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This week sees the release of Blu-ray, the first of the next generation high definition optical discs formats to hit the UK. The format is most closely associated with Sony, but the first dedicated drive is actually available from Samsung. Sony is not ignoring the launch of its own format however. We've already looked at the impressive Vaio VGN-AR21S notebook that features an integrated Blu-ray drive and now Sony has put another Blu-ray notebook drive into it's latest desktop Media Center system - the VGX-XL202. This is essentially the same as the VGX-XL201 but with the addition of twice the hard disc capacity, a slightly faster CPU and the Blu-ray drive, for which you'll pay an extra £800 – a hefty additional sum.
Before we focus on the Blu-ray drive, we should look at the system as a whole. One of the first hurdles that a Media Center system has to get over is the living room test. If the average person walks into the room and can tell that it's a PC under the TV, then the unit has failed. The Sony Vaio VGX-XL202 passes with flying colours. I'd go as far as saying that's it's the best looking Media Center System I've seen.
It is quite high and very deep too, but that's something that the more hardcore AV enthusiast will rather like - it looks like they're getting a lot for their money. A large luxurious looking Vaio logo is etched in silver across the expansive lid. The large silver flap at the front opens and closes with a satisfying click and rather than just flopping down, while the hinges have some resistance so that it lowers itself slowly. The sides are made of long silver slats that look good and also let heat escape from the interior.
There's a power button on the top left of the black and silver fascia with small lights under the surface that indicate power, hard disk activity and wireless connectivity. This discreet approach is just what's required - you don't want lots of naff lights ruining the ambiance when you're watching a film. Of course, the serious home cinema buff will probably have their kit housed in a custom made cupboard but you might very well want to leave this Sony on display - at least once you've taken off the various stickers that adorn the front. The Blu-ray drive is slot loading and will suck in the discs as soon as you start to feed them into it.
Underneath that front flap you'll find a card reader catering for all major formats, including CompactFlash. You'll also find two USB 2.0 ports, a four-pin FireWire 400 port, and composite and S-Video inputs along with stereo phono inputs. There's a mini-jack style microphone connector and hinting at its true AV credentials, a full size headphone socket. I was looking for somewhere to plug in my own iPod headphones and was unable to find a socket - time to dig out that mini-jack to full size adapter I guess.
On the far right of the front flap you'll find a Connect button for connecting the wireless keyboard. The keyboard integrates a trackpad on the right hand side, which makes it possible to get round Windows from a distance. That said, as a left hander I found it difficult to use, as for me it was on the wrong side (it was fine for everyone else though - ed.). The keyboard is powered by four AA batteries, which is quite a lot but there's an LCD which indicats the power remaining so you shouldn't be caught short.