Full HD IPS Display
The display is a thing of beauty: it has rich and natural colors with good saturation and it's bright at 400 nits. Since it's an IPS display viewing angles are wide at 178 degrees, and that's important with a small machine/ tablet that you're likely to use in a variety of odd positions. This is a glossy display, though glare is no worse than average and color accuracy is reasonable, with reds that look red rather than orange.
With 1920 x 1080 resolution, text looks incredibly sharp and clear, and that's a good thing because when you're in desktop mode, fonts are on the small side. The Modern UI (formerly called Metro, the Live Tile touch interface) scales much more aggressively to make things bigger and more readable than does the desktop, which follows Windows 7's handling of resolution. By default, Sony sets the desktop and Internet Explorer 10 running in desktop mode to 125% font zoom, which I find readable despite having at best mediocre eyes.
It's a pleasure to watch full HD movies on the Sony display and the ambient light sensor does a good job of setting brightness (you can disable it if you wish). The display bezel is fairly large, but we suspect that makes for a more sturdy design as does the Gorilla Glass 2 on top.
Digital Pen and N-Trig Digitizer
We've seen quite a few touchscreen Windows 8 machines at launch, but few have the active digitizer with digital pen that used to be standard issue with Windows tablet PCs. The Vaio Duo 11 has a 10 point capacitive multi-touch display and an active N-Trig digitizer with a lovely metal pen included. Alas, there's no place to stow the pen in the computer unless you add on the $149 battery slide with pen silo. Why? The computer is too thin to house a silo for the ample sized pen. The digital pen has two buttons (generally assigned to right click and erase) and it's far more precise than a capacitive stylus. It also supports pressure sensitivity in apps like the included Art Rage Pro, though N-Trig is still working with Adobe to deliver drivers for apps that use WinTab drivers like Photoshop. Like other N-Trig pens, the one included with the Sony uses a single AAAA battery that should last for many months. Sony includes two pen nibs in the box so you can experiment with feel. Unlike older N-Trig pens, neither tip is overly loud (the clacking on glass isn't annoying). Given the relatively strong CPU and graphics in the Vaio Duo 11 vs. Atom and ARM tablets, the tablet can handle Art Rage, Painter 12 and other apps that artists favor. Couple that with the precise digital pen with pressure sensitivity and you have a viable digital canvas.
Horsepower and Ports
Unlike the Microsoft Surface RT tablet we recently reviewed, this is full Windows 8 running on an Intel Core i5 CPU (a Core i7 is also available) with Intel HD 4000 graphics. That means you can run Windows 7 apps and all .exe programs. In fact, The Vaio Duo 11 is equivalent to a peppy Ultrabook and it runs on the same third generation Intel Ivy Bridge ULV (ultra low voltage) CPUs. The $1,199 1.7GHz Core i5-3317U quick ship model reviewed here has 6 gigs of DDR3 1333MHz RAM and 8 gigs is max. The $1,499 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U comes with 8 gigs of RAM and a 256 gig SSD. Unlike some other Sony models with SSDs like the Sony Vaio Z, the drive is a single mSATA SSD rather than a custom RAID0 dual SSD configuration. Nonetheless, it benchmarks very well. The Duo 11's price is actually reasonable vs. the Ultrabook and convertible competition, since you get a generously configured machine plus a touchscreen, full HD IPS display and active digitizer.
Ports are relatively abundant for an Ultrabook class machine, and these include two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, VGA and RealTek gigabit Ethernet. The Sony Vaio Duo 11 has dual band Intel 6235N WiFi with WiDi, Bluetooth 4.0 +HS and NFC.
If you're willing to remove 18 Philips head screws from the bottom, you can access the single RAM slot and drive bay for upgrades. The machine has 4 gigs of RAM soldered to the motherboard and a RAM slot. That bad news is that it's a Sony proprietary module. The stated max RAM is 8 gigs (4 soldered on board + a 4 gig DIMM). That said, 8 gigs is generally speaking as much memory as you'll ever need on an Ultrabook class device whose primary purpose in life isn't professional HD video editing or running several VMs concurrently.
Like most Ultrabooks and convertible Windows 8 tablets with Intel Core i CPUs, the Vaio uses Intel HD 4000 graphics and there's no dedicated graphics option. We're OK with that in an 11.6 lightweight machine like the Duo 11, and it can handle Adobe CS apps, 1080p video playback and even some gaming well. For a sub 3 pound small machine, it's quite the powerhouse. Windows 8 runs flawlessly on the Vaio with absolutely no lag, and x86 apps meant for Windows 7 like MS Office 2013, Photoshop CS 6 and all brands of web browsers with Adobe Flash installed are quick to launch and responsive to use. We've used the Vaio Duo 11 to edit 30 meg RAW files in Photoshop and speed was perfectly adequate. Thanks to the speedy SSD and Windows 8's improvements, the Duo 11 boots in less than 5 seconds. Turn it on and you'd think it was simply waking from sleep: it's that fast. In fact, it makes the sleep function unnecessary unless you want to leave several apps and documents open when not using the device.
