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

From desktop to mobile

What's the difference between a tablet and a laptop? When reviewing the Sony Duo 11, I had to repeatedly ask myself that question, because the Duo 11 blurs the lines between the two form factors.

Unlike Microsoft's upcoming Surface products—which are squarely, unequivocally tablets—Sony and many other manufacturers are aiming for hybrid devices. In one mode the Duo 11 is a tablet. In the other mode, it's a laptop. So the question becomes: Does it do well at either? Let's find out.

Sony Duo 11 Ultrabook: Blurring the line between tablet and laptop

Unpacking the Sony Duo 11 (aka the SVD1123CXB) reveals what appears to be a tablet; no keyboard is immediately visible. Yet when you pick it up, it seems a little hefty for a tablet. What's going on here? Well, the Duo 11 isn't just a tablet. Lifting up the top edge tilts the display, revealing a sliding keyboard hidden beneath the panel.

Welcome to the world of Windows 8 sliders. The Duo 11 keeps its keyboard tucked underneath the tablet's bottom chassis—it's there when you need it, but you can hide it away when you don't.

Photo: Sony
The Duo 11 modes

The Duo 11 weighs in at 2 pounds, 13 ounces, decidedly on the light side for an Ultrabook. The 11.6-inch screen offers a full 1920-by-1080-pixel IPS touchscreen panel that provides good image quality and color fidelity. Sony also built a full Wacom digitizer into the touchscreen, complete with a stylus supporting 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. Artists will appreciate the digitizer, but Sony didn't think to include a slot to store the stylus in the body of the unit, so you'll need to keep track of it as you travel.

The Duo 11 meets Intel's Ultrabook spec: It's light, it boots quickly from the 128GB solid-state drive, and it measures just 0.71 inch thick. The machine carries an Intel Core i5-3317U processor, and our review unit had 8GB of system RAM (the standard amount of included memory is 6GB). Since it's an Ultrabook, its graphics hardware consists of the on-board Intel HD 4000 GPU built into the Ivy Bridge low-voltage processor.

Performance

Since the Duo 11's Core i5 CPU is decidedly middle of the road, how does it fare on the performance front? PCWorld is still developing its WorldBench 8 benchmark suite, which is specifically designed to test the performance of Windows 8-based PCs. However, since part of WorldBench 8 includes FutureMark's PCMark 7, which we also use in WorldBench 7, I was able to glean a little performance information. Note that we also test boot times as well, but gaming performance tests are still in development.

The Duo 11 posted a score of 2500 on PCMark's productivity test, a considerably lower mark than the 4028 we saw from Lenovo's ThinkPad X1 Carbon. That Lenovo system has a higher-end, Core i7-3667U CPU, so it's not surprising that the Sony machine is slower. Still, the delta in benchmarking performance seems inordinately large, and the Duo 11's overall real-world performance appeared to be a tad sluggish, especially for a system equipped with an SSD.

Sony rates the Duo 11's battery life at a little under 5 hours. Sleep mode seems to work particularly well, using very little power relative to other Core i5 units I've used.

Features and usability

At first, I thought the sliding keyboard seemed like a fragile gimmick, but after I used the system repeatedly, my opinion changed—the hinge and sliding mechanism are actually pretty solid (though only extended torture testing would really bear that out). You can't completely detach the tablet from its keyboard, as you can with other Windows 8 hybrid devices. This limits flexibility, but at least you don't have to obsess over carefully aligning connectors, as we've seen with a few convertibles that offer fully detachable tablet panels.

The keyboard is definitely a welcome convenience, but it's not a paragon of usability. The spacing between keys is quite cramped, and the keys themselves lack a sculpted shape. Despite having been a touch typist since high school, I found myself making frequent typing errors when using the keyboard. Sony does include a backlight for the keyboard, so at least that is a step in the right direction.

The Duo 11 also has one of the weirdest pointing devices I've ever seen. At first blush, it looks like a miniature trackpoint joystick pointer, but it doesn't move. Instead, the round nub is itself a touch surface, so slight movements of your finger move the cursor. It works surprisingly well, but takes some getting used to. It's more an adjunct to the multitouch display rather than a primary pointing device.

