To properly judge some devices, you need to place them in the appropriate context.

Before Microsoft unveiled the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book lines, the VAIO Z Canvas seemed incredibly expensive to me. I was tempted to dismiss the tablet as an ill-timed, overpriced curiosity.

But now that the $2000 Windows tablet ceiling has been shattered, with highest end configurations of the Surface Book going for over $3000, the Z Canvas actually seems--dare I say it?--reasonably priced.

I was also dismissive of the Z Canvas' Haswell (fourth generation) processor until I learned that this quad core Intel Core i7-4770HQ still runs circles around the fastest sixth gen (Skylake) dual core processors shipping inside competing products.

And finally, to compare the Z Canvas head to head with general purpose tablets like the Surface Pro 3 or 4 is probably missing the point, because VAIO is actually targeting users who would otherwise be in the market for specialized devices like a Wacom Cintiq Companion 2.

From a pure power perspective, the VAIO Z Canvas is something of an engineering marvel. The former Sony engineers at the Japanese startup have managed to pack their tablet with a huge amount of performance that also runs coolly and quietly.

And while the Z Canvas still has its design quirks and limitations (like no discrete GPU), it should reign atop the Windows tablet heap for quite some time to come.

  Although it's thick compared to other tablets, the VAIO Z Canvas packs a lot beneath the hood.

Although it's thick compared to other tablets, the VAIO Z Canvas packs a lot beneath the hood.

Build quality is excellent. Although the tablet is by no means heavy, it is a solid 2.67 lbs. without the keyboard and .54 inches thick. When attached, the cover adds .75 lbs. and an extra .17 inch.

  The left side of the VAIO Z Canvas is chock full of ports.

The left side of the VAIO Z Canvas is chock full of ports.

  All the cables connectors will quickly ruin the tablet's clean aesthetics.

All the cables connectors will quickly ruin the tablet's clean aesthetics.

It features a full array of ports along the left side: power, ethernet, HDMI, mini displayPort, SD memory card reader, 2 USB 3.0, and headphone/microphone port.

The Z Canvas can be used in effectively only one orientation and it's unfortunate that power connector is so close to the Ethernet adapter. The two thick connectors are a tight fit in this location and the cables have to be routed under the kickstand to stay out of the way. It would have been ideal to move power to the right side of the tablet.

The Z Canvas has all of its venting along the top, a major improvement over many devices that force hot air into your lap.

On either side of these vents (see above) are two unique hardware buttons: the left button calls up user-configurable on-screen shortcuts while the right button toggles touch on and off.

  The right side of the VAIO Z Canvas.

The right side of the VAIO Z Canvas.

  The pen clip and pen grip are two simple and useful enhancements.

The pen clip and pen grip are two simple and useful enhancements.

Volume control is on the right side, along with a magnetic slot to hold the pen. But in another smart move, VAIO includes a pen holder which snaps into the slot. There's very little chance of your pen coming loose in your bag if it's clipped into place inside the holder.

Like the Surface Pro, the Z Canvas built-in has a hinge stand, but that's where the similarities end. The tablet is not really designed for "lapability." Instead, the stand will provide a variety of useful drawing angles on a desk.

  The back of the VAIO Z Canvas.

The back of the VAIO Z Canvas.

Opening the stand can take some effort. You need to fit your fingers into a slit above the stand edge and apply quite a bit of force to open it. Closing it by hand is also not encouraged. Instead, you should put the stand on a flat surface and push the display into a flat position.  Conversely, when the stand is sitting on a flat surface in even a mostly closed position, it takes almost no effort to tilt the screen to a 90-degree angle.

  The VAIO Z Canvas keyboard cover lies completely flat and is always detached while in use.

The VAIO Z Canvas keyboard cover lies completely flat and is always detached while in use.

The Z Canvas keyboard cover is one of tablet's quirkiest design choices. The keyboard is roomy, with good key travel and a large, good-not-great trackpad. But the keyboard lays completely flat and is always detached, so it's not ideally suited for long stretches of typing. I did write this entire review on the Z Canvas, but it was not the most comfortable experience.

