Sony VAIO VGX-XL100 review

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Sony has always gone its own way when it comes to its customers and computers interacting. Rather than rely on existing Windows features, its VAIO range of PCs and notebooks has had various proprietary software installed over the years, including one of the very first media center front-ends, known as VAIO Zone.

Sony VAIO VGX-XL100 review

So it’s a bit of a shock to find the XL100 embracing someone else’s standards; namely, Intel’s recently launched Viiv platform. Gone is VAIO Zone, replaced by Microsoft’s far friendlier XP MCE (Media Center Edition) 2005 and underpinned by a raft of Intel’s specially designed drivers.

That’s not to say Sony has abandoned its unique approach to software, as the XL100 includes its fair share of quirky VAIO applications pre-installed: there’s a media server, VAIO Media, which doesn’t really do anything that MCE can’t do more easily, and VAIO Information Flow, a new application that ties together various pages of information (international clocks, RSS news feeds) with basic music playback and photo slide-show features. It’s an interesting and unique idea, but, in a horribly missed opportunity, it remains entirely separate to MCE and doesn’t even work well with the MCE remote control.

Back at the hardware, Sony’s experience in the consumer market shines through. While much of the distinctively stylish chassis is plastic, it still feels solidly constructed; not quite up to the standard of an expensive hi-fi component, but close.

The result is something that most system integrators can only dream of, from the seamless backplane to the swish front panel. The AV specification is impressive too: gold-plated analog line in/out stereo pairs are joined by optical S/PDIF in/out and a coaxial S/PDIF output. There’s no scart, DVI or even VGA output for video – only component out and an HDMI connector. This is great to see. It’s backwards compatible with DVI – and Sony includes an HDMI-to-DVI-I convertor – so you’ll still be able to hook up your current screen, but it means that when the new generation of HDMI screens and TVs become available the XL100 will be ready. It even supports widescreen resolutions up to 1080p.

There’s Gigabit Ethernet round the back, plus an 802.11b/g card, complete with external aerial. Slide down the hidden front panel, and you’ll find a 7-in-4 card reader, a full-sized and mini-FireWire, plus two USB 2 ports and a 1/2in headphone socket. Behind that, there are infrared and RF receivers. The former is for the standard Microsoft MCE remote, and the latter for the wireless keyboard and trackpad combination. It works well for sofa-bound computing, with a good layout and a light notebook-style touch. Several shortcut buttons control volume, launching applications and powering the system on and off.

Switch on the unit, and the loudest element is the optical drive as it looks for a disc, plus the faint whirr of the hard disk. It gets even better when you take off the lid and realise how much work goes into making this product so externally effortless.

While we’re still unconvinced that Intel’s Pentium D is the best processor for media systems, Sony opts for a large custom heatsink to cool the 2.8GHz model in the XL100; notably it’s the 65nm version. The GeForce 6600 graphics card (enough to run last year’s 3D gaming titles at basic settings) is similarly cooled via a heatpipe and radiator. Two 80mm fans at the rear draw in cool air over the RAM and through the heatsinks, before expelling it through the back. There’s another 80mm fan doing a similar job with the power supply and hard disk but, despite their size, you’ll only really hear anything with your ear pressed up to the case.

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