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Sony VAIO PCG-FR415S
The last couple of desktop replacement notebooks I've looked at from Sony have impressed me, especially the recently reviewed VAIO PCG-GRT916Z which walked away with a Recommended award. However, the PCG-FR415S that I'm looking at today resides lower down in Sony's range, and is targeted more at the price conscious home user, rather than the feature conscious power user. That said, the predecessor to this model, the PCG-FR315S also grabbed itself a Recommended award when I looked at it last year, but times have moved on a bit since then.
The PCG-FR415S features one of Sony's Ultrabright (formerly known as Onyx Black) screens. I know I keep on saying this, but these screens truly are superb. The brightness is quite stunning and the colours are so much more vibrant than on standard TFT screens. The downside of the bright image and vivid colours is a more reflective surface, so you don't really want to be using this notebook somewhere with strong ambient light sources. That said, the positives, far outweigh the one negative in my opinion.
Despite the beautiful image produced by the screen, the resolution is somewhat disappointing by today's standards. A native resolution of 1,024 x 768 is quite low on a 15in screen these days, especially since the VAIO PCG-GRT916Z had an Ultrabright screen with a resolution of 1,400 x 1,050. Of course it's worth remembering that the PCG-GRT916Z costs over £500 more than this VAIO, but I have seen notebooks far cheaper than this one sporting higher resolution screens. Now, anyone who's read my review of the VAIO PCG-FR315S is probably wondering why I'm taking exception to the screen resolution when I didn't see it as a huge issue in the previous model. Well to be honest, I was a little surprised then to see a 1,024 x 768 resolution, but that was five months ago, now it's definitely harder to swallow. But, Sony is trying to make the FR range of VAIO notebooks as affordable as possible, and I guess the screen resolution has to suffer to keep the price keen. That said, you are still getting a better display than most 15in desktop LCD screens.
The keyboard is up to Sony's usual high standards, and there's a decent amount of key travel when typing. The break is solid and your fingers spring back from each keystroke, allowing you to achieve a decent typing rate. Keyboard layout is also first rate, with large Return and Backspace keys, and the Ctrl key in the bottom left corner where it should be. Many notebook manufacturers choose to put the Fn key there and move the control key, which can be very annoying for anyone who regularly uses keybaord shorcuts in office applications. The Spacebar is also a good size and far enough away from the touchpad to avoid any inadvertant cursor selection. The cursor keys are thankfully in the correct configuration, although they could do with being slightly removed from the main keyboard.
The touchpad is recessed slightly to reduce the chance of accidentally brusing it when typing, while the two selector buttons beneath it have a solid feel to them and click loudly in use.
Inside the chassis of the FR415S you'll find some pretty meaty specs. Processing duties are handled by a 2.8GHz Intel Pentium 4 CPU. This is backed up by 512MB of RAM and a 60GB hard disk, so you should be able to run almost anything on this machine. I say almost, because you won't be playing any games, which is a shame considering this is a notebook that will definitely appeal to the consumer who doesn't want a desktop cluttering up the house. Unfortunately the ATI Radeon IGP is not really up to the task of playing the latest games. A Mobility Radeon 9600 or 9700 would have been preferable, or even the nVidia GeForce GoFX5600 seen in the VAIO PCG-GRT16Z. It's also worth remembering that 64MB of system memory will be allocated to the IGP graphics chipset. Obviously the graphics have had to suffer to keep costs down, but I think that a decent graphics chipset could have opened this machine up to a wider market.