I’ve been a MacBook Pro user since Windows Vista. I just couldn’t bring myself to love Vista, and back then, the Apple guys seemed so much cooler. They had a *nix-style OS, better hardware, and a better look/feel to their applications. I made the switch a decade ago, and I’ve been pretty happy in the Apple camp.
Over the last couple of years, though, the cracks in Apple’s armor have grown to canyons. The laptop hardware focuses on thin and light, but not powerful. The lack of usable ports has always been bad, but it’s getting worse. (Only one USB-C port on a laptop? Come on now.) Windows 10 has been looking pretty good, and Office for Mac has been looking horrific.
So when I wanted a backup laptop (I always travel with two), the Microsoft Store ran an insane fire sale on the Vaio Z Canvas, and I went for it. With 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD, it was down from $3k to under $1400! Insane deal. (These days it’s usually around $2k.)
Don’t call it a laptop.
It’s a tablet with a kickstand, but this kickstand is designed much better than the Surface’s. The Surface’s kickstand pops out from the top, leaving your tablet in danger of falling over if the kickstand slips into a hole or crack. The Vaio’s L-shaped kickstand works much better, and it’s easily adjustable just by pushing on it. Nicely done.
The Vaio happens to have a wireless keyboard that’s the exact same size as the screen, attached magnetically to the screen with just the right grip. The keyboard pops off and sits in front of the tablet, looking kinda sorta like a laptop, but it is most definitely not a laptop. Laptops, by definition, have to work on your lap. This one just flat out doesn’t, so if you’re not willing to put this thing on a shelf/desk/tray/hobo’s back, move along. Nothing to see here.
It’s just barely alright as a tablet – coming from the Apple iPad ecosystem, this thing feels really heavy and thick, not the kind of thing you want to watch movies on in bed, because you’re probably used to holding it or putting it on your lap. But that’s where the excellent adjustable kickstand comes in – put it next to you, and it’s wonderful.
It’s fantastically awesome as a mobile desktop – put it on a desk or an airplane tray or a counter, and then use the keyboard wherever you want. As I write this, the Vaio is on a coffee table in front of me, and I’m leaning back in a chair, typing with the keyboard on my lap. I love it!
When I say desktop, I also mean usable ports built in, with a lot less dongles required. It still has a power adapter, and there’s no VGA port (most office projection setups in the world still require this). But HDMI, DisplayPort, always-powered USB3, SD cards, and even Ethernet can go straight into this. Listen, if you’re a Windows user, I don’t think you appreciate the Earth-shaking ramifications for us Mac guys. This is amazeballs. And a smooth, responsive touchscreen? Are you kidding me?
Touchscreen support in Windows 10 is pretty doggone good.
Pinch-and-zoom has been a fact of life for the iPad ecosystem for a long time, and I wondered how good it’d be in Windows. Windows is built for the lowest common denominator. It has to work across a dizzying array of hardware capabilities. When you’ve got something like a touchscreen, that means touch support isn’t universally built across all apps and functions – it has to be added in, so it’s a pleasant surprise when it works, but it isn’t guaranteed everywhere.
For example, as I write this in Google Chrome, pinch-and-zoom support works pretty reliably and smoothly. Office 2016, fantastic as well – it’s just wonderful to pinch-and-zoom in Excel and PowerPoint. However, switching over to File Explorer, it’s…random. Sometimes it goes up/down directories, sometimes it changes views (detailed/list/columns/thumbnails). Third party (non-MS) apps are much more miss than hit, like Twitter clients – but have you ever really wanted to pinch-and-zoom Twitter feeds?
The 12″ screen size strikes a good balance between tablet portability and touchscreen usability. No, you can’t really navigate SQL Server Management Studio with your finger on a touchscreen this small – the touch points are just way too close together – so you have to resort to a touchpad, mouse, or stylus for that. (I hardly ever use the stylus except when I want to draw on PowerPoint slides.)
I only have one touchscreen complaint – apps often think I’m dragging things around when I really just wanna scroll the screen. (WordPress’s post-editing screen is a particularly bad offender here, moving toolbars around all the time.)
The hardware engineering is…surprisingly good.
