Sony Duo 11 Ultrabook review: Blurring the line between tablet and laptop
Sony's new 11.6-inch convertible includes a minimalist slider keyboard, but behaves more like a tablet.
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 is not just a tablet. Lifting up the top edge tilts the display and reveals 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 1024 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 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 system has a higher-end, Core i7-3667U CPU, so it's not surprising that the Sony machine is slower, though the difference seems somewhat larger than might otherwise be the case. Overall performance appears 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, consuming 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 repeated use, the hinge and sliding mechanism both feel solid. The inability to remove the screen is made up for somewhat by the lack of a need to carefully align connectors, as we've seen with some convertibles that sport fully detachable tablet panels.
What the keyboard offers in convenience, it takes away in reduced 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, though.
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 a little getting used to. It's more an adjunct to the multitouch display rather than a primary pointing device.
As a tablet, the Duo 11 seems responsive and quick, particularly in the Windows 8 Start screen. Desktop applications, particularly browsers or office-class programs, appear to run without any major performance issues. The Wacom digitizer works 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. One thing I noted was that 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 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, since 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. Zero bass content is present, however, so the best listening experience is still through headphones or external speakers.
At a starting price of $1100, the Duo 11 is not an inexpensive investment. It's a highly mobile laptop that behaves more like a tablet, but with laptop underpinnings. The machine is a tad heavy for a tablet, though the sliding keyboard adds limited convenience. The display is excellent, except for the noise we noticed in video playback. In the end, the Duo 11 is a superb vehicle for 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.