Sony VAIO VGX-XL202 review

£1799
Price when reviewed

The sheer number of stickers and logos adorning the front panel is testament to how hard Sony is trying to impress with its latest media centre PC. There are labels proclaiming DLNA (Digital Living Networking Alliance) certification, Full HD 1080p compliance, Windows Vista capability and membership of Intel’s fledgling Viiv platform.

Sony VAIO VGX-XL202 review

On the outside, it’s all but identical to the award-winning XL100 – an all-plastic construction, but using such industrial thicknesses of plastic it’s initially difficult to tell. Designed to appeal to the AV buff, the entire bottom half of the fascia flips down to reveal AV connections: composite, S-Video and microphone inputs, plus a 3.5in gold-plated headphone jack. There’s also a media card reader covering all the main camera formats.

At the rear, there’s a further selection of AV connections: analogue RCA audio in/out, optical S/PDIF in/out and coaxial S/PDIF out. Surprisingly, component video-out and the new HDMI are the only video output options, although the latter can be used in conjunction with the supplied convertor to connect to a standard DVI input on a monitor. Four USB 2 and three FireWire ports (one of which is the mini variety) make up the only PC-centric connections.

The VAIO is easy to get inside, with just two screws standing in the way. The good news is that all of the components are passively cooled, with just a pair of very quiet 80mm case fans providing airflow across the combination of heatsinks and heatpipes cooling the CPU and GPU. There isn’t a great deal of room for manoeuvre, and expansion options are practically non-existent, although there’s a single side-mounted conventional PCI slot free.

Intel’s latest Core 2 Duo takes over from the Pentium D of the XL202’s predecessor. It’s an E6400 desktop chip, one up from the bottom of the Core 2 range. But with a score of 1.33 in our benchmarks – up from the 0.89 of the XL100 – it’s still swift and more than sufficient for just about any job. There’s a healthy 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 RAM as standard, taking up two of the four slots.

On the graphics front, there’s Nvidia’s new GeForce 7600 GTL chip. It’s a sensible choice, catering adequately for the casual gamer and providing more than enough power for the full Windows Aero effects in Vista. Scoring an average frame rate of 30fps and 25fps in our Far Cry 3D and Call of Duty benchmarks at a low setting, it will only prove restrictive with next year’s demanding games. The custom cooling system all but puts paid to any upgrade potential, but it is at least very quiet.

Storage is handled by two 250GB hard disks. And the VAIO is well placed to cope with HD broadcasts when they arrive.

None of these upgrades justify the price, though: that can be traced almost to the presence of Sony’s next-generation optical disc format: a Blu-ray drive. That’s all well and good if you’re determined to be cutting edge at any price, but with content so sparse it’s far from compelling. Sony’s own website also states that “Blu-ray Disc Media/Format isn’t universally compatible. VAIO computers don’t support movie playback on packaged media recorded in MPEG4 AVC or SMPTE VC-1 formats at bit rates higher than 20Mb/sec”. So, there’s no guarantee that all varieties of Windows Media Video HD or H.264 content will work. Still, after a firmware update, we had no problem with Blu-ray movie playback or burning DVDs, albeit using a special version of WinDVD rather than MCE.

But there’s another big hole in the XL202’s specification: as with many of the Sony media centres we’ve seen, there’s only a single TV tuner, so you can’t watch one channel while recording another. For a system at this price, a second tuner is a must and, while you could add one via the spare PCI slot or USB, it won’t necessarily work.

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