Sony VAIO VGN-AR11S review
An impressive showcase for the first Blu-ray drive in a notebook, but the price is very high
With HD DVD finally making its debut last month in Toshiba's Qosmio G30, we didn't have to wait too long to see Blu-ray hit back. This month sees Sony introduce both the VAIO RC-204 PC and the VAIO VGN-AR11S - the first notebook to include the next-generation format drive. While the industry is still split, it's the high-end consumers that are initially being targeted, with both the Qosmio and AR11S being flagship products.
The VAIO's size is striking - despite having the same 17in widescreen TFT, the inch-thick bezel makes the AR11S seem much larger than machines such as Acer's Aspire 9410. It's also very definitely black, with the glossy, fingerprint-attracting finish feeling both luxurious and a little overwhelming.
The X-black screen is similarly glossy, running at an indulgent 1,920 x 1,200 pixels, and it's bright too. Horizontal viewing angles are good, but not top-notch vertically - the panel needed a little adjustment to keep the contrast even from top to bottom. As we'd expect, video playback and digital photos benefit from the apparent extra contrast from the glossy screen, although some slight motion lag is evident.
We found the front-mounted mouse buttons tricky at first, especially as the keyboard is pushed so far up. It's otherwise comfortable to work on, though, with good travel and a rock-solid foundation. There's no numeric keypad, with the space used for shortcut buttons.
With Windows MCE 2005 installed, there's an integrated hybrid analogue/DVB-T TV tuner to take advantage of its PVR capabilities - an infrared receiver is on the front for the included remote. The coaxial input is helpfully full sized, negating the need for breakout cables. The speakers give a reasonable volume, but bass response is limited, and you'll need more to really get immersed in music and movies.
Most of the expansion ports are tidily hidden under a series of flaps along the sides. The Type II PC Card slot is as legacy as this VAIO gets, with three USB 2, a mini-FireWire and an ExpressCard/54 slot catering for modern peripherals. A media card reader supporting Memory Stick and SD formats sits in the front, and a 0.37-megapixel webcam is hidden stylishly in the top bezel of the screen. Considering the AR's high-definition playback credentials (up to full 1080p), the HDCP-compliant HDMI output is welcome, and there's also S-Video in/out and a VGA output.
10/100 Ethernet and a 56K modem at the back right complement the 802.11a/b/g WLAN and Bluetooth, and the left side hosts the Blu-ray optical drive. It's worth noting that this also supports dual-layer DVD+/-RW and CD writing, as well as dual-layer Blu-ray discs up to 50GB (slated to start shipping in August). Just note that even 25GB discs currently cost around £15 each. Fixed storage comes courtesy of two 100GB 5,400rpm drives. They can even be set as a striped or mirrored RAID array.
Processing power comes in spades, with a 2GHz Core Duo T2500 and 1GB of RAM managing 1.07 in our application benchmarks. 3D capability is less all-out, with a modest Go 7600 GT chip. But it still provides enough power for today's games at modest settings, and more than enough to cope with the demands of Windows Vista when it finally arrives.
You won't want to carry this notebook very far. At 3.8kg, it's more suited to a sedentary existence, and an appalling 1hr 37mins of battery life under light use is an inevitable result of the large, bright screen and the relatively small battery.
Sony's software bundle is an eclectic mix of try-before-you buy products, plus the more useful Microsoft Works 8, an array of Adobe Elements packages and the requisite, if rather basic, Blu-ray authoring software. You also get VAIO recovery, which sits on a hidden partition and will restore the factory image in case of a Windows-based disaster.