Sony VAIO Tap 11 review: meet Sony's answer to the Surface Pro
It wasn't until I was in a meeting with Sony, getting hands-on with its holiday lineup, that I realized something: the company didn't have a proper Windows 8 tablet. Yep, that's right: for all the experimentation PC makers have been doing around Win 8, one of the biggest names in consumer electronics had never attempted a simple Windows tablet. Even crazier: Sony instead placed its bets on the slider PC, of all things -- a design that presents more than a few ergonomic challenges.
Finally, though, Sony is giving the ol' slate form factor a shot: the company recently announced the Tap 11, a tablet seemingly designed to blow the Surface Pro out of the water. Like Microsoft's tablet, it has a kickstand, USB port, pen-enabled display and a thin keyboard case that attaches to the device magnetically. Unlike Microsoft, however, Sony is throwing in the wireless keyboard at no extra charge -- kind of a big deal considering Ballmer and Co. are selling the Type Cover for an additional $130. Even better, the Tap 11 starts at $800, undercutting the new Surface Pro 2 by $99 (and that's not even counting the keyboard). So, what's the catch?
Gallery: Sony VAIO Tap 11 review | 28 Photos/28
Gallery: Sony VAIO Tap 11 review | 28 Photos/28 Sony
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Look and feel
As we examine the Tap 11, we're faced with a tough question: would we have preferred this be thin and light, and made of so-so materials? Or a bit weightier, with unimpeachable build quality? We know where Sony stands on the issue, anyway: at 1.7 pounds and 0.39 inch thick, the Tap 11 cuts a skinny figure. Indeed, Sony claims it's the thinnest Windows 8 tablet with a Core processor inside (the Surface Pro 2 comes in at two pounds and 0.53 inch thick, despite having a smaller 10.6-inch footprint). And you know what? The Tap 11 makes a damn good first impression: we look at it and wonder why every other Core i5 hybrid can't be this thin. And particularly with the brushed-aluminum keyboard attached to the front as sort of a makeshift laptop lid, it looks not just slim, but expensive, too.Sony cut corners to keep the weight down (and, perhaps, to meet a certain price point).
But the more time we spent with the Tap 11, the more obvious it became that Sony cut corners to keep the weight down (and, perhaps, to meet a certain price point). Part of it is the build materials. With the exception of some metal accents on the edges and buttons, the Tap 11 is made of plain plastic. This wouldn't necessarily be an issue (see: the iPhone 5c and nearly any Lumia phone), but in this case, we have some concerns about the craftsmanship. For instance, when you press the Start button on the front face, you can see the plastic enclosure separate slightly from the glass. Stick a fingernail in there and you can pry it even farther away, though we admittedly never succeeded in wrenching it off. Ditto for the port covers hiding the microSD/SIM slots on top and the USB 3.0/micro-HDMI connections on the right: they feel flimsy, and don't snap in firmly when it's time to cover those openings again.
And we have other quibbles too: the Start button can be difficult to press because it's so stiff; we would've much preferred a touch-sensitive button, maybe one with haptic feedback. Also, there are a few too many exposed screws here: two underneath each of the port covers, and then another three on the underside of the kickstand.
What the Tap 11 lacks in polish, though, it makes up for in sheer practicality, with that kickstand being perhaps the best example. Forgetting the fact that it's not as discreet as the one on the Surface Pro, it's easier to open, thanks to a wide notch that's easy to slip a fingernail into. What's interesting is that whereas Microsoft's going out of its way to tout the new Surface's two-stage kickstand, Sony's model supports not just two kickstand positions, but... all of them. Going back to that "function over form" thing, the Tap 11's kickstand has a strip of rubber at the end, ensuring that no matter how far out you pull the kickstand, it will stay put on your desk. Incidentally, too, that rubber tip means the Tap 11 is also comfortable to use in your lap; you won't have any blunt metal edges digging into your legs. Meanwhile -- and not to pick on Microsoft here -- you have no choice but to use that second kickstand position with the Surface Pro 2, since it's the only one that makes for a truly stable, comfortable experience when you're using it on your lap.
