Keyboard and Trackpad
The keyboard has typical Ultrabook shallow travel, but tactile feel is good. The keys click or rattle just a bit, and they're not damped as on the Dell XPS 12 and ThinkPads. There's some flex but no annoying bounce when typing. It's a perfectly acceptable keyboard but it's not among the best (Dell XPS, Lenovo ThinkPad and MacBook Pro rate higher). The keyboard is backlit and is controlled by the ambient light sensor. There's no way to change backlight levels on the keyboard, and it's a fairly bright white that rings each key and illuminates the letters.
The large buttonless Synaptics trackpad has very stiff click points for left and right click. This might just be our unit and it could be the trackpad screws inside are simply a bit too tight. They're stiff enough on our unit to be annoying, but thankfully tap to click and two finger right clicking work well enough that we simply stopped using the mechanical clickers.
The versatile convertible design and the dual digitizer display are the Vaio Flip 15's crown jewels. My word, what a gorgeous full HD display! We have the standard 1920 x 1080 Triluminos IPS display for review, and though resolution and color gamut are no different than the best displays on the laptop market, this display simply looks better than most. Think of the best looking TVs on the market and how colors are luminous, detail is keenly sharp without looking oversharpened and brightness is pleasing. The Flip 15 display is like that--a premium TV experience only on a notebook. Of course, Sony is very good at making premium TVs and they're using some of that same technology here. Brightness is good but not remarkable at 260 nits (be sure to disable Windows auto-brightness to see the full brightness) and color gamut is among the top laptops at 96% of sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB. The color gamut matches the Retina MacBook Pro, Sony Vaio Pro 13, Vaio Flip 13 and Asus Zenbook UX301, and should please graphics pros.
For those who want an even higher resolution display, Sony offers a 2880 x 1620 upgrade as part of the $1,799 SVF15N18PXB model. This model also includes the pen, which is a separate purchase with other Vaio Flip 15 models. That's a pricey display, and honestly the full HD display looks so great and doesn't require any fiddling with display scaling, that I'd choose the full HD model over the 2880 x 1620.
N-Trig Active Digitizer and Pen
All Flip models come with an active digitizer made by N-Trig. Sony's used N-Trig on their Duo models and the Flip works the same. One point of confusion: the pen isn't included with most SKUs, so you'll have to pay $40 to get one from Sony (it's the same pen as used on the Vaio Duo 13 and Tap 11, and it uses N-Trig DuoSense 2 technology). Generally if a tablet has an active digitizer the pen is included in the box, and I'm sure this will confuse some folks, or they might not even realize they can use a digital pen.
As ever, with N-Trig you get accurate tracking and 256 levels of pressure sensitivity. Though the pressure sensitivity doesn't compare well with Wacom's 1024 levels, this is something only artists would notice. Even then, 256 levels are enough to do advanced artwork even if I personally do prefer more levels for nuanced art work. N-Trig's pen tip tracking is better than Wacom's, especially near the edges of the screen where Wacom equipped convertibles and tablets tend to be off. You have to hold the pen closer to the display compared to Wacom, and that may be off-putting to those accustomed to Wacom pen behavior since the digitizer must detect the pen before it will disable capacitive touch (also called palm rejection). N-Trig supports modern Windows Ink APIs so programs like MS Office 2013, ArtRage Studio 3.5 (bundled), Manga Studio 5 and Sketchbook Pro have pressure sensitivity. Adobe recently released an update for Illustrator CC that adds pen pressure sensitivity via Windows Ink APIs. Sony has released a 32 bit WinTab driver (courtesy of N-Trig and Adobe) that adds pen support for Adobe Photoshop, though Adobe will eventually add Windows Ink support there too. Corel Painter, which uses the WinTab driver, still doesn't have pressure sensitivity, even with the Sony WinTab drivers installed.
Performance and Horsepower
All Sony Vaio Flip models run on 15 watt Intel Haswell Ultrabook CPUs, and the Flip 15 is available with the 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 and 1.8GHz Core i7-4500U (both with Turbo Boost). A hybrid hard drive (a conventional 5400 rpm hard drive with 16 gigs of on-board cache rather than a separate caching SSD) is standard on most models. Our unit has the Core i7 and 1 terabyte hybrid drive and 8 gigs of DDR3L 1600MHz, 1.35v RAM. The hard drive is a conventional 2.5" SATA model, so any aftermarket HDD or SSD that's 7mm thick will fit. The laptop has two RAM slots, so you can go up to 16 gigs of RAM. There is no RAM soldered on the motherboard. The wireless card is a standard socketed PCI Express card. Thus, this is a very upgradable Ultrabook.
(1.8 GHz Intel Core i7-4500U, 8 gigs RAM and 1TB HDD)
PCMark 7: 3537 (lower score due to having an HDD rather than SSD)
3DMark 11: P1774 (GT 735M)
wPrime: 19.6 sec.
