Vaio products were at the cutting edge of what was technically possible for a glorious decade. They made Ultrabooks years before Intel coined that name. They made handheld Windows PCs that really did fit in the palm of your hand before the iPhone and smartphone wave hit. As was the penchant for Japanese technology, making it smaller yet extremely capable was the mantra. Of course, price didn't quite go out the window, but these products were always expensive. People paid because the products were "like no other" as Sony once said in their marketing tag line. Like Apple, they sat at the top of the food chain, and in fact Steve Jobs said Sony products had inspired him back in the good old days. Somewhere along the way Sony's vision for the Vaio line faltered as quarterly results became more important than innovation, and Vaios became run of the mill laptops with too much bloatware and lower price tags. Sony still launched a few novel convertible notebooks like the Vaio Duo and the short-lived but actually quite good Vaio Flip, but the bulk of the line had lost inspiration.
In 2014 Sony sold their Vaio PC business and Vaio brand to Japan Industrial Partners, a privately held investment firm, while keeping a 5% stake in the new company and continuing to sell Vaio PCs in Japan via the Sony website. 250 to 300 Sony staff went to work for the new firm, including the R&D folks, giving us hope that the Vaio philosophy of quality and high end design might live on. JIP said they'd sell Vaio laptops in Japan first, and consider returning to the US market. The Vaio Z Canvas is their first US product, and it's been on sale in Japan for several months. This is the Vaio that clearly signals the return of the greatness that the brand offered in its heyday. It has everything you could want in a powerful Windows tablet or 2-in-1 convertible, and I mean everything (except dedicated graphics). This sort of engineering is something only the old Sony could pull off--put a powerful 15" quad core laptop into a 12.5" slim tablet.
As you might guess, you can have it all, but that comes at a price. This is an expensive product that Vaio is marketing to professional graphics and artist types. Video editors too, thanks to that crazy quad core i7 CPU and fairly powerful Intel Iris Pro graphics. The base model is $2,199, and the mid level configuration is $2,599 while the top model is a mind-boggling $3,099. As the also aspirational but less well-equipped Microsoft Surface Book shows us, these sort of products aren't cheap to build (though I suspect Microsoft's margins are considerably higher than Vaio's). Still, I'm glad someone is taking the chance on these low volume, high end products because they push the tech envelope forward. Some day faster CPUs, more ports and more colorful displays with pens will become more affordable... until then, they'll be boutique products or required tools of the trade, depending on your needs and budget.
Design, Ports and Keyboard
The Vaio Z Canvas is housed in a unibody anodized aluminum casing that's carved out, much like the MacBook Pro. It feels premium and is extremely rigid, though it's not particularly thin. Vaio couldn't make it insanely thin and still have room for a healthy set of full size ports: two USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, 3.5mm audio, an SD card slot, Gigabit Ethernet and a mini DisplayPort. That's a better selection of ports than you'll find on quite a few 13.3" Ultrabooks! We're impressed that Sony found room for these along with the quad core CPU and a beefy battery.
The rear stand is a thing of engineering beauty. It's a pop-down hinge that provides just the right amount of resistance to hold the Z Canvas at any angle you wish with minimal bounce. Just push it to the angle you like, even a low angle for drawing and it stays in place. This is the first time I've seen this sort of hinge and it's done to perfection. It's a center stand though, so it won't work for resting on the legs as does Surface Pro 4 (it will sit between your legs).
At 2.67 lbs. this isn't a light tablet. Surface Pro 4 and the "clipboard" section of Surface Book weigh 1.6 lbs., as does the Toshiba Portege WT20 12.5" Windows tablet. That's the price we pay for the quad core CPU, big battery, hearty build and large selection of ports. It's best used resting on a table or stand when drawing and writing at length. The included keyboard weighs 0.75 lbs. and is extremely thin yet rigid thanks to the aluminum back that acts as a cover for the tablet. It looks like a regular notebook when the cover is in place and it doesn't wobble or come loose as did the keyboard cover on the similarly designed Sony Vaio Tap 11.
The keyboard has short but not unlivable travel (more than the 12" MacBook and similar to the Surface Book). The island style keyboard is tactile and quiet. It's actually easy to use and I typed this review on it with great accuracy. It's not backlit though--and that's a shame. The keyboard has a slider switch with 3 positions: off, on and trackpad off. That trackpad is fairly large and works better than many Windows trackpads. The keyboard uses wireless (RF) and isn't physically connected to the tablet except when charging: place it as a cover on the tablet and 2 charging pins connect to keep the keyboard juiced. It has a micro USB port should you need to charge the keyboard separately, but wireless keyboards usually go for a week or more on a charge. Note that our unit's keyboard actually drained when left attached in the charging position for a day; we hope that's a defect with our unit or a bug that will be ironed out.
The pen clips onto the tablet's side via a magnet (Vaio beat Microsoft to that idea), and it's not hard to knock it off. Thus Vaio includes a pen holder you can mount in that magnetic slot if you want a more secure way to hold the pen in place. They also include a firm foam wrap that slides over the grip area of the pen if you prefer a cushy pen grip.
