Sony reaches the Windows 8 finish line first with two quirky tablets

Windows 8 launches in exactly two weeks on October 26. The big day is imminent. The anticipation is palpable. Yet until two quirky devices from Sony arrived a few days ago, we hadn't yet put our hands on final, reviewable Windows 8 hardware.

Is the PC industry ready for this OS launch? For Sony, the question is moot: It wins the trophy for the earliest Windows 8 hardware delivery (well, not including a preproduction tablet we received from Acer). Now the onus falls on us—just what do we think of Sony's interpretations of what a Windows 8 device can be?

The PCWorld Labs techs have been busy building a new version of WorldBench designed to run on Windows 8 systems. Our WorldBench 8 benchmarking suite isn't fully complete with new Windows 8-oriented tests, precisely because we haven't had enough Windows 8 hardware to work with. Nonetheless, for these reviews, our available lab results still provide a good idea of how Windows 8 systems perform.

Is the Sony Tap 20 really a PC?

The two Sony systems presented here are cool examples of the endless possibilities that Windows 8 enables. One is an unusual all-in-one PC, while the other is a convertible laptop that's heavily imbued with tablet DNA. Neither is a cookie-cutter system, and both push the envelope of what we define as PCs.

With that in mind, let's dive into our first official Windows 8 hardware reviews.

Sony Tap 20: An all-in-one or a humongous tablet?

As you might guess, this new Windows 8-based Sony all-in-one isn't your average AIO. Inside the modest exterior beats the heart of an Ultrabook, along with a ten-point multitouch screen and a built-in battery. So you can either think of the Tap 20 (also known by the sexy name SVJ20215CXW) as a smallish AIO or a really big tablet. In reality, it's a little of both.

In putting the Tap 20 through its paces, I started with a little photo editing on its decidedly smallish (at least for an AIO) 20-inch, 1600-by-900-pixel display. It was a constraining experience, compared with the more expansive displays I'm used to working with. Then I unplugged it, took it upstairs, laid it flat on my dining-room table, and played Pinball FX 2.

Tap 20 flatLoyd Case
Pinball!

Notice the smudges on the Sony system in the photo above. Fingerprints on the screens of Windows 8 PCs will become a way of life—an indignity we already experience with normal tablets. As more touch-enabled PCs arrive, you can expect cleaning cloths to become ubiquitous accessories.

Under the hood

Sony has built its new AIO on mobile PC technology, including the same 1.7GHz Ivy Bridge ultra-low-voltage Core i5-3317U CPU used in many mainstream Ultrabooks, with a Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz when needed. The system also includes 4GB of system memory and uses Intel's own HD 4000 integrated graphics to take care of display chores. Storage tasks fall to a 750GB mobile hard drive, and since the system doesn't employ an SSD cache, the storage performance can be a little poky. No optical drive is built in; either you get your video or audio content via the network, or you attach an external optical drive.

Although the 1600-by-900 pixel resolution seems a little low for a 20-inch all-in-one, Sony uses an IPS panel, so the color fidelity and video saturation look pretty good, and the viewing angles are generally decent. Sony also built in the same Bravia video-rendering engine it uses in its Bravia HDTVs, so video looks nice—when you can get it to run. The problem with video in this case isn't the hardware but Windows 8 itself, which no longer plays back MPEG-2 content. Sony should consider bundling some type of MPEG-2 playback tool going forward. WMV high-definition video looks quite nice on the IPS screen, however, as do high-resolution photos.

The Tap 20 offers a robust set of connectivity options, including Bluetooth 4.0, gigabit ethernet, and 802.11n Wi-Fi connectivity. Surprisingly, the system sports only two USB 3.0 ports, though one incorporates sleep-and-charge functionality. Also included is an SD/Memory Stick slot, as well as an audio input and output jack. The system lacks monitor inputs and outputs, however—you won't find HDMI ports, or any other video connectors.

To alleviate some USB port congestion, Sony supplies a wireless keyboard and mouse. They're competent, though the keyboard looks and feels more like a Chiclet-style laptop keyboard, right down to the shallow keystroke and lack of sculpting.

Tap 20 with keyboard & mouseLoyd Case
Wireless keyboard and mouse

The stand is large and U-shaped, mounted to the unit via hinges. You can adjust the tilt, but not the height. However, the stand can rotate parallel to the system, allowing you to lay the machine completely flat on a tabletop or other surface.

Sony
Fingerpainting!

