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Sony VAIO Duo 11 Hands-On: 1080p Screen Meets Slide-Out Keyboard

Tablets with slide-out keyboards seem to be a mini-trend these days. ASUS released its Android-based Eee Pad Slider in 2011, and this year we've seen two separate Windows 8 slates with keyboards that slide out the bottom, the MSI Slider S20 we saw at Computex and Sony's new VAIO Duo 11, which the company just unveiled here at IFA Berlin. We had a chance to go hands-on with the VAIO Duo 11 and liked its bright, sharp screen, but wonder whether this system might be too bulky and expensive for most users.

High-End Specs and Pricing

While some Windows 8 tablet vendors such as ASUS have chosen to offer their slates with low-end, low-power components, Sony has specked the VAIO out like a medium to high-end notebook and priced like  a very expensive notebook rather than a tablet. Though the notebook will be sold in different configurations, all models will come with either a 1.9-GHz Core i7-3517U, 1.7-GHz Core i5-3317U or 1.8-GHz Core i3-3217U CPU, a 128 or 256GB SSD, a full HD 1920 x 1080 screen that supports 10-point touch and active stylus input and either Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro.

The review system we saw on display had the Core i7 CPU installed with Windows Pro so perhaps that will be the dominant configuration. A Sony rep said that pricing would vary by country but would be around 1,100 Euros ($1,379). At present, even high-end Ultrabooks like the MacBook Air 13-inch ($1,199) and Lenovo X1 Carbon ($1249) cost less while the iPad and its direct competitors hover around $499.

Like a typical notebook, the Vaio Duo packs plenty of ports, including 2 USB 3.0 connections. Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, a headphone jack and an SD card reader. By contrast, most tablets don't even have one full-size USB port and many don't microSD card readers.

Hefty Size

At Sony's IFA Berlin booth,all of the VAIO Duo 11 systems on display had the optional sheet battery attached, which adds significant heft -- a Sony rep told us that it adds .3 kilograms (.66 pounds) -- and thickness to the tablet, which starts at a heavy 2.86 pounds but a reasonable .7 inches thick. When we lifted the tablet off of the display table, it just felt extremely bulky in our hands and, when you consider that the iPad is 1.3 pounds (less than half the weight), the Duo 11 seems even heavier.

Keyboard

The slide out keyboard is certainly interesting, but is it practical?  In our tests, sliding out the keyboard was fairly easy once we figured out where to pull up the back, but the keys themselves were smaller than those you'd find on a netbook. Yes, the keyboard is backlit and it has an optical nub between the G and H keys for navigation, but the typing and navigating experience just didn't seem that good as we often flailed around the desktop with the nub and found the keys just a bit too small for our taste.

Considering that the VAIO 11 Duo is specked like a notebook and priced like a very expensive notebook, we'd expect a notebook-like typing experience. Unfortunately, we can't see too many users typing on this undersized keyboard for long periods of time and, with the lack of a palm rest or any kind of tilt, we think it might be uncomfortable. Also, with the screen propped up, this device would be really unwieldy if placed on a lap.

Screen and Pen

The bright, colorful 11.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 screen is definitely the VAIO Duo 11's best feature. Where most 11-inch notebook screens clock in at a lame 1366 x 768 or 135.1 pixels per inch, the VAIO Duo 11's screen is a razor-sharp 189.91 PPI. In our test, Windows 8's desktop environment was just huge with lots of tiny icons and Windows, which means that you can fit a lot of content on screen but you may want to turn up the font and icon sizes to make it easier to target menus and shortcuts.

Even better, the display supports 10 finger mulititouch. When we tried drawing with both hands in Windows paint, the system drew one line for each finger. 

Sony hasn't said who makes its touchscreen digitizer, but the bundled pen looks like one of N-Trig's styluses. With the highly-accurate, two-button pen, we were able to not only draw effectively but easily and accurately tap the tiny icons and menus on the desktop. Since Windows supports stylus input for writing in any program, the pen could be a lot more convenient than the keyboard.

Final Thoughts

The VAIO Duo 11 tablet is a truly interesting product that pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a tablet or a notebook. That said, we're concerned both about the price we heard quoted and the keyboard which is good enough for small typing tasks but not for full-time content creation.

For something that's more expensive than an iPad and much more expensive than even some high-end notebooks, most users will expect the VAIO Duo 11 to be good enough to be a primary computing device. The system certainly has the power to be your everyday work and school PC, but does it have the right level of usability? We'll determine that after we review the VAIO Duo 11 so stay tuned.