Week in Tech: Sony Vaio Tap 11, Will It Game?
When I Met Arthur C. Clarke
As I wandered the debris-strewn wasteland of discarded smartphones that is the aftermath of the perfect storm of disposable consumerism at CES in Vegas earlier this month, my plan had been to regale you all with a twisting tale of ultra mobile technology and gaming. To talk about the iPhone and how its performance has ballooned by 40 times since introduction in 2007. And what it all means for the PC. I wrote it up and even managed to crowbar in an anecdote about the afternoon I spent lounging in the sun at the Colombo Swimming Club chatting to Arthur C. Clarke without once mentioning 2001 (true story and all that). But then I thought sod that whimsy, I'll save it for another day. I've got an Intel Haswell-powered Sony Vaio Tap 11 at the moment. Will it game?
For the ADHD afflicted among you, here's the short answer: Kind of. The longer version goes something like this.
What we're talking about here is a device in much the same ballpark as Alec's newly-acquired Microsoft Surface Pro 2. Both are pure tablet devices with 11-inch(ish) 1080p screens, albeit with some laptop-like accoutrements. Critically, both are full Windows 8 PCs with pukka Intel Core processors. None of this ARM and Windows RT nonsense, no weedy Atom processor.
In the case of this Sony Vaio Tap 11, the keyboard slice is so laptop-like, it seems downright odd to find it not attached or at least attachable via some kind of modular hinge.
The Tap is a super-slim Intel Core tablet that doesn't need to make any excuses re proportions
With the two clasped together (magnets hold the two halves in place and a neat little connector allows the Tap itself to charge the keyboard), it looks very much like a super-slim lappy. It's just when you go to lift the lid, it comes off in your hand.
Then you discover there's a kickstand at the rear, but unlike the Surface, it's a bit of a miserable little stick rather than the chassis-wide flap. And you suspect (correctly) that this thing is going to be a complete pain in the posterior to prop up on anything other than a perfectly flat, hard surface.
You'll also go postal when then battery on the keyboard goes flat – as it surely will do on occasion – leaving you wondering why the hell you didn't just buy a bloody ultrabook.
Personally, I don't think this makes any sense for a Windows 8 device. Pure tablets are great. But the whole point of having a Windows tablet over an Android or iOS device is to do proper Windows things as well as touchy-swipey things.
Like a laptop, just a bit broken
A notebook-style snap-in hinge, Asus Transformer style, is what the Tap needs. Without that, the deal's off, for me. Still, if you really are after a pure Windows 8 tablet experience, the Tap has a trump card: its thickness. At just 9.9mm, the Tap is just a teensy bit thicker than an iPad - well, that was true before the iPad Air came out squeezed things down to just 7.5mm.
For context, Google's Nexus 10 is 8.9mm and the Surface Pro is 13.5mm. The point is that the initial impression of the Tap is that it's just a tablet and I mean that in a good way. You don't pick it up and immediately begin to play off the performance innards against the bloated proportions in your mind – it's fat, but hey, it's powerful.
Instead, you think – at least, I thought – Christ, they've gone and done it. A proper PC in bona fide tablet proportions. For the record, we're talking Intel Core i5-4210Y (1.5GHz nominal, 1.9GHz Turbo, two cores, four threads) with Intel HD 4200 graphics. Indeed much of the credit for the proportions must go to Intel for squeezing the full-fat Core architecture into a power envelope that works in such a skinny tablet.
A PC as slim as an iPhone? That'll be the Tap 11
Anywho, the chip specs are similar to the Surface. Both have the 20-execution unit version of Intel's graphics, but the Tap's are clocked at 850MHz to the Surface's 1,100MHz. Basically, the Tap trades both CPU and GPU clocks in return for what is arguably a genuine tablet form factor to the Surface's more Ultrabook-minus-keyboard feel.
What it doesn't do, surprisingly, is match the Surface in terms of physical build quality, much less the insidious but undeniable tactility of Appleware. I'm not sure why Sony can't quite get its head around that essential combination of alloy lushness and robustness. But the Tap proves it remains a little off the pace.
