Let’s call the Sony Vaio Duo 13 a Windows 8 hybrid with a purpose. While other manufacturers, like Lenovo and Acer, throw odd hybrid designs out into the market to see what sticks (the Yoga and Aspire R7 notably) with no clear purpose or thought beyond hey, this looks cool and might work, Sony clearly designed its Duo 13 hybrid with design professionals and artists in mind. As such, the strong features digital inkers will likely love, come at a compromise to the general utility and design of the device. You can’t have it all, it seems. But does the Sony Vaio Duo 13 compromise too much and offer not enough? Or does it achieve a balance those versed in the aesthetic arts can live with?
Build and Design
In keeping with the Sony’s well-deserved hardware reputation, the Vaio Duo 13 is an attractive device. It measures 13 x .8 x 8.2 inches and weighs about 2 pounds and 14 ounces. It’s available in both white and black.
The Vaio Duo 13 differs from many traditional hybrids in that it converts from tablet to notebook via a wide hinge mechanism under the display. It’s a slider. When activated with a light lift of the display, the screen slides up and docs at about 120 degrees, revealing a full-sized QWERTY as well as a small and oddly rectangular track pad occupying about two-thirds of the space.
The notebook mode, the display is stuck in its angled position, and can only be adjusted into a flat tablet mode. This is purposeful, and should be at a comfortable angle for drawing and drafting.
On that note, the Sony Vaio Duo 13 ships with and supports an active pen, an N-trig active pen to be exact. Unfortunately, the hybrid Windows 8 device has no built-in docking receptacle for it, and instead has a measly and flimsy clip on the right-hand side for loosely securing the pen. Just above the clip rests a slide-out pen holder, which is really just a small piece of plastic with a small hole for holding the N-trig stick. Both seem like hasty design additions added after the design was finalized, and cheapen the overall feel.
There are other issues as well. While the hinge itself feels sturdy (and NBR suspects it will last the lifetime of the device), there are many small hooks and springs that could pop off with just a bit of careless usage; and the process of going from tablet mode to notebook mode is particularly rigid. It doesn’t seem like it would take much mishandling to break something important to either securing the display, or popping it up and securing it. Also, the bumpers on the bottom of the Vaio Duo 13 offer no grip, and the device slides much too easily when resting on a table or other flat surface.
Ports, Buttons, and Camera
The Sony Vaio Duo 13 is an Ultrabook, and that too often means thinness at the cost of ports. The Vaio Duo 13 has a charging input, 3.5mm audio jack, two full-sized USB 3.0 ports, full-sized HDMI, and a combo full-sized SD/HG Duo (Sony Memory Stick) card slot. While many Ultrabooks forgo VGA and other display options in favor of HDMI, an artist’s device like this should have something more, at least in NBR’s opinion; and the Sony Duo 13 is thick enough to include at least something else.
The Sony Vaio Duo 13 has two cameras, a front-facing 2-megapixel shooter, and 8-megapixel rear. Both are suitable device cameras, and the front-facing lens is angled well for video chat when in laptop mode. The Duo 13 also has an NFC radio on the bottom, which is a nice addition, particularly when it comes to pairing NFC supported Bluetooth accessories.
Finally, the Windows 8 hybrid has five buttons: a hard Windows key on the display, power button on the left landscape side, and the volume as well as the assist button under the front edge of the display, on the speaker. The power button is small and shallow, and not very responsive. It’s tough to know if you are actually pressing it by touch. The volume buttons are also bothersome, both in tablet and notebook mode, as they are impossible to discern via touch alone, and only accessible while in notebook mode by lifting up the device. Thankfully, the keyboard has volume control via its function keys.
Keyboard and Touchpad
At a glance, the Sony Vaio Duo 13 keyboard seems sufficient. The Chiclet-style keys are large enough for comfortable typing, and there is plenty of space around them. In use, however, it’s a bit different. In order to fit in the designated space, the keys are slightly longer and more rectangular than those on standard laptops, and that can make for some awkward typing at worst, and slight readjustments at best. It doesn’t help that there is very little palm rest space on the device. The keys on the NBR review unit are a bit mushy as well, and did not provide the satisfying click NBR has experienced on other Vaio device keyboards.
The trackpad represents perhaps the most salient design compromise, as it is extremely rectangular and long, about 3 x 1 inches. As with any trackpad, it supports multi-touch and has an appropriate sensitivity level, but it’s just so small. Thankfully, the Duo 13 is a touchscreen device, so users won’t need to rely on the trackpad for the tiled interface. As for the desktop, it will work in a pinch, but the pen or a USB mouse are far superior options.
The Sony Vaio Duo 13 ships with the N-trig DuoSense Pen 2, which NBR sister site TabletPCReview reviewed a few months previous to this writing. Much of what TPCR found still stands, and the experts at NBR found the Duo 13 pen experience to be both pleasant and productive. The pen is comfortable to hold for long periods of time, and has a good weight to it. Unfortunately, it does require an AAAA (that’s four As) battery, which we did not have to replace. In fact, the Duo Sense we reviewed in still worked in with the same battery, albeit with no usage during the months in between.
The pen interacts with Windows 8 in odd ways. It can’t be used to swipe or navigate the tiled interface, but can technically be used for the edge shortcuts for pulling up the Charms menu and switching between apps, and open apps. Only sometimes however, because it’s finicky and does not consistently work.
On the desktop side, it operates just like a mouse, and those familiar with Windows 7 tablets will feel right at home using it.
The Sony Vaio Duo 13 ships with the fairly robust Note Anytime program, which frustratingly launches in the desktop any time the pen is undocked from the clip (still trying to figure out how to disable that), but no real imaging editing software. N-trig has had issues in the past with Photoshop driver support, as well as with a few other popular art/design programs, and a quick look around popular art forums reveals many of the same issues persist. The TPCR DuoSense review touched on that, and the TPCR forum has an excellent thread dedicated to the issue.
Display and Sound
The Sony Vaio Duo 13 has a 1080 x 1920 Triluminos IPS display. There are other, more pixel-dense displays out there, but it’s hard to complain about the Duo’s output. It’s bright, sharp, and the colors really pop with just right touch of saturation. Viewing angles are also superb, but it’s a bit disappointing to see the Vaio only supports five touch inputs, instead of the 10 that is becoming more the standard. That aside, it’s impressive that Sony was able to achieve such a strong screen on a hybrid device with a touch and active digitizer. One does not need to look too far in the past to find high-end hybrids and Windows tablets with hazy and dull displays owing to the overlays.
The audio output is also excellent, with clear and pleasantly balanced sound coming out of the front-bottom speakers. It’s not room-filling loud, but the speakers pump out enough decibels to make it ideal for personal use.
Listen to Sony marketing, and you’ll find the company making an effort to bring its home theater and digital imaging expertise to the other product lines. The Duo 13 is a fine example of this.
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