Sony VAIO VGC-RC204 review

£1531
Price when reviewed

Given the level of confusion currently surrounding Blu-ray, HD DVD and HDTV, early adopters are being seen as either forward-thinking geniuses or consumers with more money than sense. And if you need proof that high-definition content isn’t ripe for the mass market yet, just look at the prices. But, while a glance at the RC204’s price (or that of its mobile cousin the VAIO AR11S) does little to dispel the notion of Blu-ray as being expensive and niche, the RC-204 is an impressive attempt to produce a cutting-edge media centre.

Sony VAIO VGC-RC204 review

The included components are proof that Sony expects you to throw a lot at the RC204. The Pentium D 940 with a core speed of 3.2GHz combined with 1GB of PC2-4300 RAM scored 1.06 in our benchmarks – plenty for compressing and streaming video on-the-fly while working on something else. There are two optical drives installed. The lower one is a basic DVD-ROM drive, but the Blu-ray drive above it is the headline-grabbing inclusion. It isn’t a one-trick pony, since it will write to all other formats of DVD and CD, including DVD-RAM. It’s also compatible with BD-R (write-once) and BD-RE (rewritable) discs, making it perfect for next-generation film editing. To that end, you also get Adobe Premiere Elements 2 pre-installed, although it can’t handle HDV. Sony’s DVgate Plus software does allow you to edit and output HD video at up to 1080i, though.

You also get a good selection of video input and output. On the back panel, there are inputs for S-Video and composite video connectors; duplicates of these are on the front panel too. There are also RCA phono sockets for audio. Output is slightly more limited, with DVI and S-Video being the only two options, although it’s unlikely most people will need much else – just be aware that there’s no HDMI output.

The biggest disappointment, as with the VAIO VGC-VA1, is that there’s just one TV tuner. On the plus side, it’s a hybrid analogue/DVB-T model that includes an FM tuner, but you can’t watch one channel while recording another – a major restriction. Adding another tuner isn’t difficult, though, as the RC204 is practically designed for those who intend to upgrade. The motherboard is one of the few BTX boards to pass through PC Pro’s doors and, although the spare PCI slot sits rather close to the 16x slot, installing another card is feasible. The graphics card is an Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT. With our benchmarks at their medium settings, it scored an average 41fps in Far Cry and 28fps in Call of Duty 2.

Opening the RC204 reveals the care with which the system has been designed and built. The CPU sits under a plastic housing designed to separate the different zones of the system to prevent contaminating heat, while the twin 300GB hard disks (arranged in a RAID0 array) sit under a separate hatch at the very front of the system. Again, evidence of the system’s thoughtful design is evident with two spare SATA cables and their accompanying power connectors pre-routed, so changing or installing more disks is a doddle.

Both the keyboard and mouse are wireless RF models, and the keyboard in particular is superb. Its laptop styling won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the rock-solid base and integrated trackpad are perfect for sofa-based web browsing. They do need a separate RF receiver to the MCE remote control, but this can be kept hidden away thanks to a pair of small, complementary receivers that plug into the back of the main unit and can be routed elsewhere to ensure a decent signal.

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