Sometimes an excellent operating system can be made even better
Sony Vaio VGN-AR18GP
- Blu-ray playback, Blu-ray burning, Great games performance, Big screen
- Not much Blu-ray content, No TV-Tuner
An awesome all purpose notebook which has great gaming performance, and Blu-ray support complete with HDMI. For the early adopter, it doesn't get much better than this.
Price$ 5,499.00 (AUD)
The Sony Vaio AR18GP is the first notebook to include a Blu-ray high definition optical drive. The notebook combines high definition playback with a wonderful aesthetic, powerful components and a 17in widescreen display to create a very attractive all purpose package for the early adopter.
Like the recently reviewed Toshiba Qosmio G30, the Sony Vaio AR18GP's claim to fame is support for high definition video from an optical drive. The Vaio comes with Sony's Blu-Ray technology rather than the HD-DVD drive implemented on the Toshiba. The other notable difference between the systems is that the Vaio drive is actually a Blu-Ray writer as well as player. The HD-DVD player included in the Toshiba only burns standard DVDs and CDs.
Blu-Ray discs come in both 25GB and 50GB capacities: so as a backup medium even the data volume on larger hard drives can be stored on a small number of disks. And it's perfect for storing hard disk consuming data such as video. The downside to this is the cost; Blu-Ray discs have a price tag of roughly $35, so this won't come cheaply just yet, but presumably prices will drop given time. And of course, until Blu-ray drives become more commonplace it won't be quite as much use as a medium for transferring files.
Of course what many people will purchase this machine for is the ability to watch Blu-Ray content, and as with the HD-DVDs we watched before, we can assure you that it has been worth the wait. High definition content played from the Blu-ray disks on the Vaio looks absolutely stunning.
Unfortunately we didn't have a proper Blu-Ray movie available to use at the time of testing, so we had to make do with a Sony demo disc which wasn't quite as real world as we'd have liked. Still, it looked every bit as good as the HD-DVD content we looked at, and the improvements over standard definition DVDs were clear. We tested on both the notebook LCD and a high definition, flat panel television, and they both looked fantastic. Edges were clean and sharp, with no noticeable aliasing even in areas of extreme complexity. Tiny characters in the background, which look blocky on DVDs, were sharp and clear, and we could make out details in foliage and mountains which really impressed us.
However we must highlight that at this time there isn't much in the way of Blu-Ray content to make use of this notebook. It will be months before any media hits the stores, and at least a year before there are an adequate number of titles available, so those expecting to find all their favourite films in high definition glory will be disappointed. This is a device for those who want the latest and greatest and want it now.
The Blu-ray optical drive supports a wide range of formats in both read and write mode at various speeds. Blu-ray is rated at 1x for both read and write. BD-ROM reads at 1.6x. DVD-ROM reads at 8x as does DVD+R and DVD-R that also write at 8x. DVD-RW and DVD+RW read at 6x and write at 4x. Dual layer DVDs read at 6x and write at 2.4x for DVD+R and 2x for DVD-R. CDs read at 24x and write at 8x.
To test the Blu-ray writing capabilities of the drive we created multiple copies of the 1.3GB of installed World Bench files on the notebook to create a directory with 4GB of data. Using the installed Roxio DigitalMedia SE software we then copied this data to a blank DVD-R disk and also to a blank 25GB Sony Blu-ray Disc Rewritable (BD-RE) rated for 1x-2x writing speed. Writing to the DVD-R took 12min and 43 seconds while writing to the BD-RE was significantly longer at 34 minutes and 8 seconds. Clearly, this implementation of a Blu-Ray drive provides significantly greater data capacity, but at dramatically slower recording speeds than DVD or CD.
We also created a second directory with 10.7GB of data using the World Bench files. Again using the installed Roxio DigitalMedia SE software we copied this data to same Blu-ray Disc Rewritable (BD-RE) after erasing the previous burn. The burn completed successfully in 1 hour and 30 minutes. Copying the data back from the Blu-ray disc was significantly quicker, taking around half the time of recording.
We took a DVD of standard definition video that was created during the testing of digital video cameras and copied it to a Blu-ray video disc using the Ulead BD DiscRecorder 2.5 software. This involved importing the video from the DVD, formatting the Blu-ray media, and then burning. Conversion and copying of the 858MB of video took 6 minutes 42 seconds, 2 minutes of which were conversion and parsing. We launched InterVideo WinDVD BD for Vaio and the video played perfectly - this was an extremely easy process that produced excellent results. We also tested copying an audio CD and had no problems.
More than just Blu-Ray
All that said, even ignoring the Blu-Ray technology, the AR18GP is a very solid notebook. It performed quite well in our tests, with a respectable 91 in World Bench 5. This was in line with what we expected from the hardware combination that includes an Intel Core Duo T2600 processor running at 2.16GHz, 1GB of DDR2 RAM and an NVidia GeForce Go 7600GT graphics card with 256MB memory. This system is more than equipped to handle most tasks you throw at it.
Of course if you are going to buy this unit you may wish to consider upgrading the total memory to the maximum supported 2GB by replacing the installed 512MB modules in the two SO-DIMM slots with two 1GB modules.
Two 80GB Serial ATA 5400RPM hard drives are included in the unit. They were configured to appear to Windows as one physical volume, a RAID 0 (stripe) configuration. Sony has configured this volume into three logical drives (28GB for C:/, 115.5GB for D:/ and a 5.6GB recovery partition.
