Sony VAIO Flip 15 review: Sony's new convertible is cheaper, bigger than most

When Sony first teased the VAIO Flip series, we were sure it was going to look like the Lenovo Yoga. After all, here was a laptop with a screen that presumably could fold back so that it faced away from the keyboard. And with Sony comparing its new laptops to origami projects, well, it was hard not to imagine something inspired by the Yoga. As it turns out, though, Sony was watching the competition carefully, crafting a product that would avoid some of the mistakes other companies made. Though the Flip does indeed have a screen that can face outward, it folds over itself so that even when you're using the PC in tablet mode, the keyboard doesn't end up exposed like it does on the Yoga.

Also, whereas Sony's rivals have mainly stuck with 11- to 13-inch models, Sony's new convertibles are bigger, ranging in size from 13 to 15 inches. Though the specs and prices vary from size to size, we're taking a look at the 15-inch model today. And there's a reason for that: aside from the Acer Aspire R7, we haven't encountered many big-screen convertibles. And with starting prices of $800 and $750 for the 15- and 14-inch models, respectively, these are also some of the only mid-range machines we can think of that also sport funky form factors. So is this design any more useful than the other convertibles out there? Let's see.

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Sony VAIO Flip 15 review

Look and feel

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The VAIO Flip 15 represents the crème de la crème of Sony's laptop hardware: the lid and deck (not just the palm rest) are made of aluminum; the keyboard is backlit; and the familiar diamond-cut logo sits on the back. And, really, we'd expect no less from a machine meant to rival high-end multitaskers like the Dell XPS 12 and last year's the Yoga 13. Even more than those devices, though, the Flip feels very much like a notebook first, and a tablet second.

If anything gives away that the Flip isn't a standard clamshell notebook, it's the conspicuous line running across the lid. When the machine's closed, you might mistake this seam for a subtle, if strange, design flourish, but engage the laptop's flipping function and you'll discover a rubber hinge behind the display. This, of course, is responsible for the Flip's ability to -- you guessed it -- flip.

Interestingly, the deck extends a bit over the left and right edges of the machine, making you work harder (but not much) to access the ports. Speaking of, let's get those out of the way. The right side houses the power button, an Ethernet jack with a drop-down jaw at the bottom, a USB 3.0 connection, full-size SD card slot and a mic jack. Turn to the left edge, and you'll find a mini-HDMI socket, along with two more USB 3.0 ports and a sizable fan. While we're at it, other odds and ends include a webcam and NFC support.

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The 15-inch version of the Flip is compelling for one reason only: the display.

As a relative latecomer to this category of convertibles, Sony had the advantage of learning from its competitors' mistakes. Case in point: tablet mode. On Lenovo's Yoga line, the keyboard remains exposed, so that you can feel the loose keys beneath your fingers when you're holding the device in your hands like a tablet. With the Flip, on the other hand, the bottom half of the device remains in place, meaning the keyboard faces inward, so you can rest your fingers against a smooth surface, just like on any other tablet. Viewer mode, meanwhile (with the screen facing away from the keyboard), is a nice-to-have feature that still feels like a bit of a parlor trick. You don't need to flip the screen to enjoy a movie on the laptop, but having the keyboard out of the way is nice, and switching the machine between positions is kinda fun.

Overall, there isn't much we would change about the Flip's design. Sliding the lock switch beneath the display to the left lets you lift the screen to pull it forward over the keyboard or flip the panel around to face outward. It takes considerable pressure on the lid's hinge to lift up the display, but this helps the machine feel sturdy and secure. After all, when you're transitioning the laptop between positions, the last thing you want is flimsy hardware. As for returning the touchscreen to its standard laptop position, magnets on the inside seamlessly guide it back into place.

As you'd expect, the 15-inch Flip makes for one hulking tablet. It's meant for resting in your lap rather than gripping with both hands, and even then it's still rather weighty. Also, due to the Flip's hinged-lid design, the display doesn't lie completely flat in slate mode. Rather, it's propped at a slight angle, which is helpful for reading and browsing the web, and also emphasizes the device's unwieldy size even further. Ultimately, the 15-inch version of the Flip is compelling for one reason only: the display. If anything is going to make 5.05 pounds more palatable, it's that 2,880 x 1,620 resolution option. Poor, unfortunate souls that we are, we were stuck with the 1,920 x 1,080 panel that comes standard, though it's still more than satisfactory. We're just saying: if you're going to go big, you might as well splurge for the extra pixels.

