When Microsoft released Windows 8 last October, it unleashed a sudden burst of unbridled creativity among PC makers. Companies which had been making desktops and laptops in much the same form factors for decades started trying out fresh new ideas: notebooks that turned into tablets, tablets that turned into notebooks, all-in-one desktops which could be unplugged and used as portable tablet-top computers.
The rampant experimenting was refreshing, but many of the machines felt like just that: experiments. Sony’s VAIO Duo 11, for example, was both a tablet and a notebook — you slid up the touch display to reveal a keyboard below. Intriguing! But doing the sliding was a cumbersome two-handed job. The system had an odd little pointing button instead of a touchpad. The battery life, at “up to” four hours and 45 minutes, couldn’t compete with an iPad. And at $1199 for an 11.6″ display, the Duo felt pricey for a second computer and cramped for a primary one.
Over at the Computex show in Taipei this week, PC makers are announcing scads of new computers — including ones that have learned lessons from the first wave of Windows 8 machines. One of them is the VAIO Duo 13, Sony‘s second pass at the slider idea. The company recently gave me a sneak peek, and it looked like a markedly more practical take on the concept than the Duo 11.
That practicality starts with the touchscreen. It still sports 1920-by-1080 resolution, but it’s now a markedly roomier 13″, which makes it feel like a full-sized portable computer rather than a miniaturized one. There’s a touchpad now instead of the previous model’s oddball pointer, letting you work with the Duo as if it were an utterly conventional PC. As before, you also get a pressure-sensitive pen for drawing and note-taking; a pop-out “inkwell” lets you temporarily stow it so it doesn’t get lost on your desk.
Despite the bigger display and touchpad, the Duo’s footprint and weight (2.97 pounds) are only a skosh larger than that of the Duo 11. For a system that runs full-strength Windows 8, it still feels ultra-portable, and it meets Intel’s specs for Ultrabooks.
Sliding up the Duo 11′s unwieldy hinged screen is a two-handed job; the Duo 13′s far less clunky redesigned version glides open and shut with one hand. And the system is among the first to use Intel’s fourth-generation Core processors (aka Haswell), allowing Sony to more than double its promised battery life to “up to” ten hours.
The Duo 13 goes on sale on June 9, starting at $1399 for a unit with 128GB of solid-state storage and a Core i5 processor, which is $200 more than the Duo 11. But it also feels like a plausible primary computer for anyone who might be happy with an higher-end Ultrabook. That wasn’t true of the Duo 11.
The question remains, though: Do large numbers of folks want a single device that can be a tablet or a notebook? No PC in this category — or related ones, such as notebooks with snap-off keyboards — seems to have been a breakout hit so far. That fact and consumers’ muted response overall to Windows 8 are presumably related. But as Microsoft improves Windows’ touch-centric features with updates such as Windows 8.1 — and, with any luck, more compelling third-party apps with the new Windows interface show up — this sort of duality could get more mainstream appeal.
The concept already makes sense to me — particularly in as polished a form as the new Duo, and especially when it involves a pen I can do serious drawing with, as it does with this system and Microsoft’s Surface Pro. If I were considering a high-end Windows 8 Ultrabook and the Duo 13′s pricetag were within my grasp, it would be on my list of contenders.