- Review Price: £1171.00
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.
Taking a look around the chassis reveals a fully featured desktop replacement. On the right hand side you’ll find the integrated DVD writer. It’s always great to see a DVD writer in a notebook, since it allows the user to backup data and transfer large files to other machines. This is a dual DVD writer that can burn DVD+R/RW and DVD-R/RW media as well as the obligatory CD-R/RW discs. The only other point of interest on the right of the casing is the power socket.
On the left you’ll find a floppy drive, which is becoming increasingly rare these days. There are no doubt still some floppy disk users out there, but with the massive price drops in USB memory keys, there’s little need for them anymore, unless you’re planning on transferring data to legacy PCs. That said, it’s still an extra feature that most other laptops don’t have. There are two stacked Type II PC Card slots that will also accept a Type III device. There’s a four-pin FireWire port, two USB 2.0 ports, headphone socket, mic socket and AV socket. Above the floppy drive is a Memory Stick slot that will accept Memory Stick Pro media if you happen to have any.
At the rear is another USB 2.0 port, a parallel port, a D-SUB port for connecting the notebook to an external monitor, a modem socket and an Ethernet port. All in all a pretty good set of features, although the complete lack of wireless connectivity seems a little disappointing, especially considering you can find wireless features on much cheaper notebooks.
As always with Sony machines, there’s a pretty good software bundle included that targets the creative user. There’s Adobe Premiere 6.0 LE, Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0, Picture Gear and Sonic Stage. To get you working straight off the bat, there’s a copy of Microsoft Works and to keep you safe, you get Norton Internet Security pre-loaded.
Performance wise, you get a bit of a mixed bag with the PCG-FR415S. The SYSmark 2002 score of 223 is pretty solid and reflects the specification. But it’s the graphics chipset that lets this Sony down in both 3Dmark and the graphics section of PCMark 2004. Of course if you don’t want to play games this won’t be a problem, but it is a shame that the option isn’t there. Battery life isn’t fantastic at just under two hours, but this is a desktop replacement machine that’s likely to be carried between one power socket and another, rather than being used on the move. After all, you are talking about dimensions of 392 x 275 x 57mm (WxDxH) and a weight of 3.6kg.
The best thing about the VAIO PCG-FR415S has to be the price. I’ve managed to find it on sale for under £1,200 inc VAT, which is pretty impressive for a Sony branded notebook. There is a lot that I like about this notebook, not least the overall quality of the bundle and the attractive price. But five months after reviewing the VAIO PCG-FR315S, I would have liked to have seen more than just a processor speed bump. A higher resolution screen would have been great, but I know that this would raise the price considerably. I do however think that a more advanced graphics solution or built-in wireless capability would go a long way to making the FR415S more attractive in today’s climate.
There’s no doubt that the VAIO PCG-FR415S is a good value notebook, and many potential buyers will be surprised to know that they can buy a new Sony for this kind of money. However, issues that I was willing to forgive five months ago, are a little harder to swallow today, which ultimately robs the FR415S of an award.
Score in detail
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