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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.