Duo 11 keyboardLoyd Case
Duo 11, keyboard and stylus

As a tablet, the Duo 11 was responsive and quick, particularly inside the Windows 8 Start screen. Meanwhile, desktop applications, particularly browsers and office-class programs, ran without any major performance issues. The Wacom digitizer worked well with the included ArtRage Professional desktop graphics editor. The digitizer pen should also be useful in applications such as Photoshop or Illustrator, though overall performance in those programs may be a little sluggish.

Using fingers for touch interaction on the Windows desktop is a little problematic, partly because of the 1080p resolution on an 11.6-inch display. As we noted in the preview of Acer's W700, the high pixel density on a small display makes precise touch gestures on the desktop problematic. Those issues don't exist in the tile-based Windows 8 Start screen.

And here's an odd anomaly: The display would occasionally become "stuck" in portrait mode after waking up from sleep. This was true even when the starting state of the display was in landscape mode when it went to sleep. I had to reboot to cure the problem.

The Duo 11 includes a software version of Sony's Bravia video engine, and video playback was relatively smooth, though we saw some speckling noise in some WMV-HD high-definition content. MPEG-2 was unplayable, because Microsoft no longer includes an MPEG-2 license with Windows 8, and Sony didn't install a playback tool that can handle MPEG-2 content.

Sony did build in Intel's antitheft technology, as well as a trusted platform module for additional security.

Connectivity and expansion

The Duo 11 boasts a pair of USB 3.0 ports, one of which can charge battery-powered smart devices while the laptop is in sleep mode. The machine also provides two video output ports, the aging VGA connector (useful for projectors), and an HDMI output port. The left side houses a flash memory card reader that can handle both SD Cards (all formats) and Sony Memory Stick. A lone headphone jack is the only concession for analog audio.

Duo 11 leftLoyd Case
SD slot, VGA port, and headphone jack

Network connectivity consists of a retractable gigabit ethernet connector, 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0. The Duo 11 also incorporates Intel's WiDi technology for wireless display on HDTVs, provided that the large screen has the appropriate external adapter or built-in WiDi capability.

Duo 11 rightLoyd Case
USB and other connections

Unlike many Ultrabooks, the Duo 11 supports memory expansion. It ships with 6GB of fast DDR3; 4GB are fixed, while a SODIMM socket accommodates one more memory module. The maximum supported memory is 8GB.

As you might expect with a tablet device, front and back cameras are built in, both offering 2.4-megapixel sensors. The audio quality is surprisingly good for such a tiny system, relatively clean and balanced when Dolby Home Theater v4 is enabled. However, bass response is essentially nil, so the best listening experience will be through headphones or external speakers.

Bottom line

At a starting price of $1100, the Duo 11 is not an inexpensive investment. That's a challenge, considering all the compromises the hardware makes. Looking at it one way, the Duo 11 is a highly mobile laptop that can double as tablet—but when you use it as a tablet, you really notice its weight. Looking at it another way, this device is a tablet with a nifty integrated keyboard—but the keyboard isn't very good. And the display is excellent—except for the noise we saw in video playback.

In the end, it's a great indicator for the larger potential of Windows 8, and if you need an ultracompact laptop that's usable mostly as a tablet, it's worth a closer look. But most users may shy away when they see the price.

Pros: Excellent, high-resolution multitouch display. Lightweight, even for an Ultrabook.

Cons: Extremely limited keyboard and pointing device. Performance lags behind that of other Ultrabooks.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Price: $1099

Final thoughts

Now that I've had a chance to more closely examine systems designed to work well with Windows 8, the possibilities inherent in Microsoft's new operating system are even more intriguing. What's still unclear, however, is how well the new OS will fare on more standard types of PCs.

The next few months of product reviews will answer many questions. A whole host of new PCs are on the way, some offering only minor spins on old recipes, and others attempting what Sony is trying with these new systems: to reinvent the personal computer as we know it. Success is by no means assured, but I'm more interested in seeing these fascinating experiments than looking at a never-ending assembly line of clamshell designs.

Bring it on.

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