Keyboard, trackpad and pen

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The Flip's well-spaced, island-style keyboard is slightly recessed, making it easy to find by feel. When we first saw the VAIO last month, we had high hopes for the keyboard. First impressions -- especially on a dummy unit -- are often unfounded, though, and such is the case with this model. The chiclets offer decent travel, but the keyboard deck itself exhibits a lot of flex; press down on any key, and you'll likely feel the surface give beneath you. When I did a quick typing test, my error rate was higher than usual, though the words-per-minute score was the same as always. We wouldn't call this keyboard bad, per se, but it's especially disappointing because it's almost there.

On the other hand, the Synaptics touchpad is generally reliable. Swiping in from the right, clicking and tapping on web pages and everything else you'd normally do with a clicker work perfectly. Occasionally we encountered a bit of drag getting the cursor to go where we wanted it to, but otherwise, there's not much else to say; it simply works.

Finally, Sony offers an N-trig active digitizer as a $40 upgrade. The pressure-sensitive pen works well for tapping icons on-screen and using apps such as VAIO Paper. We actually just tested the same pen digitizer on the Tap 11, where it comes as a standard feature, and found that it picked up handwriting and doodle marks even when we applied just faint pressure. That bodes well for both drawing and note-taking.

Display and sound

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As we mentioned earlier, the VAIO Flip 15 can be configured with a 2,880 x 1,620 touchscreen, though our review unit tops out at a more modest resolution of 1,920 x 1,080. (With few exceptions, all of Sony's new laptops have a minimum resolution of 1080p.) Even with the lower-resolution option, though, this is a fine display. In general, really, Sony's killing it with the viewing angles on its notebook screens; just like on the Pro 11 and Duo 13, we were able to keep watching movies from off to the side, or with the display dipped far forward. Particularly with the brightness cranked all the way up (a luxury you can afford when this big machine is plugged in), it's vibrant enough that even the glossy finish doesn't get in the way.

The thing about the Flip 15 is that although it's about the same size as your typical multimedia machine, it shares the same guts as the Flip 13 and Flip 14 -- more Ultrabook-like machines. So, as big as this notebook is, the sound is on par with what you'd get from a smaller system. Which is to say, the audio doesn't get as loud as you'd expect, and the quality is quite hollow, especially at top volume. That didn't stop us from streaming Pandora on it, but given the choice, we'd sooner choose any number of other machines for music listening, with the Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus being our number one pick.

Performance and battery life

PCMark7 3DMark06 3DMark11 ATTO (top disk speeds)
Sony VAIO Flip 15 (1.8GHz Intel Core i7-4500U, Intel HD 4400) 3,622 4,646

E1,147 / P552 / X176

162 MB/s (reads); 107 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Tap 11 (1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y, Intel HD 4200) 3,427 2,486

E687 / P373 / X120

548 MB/s (reads); 139 MB/s (writes)
Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,973 5,611

E1,675 / P867 / X277

547 MB/s (reads); 508 MB/s (writes)
Acer Aspire S7-392 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 5,108 5,158

E1,724 / P952 / X298

975 MB/s (reads); 1.1GB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Pro 13 (1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,502 4,413

E1,177 / P636 / X203

1.04 GB/s (reads); 479 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Duo 13 (1.6GHz Core i5-4200U, Intel HD 4400) 4,440 6,047

E1,853 / P975 / X297

546 MB/s (reads); 139 MB/s (writes)
Sony VAIO Pro 11 (1.8GHz Core i7-4500U, Intel HD 4400) 4,634 N/A

E1,067 / P600 / X183

558 MB/s (reads); 255 MB/s (writes)

Our configuration of the Flip 15, valued at $1,200, came with a dual-core, 1.8GHz Core i7-4500U processor, a 1TB hard drive and 8GB of RAM. You can also opt for a 512GB SSD instead, which is what we'd recommend; the disk should offer much faster read/write speeds, and you'll still get a good deal of storage. At any rate, you lose a lot in I/O speeds when you settle for the regular HDD. We only saw average read/write rates of 162 MB/s and 107 MB/s, respectively -- and this is at a time when many SSDs deliver a minimum of 500 megabytes per second for both reads and writes.

Almost as soon as we booted up the Flip, the fan started whirring and the bottom of the machine felt warm. Things calmed down soon after, but overall it doesn't take much to get the notebook worked up; sometimes it pipes up even when it's sitting idle. While the noise didn't end up being too distracting, we did run into some other, more serious performance issues. For one, we sometimes had trouble maintaining a solid connection over WiFi. Other times, we were connected, but downloads proceeded at a snail's pace. Interestingly, we struggled with connectivity even while the VAIO Tap 11 and other computers thrived on the same network.

