Editors' note: Sony has changed its warranty policy and no longer requires you to register your product in order to extend the coverage from 90 days to a full year. Now, all Sony desktops are covered with a standard one-year warranty right out of the box. We have updated the review and adjusted the ratings accordingly.
Since Sony has raised its successful line of multimedia-friendly VAIO desktops on its own Giga Pocket DVR software for recording and pausing TV, we were somewhat surprised to see the $1,649 (without monitor) VAIO Digital Studio RZ44G using Microsoft's Media Center Edition (MCE) 2004 OS. We prefer MCE 2004 to Giga Pocket, not only because of its clean, easy-to-navigate interface, but also because it gives you control of all your media--not just TV--including pictures, music, and video. The RZ44G's traditional tower design isn't living-room friendly, but the RZ44G more than makes up for it by including server software that allows you to hide the PC in a back room and push its stored media content to other networked PCs in your home. Sony's subpar warranty is the only thing that detracts from an otherwise fully featured Media Center PC.
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For your convenience, a plethora of front-mounted ports resides on the system.
The Sony VAIO Digital Studio RZ44G's squat, grey box looks like a traditional tower, albeit a stylish one, with a sharp, blue stripe running through its center. If your entertainment system can't accommodate a full-size PC and you have a home network, however, do not fret. Sony includes server software that lets you serve the media stored on the RZ44G to the other networked PCs in your home, such as a small-form-factor PC that's tucked away in an A/V rack that's connected to your plasma TV.
Thanks to the sheer number of ports on the RZ44G's case, you'll use it as more than just a digital video recorder (DVR). The front panel alone contains a media-card reader; three USB 2.0 ports; one FireWire connector, which Sony calls i.Link; RCA jacks; and an S-Video port. Around back, there are four more USB 2.0 ports and another FireWire port, along with RCA, S-Video, audio, and cable-TV connectors.
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It's a good thing the system has such a bevy of external ports, because internal expansion is strictly limited to a single open (and easy-to-access) internal, 3.5-inch bay, which you can use to add a second hard drive should you fill the RZ44G's 160GB with television programming. Both 5.25-inch bays are occupied by the system's optical drives, as is the lone 3.5-inch external drive (filled with a floppy drive). The media-card reader blocks the sole free PCI slot. Otherwise, the internals are nicely organized, if a bit cramped.
Sony built the VAIO Digital Studio RZ44G around a set of standard midrange components that include a 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB of 333MHz memory, a decent-size 160GB hard drive, and Nvidia's surprisingly powerful budget GeForce FX 5200 graphics card. Though you would see improved performance with faster DDR400 memory, the system provides enough muscle for its intended multimedia tasks. And that's a good thing because you're stuck with the specs you see here--Sony does not provide any customization options for this system.
Thanks to the VAIO Media server software, you can watch TV shows that you've recorded to the RZ44G's hard drive on other networked devices in your home.
We've seen Microsoft's Media Center Edition 2004 before; it allows you to watch and record TV, play back videos and photo slide shows, and listen to music--and you can do it all through a single interface, using the included remote control, from the comfort of your couch. Sony extends the power of the Media Center software with its own VAIO Media app, which allows the PC to act as a media server for other computers connected to your network. This way, you can deposit all of your video, audio, and photos onto the RZ44G, then squirrel it away in a back room. (Of course, this will work only if you have a more attractive or smaller PC slated for your living room. After installing the VAIO Media software on another PC in CNET Labs, we were able to grab content from the RZ44G in just a few minutes. Although the setup process wasn't exactly intuitive, Sony's in-depth instructions are a useful guide.
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Though not cheap, the SDM-HX93 is a gorgeous 19-inch flat-panel display.
On top of the Media software, Sony provides an impressive number of its proprietary video and audio apps. The long list includes Click-to-DVD, DVD-burning software that's integrated with the Media Center software, allowing you to archive your recorded TV shows straight to DVD. You'll also get DVGate for basic video editing, Drag-n-Drop for quickly creating audio and data CDs, SonicStage for music playback, PictureGear Studio for photo editing, andfor watching DVDs. While the video apps were fairly useful and intuitive, we found the audio software overly complicated and difficult to work with. Consider springing for or for your music-burning needs. Topping it all off is a copy of Microsoft Works 7.0 for basic productivity.
Sony sells its monitors separately from its PCs, but it provided us with its gorgeous $999 SDM-HX93, a 19-inch LCD that displayed excellent-looking text and graphics, with various brightness modes. The bundled Sony 2.1-piece speaker set sounded merely adequate, however. If you'll be using the system for more than basic media functions and you aren't planning to integrate it in your home theater, spring for a better-sounding set.
Sony's desktops typically aren't the best performers, as the company puts the whole user experience ahead of raw speed. To wit, the VAIO Digital Studio RZ44G trailed the other 2.8GHz P4-based Media Center we've seen, the Dell Dimension 4600C, by 6 percent on SysMark 2002. Memory speed is partly to blame; the Dell uses 400MHz memory while the Sony uses the 333MHz variety. Still, its application performance was about where we would expect, but it was hit or miss during our hands-on testing. For instance, it took a long time to convert captured video to DVD format, and we witnessed terrible CD skipping during audio extraction. But we were able to simultaneously record live TV and play Unreal Tournament 2002 with nary a blip.
Application performance (Longer bars indicate better performance)
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2002, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
3D graphics and gaming performance
The latest generation of budget graphics cards from ATI and Nvidia are surprisingly powerful and fairly priced. For the VAIO Digital Studio RZ44G, Sony chose to use Nvidia's GeForce FX 5200, which provides enough graphics horsepower for Media Center tasks while not adding too much to the system's overall cost. Sony did, however, make a curious decision with the graphics driver. Normally, Nvidia has options within the driver control panel to enable antialiasing and anisotropic filtering, as well as other performance tweaks. These settings are disabled on the RZ44G, so we were unable to test 3DMark03 with our settings. (That's why you'll see an N/A in the performance chart.) Still, the system performed about as we expected in Unreal Tournament 2003. Its frame rate of 62.5 frames per second (fps) is adequate, but future games might show some lag time at higher resolutions.