When not working at a desk, the ZC is not what anyone would describe as "lap friendly." The large keyboard will lay flat on your lap, but you will need to grip the sharp metal stand between your knees in order to keep the display steady: an awkward, uncomfortable position, to say the least.

Clearly, VAIO intended its Z Canvas for pen users who only occasionally need to tap keyboard shortcuts. I appreciate that the ZC keyboard works wirelessly (not bluetooth) so that it can be stashed out of the way as you work but still function and I have long wished that Surface keyboards would follow suit. However, I think a smaller bluetooth keyboard with a better typing angle (like Microsoft's Wedge Keyboard) is a better approach.

  The three-way power switch and power connector

The three-way power switch and power connector

The Z Canvas keyboard has a three-position power switch. The third position disables the trackpad. There is a small power connector in the upper right corner of the keyboard. While it can be charged separately via a micro USB port located along its top edge, whenever the cover is attached to the display, an amber light turns on to indicate that the keyboard is charging.

  When it's attached, the keyboard cover is always drawing some power to recharge itself.

When it's attached, the keyboard cover is always drawing some power to recharge itself.

This is a little disconcerting if battery life is at a premium. I haven't been able to verify how long the keyboard charge lasts, but the tablet seems to hold about a six-hour charge with mixed use (high performance mode, web surfing, writing, at various display brightness levels).

One of the biggest selling points of the Z Canvas is its display and it does not disappoint. The 12.3 inch LCD WQXGA+ 2560 x 1704 IPS display boasts a wide gamut display with 95% coverage of the Adobe RGB spectrum. I have no way of verifying this claim, except to say that it looks gorgeous to me.

As I mentioned above, one of the shortcomings of the Z Canvas is its lack of a discrete GPU, but VAIO claims that its 4th generation Intel Iris Pro 5200 offers as much as 3.7 times the performance of the HD4400 processor found in the Surface Pro 3.

I purchased the $2200 "entry" level Z Canvas with 8 GB RAM and 256 GB Storage. The next model up offers 16/512 and a PCI Express x4 SSD upgrade for an additional $300. The top of the line model offers a 1 TB PCI Express x4 SSD for a whopping $3099.

Benchmark results. Click to enlarge.

The benchmarks I ran roundly defeated nearly every mobile device I own to date. (I can't explain the two slightly better scores the Lenovo Thinkpad Yoga 14 got on Fire Strike and Sky Diver). The dramatically better scores in the Geekbench multi-core test are entirely to be expected, given the Z Canvas' two additional cores. I'll include Surface Book comparison results in that review when I publish it sometime in the coming week.

The Z Canvas N-Trig pen is nearly identical to the Sony Active Pen and is compatible with all DuoSense2 devices I've tested. VAIO includes an optional rubber pen grip that I think makes the pen much more comfortable to hold for extended drawing sessions. The two pen side switches can still be accessed through the grip and I find that they are also easier to access this way. The actual pen buttons are almost flush with the pen barrel.

  The VAIO Z Canvas pen (middle) is compatible with other DuoSense2 pens like the Surface Pens (3 and 4) and Sony Active Pen.

The VAIO Z Canvas pen (middle) is compatible with other DuoSense2 pens like the Surface Pens (3 and 4) and Sony Active Pen.

The control panel applet contains very limited button settings. You can swap between clearing and right clicking and you can set whether OneNote or the VAIO Clipping tool run when you hover click. There is no eraser tip on the AAAA-battery powered pen.

  Button mapping options are limited.

Button mapping options are limited.

  Pen pressure settings

Pen pressure settings

Setting tip sensitivity to Normal, Hard or Soft provides three different default pressure curve which you can further modify to your liking. To get the maximum pressure range, I set the tip to Hard. There's an interaction that occurs between this global setting and your favorite paint program that you will need to monitor. If you can set your pressure curve in your favorite software, it might be better to leave your global settings at Normal.

