Sony VAIO PCG-FX805

sony-vaio-fx805-lead.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    7.3 Very good

Pros

  • Large, good-quality high-resolution screen
  • good keyboard
  • solid performance.

Cons

  • Lacks proper 3D accelerated graphics
  • no major applications bundled as standard
  • average battery life
  • tinny speakers.

Imagine someone were to offer you a brand-name notebook with a high-resolution 15in. screen, a DVD/CD-RW combo drive, a sound configuration and performance in the 1.6GHz Mobile Pentium 4 class. Let's say the manufacturer's list price was £1,189 (ex. VAT), and you could expect dealer discounting to bring that down. Would you be interested? Sony clearly thinks so, and has come up with the VAIO PCG-FX805 to tempt you.

As with most VAIO notebooks, there's more than a hint of consumer-orientation surrounding the FX805. For a start, it comes bundled with Windows XP Home rather than Professional, and as usual, you get a bunch of applications for capturing and editing stills and video clips, along with a handy FireWire port (which Sony still persists in calling i.LINK) for plugging in your digital camcorder.

The system is also based on AMD's Mobile Athlon XP processor, a choice that still carries a whiff of the home rather than business market. Whether there's any real foundation for this is debatable: the chip is effectively AMD's version of the Mlbile Pentium 4, complete with PowerNow! instead of Enhanced SpeedStep power management. As with previous AMD silicon, it is rated on an Intel-equivalence scale, rather than in straight gigahertz, so in this case a 1.4GHz CPU is pitched as a 1600+ -- that is, nominally equal or superior to a 1.6GHz Mobile Pentium 4.

The basic specification gets you 256MB of PC133 SDRAM and a 30GB hard disk, which is fine for most of us -- especially since the CD-RW capability means that mad-keen photographers can archive onto disc if the hard drive starts to fill up.

The one thing you don't get is advanced graphics. The GPU is ATI's Rage Mobility M1 with just 8MB of local memory. This is hardly cutting-edge stuff, but to be fair it copes perfectly well in 2D: it's just not the right choice for gaming. Given the target market, this is worth noting, but so long as you don't want heavyweight 3D acceleration it isn't necessarily a fatal drawback.

Physically, the FX805 is in desktop replacement territory. It weighs a fairly substantial 3.35kg, is a considerable 5.4cm high (lid shut) at its thickest, and it has a 32.4cm by 26.5cm footprint -- all good reasons to leave it at home.

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Everything is put together fairly tightly, but this is one of those notebooks made from fairly thin mouldings which give it a hollow, somewhat plasticky feel rather than the book-like density of the very best kit.

Although the processor itself is relatively new, we suspect that much of the rest of the FX805 is not. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if it's the reason why the system has a reasonably complete set of ports.

If you feel uneasy when faced with a choice of two USB connections and nothing else, then the FX805 will provide a welcome dash of nostalgia. Not only does it have a parallel port, it has a serial port as well, along with the expected pair of USB sockets and a brace of Type II PC Card slots (which could come in handy if you want to add wireless networking at some point).

There's an RCA-type (composite) port that allows you to watch DVDs on a TV screen. However, the integrated stereo speakers aren't especially good, with the usual notebook audio problems of no bass and a tinny top end. Unfortunately the audio chipset doesn't offer S/PDIF output, so film buffs won't be able to hook up to a 5.1 speaker array for full digital surround sound.

You also get an expansion bus for use with an optional (£105) port replicator. Sony clearly doesn't share the belief of some manufacturers that home users will not want the convenience afforded by this feature.

We quickly came to appreciate the FX805's keyboard once we started using the system. It's more or less the same size as the main keypad on a desktop keyboard, and preserves the proportions of the keys too, so it's easy to adapt to, and comfortable in use.

The 15in SXGA+ (1,400 x 1,050) resolution TFT screen is very striking, both for its size and its brightness and vivid colour reproduction. The fairly high native resolution does mean that screen objects and icon text appear quite small, which might not be to everyone's taste, but you do get a very large desktop area to play with, and for many the trade-off is worth it.

As you'd expect, the FX805 comes with an internal V.90 modem; also get an integrated 10/100Base-TX wired network connection.

As with many Sony notebooks, battery life is not the FX805's strong point. The 3,000mAh Li-ion battery managed just 1 hour 59 minutes under BatteryMark 4.01, but if mobile uptime is an issue you can boost it by adding an optional second battery (£169 inc. VAT). This slots into a bay in the right-hand side of the system that's normally occupied by the modular floppy drive.

The Business Winstone 2001 and Content Creation Winstone 2002 benchmarks returned scores of 35 and 20.9 respectively, which supports AMD's contention that the Athlon XP 1600+ is in about the same league as a 1.6GHz Mobile Pentium 4. This is another way of saying that the FX805 is quite powerful enough to make an effective home system for the typical non-gamer.

The system is covered by a one-year collect-and-return warranty, which is a bit basic but at least it's not return to base at your expense. We'd have liked to have seen a bit more on the software side: Microsoft Word or Works, for example, would have added some value. However, with its large screen, good keyboard and solid performance, the VAIO FX805 still emerges as a realistic proposition if you're looking for a mid-range notebook primarily for home use.

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