The Sony Vaio VGC-RC204 is the first PC to come equipped with a Blu-ray disc drive. The long-awaited optical format allows dozens of gigabytes of data to be stored on a single disc the same size as an ordinary DVD. This makes the RC204 a hugely attractive prospect for anyone with the need to create large backups, but it'll need an upgrade to Windows Vista to play full high-definition Blu-ray movies. At around £1,700 (if you shop around online), it's surprisingly good value for Sony.
The Vaio RC204 looks the same as the rest of the Vaio RC series. It has a large, predominantly black chassis with a silver central section bearing a backlit Vaio logo. This section houses the RC204's hard drives in a metal enclosure. You won't need to open the main section of the case to access the hard drives, but you'll still need a screwdriver to remove them, which is disappointing. A toolless design would have been infinitely more welcome.
Below the silver section on the front panel, there's a flap housing a set of input/output connectors. There are S-Video and component video inputs, headphone sockets and a pair of USB ports. We appreciate the presence of these ports, but we think they'd have been more easily accessible if positioned towards the top of the case. We also didn't appreciate the positioning of the power button, which is located towards the bottom of the chassis. If the computer is placed on the floor, there's a chance of accidentally turning the PC off with your foot or the leg of a chair -- not ideal if you've forgotten to save an important document.
The middle portion of the PC has another flap, behind which is a memory card reader supporting Compact Flash, xD, SmartMedia, Secure Digital and Sony Memory Stick formats, plus a USB port and an i.Link S400 socket (Sony's version of 4-pin FireWire). The front section of the PC is rounded off by a pair of optical drive bays, again concealed behind flaps, and the attractive but understated Blu-ray Disc badge at the top of the unit.
Near the centre of the unit is a 40mm-wide hollow area running horizontally across the middle of the case. This serves as a vent for expelling hot air. It's joined to a plastic tunnel-like enclosure at the other end of which is a large 120mm fan and an enormous heatsink. By using a larger, slower-spinning fan than the standard 48mm heatsinks in most PCs, the RC204 is able to run more quietly than many of its compatriots.
The RC204 is a , and as such it is equipped with the Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system and a motherboard using the Intel 945P chipset. The rear input/output panel of the motherboard has four USB ports (taking the total number to seven), a single FireWire port, an Ethernet adaptor and a pair of PS/2 ports for connecting a mouse and keyboard. There is also a set of six discrete 3.5mm audio ports to which you can connect a set of 8-channel (7.1) surround-sound speakers, and a parallel port for connecting, among other things, a MIDI keyboard or legacy printer.
At the heart of the system is the 3.2GHz Pentium D 940, the second-fastest CPU in the Pentium D family. The PC has 1GB of DDR2 RAM supplied on two 512MB modules, occupying two of the four memory slots.
The RC204's graphics adaptor is slightly less impressive than its CPU, but the Sony-branded Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT card is still a very capable mid-range all-rounder, and its 256MB of onboard memory helps it cope with the vast majority of applications and games. The card itself can be used in an SLI (Serial Link Interface) dual-graphics card setup, but because the RC204's motherboard only has a single graphics card slot, you can't take advantage of this feature.
Sitting adjacent to the graphics card is an Avermedia Hybrid A16C TV tuner card. This allows the PC to receive analogue and Freeview television broadcasts, as well as FM radio. The card has several input and output ports, including component video input, S-Video and VHF/UHF aerial.
There's plenty of space to save recorded TV content or for storing your own creations, thanks to a pair of 300GB Maxtor 7L300S0 hard drives. These are installed independently of each other -- Sony has missed an opportunity to improve system performance or provide data redundancy with RAID 1 or RAID 0 disc arrays.
Sony has included a Media Center remote in the RC204 package, as well as a stylish RF mouse and keyboard combination. The latter has an integrated mouse touchpad, giving you full control of the PC from your armchair. Because it's an RF (Radio Frequency) model, it doesn't require direct line of sight to an infrared receiver -- you can use it while hiding behind a sofa if you're that way inclined, or perhaps more practically you can hide the PC in a cabinet so it doesn't spoil your chic minimalist living room.
The star of the entire RC204 show is its Blu-ray disc drive. Unlike current optical disc technology, which uses a red laser to read and write data, Blu-ray drives use blue-violet lasers, hence the name Blu-ray. Blue-violet lasers have a shorter wavelength than red lasers and can be focused more accurately, allowing data to be packed more tightly on a disc.
The Matshita BD-MLT SW-5582 in the RC204 is a combination drive that uses both red and blue-violet lasers. It can therefore write to 25GB single-layer Blu-ray discs, or to 4.7GB and 8.5GB single and dual-layer DVD drives, or to standard 700MB CDs. Blu-ray media isn't exactly abundant, but we have spotted single 25GB Blu-ray BD-R (write once) discs retailing for around £10, and rewritable discs for around £13. That's far more expensive than blank DVD-Rs, which typically retail for around 25p each, but prices will fall as Blu-ray technology becomes more abudant.
Though the RC204 has a Blu-ray drive, it's not guaranteed to play, which are available in the US from 10 July. Movie companies are likely to encode Blu-ray films with HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection) -- a system that prevents unauthorised duplication of copyrighted material. This requires an HDMI (which you find on HD Ready TVs) or DVI output -- the RC204 has two DVI outputs. However, Windows XP is currently incompatible with HDCP, so some films will run at reduced resolution and others may not run at all. To watch HD movies in their full glory you'll have to wait for (available in early 2007) and get an HDCP-enabled graphics card, which aren't available yet either.
The RC204 turned in a good performance in our tests, clocking up 5,252 in PCMark 2005. It's not as monstrously quick as the , which scored 6,302, but the RC204 ran exceptionally smoothly and was equally at home whether opening Word documents or editing video. Only very demanding users should consider upgrading the PC with an extra 1GB of DDR2 memory, or going for the optional 3.4GHz CPU.
Graphics performance was fairly average, but this can be forgiven as the RC204 isn't touted as a full-on gaming PC. Its Nvidia GeForce 7600 GT graphics card scored 3,535 in 3DMark 2006, which is in line with our expectations.
It achieved a creditable Doom 3 frame rate of 83 frames per second at a resolution of 1,280x1,024 pixels, and managed 65fps when running at the more demanding 1,600x1,200. At maximum image quality at the same resolution, the frame rate dropped to an average of 32fps.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide