- Review Price: £1782.44
For a long time Toshiba has had its own way when it comes to fully featured Media Center notebooks, with its Qosmio range pretty much dominating the market, but it looks like that’s all about to change. Sony has finally decided to embrace Media Center, placing it at the heart of its latest range of multimedia notebooks and the results are pretty impressive.
Sitting in front of me right now is Sony’s top of the range multimedia notebook, the VAIO VGN-AR11S. This machine is notable for a number of reasons, like the inclusion of Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition, the implementation of a Full HD compatible 17in screen, but most important of all, the fact that nestling in the left side of the chassis is a Blu-ray re-writable drive.
Unless you’re really not into technology (in which case, why are you reading this?), you would have heard about Blu-ray. This is one of two competing formats (the other being HD DVD) which have been designed to deliver high definition video. However, like DVD before it, Blu-ray is also very handy for backing up and storing massive amounts of data. So, with a single layer Blu-ray disc, you’ll be able to store 25GB of data, which is quite useful in these days of 10-megapixel digital cameras, not to mention the recent introduction of affordable high definition camcorders like the Sony HDR-HC3E.
I was somewhat surprised to see that the Blu-ray drive inside the AR11S isn’t manufactured by Sony, especially since Sony is one of the major driving forces behind Blu-ray as a format. The drive is actually manufactured by Panasonic and it’s worth noting that it also supports DVD+R/RW, DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/-R Dual Layer and CD-R/RW burning.
Although this Blu-ray drive can burn dual layer discs, offering close to 50GB of storage space, the media wasn’t available yet for me to test this. I did however burn 21GB to a single layer re-writable Blu-ray disc, which the drive managed in one hour 24 minutes and 35 seconds. That may seem like a long time, but you have to remember that I’m talking about a huge amount of data. Not to mention that an average DVD writer will take around 14 minutes to write 4.5GB of data to a DVD+RW disc, so that’s not a bad performance from first generation Blu-ray hardware.
For comparison purposes I also burned 7.9GB of data to a dual layer DVD+R disc – the drive could only manage the base 2.4x writing speed which resulted in a burn time of 44 minutes 30 seconds. That’s nothing special by current DVD writer standards, but you should remember that when DVD burners appeared their CD burning speeds were woefully poor compared to dedicated drives.
Unfortunately there aren’t any Blu-ray movie discs available in the UK yet, so I wasn’t able to test with pre-recorded HD content, but if it was available the screen in the AR11S would have definitely shown it off to good effect. The 17in screen sports a native resolution of 1,920 x 1,200, which means that it can handle the Full HD standard of 1,920 x 1,080, without having to scale things down. High definition content does look great on the AR11S, so once those movie discs start to appear, you’re really going to get the best out of this machine.
The screen is superb for general Windows work as well as watching movies though – 1,920 x 1,200 is a great resolution to work at, giving you masses of desktop space and allowing you to have multiple windows visible at all times. The screen is finished with Sony’s X-Black coating and the result is a pin sharp, evenly lit image with rich and vibrant colours. Whether or not you like these high contrast coatings, I would be truly amazed at anyone that isn’t impressed with this display.
Of course you don’t always want to watch movies on a notebook screen, even one as good as this. So, assuming that you have an HD Ready TV, you’re going to be able to use the AR11S as your Blu-ray video player as well, thanks to the inclusion of an HDCP compliant HDMI port. Considering that first generation Blu-ray players are likely to be very expensive, being able to kill the proverbial two birds with one stone is very useful.
If you’re a regular reader of TrustedReviews you’ll know that I tend to run a set of standard benchmarks on a notebook, but unfortunately I only had the AR11S for a couple of days, so I wasn’t able to do this. That said, I’m not sure that I would have bothered to run Mobile Mark on this machine anyway – with a weight of 3.8kg and dimensions of 416 x 300 x 34mm (WxDxH) you’re not going to be using the AR11S on battery power too often.
The large dimensions of the AR11S allow for a full size keyboard. But whereas some notebook manufacturers feel the need to use the extra space to squeeze a numeric keypad in, Sony, thankfully hasn’t gone down that route. The issue I always have with putting a numeric keypad in a notebook is that it means you’re not sitting central to the screen when you’re typing. However, Sony has made some good use of the physical space at its disposal. To the left of the keyboard are two programmable shortcut buttons, a hardware volume control, an eject button for the Blu-ray drive and a mute button. To the right of the keyboard is a round, mirrored power button.
Above the keyboard is a full set of multimedia controls. The AV Mode button brings up a selection menu from where you can launch Media Center, WinDVD, Sonic Stage or VAIO Information Flow – the latter being a screen saver type app, that feeds you BBC news stories, the time and date, your Media Player controls and other useful bits and pieces. Think Mac OS Tiger widgets and you’ll get the idea. The other multimedia buttons include channel switching, play/pause, skip forward/back and record.
The keyboard itself is very good indeed. I’m usually not a fan of notebooks with excessively large wrist rests, but this one doesn’t seem to bother me at all. The keys themselves have a healthy amount of travel and there isn’t the slightest hint of flex no matter how hard or fast you type. In fact it feels as if every single key is completely independent of the next – exactly the way it should be. The Tab, Caps Lock, Shift, Return and Backspace keys are all usefully large, while Sony has put the Ctrl key in the bottom left corner of the keyboard where it’s supposed to be, which should make any keyboard shortcut junkies happy.
