For many consumers, the best option for a Windows computer that functions just as well as a tablet as it does a laptop is the Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Indeed, the Surface Pro 2 has fantastic build quality and no bloatware, allowing users to experience a pure and unadultered version of Windows 8, the way Microsoft intended it.
However, those on the go may also want to consider Sony's offering in the same category. The VAIO Tap 11 shares a similar design to the Surface, at least in concept. It's intended to function on its own as a tablet, but has its own separable keyboard, just like the Surface. And both computers run full versions of the Windows 8 operating system. But that's where the similarities end.
Design & Ergonomics
The VAIO Tap 11 is an elegant device, and follows Sony's OmniBalance design that first debuted on the Xperia Z and Xperia Tablet Z. In fact, from certain angles, one may be forgiven for mistaking the Tap 11 for the Tablet Z. The Tap 11 is however slightly thicker and has the same 16:9 aspect ratio display as other VAIO computers. But unlike the Xperia Z smartphones and tablets, the Tap 11 is not water resistant.
While the Surface Pro 2 opts for a kickstand that runs the entire width of the device, the Tap 11's kickstand is just an inch wide. From the pictures, the VAIO's kickstand may look flimsy, but in reality is very firm and moves smoothly along its entire axis. It can be extended almost 90 degrees from the computer, and snaps closed to sit flush with the device. The end of the stand is also wrapped in rubber to provide a firm grip on whatever surface the tablet may be sitting on.
The advantage of Sony's design over the Surface Pro is that the user is given a virtually unlimited number of positions with which to seat the Tap 11, a huge plus when working in an environment that may have strong, glaring light. Unfortunately, as the stand is so thin and positioned at the center of the tablet, users will have a hard time using the Tap 11 as a true laptop, where it might slip between their legs. I also found the stand to be less than optimal when using it on a bed or pillow, where the weight beared by the stand caused it to sink into the surface.
For a tablet, the Tap 11 is quite large, as the thick bezel gives it a comparable footprint to a 13" laptop. This may make it difficult for some users to hold for an extended period of time. However, when placed on a desk, the Tap 11 functions as well as any other laptop, with an infinitely adjustable viewing angle, and a keyboard that can be placed anywhere, as long as it's sufficiently close to the device for a reliable connection.
Sony has managed to undercut Microsoft with a starting price of just $799, including the wireless keyboard and digitizer stylus (the Surface Pro 2 starts at $899, which includes the Surface Pen, but the Type Cover 2/Touch Cover 2 will set you back $129/$119). But this model is equipped with the Intel Pentium 3560Y processor. The Tap 11 can also be configured with Intel Core i3/i5/i7 processors, which will push the price to over $1,000.
The VAIO Tap 11's 11.6" IPS display is nothing short of amazing. At 1920x1080, the pixel density is above average for a computer of this class. The display has Triluminos technology, which first debuted on Sony's televisions. Triluminos works by using blue LED backlights, as opposed to conventional white ones, which apparently produce sharter reds and greens.
Keyboard & Stylus
All Tap 11s come equipped with a wireless keyboard and Active Pen (essentially a digitizer stylus). The keyboard contains magnets in its edges to allow it to act as a cover for the tablet when not in use. I found this worked well in practice, as the magnets were strong enough to hold the keyboard in place when carrying the tablet or keeping it in a backpack, yet could be removed as needed. The back of the keyboard is a single sheet of brushed metal, and is cool to the touch. At the bottom edge is a small indicator light that turns on when the keyboard is charging.
The keyboard can only be charged when placed over the tablet such that the electrical contacts are touching, which means one cannot charge the keyboard and use the tablet at the same time. I also wish the keyboard was backlit, like the Microsoft Type Cover 2. For the most part, the keyboard is responsive and connects quickly (it does not use Bluetooth, but instead utilizes a proprietary radio frequency). However, the touchpad is occasionally nonresponsive, which seems to be a common problem for other users of the Tap 11.
The Tap 11 also comes with an Active Pen, which can work in conjunction with many bundled apps on the computer. The build quality is very good, with the shell made of an anodized metal. The Active Pen also has two interchangeable pressure-sensitive tips, which should make it a boon for those who like to draw on their tablets. Additionally Active Pens can be purchased for $39.
The VAIO Tap 11 does not have a slot for the Active Pen, but does come with a plastic clip that attaches to the side of the tablet to hold the Pen when not in use. This however, blocks the cover that hides the USB and HDMI ports. As of this time, Sony has not yet released a case for the Tap 11 that has an Active Pen holder.
Like other VAIOs in Sony's current lineup, the AC adapter has a USB port for charging small devices such as smartphones and tablets.
Performance & Quality
Being that this is the Pentium-equipped model, the processing power leaves something to be desired. However, the device is sufficiently fast that day-to-day activities such as web browsing and word processing will not result in any discernable hiccups. In particular, Windows ran very smoothly in the Metro interface.
For many weeks, I experienced difficulty maintaining a Wi-Fi connection using the Tap 11. The device would often say that it was connected to the network, but when I attempted to access the Internet, it would be incredibly slow, or pages would not load at all. I found that a temporary fix was to turn the Wi-Fi off and on again on the tablet. The situation has since improved, but I still occasionally lose reception in areas where other devices have no problems performing.
One of the weaker points of the Tap 11 is battery life. You won't see MacBook Air or Duo 13 level endurance here. At a full charge, the Tap 11 would often report that I had less than three hours of battery life, even doing small tasks like browsing the Internet or downloading updates. However, in practice one can expect around four to five hours until the battery is completely drained.
Build quality is for the most part quite good. The Tap 11 doesn't creak or rattle, and feels solid and hefty in the hands. However, I did notice that on my particular model, there was a gap between the display panel and plastic edge at the top of the unit, below the microphone. And I could push the glass display into the unit at the bottom left edge of the screen after it popped out.
Overall, the Sony VAIO Tap 11 is a well put together tablet that does double duty as a laptop computer, and a worthy competitor to the Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Unfortunately, my early model did have a few build quality issues and software bugs, that hopefully Sony will address in subsequent releases and through downloadable updates. It's ultimately a very unique computer that should turn heads due to its sleek design. But don't discount it as merely a pretty face, as its full-size keyboard and option for an i7 processor also makes it capable of tackling tasks that would trump a lesser tablet.