A raft of hybrid laptop/tablets are about to hit the market, taking advantage of Windows 8's touch-optimised interface, but none have the unique slide-away keyboard of the Sony Vaio Duo 11.
With a Full HD 11.6-inch screen on board this ultrabook-cum-tablet and powerful specs under the hood, it could be an ideal solution for touch-based work on the go.
My review model sits at the top of the range, with an Intel Core i7 processor, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid state drive for £1,500. If you don't need that amount of power then the base model packs a Core i3 chip, 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD, starting at £1,000.
Should I buy the Sony Vaio Duo 11?
The Duo is not going to be to everyone's taste. With its 11.6-inch display, it's a little too big and heavy to use as a tablet in one hand as you would an iPad. If you only really want a touchscreen device to swipe around websites, then it's not going to be for you. An iPad or even the Google Nexus 7 tablet would be better and you'd save yourself a grand.
Sony hasn't made it larger than your average tablet for nothing though. Lift the screen up and you'll find a physical keyboard, turning the Duo from a tablet into a laptop. It allows you to type for much longer periods than is realistically possible on an on-screen keyboard, letting you easily write documents or long emails rather than just Twitter updates. The keys are quite small though -- about the size of a netbook's -- so it's worth having a go on one in store if you have massive hands. But it does come with a handy stylus for writing on screen.
It's running on Windows 8, which brings you the colourful metro interface and the Windows 8 app store. It's designed primarily for touch input and I found swiping around the tiles and using the navigational gestures while typing on the keyboard to be an extremely natural way of interacting -- it certainly beats the more usual keyboard and trackpad.
Inside you'll find the latest Intel Core i7 processor, a hearty 8GB of RAM and a generous 256GB SSD. Those are the top-end specs and as such come with a high £1,500 price tag. The range starts at £1,000 though, if you don't need that much grunt. All models offer a Full HD display that I found to be delightfully bright and bold.
My review model was extremely potent, easily tackling essential office tasks and playing back high-definition video without the slightest hiccup. It was also able to turn its hand to more demanding tasks like high-resolution photo editing and played the brand new XCOM: Enemy Unknown game at an enjoyably smooth frame rate.
The Duo 11 might come with a steep asking price, but its great Full HD screen and superb power do a lot to justify it. The transforming design won't suit everyone, but if you're after a Windows 8 touchscreen device and need a physical keyboard for work, then it's a great option to consider.
Vaio Duo 11 as a tablet
When you first take the Duo 11 out of the box, it's not immediately different from most tablets. The whole front is dominated by edge-to-edge glass with a small Windows home button on the bottom.
Sporting an 11.6-inch screen and a thickness of around 17.9mm, it's quite a lot bigger than tablets like the iPad, but it is, of course, packing a full keyboard. It's arguably more akin to an ultrabook (the name given to Intel-powered thin and portable laptops), so compare it to the Lenovo Ideapad U410's 21mm thickness and it's not too chubby.
Its large size means it's not easy to hold in one hand while swiping around with the other -- at least not for more than a few seconds. Resting it across your forearm while jabbing at it is fairly comfortable, but it's not ideal. Far better to have it laying flat on a desk or propped up at a slight angle. I actually found propping it up on a banana offered an extremely comfortable angle for swiping at -- and you have a healthy snack ready for when you're done.
The 11.6-inch display is very responsive and accurate, which makes hitting small links in your web browser that much easier. There's also a stylus included for those times when you need more accuracy, or you fancy handwriting or doodling in one of the sketch apps from the Windows 8 app store.
Like Samsung's S Pen on the Galaxy Note 10.1, the stylus has a narrow hard end that's much better for accurate poking than the wide, squashy tips found on many styluses -- the difference is like writing with a Biro or with a felt-tipped marker.
Awkwardly, there's no port for you to stow the stylus away when not in use. You have to remember to carry it around which, if you're like me, will mean you lose it within a few days. There is, however, a port in the clip-on battery extender base (sold separately). Sony hasn't indicated exactly how much it will cost, but if you particularly need your stylus with you and are cautious about losing it, it's worth looking into.
Along the bottom edge are buttons for controlling the volume, locking the screen orientation and booting into Vaio Care if your computer breaks. They're not well placed as you need to tilt the machine up to see which button to press. They also sit too flush with the surrounding plastic for you to judge which button is which just by touching.
Vaio Duo 11 as a laptop
While tablets are fine for the essentials of web browsing and looking through all the photos you don't remember taking from that Saturday night out, when it comes to getting down to serious work, their touchscreen keyboards just don't cut the mustard.
Luckily then, the Duo 11's screen lifts up and backwards, revealing a keyboard hidden beneath, turning it quickly from a regular tablet into something resembling an ultrabook.