Also, while the touchscreen mostly worked as it was supposed to, it occasionally failed to respond to our taps or it registered our finger input incorrectly. Sometimes, for instance, if I wanted to close a window or start a benchmark with my finger, I had to try more than once. And then, basically every time I tried to shut down the computer by tapping through the "power" menu, the machine selected "sleep" or "restart" instead. I got so frustrated I resorted to using the trackpad. It's a shame having a giant convertible laptop you can't reliably use as a tablet, but fortunately, at least, Sony says it's working on fixes for these various performance issues.

Battery life

Sony VAIO Flip 15 4:31
MacBook Air (13-inch, 2013) 12:51
Sony VAIO Duo 13 9:40
Samsung ATIV Book 9 Plus 8:44
Sony VAIO Pro 13 8:24
Acer Aspire S7-392 7:33
Acer Iconia W700 7:13
Sony VAIO Pro 11 6:41
Dell XPS 14 6:18
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 5:32
Dell XPS 12 (2012) 5:30
ASUS Zenbook Prime UX31A Touch 5:15
Toshiba Kirabook 5:12
Toshiba Satellite U925t 5:10
Lenovo ThinkPad Helix 5:07 (tablet only)/7:24 (with dock)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon 5:07
Samsung ATIV Book 7 5:02
ASUS Transformer Book 5:01 (tablet only)
Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch 5:00
Acer Aspire R7 4:44
MSI Slidebook S20 4:34
Acer Aspire P3 4:33
Acer Aspire S7-391 4:18
ASUS TAICHI 21 3:54
Microsoft Surface Pro 3:46

Maybe it's the fact that it has a spinning hard drive instead of an SSD, but the Flip 15 unit we tested didn't last as long as we'd expect considering the Haswell chip under the hood. In total, the Flip made it through four hours and 31 minutes of video playback, with WiFi on and the brightness fixed at 65 percent. Granted, 15-inch systems generally don't offer quite the same battery life as ultraportables (despite having room for a bigger battery), but we're still seeing a gap of three to five hours here. Plus, even the Acer Aspire R7 with Ivy Bridge was able to manage four hours and 44 minutes on the same test, so it's not unreasonable to expect a bigger improvement here. Anyway, if you do buy this, prepare to bring a charger with you or -- better yet, since it's so big -- keep it plugged in most of the time.

Software and warranty

As usual, Sony includes several entertainment and productivity apps. These include VAIO Clip, VAIO Movie Creator, VAIO Paper, VAIO Care, VAIO Message Center, VAIO Control Center, VAIO Update, Album by Sony, Music by Sony and Socialife. Acid Music Studio, Movie Studio and Sound Forge are also on board. You'll also find Crackle, My Daily Clip, iHeartRadio, Music Maker Jam, Evernote Touch, Intel's AppUp store and Pac-Man Championship DX for Xbox Live. Essentially, it's the same bloated software load that you'll find on other new Sony machines, such as the Tap 11.

Also like the Tap 11, the Flip 15 comes with a one-year warranty, including free, 24/7 phone support. Pretty standard stuff -- not just for Sony, but for consumer PCs in general.

Configuration options

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At the risk of burying you in speeds and feeds, we'll take this opportunity to fill you in on all the different Flips available, including the 13- and 14-inch versions, which we didn't get a chance to review here. Starting with the Flip 15, though, it's priced at $800 and up, with your choice of Core i3-4005U, Core i5-4200U or Core i7-4500U processors. Though we tested it with 8GB of RAM, the base models actually carry four gigs; if you need more, you can configure it with 12GB or 16GB instead. Intel's new HD 4400 graphics come standard, though Sony is also offering NVIDIA's GT 735M GPU with either 1GB or 2GB of video memory.

Finally, as far as storage is concerned, the 1TB drive we tested actually falls somewhere in the middle of the available options. At the bottom of the totem pole is a modest 500GB 5,400RPM hard drive. Take a half-step up, and you can get the same drive paired with an 8GB SSD for caching. From there, you can choose a 750GB or 1TB HDD, each paired with a 16GB solid-state drive, or you can go for one of those full-fledged SSDs we told you about earlier.

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Have we overwhelmed you yet? Fear not: the Flip 13 ($1,100-plus) and the Flip 14 ($750-plus) have very similar specs: same processor options, same Intel HD 4400 graphics. All three models can be configured with an N-trig digitizer for pen input, though it never comes standard. All that said, there are still a few differences. For starters, the 14 starts with a Pentium 3556U CPU, with Core i3, i5 and i7 processors offered as upgrades. Neither the Flip 13 nor the Flip 14 has a discrete graphics option, and both max out at 8GB of RAM, not 16GB. In either case, you'll get not just a front-facing webcam with an Exmor R CMOS sensor, but also a rear shooter with a newer Exmor RS module.

