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Sony's Vaio VGN-AR11S is the first laptop to use an integrated Blu-ray drive. It's also the first laptop we've seen that uses a 1080i-capable display with HDCP decoding capability, giving it full high-definition readiness.
The VGN-AR11S is a large and bulky 17-inch laptop. It doesn't quite match the bloat of the 20-inch Dell XPS M2010 or the Acer Aspire 9800 but at 3.8kg, you won't want to take it much further than your desk. The lid of the laptop is finished in a glossy black colour, though the rest of the unit, including the hinges, is matte black. Although it looks fine for the US market, UK consumers might not like the generous use of chrome around the laptop's outside edge.
To open the lid you'll need to slide a single switch at the front lip of the unit. This worked fine during our test period but felt flimsy to the touch. The bezel of the screen has a glossy finish but this can be forgiven as the screen itself is coated in Sony's glossy X-Black varnish -- intended to help improve the appearance of colours and heighten contrast. The lower section of the bezel has a backlit Vaio logo and a pair of speakers, one on either side. At the top of the screen there's a 'motion-eye' webcam, but don't be confused by the name -- it won't track your movement around the room like the Creative Live Cam Voice does.
The keyboard half of the Vaio VGN-AR11S is nice to look at. We did, however, take issue with the oversize keys -- they take some getting used to and we found ourselves making regular errors.
There's no dedicated numerical keypad, but Sony has installed eight hotkeys to the top right of the keyboard to aid manipulation of the laptop's various multimedia modes. There are buttons for changing the TV (it has an integrated TV tuner which we'll discuss in more depth later), recording television broadcasts, playback controls and for switching the AV mode. A set of standard shortcut hotkeys are located to the left of the keyboard. These let you adjust the system volume, launch two user-definable applications and eject the Blu-ray drive tray.
One major concern was the position of the mouse buttons. The touchpad is logically placed in the centre of the wrist rest but the buttons sit some distance away on the very edge of the front. This means you'll need to stretch your thumb an unnecessarily long distance to reach the left or right mouse buttons, which isn't exactly ideal.
As part of Sony's AR or A series of laptops, the VGN-AR11S inherits a strong specification. It doesn't use a CPU from the next-generation Core 2 Duo range of processors, but it has the second-fastest of the current Intel Core Duo CPUs -- the 2GHz Intel T2500. This is supported by 1GB of DDR2 533MHz memory and an Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 graphics chipset with 256MB of dedicated RAM.
We were also happy to see a pair of 100GB hard drives installed in a RAID configuration 0. Both Raid 1 and Raid 0 setups are available for selection at the time of buying. The former, also known as mirroring, makes an identical copy of all the files you create on both hard drives, so if one fails there's a good chance you'll have the other as a backup. The latter, Raid 1, interleaves data across the two drives in order to improve disk access speed and is sometimes referred to as striping. We'd recommend selecting a Raid 1 setup as Raid 0 effectively limits your amount of storage to 100GB as the other 100GB is being used as backup.
The VGN-AR11S's excellent storage options are cemented by the integrated Blu-ray drive on the left side of the laptop. The Panasonic-developed Matshita BD-MLT UJ-2105 allows you to burn up to 50GB of data to a single Blu-ray disc, which is five times more data than can be stored on an ordinary single layer DVD. This has the obvious benefit of letting you backup the entire contents of the laptop onto just eight discs, but it also means you can play Blu-ray movies. The only drawback of this is the current price of Blu-ray media. It's new, so it's expensive: a single 25GB disc costs around £10.
Impressively Sony has fitted a WUXGA TFT panel into the laptop's 17-inch screen area. This gives it the ability to display resolutions up to 1,920x1,200 pixels, which includes 1080p (1,920x1,080 pixels) -- the Holy Grail of high-definition video. The high resolution of the laptop makes it difficult to read some on-screen text. Sony hasn't modify the number of dots per inch for the default font scheme in order to increase the font size, so we'd recommend doing so yourself if you don't like squinting.
Despite its penchant for making desktop fonts look tiny, the screen is of a very good standard -- we were able to watch 1080p video with no hassle. The laptop showed no sign of struggling with the video playback, and images looked excellent thanks to a high level of contrast and colours that seem to come to life. The 17-inch screen area hinders the viewing experience, particularly if viewed from a distance, but up close it looks spectacular.
The VGN-AR11S comes with an integrated hybrid TV tuner and an aerial socket tucked away at the rear of the laptop. This lets you watch analogue or digital (Freeview) and it'll also let you watch one channel while recording another. The conveniently positioned channel changing and TV recording buttons above the keyboard come in very handy here.
The laptop is well-kitted out with a good number of input/output ports. We like the fact Sony has supplied both DVI and HDMI digital video ports, both of which support high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) -- the copy protection system that'll be used by most Blu-ray movie discs. The presence of this technology means the laptop will have no trouble playing Blu-ray movies internally and on large external televisions.
There are only three USB ports, but there's a a gigabit Ethernet (1,000Mbps) network adaptor, and being a Centrino laptop, it has an 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi adaptor so you can connect it to your home network or surf the Web without using cables.
As with most Vaio laptops, the VGN-AR11S comes with a decent software bundle. You get Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition plus Norton Internet Security Suite antivirus software, SonicStage Mastering Studio and DSD Direct, which lets you convert audio from cassette tapes to digital CD or MP3 versions, and Roxio Digital Media SE, which lets you create DVD movies, photo presentations and other entertainment content.
The VGN-AR11S's performance is strong, if not mindblowing. It fared slightly better than the excellent Acer Travelmate 8204WLMi in our PCMark 2005 test, racking up 4,320 versus the Acer's 4,236. There's not much in it, but both laptops are strong all-rounders.
3D performance was less impressive but the GeForce Go 7600 card helped it clock up a respectable 3DMark 2006 score of 2,859. Obviously it's not in the same league as the score of 5,905 clocked up by the Aurora mALX, Alienware's six-toed ninja gaming laptop, but the VGN-AR11S will run with most games -- albeit at modest resolutions.
It's interesting to see how the VGN-AR11S fared when burning data to Blu-ray media. We managed to copy 25GB of data to a single-layer Blu-ray disc (BD-ROM) in 82 minutes. That's ages in comparison to how long it would take to copy the same data to an external hard drive, but it's not so bad considering an ordinary DVD drive takes around 15 minutes to burn 4.5GB.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield