Microsoft’s latest attempt to fight the race to the bottom in Windows hardware has once again ended in a whimper, mostly because its own Surface and similar upmarket devices showcased the Metro part of Windows 8 that nobody wants. Anecdotally, I saw the elegant ultrabooks and hybrids vanishing again that had populated store shelves around the release of Windows 8. They were replaced with the usual heaps of cheap ugly plastic cases with dim non-touch TN panels and ancient spinny hard disks. Sadly, that’s apparently exactly what most Windows users want.
Sony used to be an exception, one of the few makers of expensive high-quality Windows PCs. But the company was already in bad financial shape and took another hit when Windows 8 failed to revive the PC market. Accordingly, Sony sold off its Vaio PC division to a Japanese investment group and now presumably pins its hopes on the runaway success of the PlayStation 4. That’s a pity because I thought the Sony Vaio Duo was the most interesting of all Windows 8 era hybrids: an elegant high-end ultrabook with a digitizer pen like Microsoft’s own Surface Pro, but with a permanently attached keyboard underneath a clever sliding mechanism.
Since there likely won’t be a successor, I decided to throw a hefty €2,100 at a Sony Vaio Duo 13 with almost all options maxed out. The major exception is the SSD where I stopped at a reasonable 256 GB. An ultrabook with its mobile dual-core CPU and integrated graphics clearly isn’t adequate (or intended) as a desktop replacement, but my search for that kind of portables came up empty as usual. Once they approach the power of my aging homebuilt Core i7 920 box they’re not just twice as expensive – they are also too big and heavy for actual mobile use, have a very short battery life, get much louder at equivalent load, and feature an inferior screen & keyboard to boot.
So right now there’s still no point trying to fully replace a stationary system, if you need one and have the room for it. First I planned to combine my desktop system with a light & quiet mobile device, synchronizing work between them. However, after using the Vaio Duo 13 for a week it proved sufficiently powerful for most tasks, so I pretty much abandoned the desktop altogether. The picture below shows iPad Air and Sony Vaio Duo 13 side by side – the screen is almost exactly twice as big, about the minimum size for conveniently arranging and operating Win32 desktop applications.
iPad Air & Vaio Duo 13
For a general overview of the Sony Vaio Duo 13 see the Engadget review. Sony allows customers to assemble Vaio PCs from a broad variety of hardware options. I mostly went near the top of the range which explains the rather shocking price of €2,100. The hardware specifications are broadly similar to the bigger MacBook Air variant with additional options.
- CPU: Intel Core i7 4650U at 1.7 GHz, dual-core, hyperthreaded
- GPU: Intel HD Graphics 5000, integrated (see AnandTech test)
- RAM: 8 GB DDR3, dual-channel, 2 × 800 MHz
- Storage: Samsung SSD MZNTE256HMHP, 256 GB, SATA III 6 GB/s
- Audio: Realtek High Definition Audio, Sony ClearAudio+ post-processing, microphone & stereo speakers, headphone output
- Video: Triluminos IPS LCD screen (13.3″ = 33.8 cm, 1920×1080 pixels), front & rear camera, HDMI output
- Input: backlit keyboard, capacitive multitouch screen, N-Trig digitizer pen, Synaptics touchpad with gesture support
- Sensors: device orientation, Huawei GPS, NXP near-field proximity
- SD card reader, 2 × USB 3.0, Broadcom Bluetooth & Wifi 802.11abgn, Huawei 4G broadband
That’s basically everything you could wish for, although with only two USB ports you’ll want to get a powered USB hub if you expect to operate in “docked” mode with external mouse & keyboard and perhaps disk drives, printer, etc.
What’s this mobile CPU capable of? Games are problematic, as discussed below, but everything else runs with acceptable performance, from NetBeans to LibreOffice to even Adobe Lightroom. Compared to my desktop system there are certainly longer delays when importing and editing pictures, but never long enough to become annoying.
Battery & Noise
Mobile systems inevitably offer a much worse price/performance ratio than stationary ones, but in return I expect that they are truly mobile – light and silent, rarely needing to recharge. And the Vaio Duo 13 delivers. Its predecessor, the Vaio Duo 11, had offered a clip-on pack to double its battery life from 5 to 10 hours. Sony says the Vaio Duo 13 effectively has that extra pack built in, and in my experience that claim is justified. I can’t attest to exactly 10 hours, but I can certainly go for a whole day without recharging while in fanless operation.
