- ✓Very fast indeed
- ✓dual-mode DVD-RW/+RW drive
- ✓huge high-resolution screen.
- ✕Seriously expensive
- ✕screen can be hard to read
- ✕only one year's return-to-base warranty
- ✕no floppy drive as standard.
Whenever you are handed a notebook with a price tag of two-and-a-half grand (and that's excluding VAT, by the way), you have a right to expect something pretty special. After all, you can get a fairly decent portable for £1,000 (ex. VAT) nowadays, so you could argue that Sony's £2,554 VAIO PCG-GRX616SP should be 2.5 times as good as a 'fairly decent' notebook to justify its price. Obviously, it's going to have its work cut out.Before we get down to the details of the review though, here's a little background. There are two models, one corporate (the GRX616SP reviewed here) and one consumer, designated the GRV616S. The latter is slightly cheaper at £1,959 (ex. VAT), and has less memory and a lower-resolution screen, but a faster processor (2.6GHz Mobile Pentium 4-M as opposed to 2.4GHz) and a faster graphics chip in the form of ATI's 64MB Mobility Radeon 9000.
Now, back to the main business. The first thing you'll notice about the GRX616SP is its size. It has covers a significant amount of desk with its 35.5cm by 29.2cm footprint, which is getting nearer to A3 than A4. Naturally enough, it's also heavy at about 3.8kg (4.2kg with the power supply), so it's clearly not meant to be moved around much. It's solidly constructed, and benefits from an unyielding metal lid designed to protect the screen when the notebook is being transported. So far, so good. The demise of the floppy drive really is getting underway now, so we weren't all that surprised to find that despite its huge size, the GRX616SP doesn't have one. Sony will sell you an external USB floppy for £59 (inc. VAT) if you need one.
The omission of a floppy drive is even less surprising in the light of the GRX616SP's keynote feature, which is its recordable/rewritable DVD drive. These are rare enough to be interesting anyway, but Sony's drive can read, record and rewrite using either of the two competing standards currently in use -- DVD-R/-RW and DVD+R/+RW. It records and rewrites DVD media at single speed in either mode, and reads at 2X. Conventional DVD-ROMs are read at 5X, while CD-R/RW media are written and rewritten at 16X/10X respectively; CD-ROMs play at 24X. To help make life easier, Sony provides a simple DVD (and CD) burner application that walks you through the process and shields you from any unnecessary complexities. The DVD-RW/+RW drive is removable, and the bay can be used for a second battery pack or hard disk should either be required. The screen is the GRX616SP's other stand-out feature. The model we reviewed has a giant 16.1in TFT panel with a native resolution of 1,600 by 1,200 pixels (UXGA), which is as high as it currently gets. At a technical level, the screen is hard to fault, with no detectable stuck pixels, wide viewing angles, excellent fine detail reproduction, excellent colour reproduction and bright, even illumination. On a practical note, we're not so sure. Despite the unusually large size of the panel, its very high resolution results in small -- you could even say tiny -- screen objects. Text can be hard to make out, and buttons and other screen objects are even harder to hit with the pointer. In fact we'd go so far as to say that this trend of ever-higher native resolutions on notebook screens has hit its limits. Playing about with the GRX616SP suggests that the ideal native resolution for this panel would be 1,280 by 1,024 (SXGA) -- which just happens to be what you get on the consumer version. Ports may not be a glamorous topic, but you are scuppered if the one you need isn't there. Hopefully this won't happen with the GRX616SP, which lacks serial, PS/2 and infrared, but has FireWire (i.LINK in Sony-speak), three USB connectors and an expansion bus for an optional port replicator instead. There's also a MagicGate (MG) Memory Stick slot for importing data from cameras and MP3 players. Twin PC Card slots, an internal V.90 modem and integrated 100Base-TX networking are all present, and you also get 802.11b Wi-Fi -- on a PC Card. We were a bit puzzled by this: why not build it in (tidier, lower component cost) on an upgradeable Mini-PCI card? This remains a mystery.
As far as performance is concerned, the mainstream application-based Business Winstone 2001 rated the GRX616SP at a sizzling 48.7, which is very fast indeed (only Compaq's workstation-class Evo N800w has bettered this score). The fact that the GRX616SP has a gigabyte of PC2100 DDR memory may have had something to do with the high score, but that's the standard memory allocation on this model -- Sony didn't hot-rod it for the review. With all those pixels to order about, it's essential that the graphics chip is up to the job. Sony has opted for ATI's Mobility Radeon 7500 with 32MB of local memory, which seems a sensible choice. Everything is nice and snappy in 2D mode, the Graphics WinMark test bearing this out with a rating of 613. Step up to 3D and things still look good, with 3DMark 2001 returning a score of 5,008 in 32-bit XGA. Sure, this isn't the consumer model, but if you fancied a spot of gaming (after work, of course), most titles should run quite smoothly. The optional second battery pack might be necessary if you have to work in the field, as the primary 4,000mAh Li-ion unit expired after about two hours in our tests, which isn't all that impressive. We'd normally be more critical about this, but when you consider the system's 2.4GHz Mobile Pentium 4-M processor and huge screen, just over two hours (2 hours 6 minutes under BatteryMark 4.01) doesn't seem all that unreasonable.
Service & support
Despite the whopping price and the corporate targeting, the GRX616SP's standard warranty is just one year return to base. If you want more, you pay more. Essentially, this brings us back to the key issue -- price. Is the VAIO PCG-GRX616SP really worth all that money or not? We think that unless you have some very specific requirements which this system meets, then probably not. It's not a matter of falling short in terms of quality or features -- just that most people would be better served by spending less on something more ordinary. If you are not most people, and you need something a little less ordinary, then the GRX616SP might be for you -- assuming your pockets are deep enough.