Hybrids are the trend this year, and looks like next year will be the same. Sony's latest try at this concoction is the Vaio Duo 13, an ultrabook whose unique screen hinge allows it to slide forward over the keyboard to transform into a touchscreen tablet. But can it compete with the Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga range, which for us is the best incarnation of the hybrid concept yet?
What makes the Vaio Duo 13 different from all other hybrids is the way in which it switches between the two modes. There's a hinge (shown above-centre) that lets the display slide quickly and easily over the keyboard. This is different than most hybrids, in which the screen typically rotates backward behind the keyboard (like so).
The problem with Sony's method is this: when it's in laptop mode, the screen doesn't tilt. Most laptop users have the reflex of tilting the display to whatever angle they want so they can see it at the most comfortable angle. Here you can't do that; it's stuck at one angle.
Plus, the fact that it's a glossy screen makes it more susceptible to reflections and glare than a matte display, so you'll basically end up spending a lot of time trying to find the best way to sit if you want to see the screen correctly. On top of that, when you close the screen to carry it around, the screen is facing up, so you have to be careful not to scratch it.
But the finish and manufacturing are all good. The body is made of a mix of carbon and aluminium that makes it look elegant and feel sturdy. We didn't notice any play in the body, in either tablet or laptop mode.
The chiclet keyboard is backlit and offers a nice short, quick stroke. But watch out because the arrow keys aren't where they usually are; they've been moved just under the Enter key, which means that Shift isn't below Enter where you expect it to be. That can get annoying.
When the display is in up-position as a laptop, it takes up one-third of the lower section that the keyboard and touchpad are on (see below). To make up for the lost space, Sony decided to make the touchpad this weird, tiny shape of 8 x 2.5 cm. Hmm, why not make it 1 x 1 cm? It would be just as unusable. With a little concentration you can move the cursor across the screen, but that's about it. Trying to vertically scroll is so hard you might find your tongue sticking out the corner of your mouth while you do it. And good luck with the Windows 8 touch gestures.
The touchscreen works well, both with your finger and the stylus. The stylus is included and really comes in handy when you need some precision, such as when you leave the Windows 8 Start Screen for the standard desktop. It's also great for the pre-installed Note app, which you can use to handwrite memos or draw (check out our exquisite art work above). The virtual keyboard also has a space where you can write with the stylus. It recognises your handwriting and converts it into text, which it does fairly well—even teachers and doctors can use it! On the right side of the chassis is a small retractable holder where you can insert the stylus for safekeeping and easy grabbing.
The port selection is a bit, shall we say, minimalist with just two USB 3.0 ports, an HDMI out, a headphone/microphone combo jack and an SD card reader. No RJ45/Ethernet port, unfortunately. The ports are all aligned along the back edge, which isn't necessarily the most practical location.
One unique thing about the Vaio Duo 13 is that it has a SIM card slot behind the screen for 3G connectivity (or 4G, depending which configuration you get), that way you can go online even if you lost your neighbors' Wi-Fi passwords.
The temperature is kept relatively in check, peaking at just 40°C, as is the fan noise, which stays below 33 dB.
The display is an IPS touchscreen with 1920 x 1080 pixels. The brightness goes up to 360 cd/m² and it has an acceptable contrast ratio of 880:1 (the best laptops go over 1,000:1).
Grey colour temperature
The colours are fairly accurate with a Delta E of 4.8 (3.0 and below is the objective, so this isn't that far off) and the colour temperature is a pretty good 6,000 K, just 500 kelvins away from the ideal 6,500 K.
Given the Vaio Duo 13's atypical design, the speakers are located where they would normally be on a standard computer and provide alright sound quality in both laptop and tablet mode. In fact, they sound better than most tablet speakers.
The line in/out gives a signal with high volume, no saturation and a balanced stereo image.
The model we tested has an Intel Core i5-4200U, the same processor found in the Samsung Ativ Book 9 Plus, Microsoft Surface Pro 2 and Sony Vaio Pro 13.
The Duo 13 is the slowest of these machines (10% slower than the Ativ Book and 20% slower than the Surface Pro), but this is nonetheless a very capable chip that can handle any task at more than reasonable speeds.
The Intel HD Graphics 4400 chipset is only good for small games that don't require a lot of graphics power, like FIFA 13, which runs fine in the screen's native resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels). Anything bigger, like Crysis 3 or BioShock Infinite, will hardly even run on it, even if you lower all the settings.
MOBILITY / BATTERY LIFE
The Duo 13 has great battery life! We measured it at 9 hours of video playback (in airplane mode with the screen brightness set to 100 cd/m², the keyboard backlighting turned off and headphones plugged in). That's one of the best figures we've seen yet on this type of device. That said, it is a far from Sony's advertised 16 hours of use. The big dog in terms of battery life, of course, is the 2013 MacBook Air 13", which lasts 14½ hours in the same conditions.