What’s covered by fanless operation? Surprisingly, almost everything! Exceptions include games and other CPU-heavy loads which rarely occur in practice. Web browsing, text editing, and file operations (see below on the BitLocker caveat) tend to leave the device completely silent. This is true even in closed tablet mode when some exhaust vents are covered up, and even after I had set tablet mode to “Performance,” i.e. no precautionary speed limits. CPU and motherboard temperatures were around 40° Celsius or less. When the fan does activate it’s usually at a low noise level, and it soon turns off again. In practical operation the Vaio Duo 13 is mostly as silent as an iPad.
Sony makes some of the very few Windows notebooks that can compete with MacBooks in terms of hardware quality. The beautiful carbon fiber body looks and feels like a polished slab of granite, but is (just about) light enough to manipulate single-handedly. The fold-out hinge works smoothly and can likewise be operated with one hand. When opened the screen rests at precisely the right angle, and the entire size & weight is just about the maximum possible to operate conveniently without desk support.
The IPS display is truly magnificent, bright and colorful with good viewing angles, using the same Triluminos color technology as Sony’s Bravia TVs. Since it’s a glossy screen I also bought a preattached anti-glare protection film, which does not seem to impact display quality or touch input. Sony even provides a tasteful Windows desktop background that I prefer to the garish Windows 8.1 defaults.
Audio output is handled by an ordinary Realtek chip without third-party options such as Dolby Headphone. Sony does offer its own ClearAudio+ post-processing, though. I found the music preset not much inferior to my Asus Xonar DGX with the same headphones – powerful deep bass, treble a tad too loud, but a nice impression of space. Speaking of headphones, the Vaio’s output is completely free of noise and powerful enough to drive my big Sennheiser HD 380 Pro cans. The built-in speakers are solid but obviously you can’t expect much there.
The chicklet keyboard is excellent for its technology, with almost standard-sized keys, nice strong click points, and separate cursor and function keys. Something has to give in such a small chassis, though. The numeric key block is absent, and four navigation functions (Home, End, Page Up/Down) require an additional modifier key. The touchpad is likewise one of the better specimens I’ve seen, with precise pointer tracking despite its tiny size. The entire surface doubles as a button – very convenient, but it took me a while to discover that the bottom area represents right clicks. Gesture support for two-finger scrolling and pinch-zooming is another noteworthy feature.
Touch Input Options
Aside from the standard touchpad, the Vaio Duo comes with a capacitive multitouch screen that works as well as you’d expect. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that all modern Windows desktop browsers fully support swipe-scrolling and pinch-zooming, so you don’t have to use Internet Explorer 11 in Metro mode for a comfortable tablet browsing session. That said, many Win32 desktop applications (including browsers) feature controls that are too small to hit reliably with your finger.
Here’s where the Vaio Duo’s unusual digitizer pen comes in. This is an active input device that’s powered by its own battery and communicates with a separate high-resolution grid overlaid on the regular touch screen. The tip is pixel-precise and even emulates mouse pointer hovering – by literally hovering the pen a few millimeters above the screen surface. Tapping executes a left click, tapping & holding eventually produces a right click. Alternatively, hold down the smaller button before tapping the screen for a right click, as explained here. Note that by default, the pen’s two physical buttons start up Sony Metro apps. You can disable this feature but sadly not map your own button functions.
I found the pen a worthy addition that makes laptop use of Win32 applications much easier than with just touchscreen and touchpad. I greatly prefer simply pointing to the screen over dragging some barely visible pointer around. Of course the pen can also be used for drawing or handwriting but I’m not very artistically inclined, so I can’t comment on these functions. (See e.g. this review and comments.)
Pitfall: BitLocker vs. SSD
When I cleaned up temporary files after initial setup I was surprised that the operation seemed to take forever – and that the CPU fan was howling loudly. How can SSD access put such a heavy load on the CPU? Turns out that since I had bought the Windows 8.1 Pro upgrade, Sony had “thoughtfully” encrypted the entire Windows partition with Pro’s BitLocker!
This is not necessarily stupid. Like most modern notebooks, the Vaio Duo comes with a Trusted Platform Module that renders a BitLocker-encrypted partition inaccessible when the disk is removed from its paired motherboard. Assuming the computer itself is password-protected, this should offer fairly decent protection of sensitive data against theft.
However, I don’t need this protection as my sensitive data is locked away in a TrueCrypt container – and BitLocker has a significant CPU impact (more samples). Once I had decrypted the disk and disabled BitLocker, the SSD ran as fast and cool as you’d expect. 2014-04-10: Another clean-up after Windows 8.1 Update 1 was again slow and noisy, so the culprit here is Disk Cleanup rather than BitLocker. You should still disable BitLocker if you don’t need it, though, to generally minimize CPU load.
By the way, disabling BitLocker first required me to finish enabling BitLocker since it wanted to generate my password, and would not allow decryption until encryption was finalized. Moreover, the fact that BitLocker was enabled and waiting for password generation was only indicated by an obscure drive icon. Neither Windows nor Sony communicated this rather important fact in any other way.
