Sony VAIO Duo 13 review
13.3 in 1,920x1,080 display, 1.3kg, 1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U, 4.00GB RAM, 128GB disk, Windows 8
Just as the Sony Vaio Duo 11 was one of the first Windows 8 hybrids, so the Vaio Duo 13 is one of the first laptops to kick off Intel's new generation of Ultrabooks.
It's also one of the most substantial redesigns we’ve ever seen, as it corrects nearly all of the Duo 11's flaws while introducing some seriously impressive new additions at the same time. We thought the Duo 11 was a beautifully engineered laptop, but the Duo 13 manages to keep its meagre weight of 1.35kg while increasing both the size of the keyboard and the size of the screen. It’s 2mm thinner as well, measuring just 19mm thick when it lies flat as a tablet. It’s a stunning piece of design, and its revamped hinge around the back is far less prominent.
Instead of extending along the entire length of the laptop, the mechanism now occupies just a small strip in the centre, complementing the Duo 13’s more streamlined design. When you slide the screen section up from tablet mode it needs a little guidance to clip into the metal hooks that hold it steady, so it's not quite as slick feeling as some.
Once in position, the design doesn’t allow you to change the angle of the display, and while the 13.3in screen was very bright, its viewing angles were surprisingly underwhelming for an IPS display. This means you have to sit in front of it at just the right angle to get the most from the display in laptop mode.
This is a shame, as the screen itself is gorgeous when you look at it straight on. Its glossy finish really helped our solid reds, greens and blues jump out of the screen and blacks were pleasingly deep. However, solid whites revealed that the top of the screen was indeed slightly darker than the rest of the display, and this is only exacerbated by the problem it has with its viewing angles. It didn’t affect our high contrast images too much, though, as we could still see a good level of detail in all of our images regardless of where we viewed them from.
However, the issues we had with the screen almost pale into insignificance when we consider the Duo 13's astonishing battery life. Intel’s new fourth generation processors claim a 50% uplift in battery life compared to the previous generation. The Duo 11 lasted for around seven hours in our tests but the Duo 13, despite its larger screen, smashed this completely.
The Duo 13 lasted a huge 20 hours and 44 minutes in our light use test with the screen set to half brightness, and that was with the Wi-Fi left on and connected to a network. We thought the nine and a half hours we'd squeezed out of the Samsung Series 7 Chronos was impressive, but over twenty hours is completely unheard of.
We were pleased with its underlying hardware as well. Our review sample came with an Intel Core i7-4500U processor and 4GB of RAM. It runs at 1.8GHz and can Turbo Boost up to 3GHz when there’s enough thermal headroom, but there wasn’t a particularly significant increase in performance compared to the last generation of Ultrabook processors. It scored 55 overall in our multimedia benchmarks, which is on par with other Core i7-3537U-based laptops like the Dell XPS 13 and Gigabyte U2442F. This is still more than fast enough for everyday applications, but it’s a little disappointing that the new processor didn’t produce a bigger increase in processing power.
Where Intel’s new processor really shone, though, was in its improved onboard graphics. The Duo 13’s Intel HD Graphics 4400 GPU makes it a far more capable gaming machine than any Ultrabook we’ve tested that doesn’t use a dedicated graphics card. It ran a smooth average of 27fps in Dirt Showdown on High Quality settings at a 720p resolution, and it even managed 17.5fps when we increased the resolution to a native 1,920x1,080. We had to drop the settings to Low to get back up to 30fps at this resolution, but you’ll be able to get away with the same frame rate on Medium Quality settings if you disable the anti-aliasing.
One of the biggest changes to the Duo is its keyboard. It’s now much larger than before and sits in a small recess, providing just a little bit more space between its flat keys. While the keys still weren’t particularly bouncy, they provided enough tactile feedback for us to type very comfortably on it and we were able to type at full speed almost immediately.
The touchstick that once sat in the middle of the keyboard has also disappeared in favour of a tiny trackpad. This was something sorely missing from the Duo 11, and it makes interacting with the laptop that much easier if you don’t have a mouse to hand. It’s small, but it’s very responsive and there was never an occasion where we wished it was larger. Two finger scrolling worked perfectly, and while we couldn’t get any Windows 8 shortcuts like bringing up the Charms bar to work on it, these are easy enough to execute with the touchscreen.
Another way of interacting with the screen is with its digitizer stylus pen. This makes a welcome return from the Duo 11, but you won’t have to worry about losing it this time as the Duo 13 now lets you slot it into the side of the chassis via a small clip. Removing it will wake the laptop up from sleep mode, and you can also set it to automatically open up a specific application as well, such as a note-taking app. The sensor was quite slow tracking our movements when we hovered the pen above the screen, but it snapped into place when the pen made contact and was very responsive while writing.
PORTS AND CAMERA
The Duo 13 has a great range of ports. There are two USB3 ports, an HDMI output for connecting it up to a second screen, an SD and Memory Stick HG Duo card reader, a 3G/LTE-compatible SIM card slot and a combined headphone and microphone jack. It's also NFC-enabled and comes with an HDMI to VGA adapter as well as a Gigabit Ethernet adapter that connects to the power supply and doubles up as a wireless router.
Another trick up its sleeve is its 8-megapixel rear camera. It's placed underneath the chassis, for use only in tablet mode, but we were very pleased with its overall image quality. Our outdoor shots were a little on the dark side but they were packed full of detail with only a very small amount of noise. Shooting indoors was equally impressive, although it struggled when we turned the lights off. This was particularly evident when we tried capturing video, as our footage wasn't just full of noise when we only had our PC fan lights running, but it also had a hard time focusing when there was more than one light source to contend with. It's certainly no worse than a good smartphone camera, though, and you should still be able to take some decent photos with it.
The Sony Vaio Duo 13 is a huge improvement on the Duo 11. The Core i7 model reviewed here is very expensive (though the Core i5 model is still £1,300), but its record-breaking battery life, improved graphics and enviable array of input devices make this one of the best Ultrabook tablet hybrids we’ve seen.
All this should make it the perfect laptop to take on long journeys and business trips, but the limitations of the hinge design and screen viewing angles mean you could struggle to use it in laptop mode in an economy plane or train seat. This, sadly takes it just out of award-winning territory, but this is still a truly impressive device. If you want a laptop-hybrid you can rely at all hours of the day, the Vaio Duo 13 is for you.