Wide Color Gamut Display
This is one of the Vaio's crown jewels. The 2560 x 1704 IPS 12.3" display is simply stunning and it's pre-calibrated at the factory. It has an unusually wide color gamut of 96% Adobe RGB as measured by our Spyder Pro 4 colorimeter (Vaio claims 95%). High end laptops and tablets typically cover %95 of the lesser sRGB gamut and 75% of Adobe RGB. The color gamut and excellent factory calibration are perfect for graphics pros and photographers who require color fidelity. For those who aren't graphics professionals, movies and photos look absolutely stunning. Text is crisp thanks to a good 570:1 contrast ratio. Our colorimeter had trouble measuring the brightness of this Panasonic-made display. It rated the display at 250 nits, but to my eye it looks brighter. This is a glossy display as are nearly all touch screens, but it has a 3:2 aspect ratio, unlike most laptops and tablets except the MS Surface line. That makes it less awkward to use in portrait mode.
Like Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, the Vaio Z Canvas uses the latest generation N-Trig active digitizer with 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity vs. 256 levels on older Surface Pro and Vaio models. That means more natural drawing (note takers probably won't notice) and the digital ink flows in a more fluid or silky way. Diagonal line jitter is reduced and pen hover distance has increased to around .7", which is a bit less than Wacom (some Wacom tablets reach 1"). Pen hover is handy for pointing without touching the screen and more importantly so that the screen "sees" the pen, and knows when to ignore your hand when you rest it on the screen (this is called palm rejection). The tablet ships with the same Vaio-branded DuoSense 2 pen as the final generation Sony Vaio Duo 13 and optionally with the Vaio Flip models. It has two side buttons, and a slightly rough and soft nib that's not too noisy on the glass. It doesn't have the eraser on the end as does the new pen included with Microsoft's Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, but you can use that pen with the Vaio and the eraser function will work. How does the Vaio Z Canvas feel for writing and drawing compared to the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book? Very similar, and that's not a surprise since I suspect they're using similar if not the same technology.
The pen works in all programs and you'll get pressure sensitivity in programs that support modern Windows Ink APIs (many programs do, including OneNote and Adobe CC apps). In case you're using a legacy app that requires WinTab, you can install the MS Surface Pro 3 WinTab package available on Microsoft's Surface Pro 3 support pages (Microsoft bought N-Trig). I tested WinTab with a few art programs and it worked like a charm.
Deals and Shopping:
Vaio Z Canvas Video Review
Vaio Z Canvas vs. Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book Comparison
Horsepower and Performance
Here's another crown jewel: you won't find another tablet with a 47 watt Intel HQ quad core i7 CPU. That's the same horsepower you'd find in a high end 15 or 17 inch pro apps or gaming laptop like the Dell XPS 15, and it's twice as fast as the dual core CPUs used in Ultrabooks and Microsoft's Surface Pro and Surface Book lines. It's the same CPU used in the 15" MacBook Pro, Dell XPS 15 (not the just announced Infinity display model) and my 17" MSI GT72 Dominator gaming laptop. If you're just using this for everyday productivity in Office, email and editing images in Photoshop, it's overkill. Save your money and buy the Core i5 or Core M Surface Pro 4. But if you work Photoshop hard with big Sony A7r II or Canon 5DS RAW files, edit 1080p high bitrate video or 4K video in Premiere Pro or do CAD work, this is your one (and likely only) tablet to do the job well. When I use a Core i5 Ultrabook or tablet to edit video for our YouTube channel (1080p XAVC S), transition insertions hiccup, and edits lag. On the Vaio Z Canvas, it's smooth sailing and exports are much quicker. Working with the high resolution display in Premiere Pro CC with high resolution display support is a dream and the pen is handy for edits and dragging transitions precisely. The Z Canvas great for compiling large programs in IDEs too.
Now for the sigh: it's an Intel 4th generation Haswell CPU, not the just released Skylake 6th gen (5th gen Broadwells barely saw the light of day in any laptop). Skylake's performance improvements are modest, but as we've seen in the past three generations of Intel CPUs, it's more about power savings, heat reduction and improving the integrated graphics. This is a 6 month old product (remember it was announced in Japan in May and released there soon after). I do hope Vaio updates it, but given the performance, low temperatures and battery life, I certainly won't condemn the Haswell model.
Tablets aren't easy to open, but it seems the Vaio is easier than most (Surface products use liberal glue and require a screen puller). Though I didn't take apart our review unit, it appears that you can remove the back after releasing hidden screws under the top vent and removing the small service tag panel under the kickstand zone. Inside, you'll find two M.2 slots, the battery and not much else you can tinker with. RAM is soldered on. The Z Canvas is available with 8 or 16 gigs of RAM and 256, 512 and 1 TB SSDs. The 256 gig is a fast Samsung drive using SATA protocol. The 512 and 1 TB use the even faster PCIe x4 interface.