Cinebench R15: CPU 244, OpenGL: 48.6 fps
Geekbench 3: 2964 single core, 5809 multi-core
PCMark 7 Benchmark Comparison Table
NVIDIA Dedicated Graphics and Gaming
Our model has switchable dedicated graphics that uses NVIDIA's Optimus to handle switching between Intel HD 4400 graphics and the NVIDIA GeForce GT 735M dedicated graphics card with 2 gigs of memory. You can use the NVIDIA control panel to manually set which program runs with your preferred graphics card, but we found that it almost always made the right choice (3D games ran on NVIDIA, but low demand tasks like video playback and web browsers use HD 4400 graphics for better battery life). The GT 735M is a low-mid range graphics card that adds a little punch for 3D games and helps speed up Photoshop, HD video editing and CAD. If you won't be using your laptop for more than web, MS Office, video streaming and casual gaming, you can get by fine with the $300 cheaper Vaio Flip 15 model SVF15N14CXB. That model also drops down to a Core i5 and 750 gig hybrid hard drive, so if you prefer more storage or the Core i7, you'll have to get the dedicated graphics. We found that current demanding games gained an average of 10 to 15 fps thanks to the GT 735M, and that makes a game that's barely playable on Ultrabooks with HD 4400 graphics actually enjoyable. For example, BioShock Infinite plays nicely at 1600 x 900 resolution with frame rates of 35 to 60 fps. With a Core i7-4500U and integrated graphics, we generally see 30 fps at 1366 x 768. Max Payne 3 really isn't playable on integrated graphics Ultrabooks with ULV CPUs, but it runs at a playable 35 fps with low settings and 1600 x 900 resolution on our Flip 15 (similar to the Sony Vaio S with an older full mobile CPU and NVIDIA GT 640M LE graphics). You will hear the fan loud and clear when playing demanding 3D games, but the same is true of any Ultrabook or uber-skinny laptop.
Pro tip: if you notice frame rates drop every 5 or 10 minutes or so when gaming, try using advanced power management to set max CPU speed to 99%. NVIDIA Optimus has a way of throttling power consumption when the CPU is set to 100%.
Opening up the Sony Vaio Flip 15 for Upgrades
It's not hard to open the machine up if you have a little experience with such endeavors: remove the 4 visible Philips head screws, twist off the two rear rubber feet and remove two more screws. Finally, remove the rubber strip along the front edge of the bottom cover to reveal 4 more screws. There's double-sided sticky tape on the bottom of the feet and strip, but it stayed largely intact. Note that the strip screws, feet screws and visible screws are different sizes, so keep track of them and put them back in the right spots. The feet screws are the biggest and the strip screws are the smallest. Once you've removed the screws, work off the plastic bottom cover using a credit card or something firm but thin. Strong compression clamps hold the cover, so it will take a bit of work.
Once inside, you'll see internals like those we've pictured to the right. RAM is very straightforward, but the HDD has two ribbon cables running over it. Release the cable clamps by raising the clamp upward, and then move them aside so you can access the hard drive. I upgraded our machine with a 250 gig Samsung EVO 840 SSD and it works like a champ! I used Samsung's SATA to USB cable and Migration application to clone the internal drive and didn't have to worry about using recovery or reauthorizing already installed programs. The machine is even quicker, boot times and application launch times are as fast as any SSD equipped Ultrabook and the laptop is quieter. The fan comes on less often and you won't hear the whir of a mechanical hard drive or the clicks of heads parking.
Wireless and Networking
The Vaio Flip 15 ships with Intel N-7260 802.11n single band wireless. It's odd that each Flip size uses a different wireless card: the 13" has dual band Intel WiFi, the 14" uses Broadcom single band WiFi and the 15" has single band Intel WiFi. We'd like to see dual band WiFi on a machine at this price, but we'd forgive it on the base $799 and even the $999 model. Dual band WiFi allows for faster connections and if you use the 5GHz band, less interference from Bluetooth. That said, Intel's adapter is solid, and the machine maintained a strong connection where some of our dual band laptops and tablets dropped off.
Bluetooth is integrated into the Intel wireless adapter and the Sony has NFC. In the US, there's currently no 3G/4G option, though you can use a MiFi or your smartphone's mobile hotspot feature for wireless access when WiFi or Ethernet aren't available. The Ultrabook has wired 10/100/1000 Ethernet and a standard RJ-45 jack.
The 3170 mAh, 48 Wh Lithium Ion battery is sealed inside, as is true of most Ultrabooks. If you remove the bottom cover, you can swap the battery, should it die of old age. Battery life depends on what you're doing with the machine, and if dedicated graphics is involved. For productivity work we averaged 6 hours under Windows 8.1 with brightness set to 50%. The laptop also managed 5.7 hours of full HD video streaming using the default integrated graphics. When editing and exporting 1080p video, we managed 4 hours of actual editing and exporting time. Gaming is best done plugged in so you can get maximum performance, but if you do need to game on the go, expect between 2.5-4 hours, depending on the game.
There's certainly nothing like the Sony Vaio Flip 15, it's a full size yet slim and light 15" laptop with a convertible design and a digital pen in a premium case with dedicated graphics. You might think of it as the upscale alternative to the second generation Acer Aspire R7, which also has an N-Trig digitizer and a 15" full HD display. But the Sony design is superior: giving you laptop, presentation and tablet modes without resorting to the Acer's odd trackpad placement behind the keyboard. This is a great looking machine with one of the most enjoyable displays on the market and the large digitizer is tempting for art types. It's upgradable, has plenty of ports and the fan isn't crazy. We had reservations about the Vaio Flip 13, but the Vaio Flip 15 is a winner.
Price: $799 to $1,799, $1,249 as tested
Sony Vaio Flip 13
Acer Aspire R7 Review
Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro Review
Sony Vaio Duo 13 Review
Sony Vaio Pro 13 Review
Microsoft Surface Pro 2 Review
Dell XPS 12 Review
Lenovo ThinkPad Yoga Review