Windows 8 has inspired plenty of strange notebook designs, from the swiveling screen on the Dell XPS 12 to the flexible Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga. But Microsoft’s own Surface tablet is the beacon for Microsoft’s true vision of the future of Windows 8 devices, a complete reimagining of the notebook as part traditional laptop and part tablet. As Microsoft and others tried to build these devices, they were hamstrung by poor design, and parts that couldn't find ways to be both powerful and long-lasting — but the tide is shifting.
The Vaio Tap 11 is Sony's answer to the Surface Pro 2, and potentially proof that this form factor can really work. This 11.6-inch tablet has a kickstand and an included, detachable keyboard. It’s also extremely thin, promises plenty of battery life, and comes in at just $799 for a Pentium processor and $999 for a more powerful Intel Core chip.
Microsoft keeps pushing its vision, and other manufacturers are coming around. But could Sony be one of the first to build a true hybrid, the one device for everything in your life?
A tablet in body, not spirit
At first glance, the Sony Vaio Tap 11 is downright attractive. The body is made of a premium-feeling soft
plastic magnesium alloy while the entire front features edge-to-edge glass. It's just 0.39 inches thick, which makes it easy to believe Sony’s claim that this is the world’s thinnest Windows 8 tablet with an Intel Core processor. It's really thin — barely thicker than the iPhone 5S — and the difference between it and the 0.53-inch-thick Surface Pro 2 is striking.
The edges look sleek and clean, with every port hidden by plastic covers except for the power connector on the bottom-left side. The Tap 11 has plenty of ports, but mostly shrunken versions: besides the standard USB 3.0, the Tap 11 includes a mini HDMI and microSD port. It’s one of the compromises for getting so slim, though I would have much preferred the full-size versions — a bagful of adapters kind of kills the point.
A few unfortunate design decisions take away from the overall quality
The Tap 11 is sturdy and well-made, but it's held back by a few unfortunate design decisions. All those little plastic covers protecting the ports feel flimsy and cheap, and I had a hard time snapping (or rather mushing) them back into place. The charger connector is even worse: it’s short and stubby, and never feels totally connected. This loose connection is supposedly a feature, ensuring that tripping over the cord won’t knock the device off the table, but Sony should have really gone with magnets like the Surface Pro 2 or Macbook Air. The connector is so bad, I initially thought it was broken, and there were a few times I didn’t notice it had somehow disconnected until I got a low-battery warning.
On the other hand, the Tap 11's kickstand is fantastic — it’s easy to open and stays put at any angle from flat to about 45 degrees. The Surface Pro 2 can go a little deeper thanks to its second kickstand angle, but I liked having the freedom to make tiny adjustments to the screen. The single short leg doesn’t look as nice as the Surface’s full-width kickstand, though, and makes propping the tablet on your lap really hard. The physical glass Windows button feels nice, but is so hard to push that the entire tablet fell back every time I used it. A capacitive button, like the Surface, would have been much better.
The Tap 11’s cover attaches to the tablet using very strong magnets — they're powerful enough that the two never separated when in my bag, yet slipping them apart was a breeze. But that's just the problem: they slip apart.
When you pry off the cover, you’ll find a full-fledged keyboard, just like the Surface's Type Cover, only without a way to connect at the hinge. This is an unattached, wireless keyboard that only touches the tablet when it’s not in use. This is particularly mind-boggling because the keyboard cover also serves as an external battery for the tablet, like the new Power Cover for the Surface Pro. But unlike Microsoft’s tablets, there’s no way to access that extra power unless you completely stop using the device and put the cover back on. Likewise, there’s no way to recharge the keyboard except through the tablet, so both pieces need to be sandwiched together and plugged in for the keyboard to charge. If the keyboard battery dies, you're done using it until you can stop using the tablet altogether for a few hours.
But the most frustrating thing about the unattached keyboard is that it means you can’t use the complete unit on your lap. If I didn’t have a table to use, I had no choice but to use the device as a tablet and type on the on-screen keyboard. I also had to find a safe place for the cover, which usually ended up awkwardly stacked on the back of the tablet. I longed for the wide kickstand and magnetized cover of the Surface Pro that make lap use a little easier.
Keyboard and pen
The keyboard itself is a pleasant surprise — for the most part it feels carefully crafted to fit the needs of the Tap 11. It provides a surprisingly good typing experience, much less cramped than the Type Cover, with a moderate amount of of tactile feedback. The keys are a little mushy, but it feels more like a low-end traditional keyboard than a tablet cover with keyboard aspirations.
As is all too often the case with Windows tablets, the trackpad lets it down. It’s a tad too short and much too wide, with the cheap-feeling dotted-plastic texture of a netbook trackpad. Using it almost tickled my fingertips, which was not at all pleasant. The mouse button also needs slightly too much force to click, which was a source of consistent frustration.