Which brings us to the included software. I had checked Sony’s “Clean Start” option to avoid the usual Adobe and McAfee advertising-ware. This option is free, except that you’re forced to get Windows 8.1 Pro rather than the basic variant. This cost €50 more and led to the aforementioned BitLocker mystery, but it did get rid of crapware… or did it?
First, I still found several directories related to McAfee Security Scanner that required manual removal. One even had a proper uninstaller (
Program Files\Sony\MSS\uninstall.exe) yet did not appear in the Windows uninstall list. Obviously Sony first dumps this crap on all systems and then removes (some of) it again when “Clean Start” is ordered – rather the wrong way around I’d think, but possibly mandated by the McAfee contract.
Second, Sony installs some other big bundles of dubious software. One is Broadcom’s gigabyte-sized Widcomm Bluetooth application package, providing all sorts of enhanced multimedia functionality. This is on top of the basic Bluetooth connectivity which is always available. As one Sony Vaio user discovered, this package hooks into Apple iTunes – and routinely prevents it from shutting down by hogging the iTunes scripting interface (nobody knows what for). Since I don’t use Bluetooth I was happy to just uninstall this bizarre package.
Then we have WebToGo’s OneClickInternet which seems intended for people who can’t figure out network setup, and of course the inevitable Microsoft Office 365 trial edition. Finally, Sony’s own VAIO Care package is rather impressively bloated. There’s an included updater that always runs – and always produces “503 Service Unavailable” errors when attempting to contact Sony’s update server. Fortunately it can be uninstalled separately. I did not dare to uninstall all Vaio software since it handles emergency system restore and some hardware configuration that (I think) is not available elsewhere.
Updates are a notoriously painful aspect of using Windows. Even though my computer shipped with Windows 8.1, released not half a year ago, it immediately wanted to download 900 MB of updates – just for the operating system! At least I’m on flat-fee WiFi broadband rather than a metered mobile phone connection. Microsoft needs to break this patching addiction if it wants to succeed in a world of mobile consumer devices.
On the other hand, if you want all updates you’ll have to find them on your own. Some hardware components had new driver versions but Microsoft Update did not offer them, and as mentioned above Sony could not contact its update server. Even better, the Sony support website did not recognize the model number of my newly bought Vaio Duo! Bravely I selected some random other number from the same device category, indicating a slightly different configuration. The resulting driver downloads worked fine on my system.
Microsoft Windows 8.1
Intel hardware has advanced much in terms of power efficiency, and so has Microsoft Windows in terms of frugal hardware use. Even a cold boot on the Vaio Duo takes mere seconds – admittedly by expending disk space on kernel hibernation, but that tradeoff is acceptable for a mobile device. Sleep works reliably and wakes up instantly, just like an iPad.
What about the notorious Start screen? While it’s certainly much more usable with touch input, it’s still not very useful on a system that only runs Win32 desktop applications. After a few days with the Start screen I went back to Classic Shell once more. It’s just plain a superior way to organize a complex desktop setup, especially on a system with a precise digitizer stylus.
Windows 8.1 also brought per-monitor DPI scaling, and since I’m often using an external monitor with the Vaio Duo we’ll take a look at that next.
Monitors & DPI Scaling
The Vaio’s built-in 13.3″ screen has a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels which evaluates to about 167 DPI. Not exactly “retina” level but small enough that I had to keep the factory default of 150% DPI scaling, even at a laptop’s short viewing distance. This reduces the effective layout space available to applications quite a bit, but there’s still enough room to get real work done.
Part of my existing desktop system, and now of my docking setup for the Vaio, is a Dell U2711 monitor. This 27″ monster offers 109 DPI at its native resolution of 2560×1440 pixels, but I’m sitting far enough away that I had been using 150% DPI scaling at that resolution as well. Connecting to the Vaio over HDMI worked fine, but the extra pixels turned out to be wasted.
First, the Vaio’s Intel GPU is limited to 1920×1080 pixels, even over HDMI. Some Googling found rumors that older Intel driver versions might have allowed custom HDMI resolutions up to 2560×1440, or that newer monitors would in fact work at that resolution, but I couldn’t go beyond 1080p. This means the display is slightly blurry due to the monitor’s built-in picture scaling, and things are almost comically big at 150% due to an effective 82 DPI when 1080p is stretched over 27 inches.
How about reducing the Windows DPI setting? Windows 8.1 introduced per-monitor DPI scaling which is enabled by default. Now that I had two screens with very different pixel densities I gave this feature a try. It works… as far as Windows is concerned. But all the programs I had nicely centered on the Vaio’s built-in screen were now huddling in the Dell’s upper-left corner. I’d be constantly moving & resizing windows if I took advantage of per-monitor DPI scaling. Besides, Windows seemed to set the Dell to 100% which is rather small at a desktop viewing distance… and of course everything was even blurrier since the monitor still ran at 1080p.
