Sony VAIO Fit 11A review
3rd Mar 2014 | 19:24
Sony's laptops go out with a fizzle, not a bang
Introduction and design
Windows 8 has helped blur the lines between notebook and tablet design, birthing hinges once considered implausible. Notebook buyers have responded in kind, enjoying the touch-based interfaces and newfound freedom to lay on couches in ridiculous positions and still find a comfortable way to use their computer.
The Sony Vaio Fit 11A no doubt fits the post-Windows 8 design aesthetic – with its flippable display that quickly transforms this clamshell from traditional notebook to tablet. It's inherently Windows 8, working both as a notebook and a tablet without any changes to the software.
But with a drop in price also comes certain trade-offs. The question is whether those concessions are worth the convenience of a flexible form factor.
Despite years of laptop manufacturing, this notebook also marks the end of the Vaio computer division for Sony. Instead, Sony is selling the brand, with plans to put more focus on mobile. Sony cites a changing desktop landscape – unmistakably due to the radically different Windows 8.
The Vaio Fit 11A is an attempt to address consumers' changing notebook demands, but it's also a reminder why Sony is leaving this business. Consumers want notebooks and they also want tablets, but do they want them together? Is there a single computer experience that can satiate customers' desire to have it all?
The Fit 11A is certainly a solid go at it. But is it worth your money?
The biggest thing that makes the 11A unique is that its display can flip 360 degrees, making the entire device a large tablet. To show off this crafty transformation ability, the notebook has a large black crevice that runs horizontally on top of the aluminum lid when the notebook is closed. Aside from that line, there are only small Sony and Vaio logos on the lid, which provide pleasantly subtle branding.
Lifting the lid reveals a traditional laptop, with a full QWERTY keyboard slightly recessed into the plastic deck. Unfortunately, this keyboard leaves a lot to be desired. The key travel length is quite stunted and the 11-inch form factor means the keys are uncomfortably cramped. Although I had mostly gotten used to the size of the keyboard by the end of my week with the notebook, I was overjoyed to get back on a full-size keyboard when I was done.
The clickpad is centered below the keyboard and – at 4.5 x 2.5 inches – provides plenty of room for moving around and performing Windows 8 gestures. I never had any issues swiping in from the right in order to open the Charms menu, or swiping in from the left to cycle through open applications.
On the hinge that connects the deck to the display, there is a small switch that unlocks the screen so that it can flip around into tablet mode. There are small magnets that hold the display in place when facing either direction, which gives each mode a pleasantly secure feel. When the lid is locked in notebook mode, everything feels tight and secure.
Makes for a tacky tablet
It's obvious that Sony understands that people like to use tablets, but the 11A in tablet mode is proof that they don't understand why people want to use tablets. The 11.6-inch widescreen display is superbly awkward in portrait mode and – while movies looked great – the unit was too heavy to comfortably prop up the laying back on the couch. And forget using it with just one hand.
Not to mention, the 11A looks like an unwieldy beast in tablet mode, especially when compared to the Lenovo Yoga 11S, which lays nice and flat when the screen is flipped all the way around. The 11A forms a slightly wedge-shaped tablet, with the display also not lining up flush with the top of the tablet. The flexibility was nice when I propped it on a table, like the Lenovo Yoga's stand mode, but I wished I could simply detach the screen from the keyboard like the Asus Transformer Book TX300.
One of the oddest design choices is the inclusion of a camera … on the bottom of the notebook. It makes sense when compared to other tablets, most of which have a rear-facing camera, but looks odd and out of place on the 11A. Flipping the device over and seeing a tiny camera lens, centered between two rubber non-slip pads, makes it seem like a device suffering from identity issues.
By far the worst design offense for me is Sony's easy-release power cable connector. The concept is valiant: create a plug that won't pull the notebook off the table if you trip over the cord. But the execution drove me crazy. It never feels like it's ever really connected – the cord is constantly wobbly, making you second guess whether you actually put the right plug in the right port.
And it disconnects way too easily. Almost every time I picked up the notebook, the plug would simply drop out. It did save the notebook from falling of my table a few times, since the power cord is fairly short and my power outlet pretty far away, but I definitely cursed the power cord connector numerous times over the course of the week.
Sony understands that consumers buying an 11.6-inch notebooks want a computer that's light and portable, and it's delivered with the 11A. Measuring 11.2 x 7.8 x 0.65 - 0.75 inches (W x D x H), it was an easy fit into even one of my smaller bags. It's even a little smaller in width and depth than the 11.7 x 8.0 inch Yoga 11S, although the Yoga is just about the same height at 0.67 inches.
Another factor making the 11A great for travel is its weight. Weighing only 2.82 pounds, it's even lighter than the 3.1-pound Yoga 11S. Tossing the notebook in my bag for a trip to the coffee shop was painless, which is an important factor for me.
