Sony VAIO VGC-VA1 review

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There aren’t many companies able to pull off something as ambitious as the VA1. In fact, with its unique heritage of making everything from TVs to hi-fis to PCs, Sony is arguably the only one.

Sony VAIO VGC-VA1 review

Its looks divide opinion; some think stylish, others ugly. But the construction is solid throughout, and it certainly resembles a domestic appliance more than any other media centre we’ve seen. Branching up from the base is a housing for the power supply, which also forms the main control panel. Here, you’ll find the power button, a 7-in-4 card reader and the notebook DVD writer. Conveniently placed around the sides, you’ll also find four USB 2 ports and a single mini-FireWire connector, as well as dedicated brightness and power controls for the TFT.

The 20in widescreen panel hits a size sweet spot for the smaller space: it won’t dominate a smaller room yet will always be visible. Just note that it will be lost in living rooms where you sit further than eight or ten feet away. Using dual backlights, it’s extremely bright, although that fades quickly off-axis, leading to slightly narrower viewing angles than we’d like. Sony’s X-black screen delivers superb contrast, though – even when watching films in a darkened room, you’ll still be treated to rich velvety blacks.

We’ve got mixed feelings about its 1,366 x 768 resolution. This still makes the VA1 perfectly feasible to use for more traditional PC tasks, but when working directly in front of the screen we longed for a bit more detail – 1,680 x 1,050 is a more natural choice. In practice, we found the true 16:9 aspect ratio (slightly wider than most) took some getting used to when close up. Go a little further back, though, and the excellent wireless keyboard and mouse make for an easy time when Internet browsing or emailing from the sofa. As they’re RF-based, there are no range or line-of-sight issues, and the keyboard’s integrated touchpad is surprisingly effective from the lap. The standard MCE remote is also bundled, along with a Sony-branded infrared receiver.

The panel has two integrated speakers, which are pleasingly full bodied on both music and films. The stereo works best from about two feet away, which is useful if you’re sat in front of it, but the sound is easily capable of filling a room. Only digital optical and stereo 3.5mm jacks are offered for audio output, though.

The innards of the VA1 consist of a dual-core 2.8GHz Pentium D 820, with 1GB of RAM to keep MCE and its multitude of background tasks ticking over – a score of 0.87 in our benchmarks is very respectable. A 250GB Western Digital hard disk provides a healthy amount of space, although it’s curiously partitioned into two halves. The optical drive is multiformat and dual layer, writing the latter at up to 6x. There’s 802.11b/g WLAN integrated, with a switch on the chassis.

An 128MB ATi Mobility Radeon X700 graphics card is on hand, with enough power to run last year’s games at modest settings. We coaxed a respectable average of 34fps from our Half-Life 2 timedemo at 1,024 x 768 with 4x anti-aliasing and 8x anisotropic filtering. Far Cry was also playable at the native resolution, as long as we steered clear of more advanced effects.

For an all-in-one unit, there are a surprising number of expansion options. There’s a Type II PC Card slot in the side, and you can also slide off a panel at the top, undo a pair of screws and gain access to the two RAM sockets – both of which are already filled. There’s also access to the hard disk caddy, with a spare bay and cabling ready to accept another disk. The back left of the screen also plays host to a pair of PCI slots, one of which contains the AVerMedia hybrid analog/DVB-T/FM tuner.

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