by Matthew Vice, October 29 2013
As digital artists, illustrators and designers, pen tablets are pivotal . We use pen digitizers to draw, to paint and to get ideas from our minds onto the digital canvas. One particular brand has dominated our digital art lives, they’ve served us well and been effective, but their display-based products are expensive and often out of reach for many outside the US. We’ve lived in a digital art world with few to no real competitors in the display-based pen digitizer space. Those days however, are thankfully over.
In this review we take a look at the Sony VAIO Duo 13, a 13.3″ Haswell based tablet PC, and throughout we compare the art experience to the current industry leader, Wacom. The VAIO Duo 13 is a tablet PC like no other we’ve come across. The thoughtfulness in the design and build quality is easily apparent, and it’s not only beautifully designed, it’s got great performance. It’s a windows PC, yet at the same time it’s a tablet. You can run all your favourite desktop apps (Photoshop, ArtRage, Sketchbook Pro, Clip Studio Paint) as well as familiar tablet apps (Fruit Ninja anyone?). For a more in-depth technical analysis of this machine, there are plenty of general PC reviews on Youtube, but as an art site, what we’re really interested in is the performance of the pen (it is as good as Wacom?) and art applications (does it manage 600 DPI A4?), and so we’re looking at the Sony VAIO Duo 13 from that perspective. It’s important to remember that the Duo 13 isn’t some kind of iPad-like device in terms of art – it has an “active digitizer” and a proper, accurate pressure sensitive pen, just like a Wacom Cintiq or Cintiq Companion (more on that later.) Here are the specs of the review unit we were sent:
The Sony VAIO Duo 13 uses an N-Trig Digitizer and Pen (or Stylus). Wait! Don’t close the review! The Sony pen is actually fantastic, and it works brilliantly. In the past, N-Trig pens and digitizers were not as effective as the Wacom alternatives, however Sony has done something really special with their N-Trig DuoSense 2 based pen. Not only is the stylus as responsive as a Wacom pen, but the overall system seems far more accurate than competitor products, especially at screen edges. We couldn’t believe it ourselves. We’ve heard from Shogmaster on Youtube that the N-Trig and the Wacom styluses use different pen assemblies (mainly based on their ability to detect initial pressure), so whilst Wacom may state they have 2048 levels of pressure, and N-Trig has 256 levels, in reality what is actually changing is the grams of pressure detected initially to make a mark, not really the pressure levels. In this regard we can say that you’d be hard-pressed to notice the difference, and as far as the pen is concerned, it’s fantastic.
From a design standpoint, the Sony stylus is closer to a real pen compared to the standard Wacom stylus, and it has a solid, steel design to it. Whereas the Wacom pen is battery-less, the N-trig pen does require an AAAA battery (included), which is apparently rated at lasting around 1 year and 4 months. We enjoyed using the stylus, and because of an included pen holder that attaches to the Duo 13, it never gets lost or misplaced.
We tested the machine with ArtRage, Sketchbook Pro and Clip Studio Paint, and all three applications ran flawlessly, with fantastic pressure-sensitive drawing on par with Wacom technology. Our main criteria for testing was drawing and painting on an A4 size canvas (US Letter approximately) with 600 DPI resolution. All the apps worked great (especially Clip Studio Paint), and we only noticed some slight delay when we started pushing brush sizes passed around 500px in size, but as always it’s subjective and based on the size of the canvas and the brush type used.. We also noted a slight delay, around 200 milliseconds or so in Clip Studio paint, after each stroke, but after playing with the cursor icon settings it seemed to go away (maybe it was just us.) We weren’t able to test Photoshop on the machine as of yet, but Sony reassures us that they are working with Adobe to ensure full pressure sensitive support for the N-Trig stylus in an upcoming update to Photoshop and Illustrator CC (we’ve heard unofficially this might occur before the end of the year, which is great). As we well know, Photoshop is the de facto standard for artists, and is also the best in terms of performance, so we are thoroughly excited to give it a try with Sony’s stylus. On a technical level, the specs are more than good enough to sketch and paint on, and as a PC in general it’s speedy. Naturally page sizes and resolutions, as well as brush sizing can really affect performance, but that’s a factor to keep in mind with any PC. If you’re truly power hungry, or want added longevity, Sony offers an Intel Core i7, 8gb RAM model with Intel HD 4400 graphics. Additionally, if you really want some meat with your potatoes, you could also consider the upcoming Sony VAIO Flip 15, which offers a Core i7, 8GB RAM along with 2GB Nvidia Graphics, however the stylus is a separate purchase (review soon).