Details like the little pop-out flap covering the USB and mini HDMI ports really are cringeworthy. If you even suggested such a kludge at Apple HQ, I imagine you'd immediately be escorted from the building and shot.
More critically, it doesn't feel as tough as either the Surface or any iPad (or a Nexus 10 for that matter). It doesn't feel cheap. But it does feel a bit delicate.
As for the general Windows 8 experience and how it stacks up as a touch device, I'll point you in the direction Alec's Surface 2 review. I'll only add that I think the logic and structure of the interface formerly known as Metro is fundamentally borked. It's half-baked, frequently infuriating and not nearly as intuitive to use as a touch device as Android or iOS.
As for using touch in the desktop interface, what a nightmare. The last of the generalities involves battery life, of which there's far, far too little. My testing hasn't exactly been scientific, but my general feeling over the past two weeks or so is of a device with about one-third the battery life of an iPad. In other words, shite.
That's a pity because what the Tap does do is offer a tantalising glimpse of ultraportable PCs of the future. General CPU-and-storage-bound performance in Windows is just dandy. As for gaming performance, well, much depends on context. It's actually pretty impressive for such a slim little thing.
Kickstand computing: Please make it stop
If you're old school, you'll be pretty happy. Ye olde Counter-Strike original runs slick and smooth at 1080p. Newer fare obviously struggles. But you'll get most things running just about tolerably for short stints if you crush enough settings and drop the res to 720p.
I wouldn't call it a genuinely gameable device. It's the sort of machine that forces your hand. You can play games, but it's the Tap's limitations that decide which ones as much as your personal preferences. That said, a few weeks with the Tap does at least remind you that it's game design rather than graphics that really matter. Is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive actually any more fun?
It also has you wondering how many more generations we'll have to wait for something that looks like the Tap but really does have pukka gaming chops. The backdrop to that is the broader story I was going to write.
Good old Counter-Strike will run on almost anything
And it comes down to this. The really explosive period of ultra mobile performance innovation – the one that's seen iPhone CPU performance balloon by 40 times since 2007 - may already be over. What the iPhone 5S is capable of with its A7 chip is the stuff of the aforementioned Arthur C.'s sufficiently-advanced-to-seem-like-magic motif. I can't quite believe what I'm seeing sometimes, it's that impressive.
But we've gotten there so fast from 2007 because a lot of what has driven ultra mobile performance hasn't been the pure science of the possible, but a new emphasis on raw performance. It's only relatively recently that there's been much demand for seriously powerful computing in something like a handset and so it's only recently anyone has even tried to make the most powerful possible ultramobile chip. In the past, it's all been about making ultra mobile chips as small, cheap and power-efficient as humanly possible.
Put another way, it's ye olde convergence at work and most of the heavy lifting has already been done. Phones have been getting dramatically more powerful, PCs dramatically more power efficient. Very soon the two will meet in the middle. From then on, incrementalism will prevail.
Super slim, initially seductive. But leaves you feeling empty. Is that the Tap or the iPhone?
For me that means the prospect of a proper gaming PC in a tablet or smartphone form factor isn't going to happen any time soon. The gap between something like an AMD Radeon R9 290 and Intel's integrated graphics in the Tap 11 is pretty epic. But, I don't really see that gap vanishing in the next few years.
Yes, ultramobile graphics will get faster. But not at the rate we've seen over the last six or seven years. Meanwhile, desktop GPUs will keep getting faster.
Fast forward to the end of the decade and I reckon you'll have smartphones with CPUs comparable to the Tap's. They might even have graphics more powerful than Intel's latest integrated effort.
But that would make for a merely adequate gaming PC today. It won't even come close to what's possible with a current high end GPU, much less the best the industry has to offer in 2020. So, yes, you will have a smartphone that'll make a decent fist of playing Xbone and PS4 ports. That will be pretty impressive. But if you're remotely serious about gaming, it won't actually be enough.
It was ever thus with integrated graphics. And it's not quite time for that to change.
P.S. The Vaio Tap 11 is available today and yours for around £800. Which is a lot. For something fundamentally flawed.