While this height is fine for a notebook, it's too thick for a comfortable tablet. The slate experience of the Asus Transformer Book TX300, which has a detachable display, is much better. The TX300 is only 0.43 inches thick as a tablet, just a tad thicker than the 0.35 inch thick Google Nexus 10 – which only runs Android instead of the much more powerful Windows 8
The 11A isn't quite as powerful as the Yoga 11S or the Transformer Book TX300. Despite less processor speed, both the 11S and the TX300 powered by an Intel Core chip even in their cheapest configuration. The Fit 11A has a quad-core Intel Pentium N3520, which has been designed specifically for mobile.
But that extra power also bumps up the price – the Yoga 11S starts at $1,099 and the Transformer Book TX300 at $1,499. Those prices make the $799 VAIO Fit 11A start looking a lot more appealing.
This is the Sony Vaio Fit 11A configuration sent to TechRadar:
- CPU: 2.16GHz Bay Trail Intel Pentium N3520 (quad-core, 2MB cache)
- Graphics: Intel HD Graphics
- RAM: 4GB DDR3L
- Screen: 11.6-inch, 1920 x 1080, LED-backlit Triluminous display
- Storage: 128GB SSD
- Ports: 2 USB 3.0 ports, SD card reader, HDMI, headphone/mic jack
- Connectivity: Broadcom BCM43142 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC
- Cameras: 8MP rear-facing camera with Exmor sensor, HD webcam
- Weight: 2.82 pounds
- Size: 11.2 x 7.8 x 0.65 - 0.75 inches (W x D x H)
The Fit 11A is powered by a quad-core, 2.16GHz (Bay Trail) Intel Pentium N3520, an Intel chip designed specifically for mobile. The Asus Transformer Book TX300, by contrast, has a 1.9GHz Intel Core i7 3517U and the Lenovo Yoga 11S a 1.5GHz Intel Core i5-3339Y.
Like both the Transformer Book TX300 and the Yoga 11S, the Vaio 11A has 4GB of RAM, which is plenty to keep Windows 8 running smoothly. Having much more than 4GB of RAM would be a little overkill for an ultraportable notebook.
It's not surprising that there's no dedicated graphics card inside the Vaio 11A, instead using an integrated Intel HD Graphics card. For an ultraportable notebook, it's enough for movie playback and most casual games, but not much beyond that.
Both the Yoga 11S and the Transformer Book TX300 have integrated graphics as well, each with the Intel HD 4000 chip. If you're getting any of these three notebooks to play serious games, they'll definitely be a letdown. The Intel integrated graphics card is perfectly fine for casual tasks, but anything more graphics intensive just won't be up to snuff.
A pleasant surprise is the 1920 x 1080 LED-backlit Triluminous display, which is bright and vivid, making movies and text crisp and clear. It's the same resolution as the Transformer Book TX300, both of which are sharper than the 1366 x 768 Yoga 11S.
The Fit 11A has a 128GB solid-state drive, which is fast and zippy but can fill up fast if you're not also using external or cloud storage to hold movies, music, and photos. It's the same amount of storage as the Yoga 11S, and pretty standard for a notebook of this size.
The Vaio 11A boasts plenty of ports, including an SD card reader, a full-sized HDMI port, and two USB 3.0 ports. The USB ports are a particularly nice touch, since the Lenovo Yoga 11S opted instead for USB 2.0.
There's no Ethernet port – an omission that's becoming more and more popular for smaller notebooks. It makes sense: this isn't a machine designed to be tethered to a desk, but carried around from room to room.
So, how does it perform as an overall device?
- 3DMark: Ice Storm: 19365, Cloud Gate: 1573, Fire Strike: 172
- Cinebench Graphics : 3.94 FPS, CPU : 141 pts
With a 2.16GHz Intel Pentium N3520 processor, you don't really expect industry-leading performance. Unsurprisingly, the Vaio 11A got the lowest benchmarks next to the Yoga 11S and the Transformer Book TX300. The processor just isn't as powerful as the other two notebooks. (We weren't able to test PCMark 8 battery life on this device in time for the review, but will update this space as soon as a result comes in.)
Yet, my real-world testing with the device wasn't quite as painful as the benchmarks might hint. There was some delay when loading apps if I had a lot of processes going at once, but my typical use – browsing the web with multiples tabs while listening to music – wasn't bad at all. Toss a YouTube video and a flash game like Plants Vs Zombies, and some slight stuttering was noticeable, but never debilitating.
Boot time was nice and speedy, thanks both to Windows 8 and the SSD storage drive. The notebook loads directly into desktop mode, and I could instantly open apps and switch to the Tiles interface.
The Windows home button is always quick and responsive, which is handy, especially in tablet mode. Tapping that button to return to the menu was always quicker than swiping from the right and clicking Start.