  Hard pressure curve

Hard pressure curve

  Soft pressure curve

Soft pressure curve

  The hardware shortcut menus are accessed by tapping the L button along the top edge of the tablet

The hardware shortcut menus are accessed by tapping the L button along the top edge of the tablet

VAIO and/or Sony clearly worked very closely with N-Trig to get the most out of that tech, which now reaches 1,024 pressure levels. It's unclear whether the improvements in the Z Canvas are the same as those in the Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book, now that Microsoft owns N-Trig. I need to test them side by side when my new Surfaces arrive, but I think the two results are nearly identical.

The biggest drawback of the VAIO pen is its extremely hard nib. If you don't like the feeling of drawing on glass, you probably won't like the Z Canvas experience. I found the loud taps of the pen tip against the glass pretty annoying after a while. A screen protector that helps deaden the sound is almost a requirement. Unfortunately, VAIO doesn't yet offer its factory-installed film in the US and couldn't offer any information on when that option would be available. I tested the VAIO pen on a Surface Pro 3 with a Photodon screen protector and while it doesn't eliminate the tapping, it lowers the volume quite a bit.

The new Surface Pen is also compatible with the Z Canvas and that pen's default nib is much softer and quieter. Once again, I'll need to test more extensively, but dedicating a Surface Pen to the VAIO may be the way to go. (Although the pens are compatible, their nibs are not interchangeable.)

Setting aside my issues with the tip hardness, the pen experience is the best I've ever had on an N-Trig device.

In Clip Studio Paint, with pen stabilization off, there is very little diagonal jitter on slowly drawn lines. Speeding the stroke slightly eliminates it altogether. A stabilization setting of 15 is the most I think I would ever need. By contrast, I would often crank the setting up to 45 on the Surface Pro 3.

Drawing lag is definitely, a software-specific issue. In Clip Studio, on an A4 canvas at 350 dpi, I could draw rapidly with a 500px Colored Pencil brush. In Photoshop CC 2015 on the same size canvas, a 475px textured brush might take half a second to catch up.

Hover lag has been improved, but can still be distracting. If it bothers you too much, I recommend disabling the hardware cursor. In Clip Studio, I change the Cursor preference from Brush Size to Single Pixel Dot.

Software that I find unusable on other tablets is now an option on the Z Canvas thanks to the ability to quickly turn touch on and off with the press of the R button (located on the top edge of the tablet). Sketchbook Pro and ArtRage are among many applications that I never use on other tablets because I'm always leaving stray marks with my knuckle taps.

The L button calls up the hardware shortcuts menu (far left). This overlay is a great artist-friendly feature that eliminates the need for 90% of third-party add-ons like ArtDock, etc.

The second overlay provides quick access to other innovations like fan speed control, color temperature and pen control. The settings shortcut accesses the control panel (below) that allows you to configure your own sets of shortcuts.

The device already includes shortcuts for popular Adobe CC software like Illustrator, Lightroom and Photoshop, as well as Clip Studio Paint, Corel Painter and Autodesk Sketchbook.

All of the preset shortcuts can be customized.

 

 

  The hardware shortcut keys include configurations for top applications.

The hardware shortcut keys include configurations for top applications.

Limiting the Z Canvas to just drawing is also thinking too small. Based on its benchmark results, the tablet should be ideal for video and 3d applications (except those that use GPU rendering).

If you use one of those applications you'll notice the ZC's fans, because it generally runs absolutely silently. I think I've only managed to get the fans to rev up briefly during the Blender render. And despite its horsepower, the tablet stays pleasantly cool to the touch.

Compared to the Surface Pro 3, the VAIO Z Canvas is much better suited for creative users. Due to its speed, size, advanced features and very quiet operation, the ZC is even worth considering versus the Wacom Cintiq Companion 2. The latter has a slight edge thanks to its additional pressure levels, tilt support and textured screen protector. It is also available for less than the VAIO's steep starting price.

It's a shame that the new Surface releases have stolen so much of the thunder from the VAIO Z Canvas. It truly is an outstanding device that deserves a lot more attention.



Posted
AuthorRick Rodriguez