Editors' note: This review is part of our 2009 Retail Laptop and Desktop Back-to-School roundup, covering specific fixed configurations of popular systems that can be found in retail stores.
In a growing field of Blu-ray-playing laptops, it's important to take note of Sony, who created the Blu-ray format in the first place. The company's Vaio laptops, particularly its higher-end lines, tend to be specifically oriented toward media playback.
The last model from Sony's FW line we reviewed, the Vaio FW351J/H, cost $949 and came with less-than-impressive graphics, but had an attractive aesthetic and good Blu-ray playback on a large 16.4-inch screen. The FW480J/T costs a bit more money--$1,199--but it offers improvements to the processor and graphics. If you expected something more affordable, because Sony does make you pay for the improvements--there are Blu-ray equipped Vaios available for less money, such as the sub-$900 15-inch NW180.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$1,199|
|Processor||2.0GHz Core 2 Duo P7350|
|Memory||6GB, DDR2 RAM 800MHz|
|Hard drive||400GB hard drive|
|Chipset||Mobile Intel PM45|
|Graphics||ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4650, 512 MB|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Home Premium SP1|
|Dimensions (WD)||15.1x10.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||16.4 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||6.3/7.3 pounds|
Like the Vaio FW351J/H, the Vaio FW480J/T has an elegant, sleek style to it that's reminiscent of Apple's design work with the MacBooks. While the previous FW we reviewed came in a metallic gray color, this model has an all-black interior, with an attractive Chocolate Brown color on the outside. The materials inside and out are mostly plastic, but the layout and construction have a formal high-end look to them. Sony's style tends to lean toward minimalist chic, and this Vaio fits right into that mold, and the slightly updated look is an overall improvement.
The raised keyboard is similar to the VGN-FW351J/H, and is wide and comfortable. The touch pad--which has a smooth feel and clicky, flush buttons beneath--is good, too. Some still prefer keys with more of a traditional feel and travel, but we've always liked this flat-key style, also found on everything from MacBooks to Acer's new Timeline series to and many newer Netbooks.
Above the keyboard are a set of physical buttons for media playback and volume control, but these are not backlit touch-sensitive buttons, as found on many multimedia machines. The media playback buttons include a shortcut key that acts as a mute button by default, and an AV Mode button that brings up a PlayStation 3-style media bar browser as an alternative to Windows Media Center. While the media control buttons are responsive, they're all identically shaped and not backlit, which is unfortunate--in dimly lit viewing conditions, it's hard to feel for the right controls.
The speakers lie in a bar above the keyboard and under the screen, and their exposure gives them good sound quality--although they're not the loudest or best speakers we've heard, they're more than adequate--although perhaps not for gathering a group around the screen for a Blu-ray movie.
Built into the screen's hinge are the AC charging port on one side and a glowing power button on the other. There's also an LED ring around the hinge that changes color when charging/charged and pulses when sleeping. This is one of the few touches of color on an otherwise austere Vaio.
Sony Vaio laptops have been known to pile on the preinstalled garbageware, creating an uncomfortably cluttered laptop that must be cleaned out before being used. The FW480J/T, thankfully, didn't have this problem. Included software such as the song-recommendation program MusicBox are fun additions, and certainly aren't intrusive. Sony also includes Vaio Movie Story and Media, which are proprietary video editing and media management programs.
The 16.4-inch screen which Sony touts as being "ultra-widescreen" has a 1,600x900-pixel native resolution, which is a 16x9 aspect ratio. That's lower than some 16-inch laptops such as the Dell Studio XPS 16. While its size is great for movie watching, this model's resolution--like the previous FW351J/H model--aren't true 1080p resolution, making Blu-ray watching a compromised experience. You could always watch the Blu-ray on an external HDTV using the built-in HDMI port, but we wish that this Vaio had increased resolution (there are Vaio laptops available with 1080p, but not this retail-specific fixed-configuration version).
|Sony Vaio FW480J/T||Average for category [mainstream]|
|Video||VGA-out, HDMI||VGA-out, HDMI|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, Mini-FireWire, SD card reader||4 USB 2.0, Mini-FireWire, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, modem||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, optional WWAN|
|Optical drive||Blue-ray player/DVD burner||DVD burner|
The FW480J/T comes with a hefty 400GB hard drive and a beefy 6GB of DDR2 RAM (upgradable to 8GB). It must be noted that similarly priced Asus and HP configurations have 6GB of RAM as well, and include 7,200rpm 500GB hard drives standard, which is even better.
The included collection of ports runs to the media-oriented, with Mini-FireWire and HDMI being the most notable. There are only three USB 2.0 ports, but the memory card reader is actually dual-slot: one for Sony's proprietary Memory Sticks, and one for SD cards. Although Mini-FireWire is starting to disappear from use, it's still nice to have for older hard drives and camcorders.
The Vaio FW480J/T comes with a 2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350, a good mainstream processor that's an upgrade over the previous FW model's T6400. In benchmark tests against our other two similarly priced multimedia laptops, the Vaio outperformed both the HP Pavilion dv7-2185DX and the Asus G71GX-RX05 in CNET's multimedia multitasking and iTunes/Photoshop tests. As a game machine, however, this Vaio isn't as impressive. The included ATI Radeon 4650, while having 512 MB of dedicated memory and being a far better graphics option than the last FW series Vaio, played games only adequately compared with the dv7 and G71GX. Far Cry 2 had a slow framerate in our anecdotal play session, even on medium settings, but it's still perfectly fine for casual mainstream gamers, especially if you keep the resolution dialed down.