- ✓Excellent specification, including 16.1in. screen and DVD-RW drive
- ✓Good build quality throughout.
- ✕Bulky and heavy
- ✕Moderate battery life
- ✕No built-in wireless connectivity.
Although they come in many shapes and sizes, Sony's VAIO notebooks are perhaps best known for being either small and ultraportable or large and multimedia-ready. No product exemplifies the latter type of system better than the GRX516SP. This massive 3.8kg beast truly deserves its 'desktop replacement' tag -- in fact, with its 35.5cm by 29.2cm footprint, if you stuck a set of legs on it, you could probably use it as a desk. All that bulk accommodates a 16.1in. screen, which is the largest you'll find on any portable at the moment. But the stand-out feature of this very well specified system is its optical drive: this is the first notebook we've seen with a built-in DVD writer - a rewriteable DVD-RW unit.
Multimedia content creation applications like video editing require plenty of processing horsepower, a beefy graphics subsystem and lots of storage -- all of which the GRX516SP duly delivers. The CPU is Intel's 2GHz Mobile Pentium 4. This is supported by the 845 chipset and 512MB of DDR SDRAM (the maximum memory complement). Graphics are handled by ATI's 32MB Mobility Radeon 7500, while the hard disk is a 60GB Toshiba drive with a rotational speed of 4,200rpm. None of these components are at the very top of their respective classes (the Mobile P4 goes up to 2.2GHz, and the Mobility Radeon range is now headed by the 9000 chip, for example), but the GRX516SP still has a formidable computing engine at its heart.
As mentioned above, the optical drive is a DVD writer -- specifically, Toshiba's SD-R6012 DVD-RW drive, which writes DVD-R and rewrites DVD-RW media at single speed and reads DVD-ROMs at 8X. This combo drive, which occupies a modular bay on the left-hand side, also handles the full range of CD media, writing CD-Rs at 16X, rewriting CD-RWs at 10X and reading CDs at 24X. There's a MagicGate Memory Stick slot, but no floppy drive -- the modular bay only accepts a second battery or a weight saver, so you'll need to use an external USB floppy drive if you need one.
As far as ports and connectors are concerned, you get a parallel port but no other legacy connectors (serial, PS/2, infrared). There's the customary i.LINK (FireWire) port, along with a generous trio of USB ports -- one on either side, and one at the back. Ethernet networking is built in, but there's no Wi-Fi or Bluetooth on this model -- Sony tends to reserve these wireless connections for more obviously portable notebooks than the GRX516SP. As befits a system likely to see service as a video editing and DVD playback platform, there's a TV-out port. If you do need Wi-Fi, there's a pair of stacked Type II PC Card slots -- the latter, and also the Memory Stick slot, could also be used to provide Bluetooth connectivity if required.
The overwhelming feature of the GRX516SP's design is its size, thanks to its massive 16.1in. TFT screen, which has a native resolution of 1,600 by 1,200 pixels (UXGA). The picture is bright and sharp, with no discernable dead pixels, and provides more than enough space to keep several applications open at the same time. The system's large footprint provides plenty of room for the keyboard, an 88-key unit with 12 function keys and a positive, clacky action. Navigation is handled by a two-button touchpad and a centre-located Jog Dial. There's a generous wrist rest area, which helps typing comfort, but we would have preferred extendable feet at the back to provide a better angle.
As far as aesthetics are concerned, the GRX516SP has an angular look about it that may not have universal appeal. It's unmistakably a Sony, though: build quality is good throughout, and we especially like details such as the port covers and the spring-loaded door guarding the PC Card slots - much more sensible than easily-lost blanks.
The GRX516SP delivers performance results in line with its specification. It doesn't quite match Dell's 2.2GHz Mobile P4-based Inspiron 8200 on either Business Winstone 2001 or Content Creation Winstone 2002, but it slots into third and second positions respectively in our 'top 5' performance charts.
Similarly, the GRX516SP's Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics chip trails the class-leading Mobility Radeon 9000 in the 2.2GHz Inspiron 8200 - but again, its 3D performance is a very respectable third in our 'top 5' chart.
At two hours and six minutes, battery life from the 4,000mAh Li-ion cell is nothing to shout about. If you really need to use this hefty system on the move (for example on an airplane), you'll probably need to fit a second battery in place of the DVD-RW drive in the modular bay.
Anyone wanting to run graphically demanding multimedia content creation-type applications on this notebook should have no qualms about its performance capabilities.
We would have liked to say more about the performance of the GRX516SP's DVD-RW drive and the bundled Click to DVD software, but the absence of a CD containing the new software in our review kit put paid to that plan - at least for the moment. Briefly, Click to DVD is a DVD authoring program, designed to let you create a DVD in four simple steps: choose a template; capture footage from a connected device (a digital camcorder, for example); import images; and define menus, titles and so on. Then you burn your DVD. We will report back on this application.
Service and support
Sony provides a standard one year warranty with the GRX516SP, extendable to three years. The system has clear and well illustrated hardware and software manuals on-board in PDF format, and Sony's European VAIO Web site provides an online knowledge base, email support. Phone support is available Monday-Friday 8am to 6pm, charged at 7p a minute.
At £2,552.34 (ex. VAT), the VAIO GRX516SP is a pricey way of getting desktop-level performance in a transportable format - just think how much desktop PC you can get for that price. But this is a premium product, notable for its massive screen, DVD writer and excellent build quality, and for that you pay a premium price.