- High-quality 17.5in. LCD
- good specification and performance (except for 3D graphics)
- extensive software bundle
- quiet in operation.
- Analogue rather than digital TV tuner
- screen is too small for a large living room
- no video out port
- integrated graphics deliver poor 3D performance
- non-detachable keyboard is awkward to use
- expensive for a second or third PC.
Most people who need a PC for work or home use already have one -- and sometimes more than one. But manufacturers are now hoping to persuade us that PCs belong in the living room, as well as the office and the study. Much of the impetus stems from the recent release of Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, but Sony, as ever, is doing things its own way. The elegant VAIO PCV-W1 runs regular Windows XP Home and uses a bundle of Sony’s own software to access its TV and other multimedia features. The result is an undoubtedly desirable PC/TV hybrid, but there are enough drawbacks to give pause for thought.
The VAIO W1 is an all-in-one system, which has its advantages and disadvantages -- compactness on the one hand, limited accessibility and upgradeability on the other. It’s an unconventional yet elegant-looking PC, built around a wide-screen 17.5in. LCD with extended bezels on either side that house a pair of built-in stereo speakers. The display casing also houses a DVD burner, on the right-hand side, while on the left-hand side there are brightness and volume controls, and a Memory Stick slot. The power switch is unobtrusively situated on top of the display case -- a location that took some finding at first. The main system box forms the LCD’s stand -- which, incidentally, has limited tilt and no swivel capability. All of the ports and connectors are on the right-hand side of the unit, with access to the systems innards via a slide-off panel at the top. In fact, the only user-upgradeable component is the memory: 512MB of RAM is provided as standard, expandable to 1GB via a pair of conveniently located DIMM slots. The keyboard can’t be detached from the base of the screen, which reduces the W1’s appeal as a traditional PC. However, it does move, having three different positions: when the entire keyboard is folded flat against the screen, the PC goes into ‘music mode’, displaying a digital clock on the visible portion of the screen, and providing access to music via the infrared remote control and the bundled SonicStage software; opening out the keyboard into the (not particularly comfortable) typing position automatically brings up the Windows desktop; press a pair of buttons on either side of the keyboard and fold it in half, and the GigaPocket TV tuner/PVR application kicks in. Finished in a tasteful silver/grey mix of aluminium, acrylic and plastic, the VAIO W1 certainly looks classy -- it resembles nothing so much as a piece of Bang & Olufsen hi-fi gear. However, its 17.5in. display is really too small for larger living rooms, and unfortunately there’s no VGA, DVI or video-out port that would allow you to output the video signal to a bigger screen or a projector.
The VAIO W1 is a powerful PC, based around a 2.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, the SiS 651 chipset and 512MB of DDR SDRAM. The chipset includes a 2D/3D graphics module, which grabs up to 64MB of the system memory for video purposes. There’s no AGP slot, so you’re stuck with the capabilities of this module. The W1’s 17.5in. TFT screen has a wide-screen resolution of 1,280 by 768 pixels (16:10 aspect ratio), and if we overlook its moderate size, this is one of the VAIO W1’s best features: it’s bright, and delivers excellent colour fidelity, contrast and viewing angles. For storage, you get a suitably large 160GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive, while removable media are handled by a Matshita DVD-R/RW drive, a Memory Stick slot and a Type II PC Card slot. To drive the DVD burner, Sony supplies its straightforward Click to DVD application, which walks you through collecting video or still images, editing your material and writing it to DVD. A prime source of video content will be the system’s TV tuner, an analogue PCI card with hardware MPEG2 encoding/decoding: Sony’s GigaPocket software handles the VAIO W1’s TV and PVR (personal video recorder) functionality. It’s a pity that Sony hasn’t seen fit to use a digital TV tuner and provide access to the Freeview channels, along with electronic program guide (EPG) information. Hopefully these features will be provided in future models. Sony’s VAIO Media software lets you stream video and audio content to connected devices over a network. As far as I/O is concerned, the VAIO W1 is resolutely legacy-free, providing four USB 2.0 ports and a 4-pin i.LINK (FireWire) port, along with RJ-11 (modem) and RJ-45 (Ethernet) connectors. The SoundMax integrated digital audio controller, which includes circuitry that delivers ‘virtual surround sound’ on the system’s two built-in speakers, has microphone, headphone and line-in jacks, plus a SP/DIF optical digital audio out port. You’ll need to use the latter to connect up a proper 5.1 digital surround sound speaker system. Finally, there’s a quartet of audio/video-in ports for connecting up VCRs, camcorders and so on: S-Video-in, plus composite video and audio (L/R) in. As mentioned above, any video-out capability is noticeable by its absence. The VAIO W1 comes with a stylish-looking infrared remote control that allows you to start, stop and adjust the TV, video, DVD, music and networking (VAIO Media) functionality. This works well, but it’s a pity that the remote cannot also be configured as a wireless mouse. As well as the programs already mentioned, Sony’s generous software bundle includes Cyberlink PowerDVD, Drag’n Drop CD+DVD, DVgate, Microsoft Works 7.0, PictureGear Studio, Photoshop Elements 2.0 and Premiere 6.0 LE.
Although the VAIO W1 is more of an entertainer than a workhorse, it’s powerful enough to handle a broad range of applications. A 2.8GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 512MB of DDR RAM and a fast 7,200rpm hard disk help to deliver Business Winstone 2001 and Content Creation Winstone 2002 scores of 63.5 and 43.1 respectively, which are up there with the quickest PCs we’ve tested. One area where the VAIO W1 doesn’t impress, though, is 3D acceleration. Its integrated SiS 651 graphics module delivers less than a tenth of the 3DMark 2001 SE performance of Dell’s Dimension 8300, with its high-end ATI Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card. As mentioned above, you can’t upgrade the W1’s graphics, as there’s no AGP slot. Don’t look to the W1 for a satisfying gaming experience. For an entertainment system, image and sound quality will be just as important as computing power, and here the VAIO W1 does well. Passers-by in the ZDNet office continually commented on the LCD screen’s brightness, contrast, colour fidelity and wide viewing angle. For high-quality audio, however, you’ll need to hook up a heftier speaker system -- preferably a 5.1 kit via the SP/DIF optical digital out port -- as the built-in speakers don’t really cut it in a large room. Finally, if a PC is going to reside in the living room, it needs to be quiet -- the last thing you want is three or four noisy fans whirring away in the background. In this respect, the VAIO W1 performs well, its cooling system being generally unobtrusive.
Service & support
Sony offers adequate service and support. The VAIO PCV-W1 comes with a one-year, parts-and-labour warranty, and you’ll have to pay extra to extend the warranty period. At the time of writing, there was no W1-specific material on Sony’s UK Web site.