Sony VAIO VGX-XL301 review

£1022
Price when reviewed

Sony’s range of VAIO media centres has had a slightly rough time at PC Pro since we saw the XL100 over a year ago. Back then, we loved the form factor and future-proof selection of AV ports, but we disliked the single TV tuner, which would only allow you to watch or record one channel at a time. After that came the XL202, which stuck rigidly to the single-tuner design and added around £500 for the currently dubious advantage of a Blu-ray drive.

Sony VAIO VGX-XL301 review

But the latest version, the XL301, addresses the major failing of the first two – the single TV tuner. The updated specification isn’t perfect; while Asus’ Asteio D22 DAV comes with two tuners on one physical card, the XL301 has two tuners on two PCI cards, so you’ll need to use a signal splitter to make use of them. But even so, it’s a tremendous improvement on being able to watch or record only one channel at a time.

The Blu-ray drive of the XL202 is gone (you’ll need the more expensive XL302 for that), replaced by a slot-loading DVD writer, which will write to all formats except DVD-RAM. But, in spite of there being no high-definition optical device, the XL301 is still aimed squarely at owners of next-generation TVs. The only analogue AV connectors are the component ports on the back; in most instances, you’ll use the HDMI 1.3 connector to hook up the XL301 to a high-definition LCD or plasma screen. Getting video onto the XL301 couldn’t be easier, though: both TV tuners have S-Video and composite-in jacks, and there’s a third set of inputs on the front for quickly connecting a video camera.

The XL301’s styling is as impressive as ever. While some in the PC Pro office disliked the boxy unit, it looks suitably high end and, although the exterior is plastic, it feels like sturdy metal. And, since the internal components are almost entirely passively cooled, the sound emitted is a low-level hum that’s certainly inaudible in the average living room. The front of the chassis is home to a useful scattering of ports and sockets – a memory card reader compatible with SmartMedia, CompactFlash, Memory Sticks and SD cards caters for just about every breed of digital camera available, while a mini-FireWire port will be appreciated by DV camera owners. There’s also a mic socket, a 3.5mm headphone jack and two USB ports.

One area that’s gone backwards since the last time we saw a Sony media centre is the hard disk. While the previous version had two hard disks with a total capacity of 500GB, the XL301 has just 250GB of storage on one disk. This shouldn’t cause any headaches to begin with, but once you get up to speed with Vista’s Media Center and start recording TV shows, you’ll find yourself running low on space.

Fortunately, getting access to the interior of the XL301 is straightforward. The lid is held on by two screws and, once open, the drive cage has space for two more hard disks, complete with two spare SATA ports on the motherboard and a pair of SATA power connectors already present. Elsewhere, the XL301 is well laid out. The CPU is cooled by a single, large heatsink with a pair of 80mm fans attached to it, and the graphics card has also had its cooling fan replaced by a large heatsink. So long as you’re sure your next graphics card will produce the same amount of heat as the installed Nvidia GeForce 7600 GTL, those with steady nerves will be able to port over the heatsink. The card itself offers good, if not groundbreaking performance, returning average scores of 21fps in our benchmarks (Call of Duty 2 wouldn’t run due to Vista driver issues).

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