We also grew to appreciate the wireless keyboard, which attaches to the Tap 11 via a single magnetic connection on the lower-right corner of the tablet's front face. It latches on with enough strength that you could carry the whole thing around in one hand, like a netbook, and not have to worry about it falling off. The magnet's also strong enough that you never have to guide the keyboard cover onto the tablet; it just falls into place. At the same time, the keyboard is never a pain to remove: you can even slide it aside with your thumb while holding it in one hand.
Finishing our tour of the device, there's that microSD/SIM door on the top side, as we said, along with a labeled NFC area and a VAIO Assist button, just like the one you'll find on Sony's various notebooks. Nearby, on the right landscape edge, you'll find a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, along with a small metal power button and a matching volume rocker. As a refresher, the left landscape edge is home to the door with the full-sized USB 3.0 port and the micro-HDMI socket. Further down on that same side is where the power socket lives, so when you've got this thing plugged in and propped up, the cable will be trailing out pretty close to the desk (that's a good thing we think -- more discreet).
The bottom edge, of course, is where we might normally expect to find some sort of docking connector, but again, there's just one, and it's located on the front face, over in the lower-right corner. Returning to the backside, there's a vent along the top edge, with the main 8-megapixel, Exmor RS camera sitting very close by. (The front-facing camera is a 2-megapixel affair, which uses Sony's older Exmor R CMOS sensor.) Also on the back are two speaker grilles, each sitting off to one side, closer to the bottom edge. Additionally -- and this is important -- the Tap 11 will ship with a pen holder. That's important because, you know, the pen comes standard in the box. Pulling it all together is a metal, diamond-cut VAIO logo stamped in the middle of the back -- this is a Sony product, after all. Finally, under the hood, this has NFC, as we said, along with 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0 and support for Intel Wireless Display.
If the Surface's Touch Cover keyboard requires a learning curve, the Tap 11's should feel instantly familiar. The entire thing is very reminiscent of Sony's VAIO laptops -- it's got the same generous spacing between the buttons, and the same relatively shallow pitch of the keys. Speaking of the sort, if this really were an Ultrabook, we might take issue with the short travel, however considering this isn't a laptop keyboard, but more of a keyboard case, these buttons are quite tactile. We easily got the hang of typing on them, and found we could almost always find the correct key without looking (it helps that major buttons like Shift, Enter and Backspace are all pretty big.) As a bonus, the keyboard has a convenient on/off switch at the top, along with two LED indicators, making it easy to tell when you've successfully paired it with the tablet over Bluetooth.
The Tap 11's keyboard also has a trackpad built in, and it's both taller and wider than we would have expected, especially since it's competing for space with a very well-spaced set of keys. At first, we thought the trackpad's textured surface seemed to present too much friction, but we actually came to appreciate the tactile feedback. The one thing we had to get used to was the narrow touch button that sits below the touchpad: you have to train yourself to press it at the very left and right ends. Otherwise, if you catch that dead zone in between, the button is much harder to press than it should be.
Display and sound
If you go through our laptop reviews written over the past few months, you'll see we haven't met a display from Sony that we haven't liked. With few exceptions, Sony's been using all 1,920 x 1,080 IPS panels, and they're all of magnificent quality. In particular, this guy makes use of Sony's own Triluminos technology, which the company already uses in its Bravia televisions to improve color reproduction. Indeed, the colors here are vibrant, but not too saturated, and we enjoyed some wide viewing angles, both from head-on and from off to the side. Granted, that versatile kickstand may also have a little something to do with that.
As for the touchscreen, our pre-production (read: not-quite-final) system didn't always respond to taps and other gestures. Fortunately, though (if that's the right word), Sony says it's aware of the issue and that by the time this goes on sale, there should be a firmware update in place to help correct the issue.We haven't met a display from Sony that we haven't liked.
Happily, pen input works well, even on this pre-production unit. Like it did with the Duo 11 and Duo 13, Sony went with an N-trig active digitizer to power the pen input. While a few of our readers might be disappointed it's not a Wacom digitizer, Sony explains it chose N-trig because it places the sensor at the tip of the pen, allowing for the best possible sensitivity. Indeed, the tablet picked up all of my handwriting; I never had to go back and re-trace my penmanship. Also, the pressure sensitivity worked much better than we expected, given our disappointing experience with an N-trig digitizer on the Acer Aspire R7. In Fresh Paint, for instance, we enjoyed thick brush strokes when we bore down with the pen, but we were also able to sketch faint lines by lightly dragging the pen across the screen. This might not silence those of you who swear Wacom does a better job, but we guarantee most people buying this won't be able to tell the difference.
As it happens, we tested the Tap 11 alongside the Sony VAIO Flip 15, so we have some interesting perspective on the audio here. On its own, the Tap 11 doesn't get that loud, which isn't surprising for a tablet this size. But the volume is actually on par with Sony's 15-inch notebook, and we'd argue the quality is better too. Whereas the Flip 15's audio sounded empty and distant, we enjoyed some balanced tracks on the Tap 11. All of which is to say, the Tap's sound might not be exceptional, but it's not half-bad for a product in this category.
Performance and battery lifePCMark73DMark063DMark11ATTO (top disk speeds)Sony VAIO Tap 11 (1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y, Intel HD 4200)3,7982,713
E943 / P504 / X171548 MB/s (reads); 139 MB/s (writes)Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400)4,9735,611
E1,675 / P867 / X277547 MB/s (reads); 508 MB/s (writes)Acer Aspire S7-392 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400)5,1085,158
E1,724 / P952 / X298975 MB/s (reads); 1.1GB/s (writes)Sony VAIO Pro 13 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400)4,5024,413
E1,177 / P636 / X2031.04 GB/s (reads); 479 MB/s (writes)Sony VAIO Duo 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400)4,4406,047
E1,853 / P975 / X297546 MB/s (reads); 139 MB/s (writes)Sony VAIO Pro 11 (1.8GHz Core i7-4500U, Intel HD 4400)4,634N/A
E1,067 / P600 / X183558 MB/s (reads); 255 MB/s (writes)
Take those benchmark scores up there with a grain of salt. Well, don't do that exactly, but at least approach them with this little bit of context. Unlike almost every other Haswell PC we've tested these past few months, the Tap 11 makes use of Intel's Y-series chips, which consume even less power than the U-series processors we normally find inside Ultrabooks. So, it's not surprising, then, that the Tap 11 turns in lower benchmark scores than other recent Sony machines, like the Pro 11 and Duo 13. That said, in practical use, it keeps up with the best of them, with boot-up times averaging 14 seconds and read speeds topping out at 548 MB/s (this is normal for an SSD, especially one that doesn't follow the PCI Express standard). Also, what you lose in bragging rights, you make up for in efficient power management. Whereas music streaming (or even sitting idly) might trip up a bigger system, the Tap 11 stayed cool and quiet throughout.
Sony doesn't say how long the battery inside the Tap 11 is supposed to last, but given that it has a Haswell processor, we'd assume it would offer longer runtime than the Surface Pro, or the ASUS TAICHI 21, or any other laptop/tablet hybrid we tested with last year's Ivy Bridge chips. And that's true: the 3,800mAh battery here made it through five hours and 14 minutes of video playback, with WiFi on and the screen set to a fixed brightness. That's more than a 20 percent improvement over what we got from the Surface Pro and the TAICHI 21, neither of which was able to crack four hours on the same test. Still, if you were hoping this would last seven, eight or nine hours, like a Haswell Ultrabook, you're going to be disappointed: this thing just doesn't have the same battery capacity.
Software and warranty
Sony pre-loads the Tap 11 with a fair deal of software, including many of its own proprietary apps. These include VAIO Message Center, Album by Sony, Music by Sony, Socialife, VAIO Care, ArcSoft Camera for VAIO, Note Anytime for VAIO, PlayMemories Home, VAIO Movie Creator, VAIO Update and VAIO Control Center. There are a few third-party apps too: CamScanner, Intel Experience Center (along with the Intel AppUp store), iHeartRadio, Microsoft Office, a trial of Kaspersky Internet Security 2013, Crackle, My Daily Clip, Evernote Touch, Music Maker Jam and -- big finish here -- Pac-Man Championship Edition for Xbox Live. Phew -- that seems like a lot, now that we've tried to say it all in one breath.
The Tap 11 comes with a one-year warranty, including toll-free, 24/7 phone support.
The Tap 11 starts at $799 with an Intel Pentium 3560Y processor, which pretty much explains why Sony was able to undercut the Surface Pro by hundreds of dollars. You can also get it with a Core i3-4020Y CPU ($1,000) or a Core i5-4210Y ($1,100) chip. That means if you were to get the Core i5 version, it's actually about the same price as a 128GB Surface Pro 2 ($999) with a $120 keyboard. So much for undercutting, right?
Whichever configuration of the Tap 11 you get, entry-level specs include a 128GB SSD, integrated Intel graphics, NFC and 802.11n WiFi (not ac). Storage-wise, you can opt for a bigger SSD if you like (256GB and 512GB are the two upgrade options). Regardless, it comes with 4GB of RAM, and the keyboard and pen are both included in the box.
The competitionSony, if you're reading this, it's not too late to rewrite the Tap 11 as a more competitive product.
The headline says it all, really. With a kickstand and an 11-inch, 1080p IPS display that supports pen input, the Tap 11 is nothing if not a competitor to the Surface Pro. Fortunately for consumers who don't feel like waiting any longer to make a purchasing decision, Microsoft just came out with a sequel, the Surface Pro 2, so what follows will be an apples-to-apples comparison between to very fresh devices.
The new Surface starts at $899 with 64GB of storage, a Core i5 Haswell CPU, 4GB of RAM, 802.11ac WiFi and a 10.6-inch (1,920 x 1,080) display with a Wacom digitizer for pen input. If you like, you can also get it with 128GB, 256GB or 512GB of built-in storage ($999/$1,299/$1,799). If you go for the 256GB or 512GB model in particular, you'll also get twice the RAM. Either way, unlike Sony, Microsoft still isn't offering a keyboard in the box -- you'll have to pay either $120 or $130 extra, depending on whether you go for the Touch Cover (the flat one made out of polyurethane) or the Type Cover (the one with physical buttons).
We also wouldn't count out Dell. The company recently unveiled the Venue 11 Pro Windows 8.1 tablet, and that, too, seems made to take on the Surface Pro. What we have here is a 10.8-inch tablet with a 1,920 x 1,080 display that also supports pen input, thanks to a Synaptics digitizer. What's interesting, though, is that though you could get it for as cheap as $500 with an Intel Bay Trail processor, you could also configure it with a Core i3/i5 Haswell processor, 8GB of RAM and up to 256GB of built-in storage (presumably for a lot more money). It also has a removable battery for a change, with runtime rated at up to 10 hours. People who like to bring their devices to work will also appreciate that it has TPM security, along with Intel's more manageable vPro processors -- both table stakes for IT departments, don'tcha know.
Additionally, Dell will be offering it with a series of accessories, though unfortunately, they're all sold separately (unlike what Sony's doing). These peripherals include a "Slim" keyboard, which doubles as a case (similar to the Tap 11), a "Mobile" keyboard with a built-in battery and a "Tablet Desktop Dock" with dual USB 3.0 ports and two video-out sockets.
When we learned that the Tap 11 came standard with a Pentium processor and not a fourth-generation Core chip, we were forced to rewrite parts of this review: the review card and even the conclusion you're reading now. Had Sony started at $800 with a Core i5 or even Core i3 chip, it would be undercutting Microsoft in a big way, and giving people a very good reason to not buy the similar-looking Surface Pro 2. We would have silenced all the skeptics who say Sony only sells overpriced things.
As is, though, the companies charge about the same for similar specs, and from what we can tell, Microsoft's tablet is of higher quality. Don't get us wrong: the Tap 11 has some good things going for it: the keyboard is comfortable; pen input works well; the tablet itself is thin and light; and the 1080p IPS display offers fantastic viewing angles. But it's clear that Sony had to compromise on build quality to achieve that attractive price point. And while we haven't yet tested the Surface Pro 2 for battery life and performance, we've spent enough time with it to know it's a more carefully made product, even if it's heavier. For now, we'd encourage you to at least wait for our Surface review to see how the two stack up. And Sony, if you're reading this, it's not too late to rewrite the Tap 11 as a more competitive product: all you need is a little price drop.