Since Windows 8 launched last year, we've seen a number of different hybrid designs, from the folding Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga to the swivel-screened Dell XPS 12. Unfortunately, up until now, hybrids with keyboards that slide out from under the screen have provided the worst of both worlds: a laptop with an awful typing experience and a tablet that's too heavy. With its long battery life, strong performance and eye-popping screen, the pricey Sony VAIO Duo 13 ($1,399 to start, $1,899 as configured) hopes to overcome its challenging form factor, but is this 2-in-1 Ultrabook good enough to justify its hefty price tag?
At 13 x 8.27 x 0.77 inches and 2.9 lbs., the caLenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 is light for a 13-inch hybrid, comparing favorably to the 13.1 x 8.9 x 0.67-inch, 3.4-lb. Lenovo IdeDell XPS 123 and the 13.1 x 8.9 x 0.67 inch, 3.2-lb. Dell XPS 12. Available in both white and "carbon" black, the VAIO Duo 13 has an attractive aesthetic and lightweight design but some awkward button placements. When closed, the 13.3-inch screen sits on the top, with a modest bezel that has a physical Windows button in the middle bottom.
The matte-silver-colored sides on our white unit provided an attractive accent color, and on the carbon-black model, these are also black. Difficult to find at first, the tiny power button sits on the left side of the system, while a pop-up stylus holder sits on the right. Oddly, the volume buttons and an Assist button, which launches the VAIO Care support app, sit along the speaker on the bottom-front lip of the system. Targeting these buttons when we were holding the VAIO Duo 13 in tablet mode was frustrating, as we had to feel around for them. When not in use, the stylus slide attaches to the right side, and we found it slipping off when we tried to stow it anywhere, including a laptop bag.
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Sliding the screen back reveals the silver-colored keyboard and touchpad below, along with a silver hinge that holds up the screen. The mechanism felt extremely sturdy as we slid it open and closed, giving us confidence that we could change modes on the VAIO Duo 13 thousands of times without it wearing out.
The 13.3-inch, 1920 x 1080p Triluminos IPS display on the VAIO Duo 13 is one of the sharpest and most colorful we've seen on a hybrid. When we played a 1080p trailer for "The Avengers," colors like the red and blue in Captain America's shield were particularly vibrant and did not fade, even at a full 90 degrees to the left or right. At 311 lux on our light meter, the Duo 13's screen is significantly brighter than the 239-lux category average, the IdeaPad Yoga's 281 lux and the Dell XPS 12's 259 lux.
The touch digitizer was smooth and responsive as we pinched and swiped our way around the operating system. Unfortunately, this panel only supports 5-point touch, as we found out when we attempted to draw with both hands at once in Windows Paint and only one registered. Most devices today offer 10-point touch, even much-less-expensive hybrids like the $349 ASUS Transformer Book T100.
In our tests, the Duo 13's pen provided accurate strokes, which made it ideal for note-taking or drawing. Whether we were sketching in the preloaded Note Anytime application or writing in Windows' built-in handwriting keyboard, the stylus felt and responded as a real pen would. After changing a setting in the VAIO Control Center, the system launched Note Anytime as soon as we removed the pen from its place on the side and pointed it at the screen. We also configured the buttons on the pen to launch applications.
The bottom-mounted speakers on this hybrid produced accurate, pleasant audio with a good separation of sound. When we played the bass-centric R&B classic "Forget Me Nots," the vocals and instruments were rich and deep. The guitar- and drum-heavy "Smoke on the Water," was not at all tinny, and we could hear a clear separation of sound, as different instruments appeared to be coming from different sides of the device.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Typing on the Sony VAIO 13 was a rather unpleasant experience. Because the slider design doesn't leave room for much of a palm rest, our wrists hung over the edge both when using the device on our lap and when typing on a desk. Even worse, the shallow, mushy keys on the backlit keyboard did not provide enough feedback. Because of these issues, we scored a modest 80 words per minute -- which is at the low end of our typical 80 to 86 wpm score -- with a subpar 3 percent error rate (three times our average error percentage).
The 3 x 1-inch buttonless touchpad is one of the smallest we've ever seen on a laptop. Though it was easy enough to move the pointer around with one finger, click left or right, swipe in from the left for the Charms menu or swipe down from the top for the app bar, we found ourselves constantly bumping up against the edges of the pad. Yes, the pad supports multitouch gestures -- including pinch-to-zoom, rotate, three-finger swipe and three-finger press -- but performing most of these was a challenge due to the tiny surface area. You're better off using the touch display.
Ports and Cameras
The VAIO Duo 13 has a reasonable selection of ports for a form factor this thin and light. The top side holds two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI out and an SD Card reader, in addition to the power port. The bottom of the system also sports an NFC radio that you can use for pairing with NFC-enabled devices like Sony's headphones and wireless speakers.