The screen lifts upwards more than it does backwards, resulting in the bottom of the screen roughly meeting the middle of the base. That means the overall depth of the base doesn't get much longer so if you can happily fit it on your knee as a tablet, you won't struggle with it when it becomes a laptop.
It doesn't take up much space in laptop form, nor does it require much room to transform, so if you need a device that you can use on a cramped economy class flight or busy train carriage, then the Duo will be worth a look.
As the screen meets the middle of the base, there's only about half of the space available for the keyboard to fit in. Although it's spread evenly across the whole width, the keys have had to be made rather small in order to fit. It's not as cramped as typing on a tiny netbook, but you do need to be more careful about which of the little keys you're hitting, particularly if you have gigantic bin lid hands.
I have fairly average mitts and I found it was easy to get used to -- I ended up writing much of this review on its keys. The most annoying thing, however, was the right-hand shift key, which has been cut in half and plonked next to the up arrow key. I regularly found my cursor jumping up numerous lines every time I tried to capitalise a letter. I'm sure you'd get used to it over time, but if keyboard comfort is your primary concern, then you might be better off with a normal laptop.
There's no trackpad as Windows 8 is designed for touchscreen interaction. Navigation is built around swiping through big metro tiles and using gestures to bring up multi-tasking bars and menus. The best way to use the Duo is to swipe and poke your way around and type on the keyboard when needed.
I found it to be extremely easy to get used to and was able to load apps, select settings and do all my usual tasks much faster than with a regular mouse. Part of that is down to the Windows 8-specific apps that use large touch-friendly buttons. But even in the regular Windows desktop, I found touch trumped mouse. If you really miss the mouse, you can always plug one into one of the two USB 3.0 ports.
Around the edges you'll also find an Ethernet port, VGA-out, HDMI-out, headphone and microphone jacks and an SD card slot. There's a front-facing camera for video calling, as well as a rear camera for quick snaps of your pets. Storage is taken care of by a 256GB SSD.
Unlike hybrids like the Samsung Ativ Smart PC, the screen and keyboard don't detach, so you can't leave the keyboard behind if you want to travel light. The sliding mechanism also means that you don't need to hurriedly clip two sections together when rushing to write an email.
Sadly though, you aren't able to adjust the angle of the screen -- it's either up or down. I found the angle to be fine for use on a flat desk, but when typing on my knee, I'd like it to lean back more.
Transforming the Duo is a fairly easy process once you learn how. You need to grab a little ridge at the back and lift it up -- something that isn't immediately obvious the first time you use it. It's sometimes a little awkward as it can simply lift the whole unit up, so you'll need to put some pressure on the front edge of the screen to hold it in place. I rarely found it to be a problem though, even when crammed into a London Underground seat on my busy rush-hour commute home.
The mechanism makes use of various metal hinges and small moving parts. When open, the screen can be easily wobbled and moved about. During testing, I wasn't left with the feeling that it's liable to break in normal use, but I don't think it would handle much abuse. It seems there's a very certain way of sliding the screen and I wouldn't be too happy about placing it in the hands of someone who doesn't know exactly how to do it -- or worse, letting an excited child have a go.
Although all laptops can quite easily succumb to damage, the Duo 11's little sliding clips and hinges seem particularly fragile. I'd recommend always using it in a secure environment and if you think it's going to be bumped around a lot, keep it closed to protect those delicate sliding parts.
The rest of the Duo seems well put together. There's no unpleasant creaking in the casing of either the screen or the base and it uses toughened Gorilla Glass, which should help it avoid scratches. That's particularly handy as, unlike normal laptops, the screen will be facing upwards all the time so it's more susceptible to attacks from errant keys and pens. Investing in a fancy neoprene sleeve wouldn't be a terrible idea though.
The 11.6-inch screen packs a resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels -- or Full HD, to me and you. That's particularly impressive on a screen this small as Sony's Full HD displays are generally reserved for its laptops of around 16 inches. Even its mammoth 20-inch tablet-cum-desktop computer only has a 1,600x900-pixel display.
It results in a screen that's extremely sharp, displaying even tiny text and icons with great clarity. I found reading books in the Kindle app to be perfectly comfortable for long periods and it'll come in handy to see more of your massive spreadsheets in Excel when Microsoft brings its Office suite to Windows 8.
It also handles colours with aplomb. The bright, bold hues of the Windows 8 metro interface looked particularly vivid and watching high-definition video was a delight. My favourite snowboarding video Art of Flight was beautifully reproduced, with clear snow flurries and deep, bold skies. The screen is perfectly capable of handling your office needs and letting you enjoy a good film during your downtime.
However, I did find it to be quite reflective. Under the harsh office lights of CNET UK Towers, I found myself staring back at my own face. You can crank the brightness up, which helps eradicate a lot of reflections, but if you intend to use it in bright sunlight -- presumably somewhere warmer than the UK -- then you're better off keeping it indoors.