I like using a stylus throughout the OS, but I wish the N-trig-powered Active Pen was more integrated into the Windows 8 experience. It feels premium and has a nice weight, but the tip is treated as a mouse cursor rather than a finger, which means that I couldn’t use it to swipe through the Windows 8 home screen or websites — I had to tap and drag on scroll bars. The Tap 11 can sense when the stylus is close, displaying a little dot on the screen, and tapping while pressing the button on the pen is an easy way to right click. But switching from the pen to my finger and back was so annoying that I mostly just ignored the stylus except when I explicitly needed it.
The stylus is clearly not a critical part of the device, either. There’s no integrated pen dock, only a hook-shaped piece of plastic that snaps onto the left side of the device though a tiny slot in the back. It looks out of place, like a last-minute solution to an ignored problem. The stylus on the Surface Pro at least attaches to the power connector; the Tap 11’s pen holder feels disjointed.
The keyboard provides a surprisingly good typing experience
Tablet versus laptop
Despite its slim size, the Tap 11 certainly doesn’t feel like a lesser machine. Sony is using a new Haswell Y-series chip, which is specifically designed to bring notebook-level power to tablets. The Core i5-4210Y chip with 4GB of RAM in my review model made the device act and feel more like a notebook than a tablet. Like any ultrabook or convertible, it's not a gaming PC or even really suited for heavy graphics work, but it does the basics well. It’s not perfect, though: there’s a hint of stuttering when scrolling websites or even swiping through the Start screen. The notebook is also available with a Core i3 or a Core i7 processor configuration, and has one model with the less powerful Intel Pentium 3560Y. The Pentium processor does help the Tap 11 start at $100 less than the base Surface 2 Pro, but given the i5’s limitations I’d recommend bumping up your configuration a bit.
The Tap 11 has a built-in fan for cooling, but thanks to the low-voltage chip it doesn't seem to need it much. I never really noticed the tablet getting warm, but the fan did kick on a few times throughout my time with the device. It always happened randomly — once as I was browsing with usually power-friendly Chrome, and again inexplicably right after I turned on the notebook.
The Tap 11’s 11.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 display features Sony’s Triluminos technology, first found in its TVs before making its way into devices like the Vaio Pro and the Xperia Z Ultra. The screen looks great, with solid viewing angles and bright, accurate colors. It packs plenty of pixels, and high-resolution screens are a must on a tablet, but the Tap 11 suffers from the same resolution ailments as the 11-inch Vaio Pro — a significant part of the operating system renders way too small.
The worst offender is desktop mode, where icons and buttons are way too small to accurately tap with a finger, and even the pen gave me issues when I tried to select things like task-tray items. Websites were also small and hard to read, like The Verge, which was relegated to a narrow column in the center of the screen with plenty of empty white space on either side. This can be easily solved by adjusting the screen resolution (in the Control Panel under Appearance) but that defeats the entire point of the 1080p screen because everything looks slightly blurry. You’re left choosing between the lesser of two evils, which for me was keeping the higher resolution and relying heavily on the mouse and pen instead of touch.
Flipping the tablet into portrait just feels ridiculous
I still find 16:9 to be an extremely awkward aspect ratio for a tablet. It’s fine for landscape mode, but flipping over to portrait just feels ridiculous. It’s a shame, since I tend to prefer portrait for internet browsing, but the combination of a weirdly long screen and tiny text made the experience less than ideal. This is where making a hybrid device gets really hard — 16:9 is right for laptops and wrong for large tablets, and finding the right resolution balance is hard.
For both types of devices, battery life is crucial — and doesn't quite measure up. The Tap 11 did last almost an entire day of moderate use, only making me run for the charger for about the last hour of the day. But that's not nearly tablet-level battery life, and can't come close to matching some of the Haswell-powered laptops we've seen either. It lasted 5 hours, 42 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with a screen brightness of 65 percent. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t hold up to the Surface Pro 2, which lasted 7 hours, 33 minutes on a single charge. Sony might have done well to make a slightly thicker tablet in exchange for much longer battery life.
With the Tap 11, Sony basically built a thinner, cheaper version of the Surface Pro 2 — but it made plenty of other compromises along the way. The Tap 11 just doesn’t have the same level of build quality as the Surface Pro 2. It does come with a keyboard, a near-necessity for a Windows 8 tablet (and one oddly not included with the Surface), but the implementation is all wrong. I want to be able to charge the keyboard or use its power when I’m working on the tablet, not just when it’s closed and tucked away. And I want to be able to attach the two pieces, turning the Tap 11’s two parts — which, assembled, seem like they’d make a great laptop — into a single clamshell notebook.
If you’re looking for a powerful Windows 8 tablet to replace your laptop, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 is still the the device to beat. The keyboard may be an extra purchase, but the Surface just looks and feel like a more premium device — and with longer-lasting battery and better performance, it's an easy decision. I long for a thinner Surface Pro, but for now I'll take everything else it offers over a thinner body.
The $999 Vaio Tap 11 with 128GB of storage and an Intel Core processor feels like it still has a few quirks to work out before it catches up to Microsoft. And it makes clear just how hard it is to build a device that's equally suited to life as both a tablet and a laptop — the perfect hybrid's probably still a long way off.