Below the keyboard is a touchpad with a widescreen aspect ratio to match the screen. Bizarrely, even though there is plenty of space below the touchpad, Sony has decided to mount the selector buttons on the front edge of the chassis. This meant that every time I went to press a button, I ended up hitting nothing. Eventually I got used to this configuration, but I still think a more traditional layout would be preferable.
Sony hasn’t skimped on the internal components either. Driving things along is an Intel Core Duo T2500 CPU, clocked at 2.0GHz. The processor is backed up by 1GB of RAM, which is adequate, but I would have preferred to have seen 2GB in a machine like this. One of the beauties of a dual core processor is that it makes true multitasking a reality – something that’s very important with a machine like the AR11S. I had the AR11S burning a Blu-ray disc, while Media Center was playing live TV and I was busy writing this review – despite everything that was going on, the system stayed as responsive as ever.
Graphics are taken care of by an nVidia GeForce GO 7600 card, complete with 256MB of dedicated memory. This is a pretty decent mid-range mobile graphics chipset, but don’t expect to be able to play the latest games at anywhere near the native resolution of the built-in screen.
As with any Media Center PC, you need a lot of hard disk space, because all that recorded video and all those digital images take up a lot of room. Thankfully Sony has included two, yes that’s right two 100GB hard disks. Now, the review unit that I was sent had both drives configured as independent volumes, but the AR11S does have RAID functionality so you could stripe the two drives for ultimate performance, or mirror them for ultimate data integrity – of course you’d have to give up half of the capacity for the latter option.
If you want to get the AR11S connected, you’ll be spoilt for choice. There’s an Intel PRO/Wireless 395ABG wireless adapter supporting 802.11a,b and g, along with a Bluetooth adapter. There’s also a built-in 56k modem and an Intel wired Ethernet adapter – although this is somewhat disappointingly limited to 100Mbit/sec rather than Gigabit.
Connection points abound with this notebook, but for a change I’m going to start at the back. This is where the aerial connection is and for once there is a proper UK aerial socket provided, rather than a foreign or cut down socket that requires some kind of adapter. Well done Sony for making it extremely simple to hook the AR11S up to your external aerial. Also at the rear is the power socket and a USB 2.0 port.
The right side is where the vast majority of connections are. Here you’ll find both modem and Ethernet ports nestling behind a plastic flap, but it’s the next flap along that’s really interesting. The second flap hides the HDMI port, a D-Sub port, S-Video input and output, a Line-out and a four-pin FireWire port. Also on the right is a Type II PC Card slot, an Express Card slot and two further USB 2.0 ports.
The front is adorned with a memory card reader that will accept MemoryStick, SD and MMC formats, a hardware switch for the wireless adapters, an IR port for the supplied Media Center remote control and a catch that locks down the lid.
Obviously the highlight of the left side is the integrated Blu-ray drive, but there are also headphone, microphone and S/PDIF ports in evidence. There’s also an integrated webcam mounted above the screen with a modest 0.37-megapixel resolution.
The integrated hybrid TV tuner performed flawlessly under test. Hooking it up to my external aerial it managed to lock down all of the Freeview channels and didn’t have any problem holding onto them while viewing. It’s good to see that Sony is using an internal IR receiver for the infrared Media Center remote, unlike the Toshiba Qosmio G20 that we looked at last year, which required an external IR receiver to be plugged into a USB port.
As a Media Center PC the AR11S really does excel – the large, high definition screen is a joy to behold and I found myself just watching TV while I was supposed to be writing this review. But it’s the ability to be able to pump the video signal out to an external high definition TV that really makes the AR11S a compelling argument – yes it’s expensive, but it is a notebook, a Media Center PC AND a Blu-ray drive all rolled into one. That HDCP compliant HDMI cable really does make all the difference here and elevates the AR11S beyond just being a multimedia notebook.
When it comes to price, I doubt that any of you will be surprised that this machine doesn’t come cheap. However, when you weigh up what you’re getting for the money, I don’t think that £1,782.44 is over the top. Considering that BenQ recently announced that its PC based Blu-ray drive will cost £549 by itself, you can see that the AR11S is a bit of a bargain when you factor in the cost of the Blu-ray drive alone.
Ultimately, if you ever needed proof that the convergence between IT and consumer electronics products was real, the VAIO VGN-AR11S is it. With its feet firmly in both camps, it can handle all your computing needs along with the majority of your entertainment needs.
It would be easy to think of the AR11S solely as the first notebook available with a Blu-ray drive, but that really would be selling it short. What you’ve actually got here is a superb Media Center PC, with all the components to allow it to be the centre of your high-definition entertainment setup. Yes it’s pretty expensive, but you really are getting not just cutting edge, but potentially future proof technology here – once Blu-ray movies start to appear, the AR11S will add another very impressive string to its bow.
But the jewel in the crown of the AR11S is the HDCP enabled HDMI port, meaning that non only will you be able to watch Blu-ray movies on the excellent 17in internal screen, but you’ll also be able to watch them on your high definition TV in the living room. This really is how Windows Media Center is supposed to be!
Score in detail
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