Windows 8 software
The Duo 11 comes with Windows 8 -- the latest version of Microsoft's operating system that does away with the traditional desktop environment and replaces it with the colourful tiles of the Metro interface.
If you're a dedicated Windows fan but haven't used Windows 8 yet, you might find it takes some getting used to, but it's a neat interface that offers some nifty tricks to help you with social networking and finding new apps. Check out our full review of Windows 8 to see exactly what the new software has in store for you.
Sony hasn't added that much to the mix, software wise. It's pre-installed eBay and Fresh Paint apps, but these are readily available in the app store anyway. Sony originally stated that it would include its Music Unlimited service, which I couldn't find but it should be on the final version when it launches. It's a similar service to Spotify, letting you stream music for a monthly flat fee. If you're an existing Spotify subscriber, you might not find it useful, but if you're yet to cough up your cash for music then it's worth checking out its 16 million tracks.
You can browse the Windows 8 app store to your heart's content. It's nowhere near as well stocked as the Mac app store -- or the mobile iOS or Google Play stores -- but there are new apps being added all the time. Given that Windows 8 will soon be installed on every new computer sold, it's likely that developers the world over will be scrabbling to bring their apps to the platform.
The Duo is running the full-fat -- rather than tablet-specific -- version of Windows 8, meaning you can install all the desktop software you'd expect to find on your laptop. They'll load in the classic desktop view that uses the same folders and menu systems that you'll be used to on existing Windows versions, so there's no awkward new system to get used to.
You can install desktop apps like Adobe Photoshop, Spotify, VLC Media Player or iTunes in the same way you would on your laptop. Even better, you can load up the Steam client, letting you download games from its ever-increasing selection. Whether the Duo is capable of playing them is a matter I will come onto below.
My review model packs an Intel Core i7-3517U processor clocked at 1.9GHz, along with a hearty 8GB of RAM. Those are impressive specs, even for a good laptop, so I was very keen to see what I could do with it.
To see how it compares to other machines, I booted up the Geekbench tool and was given an impressive score of 8,298. By comparison, the Lenovo U410's Core i5 processor achieved 7,430 on the same test and the HP Envy 6 managed just under 7,000. I found both of those laptops were easily capable of handling office tasks and high-definition video playback.
In my own use, I found the Duo to be extremely competent. There was absolutely no delay when swiping around the Windows 8 Metro interface, while switching between open apps using the multi-tasking bar was responsive and immediate.
Not only was it easily able to tackle high-definition video playback but it also turned its hand to more demanding tasks like photo editing. I installed the standard desktop version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 and loaded a high-resolution image taken from the stunning Canon EOS 5D MK3.
I found I was able to apply subtle lighting changes to the whole image with very little delay. Only when I made drastic changes with sliders did I notice any lag between making an action and seeing it take place. Even then it was only minimal and at no point did I get the impression it was seriously struggling.
It encoded my 11-minute 1,080p video file into 24 frames per second H.264 video in the nippy time of 8 minutes. I've seen faster times on burly 17-inch laptops but it's still a very admirable result. Don't expect it to tackle high-definition video editing in programs like Adobe Premiere though -- those tasks are still best left to a MacBook Pro or a similarly specced machine. It will cope fine with stringing together a few of your phone clips for YouTube though.
The Duo 11 doesn't offer a dedicated graphics card, so gaming really isn't its party piece. It uses Intel's built-in HD 4000 graphics though, so it's not completely without gaming grunt. I fired up social shooter Team Fortress 2 and found I was able to run around shooting people with rockets, while frame rates remained very smooth. Only when the action became intense did I notice any slowdown, but it was minimal and didn't make the game unplayable.
Similarly, Half Life 2: Episode 2 was handled without issue, with frame rates averaging around the 50fps mark. While those are both older, less demanding games, it still takes a good amount of processing power to display the rich graphics of HL2 in full 1080p -- especially on a machine with no graphics card.
It didn't deliver quite as good a performance when playing brand new alien hunter strategy game XCOM: Enemy Unknown though. The demanding graphics from the Unreal graphics engine weren't particularly smooth, but became much more acceptable when I knocked the resolution down to a more manageable 720p.
The Sony Vaio Duo 11's sliding mechanism certainly won't appeal to everyone. If you want a tablet most of the time and rarely require a physical keyboard, you'd be better off opting for a hybrid laptop/tablet with a detachable keyboard. If typing is the cornerstone of your working day, the small keys won't suit you either.
However, if a large touchscreen for Windows 8's colourful interface appeals and you regularly need a keyboard on the go for quick messaging and social networking, then the Vaio Duo 11 could be just the device for you.
While you'll have to accept compromises in keyboard size and comfort, a great display, a portable size and a massive helping of processing power makes up for it.