The integrated Blu-ray drive also means that this is a high definition playback device too, while the high native screen resolution means that 1080p content can be displayed without scaling. However, things aren’t all perfect when it comes to watching HD content – in fact watching a Blu-ray disc highlighted a couple of weaknesses in the screen itself. First up, there’s noticeable backlight bleed along the bottom edge, which can be very distracting when you’re watching a movie shot in 2.35:1, since the black bar at the bottom simply isn’t as black as it should be. There’s also a little bleed evident at the top of the screen but it’s nowhere near as bad.
The other problem is a lack of convincing black level response, which ultimately leads to detail being lost in darker scenes, or if you pump the brightness up to compensate, grey tones instead of strong blacks. This was particularly evident in the early scenes of Shoot ‘Em Up on Blu-ray where dark areas tended to look empty and completely void of detail. It also appeared that the AR61ZU was attempting to employ some kind of dynamic backlighting in order to improve black levels, but the resulting random shifts in brightness were both distracting and annoying.
But the most disappointing aspect of the AR61ZU is the audio – the integrated speakers are just as tinny and poor as those seen in most notebooks. Considering that multimedia laptops from other manufacturers are now shipping with built-in subwoofers and Dolby Home Theater processing, Sony needs to raise its game in this area – after all, you’re not always going to want to wear headphones.
Although most notebook manufacturers have a habit of loading up their machines with bundles of useless software that just slows the system down, Sony has always included some genuinely useful applications with its VAIO range. You get Photoshop Elements 6 and Premiere Elements 4 from Adobe, Roxio Easy Media Creator 9 and WinDVD BD for playing back DVD and Blu-ray movies. Skype also comes pre-installed so you can make use of the integrated 1.3-megapixel webcam, mounted above the screen.
With a price of £1,549 the ZR61ZU can’t be described as cheap, but it’s not excessively expensive either, considering what you’re getting for the money. After all, this is a powerful PC that’s also a fully featured Media Center and Blu-ray player, so there’s a lot of functionality rolled into the sleek black chassis.
Despite the chassis being close to three years old, the VAIO VGN-AR61ZU is probably still the best looking, Full HD multimedia notebook on the market. You’re also getting a very solid specification with strong performance, making it an ideal replacement for your big, ugly desktop machine. With a digital TV tuner and a Blu-ray drive built-in, you’ve got your entertainment needs pretty much sewn up.
On the down side, the screen isn’t quite as good as it could be, with backlight bleed at the bottom and top edges, while black levels could also be better. Also, the woefully disappointing internal speakers are a real issue with machines like Toshiba’s Qosmio and the Acer Aspire Gemstone Blue have great internal sound to complement their visual performance. But even with these issues and the annoying placement of the touchpad buttons, the VGN-AR61ZU has a lot to offer the user who wants everything in one box.