Convertibles as a whole aren’t the most sensible thing in the world. At this point, most are still rife with compromises, gimmicks and odd decisions. Sony’s new Vaio Flip is too, but its gimmick — a screen that folds back on itself — also happens to make a whole lot of sense.
The Flip works by using two hinges: the traditional laptop hinge, and another in the middle of the screen. When you press back along the top of the screen, the screen folds back along a crease in the lid. To keep the screen from flopping around — it does take a little effort to dislodge, which is a good thing — it can be secured with a surprisingly nondescript lock/release switch at the base of the screen. This sounds kitschy and clumsy, and it can be, but after using it for a few minutes, it never felt cheap, and did seem like something you wouldn’t hate using.
The obvious benefit of the hinge is that if you want to use the Flip like a tablet, you aren’t going to be holding it by the keys, like you would the Lenovo Yoga — the prohibitive favourite in convertibles last generation. The flipping mechanism here feels sturdy, which has been the downfall of other attempts, like the Dell XPS 12, and combined with a half-decent hinge (we saw a pre-production model that wasn’t quite tuned as it will be, but was still pretty good here), it can be a perfectly usable system.
And that’s good, because it’s also a nice-looking laptop on its own. The horizontal break for the hinge fold mechanism across the aluminium lid looks like a smart design flourish more than an ugly arse retrofit. And the body as a whole benefits from a taut aluminium frame. The fibreglass bottom could be a little more attractive, though, and there is a sharp indent from the aluminium faceplate to the sides of the laptop. This is to make the ports less visible, and Sony also thinks it looks cool (it does, sort of), but in practice it’s just uncomfortable to hold.
The keyboard on the Flip is actually quite nice, though there’s some flex to the centre of the keyboard frame as you type. The trackpad was fine overall, but in pre-production was sticking in the corners. That’ll likely be cleaned up, but maybe wait and make sure in the reviews, and early customer feedback.
Sony didn’t have official dimensions for us, but the 13-inch model weighs 2.68 pounds, which is lighter than most 13-inch ultrabooks.
The Flip will come in 11-inch, 13-inch, 14-inch and 15-inch models. The display on the 13-inch model uses a 1920×1080 Triluminos panel, and the 15-inch model goes up to a 2880×1600 display. The Flip also has the option for discrete graphics, a 2GB Nvidia 345M card. The basic models — the 14-inch will be the most widely available and cheapest, since it swaps the SSD for a more affordable HDD — will start at around $US800 with a 4th Gen Core i3, 4GB of RAM, or around $US750 with a Pentium processor.
Sony also has a new tablet PC called the Tap 11. It’s a full PC that goes up to a Core i7 processor, and connects to its keyboard via an RF connection. The keyboard charges magnetically when next to or on top of the tablet, but it never connects, like a Surface. It’s a smart, novel concept, and will be useful for some, but the hardware on the tablet itself is nowhere near well built enough to compete with premium tablets or premium ultrabooks.
Finally, the Tap 21 All in One got a bump from 1600×900 to 1920×1080 IPS, and is 1.4kg lighter (about 3kg now) and 50 per cent thinner. This puts it in the class of all the rest of the AIO megatablets out now, with a very nice Sony panel, and a pretty good stand, but still way fatter and heavier than the still-impressive Dell XPS 18.