The Sony Duo 11 runs remarkably cool and quiet. In fact, it's the quietest Ultrabook we've used, and Ultrabooks tend to be cool and quiet with a few exceptions. Surface temperature stay well below body temperature and when viewing web pages and working on MS Office documents you won't even hear the fan in a quiet room. When streaming YouTube video and Netflix HD video the fan is very quiet and 3D games like Left4Dead 2 and Civ V ramp up fan speeds well within reason (you'll hear them, as expected). When doing a mix of productivity tasks, the CPU temp averages 44 degrees Centigrade, which is a perfectly acceptable temp, so the fans aren't being throttled at the expense of internal component temperatures.
PCMark07: 4772 (1.7GHz Core i5, 6 gigs RAM and 128 gig SSD)
Windows Experience Index (scale of 1.0 - 9.9):
Desktop Graphics: 4.8
Gaming Graphics: 6.2
Primary Hard Disk: 8.1
Benchmark Comparison Table, Windows 8 ULV Notebooks:
Keyboard and Optical Nav
The convertible tablet has a backlit island style keyboard and an optical navigation device. The keyboard is small given the 11.6" size, but I find it quite usable. When the slider is closed, the keyboard is tucked safely under the display section. Key travel is good for such a thin device and the keys have satisfying tactile feedback. That said, it is a small keyboard and you may need a day or two to adjust. After a day of use I was typing at 80 WPM with a low error rate, and that's similar to what I manage with my desktop keyboard. I do have large hands, though my fingers are slim. Men with large, thick fingers may find it hard to adjust. Keyboard backlight can be controlled manually or via the ambient light sensor that also controls display brightness. Both the letters and the rings surrounding each key illuminate with white light when backlighting is active.
The optical nav embedded in the keyboard between the G and H keys is an oddity like the old Sony Vaio P's nav. At first glance you'd think it's a copy of the Lenovo eraser stick pointer but this one doesn't move. Instead the tip has an optical sensor, much like a trackpad and it senses your finger's movement across the tip to move the mouse cursor. It actually works, but we found it a bit fast and twitchy with default settings. Lowering cursor speed and axing the tap to click feature makes it more usable. You can rely on the relatively large right and left mouse buttons just below the keyboard (and small center mouse button) instead for clicking. I'd complain more, but with a touch screen, I rarely relied on the optical nav except when moving through MS Word 2013 documents where the on-screen keyboard unnecessarily pops up with each screen tap even when the hardware keyboard is deployed (c'mon Microsoft, fix Word 2013).
Wired Gigabit Ethernet is a rare treat on a tablet and Ultrabook, and we're thrilled that Sony has included it. Business travelers know that Ethernet is a must have, and the same is true for those who are security minded. The drop-down Ethernet jack is located on the back edge of the tablet and it's a RealTek WiFi module.
The tablet has dual band Intel WiFi 6235N, and in our tests it had both good range and throughput on our 802.11N network (we tested both the 2.4 and 5GHz bands). We suffered no connection dropouts and WiFi connected quickly after each boot and reboot. Intel WiDi wireless display is included so you can send your desktop or a movie to your HD TV if you have a WiDi adapter for your TV like the NetGear Push2TV HD PVT2000.
Want to use Bluetooth speakers, mice or keyboards? The Vaio Duo has Bluetooth 4.0 +HS. Though NFC isn't yet common on laptops (it's becoming increasingly common on smartphones), the tablet has NFC whose main job in life at the moment is transferring data with other NFC devices.
Battery life for Windows 8 touchscreen notebooks hasn't been stellar and the Sony Vaio Duo 11 is no exception. Though the portable has a generous 4960 mAh Lithium Ion Polymer battery, Sony claims a mere 4 hours and 45 minutes of runtime with auto-brightness active. Compared to non-touchscreen Ultrabooks, which manage 5 to 6 hours, that's not terribly impressive. In our tests with typical productivity use, the Vaio did live up to Sony's expectations and we averaged 4.0 to 4.5 hours of use with WiFi on and brightness set to 50% (that's actually quite bright given the 400 nits of max brightness).
The optional extended sheet battery.
To extend battery runtimes at the expense of a little added weight, Sony offers one of their typical sheet battery modules that affixes to the bottom. It sells for $149, adds a pen silo and doubles runtimes. The Vaio comes with a compact world charger that adds little to travel bulk and weight.
The Vaio Duo 11 is fast, portable, great looking and we love the 1080p display, not to mention the digital pen with pressure sensitivity. It's quickly become one of my favorite Windows 8 machines. If you're looking for a decked-out Ultrabook-convertible, the Sony has everything for a relatively reasonable price: a bright IPS 1080p display, fast Intel Core i5 and i7 ULV CPUs, fast SSD drives and plenty of ports including full size HDMI, VGA and wired Ethernet. It's one of the few Windows 8 launch tablets to come with a digital pen (the bundled $60 Art Rage Pro is a nice bonus) and you're not limited to 4 gigs of RAM. It's also RAM and SSD upgradeable if you're patient with all those screws that hold it together.
Price: $1,199 as tested