Perhaps too sharp of a screen?
On an 11.6-inch screen, such a high number of pixels make desktop elements extremely small. Using the touchscreen while in Desktop mode is definitely better with the N-Trig pen than a finger.
I often found myself poking the wrong button or icon when navigating settings or folders. I liked the size of the desktop better when I knocked down the resolution, but that just makes everything look slightly fuzzy.
The colors on the display are bright and vivid, however, making the Windows 8 tiles screen a pretty rainbow of color and made movies and YouTube videos pop.
But the 1080p resolution doesn't come without it's faults. On an 11.6-inch screen, such a high number of pixels make desktop elements extremely small. Using the touchscreen while in Desktop mode is definitely better with the N-Trig pen rather than a finger.
With my finger, I often found myself poking the wrong button or icon when navigating settings or folders. I liked the size of the desktop better when I knocked down the resolution, but that just makes everything look slightly fuzzy.
There was some slight lag when flipping over the display to switch between notebook and tablet mode, but that's only because it takes a couple of seconds for the device to auto-change orientations.
There isn't a specific tablet-mode for the user interface, since Windows 8 is designed to be so touch friendly. Still, I found myself rarely using the tablet mode, just because it was so awkward. A notebook that weighs 2.82 pounds is great, but a tablet that heavy is just cumbersome.
An "N-Trig'ing" stylus
Sony has opted for an N-Trig powered pen, as opposed to the more push-sensitive Wacom. For all of my needs, this digitizer pen served its duty well, with touches being quick and responsive. The pen is also a very nice weight, feeling like a premium product, which added to the digitizer experience.
The notebook can detect when the tip of the pen is close to the display, showing a little white dot to mark location. When held close to the screen, the two buttons on the pen automatically launch pen-related apps: one opens Vaio Clip and the other Vaio Paper. This made it easy to quickly take and annotate a screenshot or jot a quick note.
The only thing missing was a way to snap the pen onto the notebook. Sony's Vaio Tap 11 had a strange little plastic clip that could snap on and hold the pen, but there's nothing like that with the Vaio 11A. I kept forgetting the pen at home.
The Sony Vaio Fit 11A is a computer that doesn't quite know what it wants to be. As a notebook, it feels cheap and cramped, despite the nice display. (That's thanks mostly to a poor quality keyboard.) As a tablet, it's heavy and awkward to hold, and the design feels disjointed.
The trackpad and touchscreen display feel premium, but that's in contrast to the rest of the device. A fantastic touch screen is great on a tablet, but I never really wanted to use the laptop as a tablet for extended periods of time. When I used it as a notebook, my hands were constantly on the keyboard, which only highlighted how cramped and uncomfortable it is.
Instead of getting the best of both worlds, the Vaio Fit 11A goes halfway in both directions. Performance was decent, despite the comparatively low benchmark results, but it never felt like the notebook truly excelled at anything.
When it comes to 11.6-inch notebooks, portability is often a fairly high priority. The Fit 11A succeeds in making a light and travel-friendly device, which I had no problem tossing in a bag to walk around the city.
The display is great as well, cramming plenty of pixels into an 11.6-inch panel to make video watching a crisp and clear experience. Thanks to an SSD storage drive, app load times and boot times were fast, even though the processor isn't quite as powerful as some of the competition.
Sony chose all the right ports, as well. Opting for the faster and more powerful USB 3.0 connectors is a great choice, especially when a notebook like the Lenovo Yoga 11S only has USB 2.0. The full-sized HDMI port means you'll be able to easily hook this notebook to a large display without worrying about converters of any kind.
The Fit 11A just feels awkward as a tablet, with a body that doesn't quite lay flat and a weird widescreen aspect ratio. I wanted it to feel more like the Lenovo Yoga 11S, despite the Yoga's exposed keys, simply because the Fit 11A tablet design just felt forced.
The cramped keyboard didn't do the laptop any favors, either. Typing for long periods of time made me long for a full-sized keyboard, and I stopped mid-sentence to stretch my fingers multiple times.
A bigger keyboard can be tricky, especially on an 11.6-inch notebook, but I wanted more. The keys look tiny on the deck, making me wonder why Sony didn't try to squeeze in a bigger keyboard. There appears to be room.
The Sony Vaio Fit 11A isn't quite up to Sony's standards, which isn't surprising given the company's exit from the computer manufacturing business after this. I'd much rather have a better laptop experience and a separate tablet than a subpar version of both, but Sony seemed to think its users wanted the latter.
It's nice to have all your apps and documents in one device and the flexibility of either a notebook or tablet. But cloud storage and connected apps have brought us closer to that experience already, regardless of the number of devices. I needed to give up too many comforts when I was using the Vaio Fit 11A, and that just isn't something I'm quite willing to do.