The tablet has both front- and rear-facing cameras. The front-facing 2-MP camera took sharp, colorful photos of our face, even in low light. The 8-MP rear camera captured colorful, sharp images both indoors and outside.
With its 1.8-GHz Intel Core i7-4500U CPU, integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics, 8GB of RAM and speedy 256GB SSD, our configuration of the Sony VAIO Duo 13 provided strong, snappy performance that's good enough for productivity and content consumption.
On PCMark 7, a synthetic benchmark that measures overall performance, the VAIO Duo 13 scored a strong 5,272, well above the 3,797 ultraportable laptop category average and slightly higher than the 1.6-GHz Core i5-4200U-powered Acer Aspire S7 (5,051) and Dell XPS 12 (5,011). However, the Apple MacBook Air (2013) and its 1.3-GHz Core i5-4250U returned a more impressive 6,769.
The VAIO Duo 13's 256GB SSD booted Windows 8 Pro in a brisk 12 seconds, which is just a tiny bit slower than the Aspire S7 (9 seconds), MacBook Air (10 seconds for OS X) and Dell XPS 12 (10 seconds). The drive took just 40 seconds to complete the LAPTOP File Transfer test, which involves copying 4.97GB of mixed media files. That's a rate of 127 MBps, which is higher than the 100-MBps category average. However, both the MacBook Air (242 MBps) and the Dell XPS 12 (159 MBps) did better.
On 3DMark 11, a synthetic benchmark that measures graphics prowess, the Sony VAIO Duo 13 scored a solid 999, about 34 percent above the 745 category average and slightly higher than the Dell XPS 12 (927) and Acer Aspire S7 (895). You can play casual games on the Duo 13, but nothing too intensive. The system returned a rate of 37 frames per second in "World of Warcraft," but that dropped to an unplayable 16 fps with the settings turned up. Those numbers are slightly lower than the category averages of 40 and 20 fps, respectively.
The Sony VAIO Duo 13 has the longest endurance of any hybrid we've tested and one of the longest runtimes we've seen on any mobile product. The system lasted an epic 13 hours and 16 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi on 40 percent brightness. This time is more than double the ultraportable laptop category average of 6 hours and 9 minutes and the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga's 6:18, and it also beat the Dell XPS 12's time of 9:24. Even the Apple MacBook Air 2013's mark of 11 hours and 40 minutes is an hour and a half behind the Duo 13.
Our $1,899 VAIO Duo 13 configuration had a 1.8-GHz Core i7-4500 CPU, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and Windows 8 Pro. However, the Duo 13 starts at $1,399. For that price, you get a 1.6-GHz Intel Core i5-4200U CPU, 4GB of RAM, Windows 8 and a 128GB SSD. You can also configure your VAIO Duo 13 with up to a Core i7 CPU, up to a 512GB SSD, 8GB of RAM (instead of 4GB) and Windows 8 regular or Pro version.
Software and Warranty
Sony bundles the VAIO Duo 13 with several useful utilities and a few pieces of crapware. Note Anytime allows you to draw or take notes on different styles of paper. However, we found the selection of brushes worse and the interface not as attractive as in Microsoft's Fresh Paint and the note-taking ability not as powerful as on other applications, such as One Note and Evernote. Art Rage Studio Pro provides a wider selection of brushes and painting tools, but it runs in a desktop environment, making selecting menus by touch a little bit of a challenge.
VAIO Movie Creator provides a very basic consumer video-editing application that lets you take videos you've shot, put them into templates and add music. PlayMemories Home helps you organize your photos and videos, share them to social networks or back them up to a free 5GB cloud-storage account. Album by Sony keeps track of your photos and videos, and lets you organize them into albums. Music by Sony helps you organize and play your music tracks. PuzzleTouch has some fun jigsaw puzzles you can try to put together.
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MyDailyClip is a movie store, and Slacker is an online radio service. Socialife lets you keep tabs on your social feeds. The Kaspersky Internet Security application comes preloaded with a 30-day trial.
Sony backs the VAIO Duo 13 with a standard one-year warranty on parts and labor.
The Sony VAIO Duo 13 has a lot going for it: a lightweight chassis, a vibrant screen with pen support and epic battery life. However, at $1,899 ($1,399 to start), we would expect a flawless typing and navigation experience, and the Duo 13 offers one of the industry's smallest touchpads, along with a mushy keyboard.
In this category, we prefer the Dell XPS 12. While heavier, Dell's notebook-tablet combo sports a superior keyboard for $200 less. However, if pen input is a priority for you in a Windows 8 hybrid, the Sony VAIO Duo 13 has plenty to offer.