are also available for the Duo 11, including a protective sleeve, and a secondary battery slice.
The Vaio Duo 11 is equipped with a third-generation Intel Core i5-3317U processor (1.7GHz), and the machine posted a solid 2.4 point score in Cinebench R11.5. Paired with 4GB of RAM and the aforementioned 128GB SSD, the Vaio Duo 11 offers decent productive capability, as evidenced by its PCMark 7 score of 4,648 points.
Intel's integrated graphics processing (Intel HD Graphics 4000) provides enough visual oomph for multimedia and casual games, which is perfect for the touch-based gaming available on the Duo 11. As a result, it scored 1,117 points in 3DMark 11 (on Entry settings), and completed the updated Handbrake video encoding test in 1 minute and 25 seconds.
For most media tasks, like editing photos or loading graphics-intensive web pages, this is more than enough graphics capability. High-end gaming, however, is out of reach on this system, as evidenced by unplayable scores in both of our gaming tests, Heaven and Alien vs. Predator. Both tests produced an unplayable 12 frames per second when set to lower resolution (1366 x 768) and medium detail (anti-aliasing off).
The Vaio Duo 11 lasted 3 hours and 9 minutes in a video rundown test, falling well short of the 4 hours and 45 minutes Sony estimates in press materials. While the test isn't as varied or detailed as MobileMark – our normal battery test – it does paint a clear picture for the average user. Three hours may make it through two (shorter) movies back to back, but isn't enough time to take you through a full day of work or school. It's especially irritating in the tablet form-factor – plugging in a laptop isn't that big a hassle since they are fairly stationary during use, but it will seriously cramp the use-it-anywhere convenience of a tablet.
While there will be plenty of comparisons made in the coming weeks, the Sony Vaio Duo 11 doesn't make the best first impression for the emerging hybrid ultrabook category. As an ultrabook the Duo 11's awkward keyboard and short battery life hamper the productive potential it might have had. As a tablet, the design is uncomfortable and the short battery life cripples the convenience and entertainment value. The glitchy touchscreen doesn't help, either, and while the Vaio Duo 11 shows promise, there's plenty of room to improve on the device.
Manufacturer and Product
Sony Vaio Duo 11
Intel Core i5-3317U
Intel HD Graphics 4000
General Purpose, Ultraportable, Tablet, Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage, Ultrabook
Microsoft Windows 8
Primary Optical Drive
Storage Capacity (as Tested)