Sony made a name for themselves in the laptop space, and that name was “Crappy.” Tell a geek that you’re using a Sony laptop, and they’ll make a bitter beer face. Sony long valued thinness and low weight far higher than sturdiness or class. I went in expecting this thing to be bad.
Unbeknownst to many, though, Sony sold their laptop business in 2014, so the word “Sony” doesn’t appear anywhere on the Vaio Z Canvas, and Sony’s crappy design philosophy doesn’t show up either. It feels pretty well screwed-together. It doesn’t feel premium, mind you, but it doesn’t feel cheap, either.
And it’s fast – fast enough that I don’t notice CPU, memory, or storage as being a bottleneck in my everyday tasks of running virtual machines, playing with SQL Server, and using MS Office. (One thing to be aware of on storage – the 1TB drive is actually two separate 512GB drives, so you have to pay a little attention to capacity management.) The storage is so fast, in fact, that I had to change some of my demos because I had a much harder time reproducing storage bottlenecks.
The one quality exception: the keyboard cover is worthless.
It’s garbage. Junk. It bends when you type on it, and it doesn’t really bounce back – mine’s already a little U-shaped. Why is there a rechargeable keyboard without backlighting? The keys feel cheap, like a $5 store-brand knock-off of a Logitech. The trackpad’s area is tiny – there’s so much wasted space on this thing – but I don’t know that you’d want it any larger, because it feels like gravel compared to Apple’s famously good trackpads.
But the crowning underachievement in the wireless keyboard’s design is the recharging port. Whenever you clap the screen onto the Vaio, they connect magnetically, and the keyboard starts charging – which sounds good, not having to carry cables. However, you can’t stop the keyboard from charging, even if you turn it off. I’ve opened my laptop bag after a few days and found the fully-charged Vaio down to 80% battery life remaining – but that keyboard is still lit up, charging its brains out. Ugh.
I switched to a Logitech Keys-To-Go, a tiny and super-thin BlueTooth keyboard that slips perfectly into the pocket of the leather sleeve I got for the Vaio. It’s silent, has good-enough key feel, just enough space that I can type decently fast, and recharges over micro-USB. It doesn’t have a touchpad, but the Vaio’s touchscreen is so convenient, who cares? One downside – the Keys-to-Go has a suede texture on it, so it kinda feels like typing on hairy skin. I’ll just leave that there.
Applications, and does the operating system still matter?
On a daily basis, the apps I use most often are Chrome, Slack, Dropbox, virtualization (various Windows and SQL Server versions running in VMs), and Microsoft Office.
Chrome, Slack, and Dropbox are the same everywhere, so no big deal there. I use a bunch of browser-based apps/services, and of course those are universally fine.
Hyper-V on a laptop isn’t great, already wrote about that, but I’ve since switched to VMware Workstation, and that’s fine. (Which is funny because I also use VMware Fusion on the Mac, so the OS doesn’t really matter here either, I end up using basically the same app.)
Microsoft Office is just better on Windows, full stop. While Office for Mac has made a few stumbling improvements over the last couple of years, it’s still hot garbage compared to the effortlessly powerful weapon that is Office on Windows. Every one of the Office apps is just faster and more capable. PowerPoint is particularly good on a tablet, giving me the ability to draw on the screen while I present.
So do I miss OS X? Sure – when the Vaio’s display driver restarts itself out of nowhere, or when I have to Google how to get into the BIOS in order to change a virtualization setting, but those things are…pretty infrequent. For the most part, Windows just stays out of the way.
I do miss the Apple ecosystem integration. When I take a picture on my iPhone, it shows up in a matter of seconds on my iPad and my OS X computers. When I get a text message, it pops up on all of my devices – and when I read it on any device, including my Apple Watch, the notification disappears on the rest of the devices. That’s pretty doggone slick. Now, it feels like I have a bunch of cohesive Apple gear, and one Windows device on an island. But the island is pretty nice.
Verdict: I like it a lot. A whole lot.
When I switch over to my MacBook Pro, I find myself reaching out to touch the screen and then cursing. Then I settle down and work on its pretty good keyboard and glorious trackpad.
Then when I switch back over to the Vaio, I rejoice that I can touch the screen – but I curse its keyboard and trackpad.
If that’s the biggest complaint a long-time Mac/OS X guy has about a Vaio running Windows 10, that’s freakin’ remarkable.