Safe in the knowledge that yes, indeed, the Sony VAIO Duo 13 can stand up to Wacoms entries in terms of digital art, you can sit back and relax as we take a look at general usability. While maintaining a 13.3″ display, the VAIO Duo 13 is light and easy in the hands at just 1.3kgs. The screen is beautiful, and showcases colours vibrantly with wide viewing angles, and the “Surf Slider” mechanism means you have a full keyboard and mouse touch-pad with you all the time for other work. The battery has brilliant stamina, and we got just under 10 hours of drawing and painting with nary a power socket in site – incredible, thanks to the Haswell processor and some great engineering by Sony. The Duo 13 is also small – much smaller in dimensions than another viable alternative, and this means it’s easier to hold, and easier to carry around. We find it quite hard not to praise this machine as an art slate – and we got more than a few interested stares using this device in coffee shops around town.
The Sony VAIO Duo 13 also has some other useful attributes. The VAIO Duo 13 has great audio thanks to ClearTune+ technology from Sony, making listening to music and watching movies great. Then there’s the front and rear cameras. The front one is great for general Skype use, whilst the back one can be infinitely useful as a tool for capturing reference while you’re sketching or painting. The image quality is great for an 8 mega-pixel shooter too, and Sony has worked in their “Exmor” camera tech to give images better overall quality.
No device is perfect however. Our primary issue with the Duo 13 is small – and that is that it does not have a function to allow the user to turn the touch screen on or off. As is the case with similar Wacom penabled tablets, Cintiqs and of course, with the Duo 13 too – the palm-rejection distance can be a bit of an issue at times, where the tablet picks up ones palm first, instead of the pen, and so just before the pen comes into detectable range, your palm makes some marks on your page while drawing or painting. Wacom solved this issue by creating a button that allows the user to enable or disable the touch screen input, and we urge Sony to do the same. Apart from this issue, we think the Duo 13 is great.
UPDATE: You can download this small application to create two buttons that you can place on your Windows taskbar, to enable and disable the touch screen. Simply extract the zip folder to your C drive, and then drag the icons to your taskbar. For Clip Studio Paint however, you’ll need to keep the touch screen on for proper functionality.
The Core i5 model of the Sony Duo 13 is available at retail for an RRP of R17999 ($1800 USD), which considering it’s a full PC is not bad at all. In South Africa (where ArtSketch is based) a Wacom Cintiq 13HD, just the tablet, not a computer, is around R15000 ($1500 USD), and a Wacom Cintiq Companion 256GB is around R29000 ($2900 USD). In light of that, the Sony VAIO Duo 13 is a fantastic buy at a great price point, and should provide users with years of drawing and painting. If you need more power for 3D applications, consider looking at the Sony VAIO Flip 15, coming just before Christmas, which features an as mentioned beefy Intel Core i7, 8gb RAM and Nvidia Geforce 735 2GB graphics.**
It’s a 13.3″ digital tablet PC with good performance, insanely long battery life, great portability and a digitizer that works beautifully. Is the Sony stylus as good as a Wacom for art? We’d say it definitely is. Can you use the Sony VAIO Duo 13 effectively to draw and paint on? Without a doubt. It’s a device of our dreams. We’re looking forward to future products from Sony and other manufacturers that work this well. With all the penabled devices coming out now and in the future, it truly is an exciting time to be a digital artist.
Look out for more reviews on tablet PC’s with pressure sensitive styluses.
**Note: We initially incorrectly implied that Zbrush could be used with the Sony/ N-trig stylus. We apologise and have since removed that statement from this section. We optimistically hope that the developers of Zbrush will implement N-trig functionality into their excellent software at some near future date.