- ✓Good performance, especially with 3D graphics
- ✓high-quality 15in. display
- ✓impressive audio subsystem including a MiniDisc drive and a subwoofer.
- ✕Bulky, heavy and relatively expensive
- ✕MiniDisc player only works with Sony’s SonicStage application.
Sony has never been scared of being different. Although the VAIO PCG-NV109M looks like a bulky, desktop-equivalent notebook from the outside, it has more Sony trademarks than almost any portable we’ve seen -- Memory Stick slot, Jog Dial, iLINK port, and even an internal MiniDisc drive. It also has a subwoofer, to give the audio a bit of extra kick.
Special Sony features aside, this is a well-appointed system -- as it should be for £1,701.28 (ex. VAT; £1,999 inc. VAT). A 1.6GHz Mobile Pentium 4 processor keeps 256MB of DDR RAM busy, while a beautifully bright 15in. XGA TFT display keeps the user informed. There's a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, a 30GB hard disk, three USB ports, two PC Card slots, a 10/100 Ethernet port and a TV out port, along with audio in and out conveniently positioned near the front of the unit next to a handy thumbwheel volume control. There's also the highest count of pop-out legs, protective flaps and fiddly plastic bits we've seen on a notebook. The whole lot weighs in at a whisker under 4kg, so you're not going to carry it around any more than is strictly necessary. However, as our benchmarks show, the NV109M is powerful enough to be your main computer.
The subwoofer, MiniDisc drive and a floppy disk drive are all options that can occupy a bay on the right-hand side of the computer -- you can only have one of the three units installed at a time. The MiniDisc drive doesn't look like a CD-ROM to the system -- you can't use it for data storage, and it doesn't work with Windows Media Player. Instead, you have to use Sony's own SonicStage application. This is an idiosyncratic system for moving playlists of songs to and from MiniDiscs through a degree of copy protection. You have to check songs into the disc, and you can't do this more than three times without checking out -- that is, deleting -- a copy first. It's not too intrusive, won't stop anyone determined enough to be naughty, and lets you title your songs on MiniDisc with infinitely more ease than having to do so using a portable player's own tiny buttons.
Having the MiniDisc NetMD drive as part of the computer is very convenient, but not cost-effective. You can buy a USB-interfaced portable MiniDisc recorder for less than the cost of this option: these work just as well, and with the same software, but give you the bonus of a brand-new state-of-the-art portable MiniDisc player to pop in your pocket. Likewise, the subwoofer is surprisingly effective but doesn't do anything you couldn't achieve with portable external speakers.
Sony has put a jog dial beneath the touchpad, half-embedded in the mouse buttons. This looks as though it should act as a scroll wheel, but instead it pops up a rather intrusive applet for launching programs, linking the wheel to various functions within those programs and so on. It beeps, too. It would be much nicer as a simple scroll wheel, but there appears to be no way to configure it as such.
Once you've whacked all the volume controls up to maximum, the NV109M is loud enough to handle a party. We’ve never heard a portable computer get so close to boombox status, and are impressed. If you like taking your MP3 collections to parties, this is as good a one-box solution as you'll find, although something smaller and your host's hi-fi system might be more convenient.
As far as performance is concerned, the NV109M delivers the goods. Its benchmark scores in both the Business Winstone 2001 (mainstream applications) and Content Creation Winstone 2002 (high-end applications) tests are just shy of making our ‘top 5’ lists, but the NV109M comfortably joins the top products when it comes to 3D graphics, courtesy of its 16MB ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 chipset. Battery life of 2 hours 43 minutes is useful too, should you feel strong enough to lug this 3.8kg monster around.
If you're a committed MiniDisc user, this is a great way to create and manage discs full of the music you've copied from your CD collection or obtained online. It's by no means the cheapest way of doing this, though.
Otherwise, this is a solidly constructed, solidly performing notebook that has a certain eccentric style about it.