The last thing you should know -- and this is important, we think -- is that the Flip 13 is poised to offer both the fastest disk speeds and the fastest WiFi. Though 802.11n is the standard here, just like on the 14- and 15-inch models, the Flip 13 is at least offered with 802.11ac, which you won't find on the two bigger ones. Meanwhile, you won't find a spinning hard drive here -- not even a hybrid disk, in fact. Nope, SSDs are the standard here, with capacity ranging from 128GB to 512GB. If you need even more speed, Sony is also selling faster SSDs built on the PCI Express (PCIe) standard. And if you're unaware of the difference, we suggest you revisit our Pro -series review and home in on the benchmark table: the Pro 13, which we tested with a PCIe drive, offers much, much faster transfer rates.

Oh, and a quick note on color: while all three are available in black and silver, only the 14 and 15 are sold in pink. See? We told you the 13-incher was more serious.

The competition

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If we're going to call out the Flip as an obvious Yoga competitor, then we're obliged to inform you that the Yoga has been refreshed in a pretty big way. Unfortunately, the new Yoga 2 Pro still has generally the same form factor, which means the keyboard is still exposed in tablet mode. That said, it's significantly thinner and lighter than the original, and it steps up to a much-sharper 3,200 x 1,800 display (the first one topped out at a 1,600 x 900 resolution). That won't be available until later this month, but when it arrives, it'll start at $1,100.

Then there's the Dell XPS 12, which we also name-checked early on in this review. As ever, the XPS 12 has a 12-inch, 1080p screen that flips over inside its hinge, allowing you to use the machine in tablet mode. Here, too, the keyboard stays hidden, and now that we think of it, the Flip's magnetic "click" reminds us of the sound the XPS 12 makes when you pop the screen out. From the beginning, we've loved not just its screen quality, but also its attractive carbon fiber design and comfortable keyboard. Following a recent refresh, though, the XPS 12 also has Haswell processors, NFC and a bigger battery, with battery life rated at 9.5 hours. Look for that now for $1,000 and up.

We also mentioned the Acer Aspire R7 at the top of this review. In particular, we called it out as one of the only other convertible Ultrabooks with a big (read: 15-inch) screen. We have to admit, we didn't quite know what to make of the R7 when we first saw it: basically, in addition to having a laptop mode and a presentation-type mode, the screen can lie flat above the keyboard, similar to an all-in-one desktop. Throw in a 1080p, 15.6-inch screen with an optional N-trig digitizer, and it actually seems like a strong alternative to the Flip 15. Since we reviewed the R7, it's been refreshed with Haswell, which should help with the short battery life, but unfortunately, certain awkward design elements still remain -- namely, the touchpad still sits above the keyboard.

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As you're cross-shopping, you might also want to take a closer look at the other machines Sony has in its stable. In addition to the Flip series, there's the Duo 13, a 13-inch slider PC that starts at $1,400. This, too, can be used in either laptop or tablet mode, and though the propped-up display does make for a cramped touchpad, we'd argue it's easier to use a slider than to pop the Flip's display up and back. Beyond that, this is admittedly a somewhat unfair comparison, as the Flip 15 is bulkier and also far less expensive, at $800-plus. If you're considering the Flip 13, though, the decision becomes a tougher one: the Flip 13 costs a more similar $1,100, and comes outfitted with similar specs that include an N-trig digitizer, 1080p IPS display, solid-state storage and Haswell processors. If the main difference is form factor and not size, then, far be it for us to tell you which design makes more sense. But you should at least remember the Duo 13 exists.

While we're on the subject of convertibles, you might want to consider ASUS' forthcoming Transformer Book Trio, which doesn't just shift shapes; it also switches operating systems. Like the similar-sounding Transformer Book we reviewed earlier this year, this is a 13-inch dockable tablet. Sounds pretty familiar, right? Well, what makes this highly unusual is that when the tablet is undocked, it only runs Android Jelly Bean; when it's connected to the keyboard, you can switch between Android and Windows 8 using a physical hotkey. Before you get too excited, though, we should probably tell you that we have no idea how much this will cost, or even when it will go on sale. So far, ASUS has only said it will arrive sometime during Q3.

Wrap-up

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The Flip series has an innovative design that does indeed improve on some of its competitors' shortcomings. We're just not sure it makes sense for a 15-inch notebook. While the smaller Flip 13 and Flip 14 look promising, the 15 is bulky for a convertible, and is awkward to use in tablet mode, even when it's resting in your lap. Really, we can't think of a reason to go with this screen size unless you want that higher-resolution 2,880 x 1,620 display option or discrete graphics. Otherwise, even if money is an issue, the 14-inch model starts at $50 less, and is obviously more portable. Regardless of which size you choose (if you go with the Flip at all), we suggest you wait until Sony issues a firmware update or two: it's clearly got some early performance kinks to iron out.

Dana Wollman contributed to this review.

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