That flexibility allows you to use this Sony system as a flat surface for interactive gaming, shared art, or presentations. Angling the stand for setting the system up in portrait mode is also possible, but the machine isn't very stable in that mode.

To facilitate extended use in the shared tabletop mode (practically a necessity for playing board games), Sony has built in a 5000 mAh battery, which can run the system for up to 3 hours without a power cord, depending on the brightness setting and use mode.

Performance

Since the Tap 20 carries an ultra-low-voltage mobile CPU, performance is somewhat lacking compared with that of other all-in-one PCs. PCWorld is in the process of building the new WorldBench 8 suite for Windows 8 testing, but it isn't quite ready yet. We were able to run PCMark 7, including storage tests, and also evaluate startup times. In comparison with previously tested AIO systems running Windows 7, the Tap 20 is seriously deficient in sheer CPU performance: Although you can use the system for video editing or gaming, those activities are most certainly not its strong suit.

For example, on the office productivity test, the Tap 20 garnered a score of just 730, less than half the mark of Lenovo's ThinkCentre M92z. And the Sony's image-editing test took 596 seconds, versus 157 seconds for the Lenovo. Some of the performance issues are attributable to the slow, 5400-rpm laptop-style hard drive.

On the plus side, however, power usage is low. The idle power of the Sony Tap 20 is just 23 watts, about half the 41W idle power of the Lenovo all-in-one.

Tap 20 real-world use

I set up the Tap 20 in my home office, installing some additional software and getting used to the touch-enabled display. After a time, I discovered that I was using the mouse less, even in the Windows desktop, though some operations in desktop mode are still easier with a real input device. The user interface was responsive and smooth. When I surfed the Web, both Firefox and Internet Explorer seemed well behaved, even with multiple tabs open. Web-based video playback was mostly clean and stutter-free.

However, if you plan on writing or editing longer documents, you may want a different keyboard. The Sony keyboard's keys are slightly textured, but still slippery, and I found myself making many more errors while typing than I usually do. Non-touch-typists may not encounter the same issues.

Using the Tap 20 untethered is an interesting experience. At well over 11 pounds and with a 20-inch width, it's not something you comfortably sit on your lap. It does make for a very cool Xbox SmartGlass device. I set it up on my coffee table in front of my entertainment center, within easy reach. Even though SmartGlass is still in its infancy, the technology has the potential to turn a device such as the Tap 20 into a powerful adjunct to your home entertainment setup—assuming, of course, that Microsoft keeps enhancing SmartGlass.

I also laid the Tap 20 flat and played around with some of the games, like Xbox Taptile and Pinball FX2. These titles show off just a glimmer of the potential of the system as a shared gaming device. Let's hope that more board-game ports come to the Microsoft Store, as we've seen with iOS games; I'd love to see Ticket to Ride, Elder Sign, or Alien Frontiers on this system.

While video quality (what video we could play) looked good, audio was something of a mixed bag. I discovered that the sound quality varies depending on the surface the system sits on. If it's on a hard desktop, the sound quality is better than if you plop it down on a tabletop covered by a tablecloth. Even in a best-case scenario, the sound quality is limited by the speaker size. The unit produces little audible bass content, though Dolby Home Theater v4 spreads out the sound stage a bit without adversely affecting audio quality. If you plan on using the Tap 20 to watch a lot of movies, or as a music playback device, external speakers would be a good idea.

Bottom line

The Tap 20 is an unusual product. It's relatively underpowered as a desktop system, but its strong suit is as a shared family PC, with the ability to be easily moved around the home. And its potential as a shared gaming device is impressive. However, it wouldn't be very rewarding as a productivity machine, and the lack of MPEG-2 playback—more a Windows 8 problem than Sony's—makes it an imperfect entertainment system.

In many ways, the Tap 20 showcases both the good and the bad of Windows 8. Its seamless integration with the Windows 8 user interface shows off Microsoft's new operating system at its best, but the lack of capabilities that users have come to expect, such as MPEG-2 playback, is oddly jarring. When you use this machine with native Windows 8 apps, it excels, but the uninspired keyboard and mouse make desktop use more of a chore than it needs to be.

The Tap 20 is undeniably cool, but some of its finer details need to be fleshed out. Still, at about $880, it's not all that expensive, particularly if you consider that it's both a small all-in-one and a really big tablet.

Pros: Excellent interface and system ergonomics. Included battery turns the Tap 20 into a big tablet.

Cons: Performance is lacking. Has only two USB ports, and lacks WiDi capability.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Price: $880

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