RAID 0, or striping, provides the highest level of performance. However, the system could be configured for higher fault tolerance by having one drive act as a mirror of the other (RAID 1). Of course, performance would be reduced from the striped configuration and available disk space would be cut to 80GB. While we would have loved to have seen 120 or even 160GB drives, the configuration provides adequate data storage especially when the rewritable Blu-ray drive is taken into account.
Our 3DMark testing indicated the system is perfect as an upper mid-range gaming machine, thanks largely to the impressive video processor. With scores of 21626 and 2850 in 3DMark01 and 06 respectively, it showed that it is easily capable of playing most modern games, and while highly demanding titles like F.E.A.R don't run flawlessly in the high native resolution, they were more than playable.
The Vaio AR18GP - like a number of high-end, big-screen, AV-targeted notebooks we've looked at recently - is not ideal for those looking to use a machine for long periods on battery power. Sony rates the unit running on the supplied lithium ion batteries for 2 hours, a figure that matched the 120 minute result in the MobileMark 2005 productivity test. Under the more power sapping MobileMark 2005 DVD test battery life was rated at 82 minutes. If you're going to watch movies, make sure there's a power socket nearby, or be prepared for an unscheduled intermission until you find one. Alternately, if you cannot live without the AR18GP experience but need extended mains-free computing, consider purchasing an additional battery.
The Vaio is also ready as a communication device with a 0.3 megapixel VGA CMOS camera mounted above the display that provides acceptable images for video communication. A mono microphone is also integrated into the unit, or a microphone and/or headset can be plugged into the microphone and headphone ports on the left side rear.
Audio comes from two speakers mounted just under the display in the top half of the clamshell facing forward when the notebook is open. This is a good implementation for a two speaker notebook setup. To the left of the keyboard is a volume up/down, mute on/off, eject and two user assignable buttons. Dolby Digital Live is supported and an S/PDIF optical out is present. AV control buttons with play/pause, stop, skip back, skip forward are situated behind the keyboard.
The LCD further enhances this machine's position as a great gaming and video model, with a huge 17 inches of screen space and a resolution of 1920x1200. Most hardcore gamers will feel right at home at this resolution, and our tests indicated the screen was of a very high quality. Ghosting was non-existent and our high definition content looked extremely sharp, with crisp edges and rich colours. There was virtually no loss of clarity when viewing the screen from the almost any angle and while the display is reflective we did not find it a problem even under flourescent lights. On a media and gaming machine such as this the quality of the screen is a big factor, so we're glad Sony has done such a good job with the display.
Our real world performance tests corroborated our benchmarks. The AR18GP aptly handled most tasks we threw at it, including media playback and general desktop tasks. The preinstalled Blu-Ray software was however a little sluggish, taking about twenty seconds to start up.
It is important to note that unlike Toshiba, Sony isn't marketing this as a lounge room component. It does have HDMI output, which makes playing Blu-Ray content on your television a breeze, but it comes preinstalled with Windows XP, rather than Windows Media Centre Edition. There is also no TV tuner by default, which is a big omission in our opinion. While we understand this isn't aimed primarily at a media centre market, it seems like a no-brainer on a HDMI compatible device.
Expansion, Networking and Design
With a smooth, consistent black finish spread across the entire notebook, it is designed with style in mind. The majority of ports are hidden behind one of two silver port covers on the right hand side of the notebook. In addition to HDMI, video can be output via S-Video and VGA D-Sub 15-pin connections, although a DVI port is absent. Behind the same port cover lives a IEEE1394 - or FireWire - port. Also on the right hand side just behind the 2 USB ports, below the PC Card slot and in front of the video ports, sits a Universal ExpressCard slot. By specification, the Universal ExpressCard slot supports both the 34mm and 54mm wide ExpressCards.
This is a Sony so not surprisingly there is a Memory Stick slot (Standard/Duo/Pro/MagicGate compatible), and there is also an SD Card/MMC Card slot. Both are on the front right of the bottom half of the notebook. We trialled the SD Card slot and it worked as expected. The rear of the device only has two ports - one for power and the other the third USB port. A docking bay connector is located on the base of the unit.
Of course the gigantic screen also means this is a particularly large notebook. Measuring 300mm by 400mm by 45mm and weighing 3.6kg it is definitely at the larger end of the scale. When size is combined with battery life we think this notebook serves well as an all-purpose portable PC, rather than a device suited to constant mobile use.
It comes with all the usual network connectivity, including Bluetooth 2.0, wireless 802.11a/b/g, 100Mbps Ethernet (100 Base-TX/10 Base-T) and 56Kbps analogue modem. Inserting a network cable into the Ethernet port was easy. However we found it difficult to remove once inserted due to the orientation of the plug and the corresponding obstruction from the notebooks port cover. Pushing the port cover to the side made it possible to press the tab that locks/unlocks the Ethernet plug in the socket; however the sharp plastic edges on the inside of the port cover made this less than comfortable.
There is also a huge bundle of pre-packaged software, including Adobe Photoshop Elements 4.0, Adobe Premiere Elements 2.0, Norton Internet Security 2006, a range of Sony software and a host of DVD and BluRay playing and writing tools.
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