So I disabled this option and went back to gigantic projector-style sizes on the external monitor. At least all window layouts are exactly identical between screens, allowing for seamless switching. I guess I’ll simply buy a smaller 1080p monitor when the Dell dies, assuming I’m not on another computer by then. (Ironically, when I’m playing games on my desktop it’s mostly at 1080p as well, for performance reasons. So the Dell’s impressive 2560×1440 resolution is now perfectly useless.)
Playing Games (Or Not)
My edition of the Sony Vaio Duo 13 is almost decent enough to play modern video games but honestly, you’ll still want to keep a desktop around for that job. Of the three big-budget games I tried, the two that run fine are Pinball FX2 and Rise of Nations. The first even runs on iOS, the second is ten years old… and both require external controllers to play well. Rise of Nations really needs a mouse, being an RTS title. More on Pinball FX2 below.
The third game I tried was Civilization V which does in fact have dedicated touchscreen support on Windows 8. Touch input works and the game does run – but not terribly well. Graphics get choppy even at a middling-low quality level, and the battery drains completely in two hours of play. Firaxis’ notoriously poor quality control eventually asserted itself, too, with units suddenly showing movement paths I had never entered. I abandoned my attempts to play Civ5 at that point, and didn’t try to run Diablo III which definitely requires a mouse anyway. Like all Windows ultrabooks, the Vaio Duo is not a device you’ll want to buy for playing games.
Pinball FX2 is a perfect fit for portrait mode, but that renders the keyboard unusable. You can use touch controls but then you’ll have to leave the tablet lying flat, or else grasp its sharp edges which is rather tiring. Alternatively, you can use a gamepad but then you’ll want a stand to keep the Vaio upright. In the picture below I’ve hijacked my Logitech keyboard’s iPad stand for that purpose. Finally, you need to rotate the screen to vertical orientation before you launch Pinball FX2, or the game will get terribly confused. But with all these caveats, the Vaio Duo 13 is one mean digital pinball machine!
The Ball Is Out There
Overall I’m very fond of this elegant little machine. Any recommendation needs the caveat that Sony has sold off its computer division, so there may be no more device-specific software or firmware updates. Nevertheless, assuming the Vaio Duo won’t die on me tomorrow I’m quite happy with my purchase. Summing up this lengthy review, here are the points that stood out to me.
- Fantastic hardware in every respect, beautiful and robust as well as functional and thoughtfully designed. Competitive with Apple devices, and if there’s a better-made Windows computer I’ve yet to see it. All the worse for both customers and Microsoft that Sony is leaving this business.
- Intel’s hardware and Microsoft’s software are finally efficient enough to provide full desktop capability in a genuinely mobile device, almost light enough to hold in one hand and lasting up to a day without recharging.
- Even a supposedly “Clean Start” system still comes misconfigured and with defective bloatware, and Microsoft still abuses customer devices as patch landfills. If this doesn’t change the best hardware in the world won’t stop the erosion of Windows consumer marketshare.
- Touch input is surprisingly useful for desktop applications. Browsers directly support tablet gestures, and the digitizer pen is a great mouse substitute. It’s ironic that touch devices made a breakthrough thanks to Steve Jobs banning pens, yet Windows on touchscreens gets a massive usability boost from high-precision pens.
- Tablet mode is useless, unless you’re a pinball fan. The Vaio Duo 13 is still too heavy to hold in one hand for extended periods of time. Raising the screen into laptop position is a much more convenient way to achieve a good reading angle, and still puts the touch surface in easy reach. Moreover, the whole point of a Windows machine is to run keyboard-heavy software.
- As a corollary, Metro mode is utterly useless as well. I constantly use the touchscreen, yet I completely avoid Metro since it offers nothing I want. Touch input is indeed beneficial – but in desktop mode, amazingly enough. Microsoft should have focused on improving touch support and DPI scaling for Win32 applications, rather than tacking on a useless smartphone mode.
edit: As if to provide a demonstration how software is holding back Windows, the Vaio’s fan started howling soon after I had posted this article. Temperatures rose to over 60°C and stayed there. Was the device already defect? No, it’s just Microsoft’s Windows Image Acquisition service that starts up automatically when a camera is plugged in, as I had done to copy the two pictures above. The service then apparently went into a frenzy and kept consuming 30-40% of CPU time, even though it had nothing to do. Manually stopping it immediately dropped CPU load and temperature, and also silenced the fan. How is an ordinary user supposed to cope with that?