Sony VAIO VGO-LA38G

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Sony VAIO VGO-LA38G
  • Sony VAIO VGO-LA38G
  • Sony VAIO VGO-LA38G
  • Sony VAIO VGO-LA38G

Pros

  • New form factor, good speakers, half-screen display with Sony soundFLOW player.

Cons

  • Small keyboard, poor viewing angles on the screen.

Bottom Line

The Sony VAIO VGO-LA38G is a welcome change of form factor which retains its mobility while also being a mobile, stylish and functional addition to the household.

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The Sony VAIO VGO-LA38G, part of the VAIO L series, uses a unique form factor that Sony calls the "Panel PC". Sony has always been known for innovative style, which is why it's no surprise to see the VAIO label on this chic notebook. We were impressed by every facet of the design, especially the transparent frame, flip-up keyboard and half-screen display (with Sony soundFLOW music player).

The L series sits somewhere between a desktop replacement notebook and desktop PC. Built using notebook components, such as a Core 2 Duo T5600 1.83GHz CPU, a 120GB (5400rpm) notebook hard drive, a GeForce Go 7400 graphics card and a notebook battery (for mobile use), the L series offers a light, portable alternative to a desktop without conforming to the standard notebook chassis design.

When the AC power is disconnected, the VAIO L series seamlessly switches to the battery just as any other notebook would, so changing rooms in the middle of a task is quick and easy. A handle mounted at the top rear of the unit means it can be easily carried with one hand.

One of the best features of this Panel PC is the half screen display, which instantly turns on when the keyboard flips up. Initially the screen displays the time and a calendar showing the current date. However, positioned down the side of the keyboard (and parallel to the screen when in the half-screen mode) are a set of basic media controls. Hit play and any music that's loaded into the Sony soundFLOW software will start to play. When music is playing, the track details join the clock and calendar on-screen as well as an animated equaliser (depending on which soundFLOW background you've selected). A number of backgrounds can be chosen from and more can be manually added.

The soundFLOW software is fairly simplistic in itself, offering nothing more than skip, play, stop and volume controls as well as a basic filter by artist and album (albums also include playlists). Playing CDs requires nothing more than the disc to be inserted into the slot-drive DVD re-writer on the side. However, soundFLOW can't create playlists or add albums from sources other than CD without the help of the Sony SonicStage application, which comes installed. If you wish, you can use any audio player software as your default application, but we found that they don't transition as smoothly when the keyboard was closed. Using the SonicStage software was simple enough and once our albums were imported they were accessible within soundFLOW.

The speakers produce a good, clear sound and are loud enough for music and movies within a reasonable distance, although they would benefit from the addition of a sub-woofer. The 15.4in widescreen LCD has a native resolution of 1280x800 pixels and has good brightness and contrast, but a very shallow viewing angle. From vertical positions it's difficult to see and has terrible colour inversion from side angles, making the image look like a photo negative. This is disappointing as when using this type of PC as you may not always be sitting directly in front of it.

Overall, the system performed well enough during our tests, though it is far from being the most powerful mobile solution available. It was a little slow in our MP3 encoding test, where we encode 53minutes of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3 files, which took three minutes and three seconds. This is a little below what we would expect considering the specifications. We encoded a full CD using SonicStage, which took four minutes and 5 seconds. With the 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and 1GB of DDR2 RAM it will have no problems running the most commonly used software on the market and doing everyday computing tasks. The GeForce Go 7400 graphics card allows this system to run Windows Vista's Aero interface and also gives the system enough graphics power to play some newer games, albeit at lower settings. Older games will run with ease as indicated by the 3DMark 2001 SE score of 9421.

As a worst-case scenario battery test, we played a DVD on a looping repeat. Using a notebook in this manner gives an excellent indication of the battery life under trying conditions as the optical drive and the speakers consume more power than the processor and other core components alone. Despite the larger speakers on this unit, which consume more power than regular notebook speakers, the L series ran the DVD for 91 minutes. This is just short of an average feature film, but the volume is loud enough to comfortably sit back and watch from a distance, something most notebooks can't offer.

The flip-down keyboard is slightly smaller than your average notebook keyboard, so using it feels a little cramped and it may not be ideal for writing long documents on a regular basis. We would have liked it to be detachable, but it's fixed at the hinge. While the keyboard has a built-in touchpad, the four USB 2.0 ports allow for an external mouse to be used or a larger keyboard if you wish. There's also FireWire to connect a camcorder, a media card reader for MediaGate, SD and MS media cards, plus a PC Card slot (type I/II) and Express card slot for any additional devices. For networking, the unit has a 10/100 LAN Ethernet connection and 56k modem, but the WiFi 802.11 b/g will be the most useful connection option for this type of PC. Finally, a 1.3 Megapixel camera sits in the clear bezel above the screen for basic webcam needs.

The bulk of the PC is mounted flat against the back of the screen and is barely noticeable. An adjustable stand on the rear allows you to tilt the screen to the desired angle and the keyboard folds out at the same angle regardless of the position of the PC.

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