First Looks: Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP

VAIO! Blu-ray!

VAIO! Blu-ray!

The smoldering war between the next generation media formats, Blu-ray and HD-DVD has often been likened to the 1980s clash between Betamax and VHS. Sony lost that one. This time, Sony has pulled out all the stops to ensure that history won't repeat itself. The delays and high launch price of the PlayStation 3 can be partly attributed to its inclusion of a Blu-ray drive. Unlike the past, Sony now owns two giant movie studios, Columbia Pictures and MGM, both with an extensive catalogue of movie titles to feed demand for Blu-ray. Obviously, much is at stake here for Sony and its ambitious plans to dominate your living room. Inevitably, it has opened another front with the world's first notebook to be equipped with a Blu-ray drive.

Eager to Entertain

There are notebooks that actually adhere roughly to the dimensions of the original paper-based form but the Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP is not one of those. It is in industry parlance, a desktop replacement. Or simply put, a desktop masquerading the form factor of a notebook. Weighing 3.8kg, this stylish VAIO is not made for the ladies or road warriors, though it's quite reasonable for its category. The considerable dimensions ensure an awkward grip, amplified by the acute awareness of our grubby fingers staining the piano black glossy finish and chrome trim over the magnesium alloy exterior.

But all that discomfort is worth it once we take in the luscious 17-inch widescreen display. Text appears razor sharp while its high color reproduction panel means rich and vivid colors. A "Full HD" logo and a native resolution of 1920 x 1200 testifies to its 1080p capabilities that should be fully utilized by the upcoming HD content on Blu-ray. One could also redirect the output from the notebook to a larger HDTV display thanks to the HDMI port. A graphical interface similar to Windows XP Media Center Edition, dubbed VAIO Zone, allows you to playback your media and photos easily without needing to open multiple applications. Coupled with its NVIDIA GeForce Go 7600 GT graphics processor with 256MB dedicated GDDR memory and integrated HD Audio sound, this notebook recreates an immersive gaming environment. A healthy 3DMark05 score of 5070 (@1024 x 768) attest to its gaming prowess.

The Fuss about Blu-ray

For most consumers now, Blu-ray represents only an incremental and arguably unnecessary leap from the existing DVD format. The capacity has certainly increased greatly (25GB for single and 50GB for dual-layer) but its full potential will only be revealed once HDTVs and content become pervasive. Estimates of that happening vary from five to seven years. The early adopters however, will relish the new technology and the Blu-ray drive on this Sony VAIO.

Like most cutting edge products, this Blu-ray drive will soon be superseded by faster versions. It is actually a Matsushita drive (BD-MLT UJ-210S) and reads/writes BD-R/RE discs at a paltry 1x. It does not support older BD-RE 1.0 and cartridge discs, only BD-R 1.1 and BD-RE 2.1, so check your media before buying. Existing formats, including most DVD /CD formats are supported but their speeds pale in comparison to modern DVD burners. CD writing is particularly crippled at 8x speed, while dual layer DVD discs are stuck at 2x and 2.4x for DVD-R and DVD+R respectively. In short, this drive won't win any speed races with the competition but its main selling point is after all Blu-ray support. That is something unique to a notebook for now.

Nero DVD Speed confirms its 1x speed so a full 25GB Blu-ray disc will take around 93 minutes to finish while CPU utilization rate was low at around 1 – 2%. For the aspiring director, you should note that this Blu-ray drive records to Blu-ray media in MPEG-2 format only and not other codecs like H.264 and SMPTE-VC1 (WMV based). Of course, the presence of the Blu-ray drive means that there is no compression at any stage in the production cycle, so one can shoot HD videos, edit them on the VAIO and convert them directly to HD movies on a Blu-ray disc.

Not Perfect

For all its impressive hardware, including the fastest Intel Core Duo T2600 mobile processor and dual 80GB SATA RAID capable hard drives, the Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP is not without its faults. Battery life for one is extremely limited at around 2 hours. Basically, despite its power saving features, this machine needs to be tethered almost constantly to the mains, stretching its mobility claims. While Sony has included shortcut buttons for video playback on the notebook, it is perhaps a bit strange that for a system geared towards multimedia and possessing such a large screen, there is no remote like those found on multimedia monsters like Toshiba's Qosmio range. The keyboard has a nice tactile feel but with the space available, we wonder why Sony did not add more keys.

Final Thoughts

Available in retail from 30th June 2006, the latest Sony VAIO is priced at a staggering US$3500, with the Blu-ray drive probably contributing to a large portion of the cost. Sony has preloaded it with a variety of proprietary utilities and third party applications to enhance your multimedia experience. Some may consider them bloatware, especially if they are not into things like video editing but there's no doubt that Sony has crafted a fine notebook for all your media related tasks. It helps too that this black and shiny beauty will attract envious glances from your friends.