All Vaio Z Canvas models ship with Intel Iris Pro 5200 (GT3) integrated graphics, Intel's fastest integrated GPU for laptops in the Haswell generation. Iris Pro is considerably faster than HD 5500 graphics in Ultrabooks, and it falls slightly below the NVIDIA 940M, and is 15% slower than NVIDIA GT 750M dedicated graphics (it's the same graphics used in the base 15" Retina MacBook Pro). It provides a decent boost to Adobe CC apps and allowed us to play Tomb Raider at native 2560 x 1704 resolution and low settings at 33 fps, which is impressive. It will be interesting to see how this compares to the dedicated graphics option in the Surface Book.
15" Core i7 quad core slim laptops are often hot and noisy--that's the price we pay for so much power in a small design. Clearly, if money is no object (or less of one), we need not put up with lots of heat and noise--the Z Canvas is the first to prove this. Thanks to an unusual 3 fan design, the tablet runs cool and quiet (most laptops have one or two fans and tablets have one). When editing video or playing Tomb Raider you'll hear it but it won't be loud and you won't have to raise the volume to drown it out. Two fans pull air in and one exhausts it. It's a very efficient design and the tablet never gets burning hot or raucously loud. The CPU cores didn't pass a relatively cool 64 Celsius when playing Tomb Raider 2013 (demo in our video). MS Surface Pro 3 huffs and puffs and gets hot to the touch when playing the less demanding Civ V (Tomb Raider is beyond its capabilities if you want a fairly high resolution and good fps). Very impressive!
I expected the Vaio Z Canvas' battery life to be terrible. A quad core i7 in a tablet with little room for a big battery? That doesn't sound promising. But Vaio (or more aptly, the former Sony engineers) managed to fit a big 63 WHr battery inside, and we're guessing the display is very power efficient. Battery life with brightness at 50% and WiFi active in a mix of productivity, video streaming and art programs (Photoshop CC, Corel Painter 2016 and Clip Studio Pro) was 6 hours on average. That's not much different from Surface Pro 3 pushing a smaller screen and a much lower power 15 watt CPU. Wow. On the road if you need to conserve power, you could lower screen brightness and choose a more conservative power plan than the standard Balanced plan and likely push it to 7 or maybe 7.5 hours (no playing games or doing CAD modeling though!). The included 60 watt charger is the same size as a typical Ultrabook charger; it won't add much weight or bulk in your bag.
The Vaio Z Canvas is an amazing piece of technology--it's a dream PC or tablet in a world where most products make compromises due to pricing constraints or lack of engineering prowess. It's uncompromisingly fast--twice as fast as the Surface Book/ Surface Pro 4 and around the same performance as a 15" Retina MacBook Pro. Unlike most tablets, it has plenty of ports; in fact, more than many Ultrabooks offer. The screen is stunning and factory calibrated for professional graphics and video work. Unlike lesser dual core ULV Core i5 tablets, it doesn't run hot or loud despite the quad core CPU inside. The detachable keyboard makes it easy to type on your lap with the tablet sitting on a table or desk. That said, you do lose the stability of a tablet-keyboard combo that attaches physically for use on your lap. The Haswell generation CPU takes a few points away, but since there's nothing remotely this powerful in a 12" tablet, we'll let that slide with a soft grumble. Despite this being a marvel of miniaturization, the tablet is heavy at 2.67 lbs. and it's not wafer thin like the dual core and Core M competition. If thin and light are more important than raw performance, this isn't your tablet. And of course the price, though appropriate to what you get, is high. But it's the only tablet that can edit video in Premiere Pro without breaking a sweat, play Tomb Raider and Battlefield 4 and easily fit in the crook of your arm. It's one of the few ultraportables, let alone tablets that has the horsepower for creative professionals. It's also totally overkill if you just use the web, email, MS Office and Photoshop here and there. Well done, Vaio. We're glad to see you're once again setting the stage for the future of technology.
Display:12.3", 2560 x 1705 IPS gloss display with touch and N-Trig active digitizer and pen. Intel Iris Pro 5200 (GT3) integrated graphics. HDMI and mini DisplayPort. Can drive a 4K monitor at 30 Hz via DisplayPort.
Battery:63 Whr Lithium
Ion rechargeable, sealed inside. 60 watt charger.
Performance:2.2 GHz Intel Haswell
4th generation Core i7-4470HQ quad core processor with Turbo Boost to 3.4 GHz. 8 or 16 gigs RAM, 256, 512 and 1 TB SSDs (M.2 slot, SATA for 256 gig, PCIe x4 for 512 gig and 1 TB drives).
Size:11.85 x 8.39 x 0.54 inches. Tablet weight: 2.67 pounds. Keyboard weight: 0.75 pounds.
Camera:1MP webcam and 8MP rear camera.
Audio:Built-in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
Networking:Integrated Intel AC7265 dual band
WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1 and Gigabit Ethernet.
Software:Windows 10 Pro. Microsoft Signature Edition with no bloatware.
Expansion and Ports:2 USB 3.0 ports, HDMI, Ethernet, mini DisplayPort 3.5mm audio and
SD card slot.
In the Box: tablet, keyboard, charger, pen and quick start guide. Pen clip holder and foam pen grip included.