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Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP review: Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP

If you're happy to wait a few months for more Blu-ray content to land, the AR18GP is a powerful, multimedia-rich laptop whose only glaring omission is a TV tuner.

Asher Moses

Asher Moses

Asher was a Staff Writer at CNET Australia.

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5 min read

Sony's VGN-AR18GP notebook is the first Blu-ray playback-capable device to hit Australian shores. This comes just weeks after Toshiba's launch of its Qosmio G30 HD-DVD supporting notebook, indicating that the next-generation DVD format war will first be contested in the personal computing space.

sony-vaio-vgn-ar18gp_1.jpg
8.0

Sony VAIO VGN-AR18GP

The Good

Blu-ray drive. Great raw performance. HDMI output. High quality screen. Plenty of bundled software.

The Bad

Current dearth of Blu-ray content. No TV tuner. Bulky. Poor battery life.

The Bottom Line

If you're happy to wait a few months for more Blu-ray content to land, the AR18GP is a powerful, multimedia-rich laptop whose only glaring omission is a TV tuner.

Design
A fact that buyers of entertainment-focused notebooks will have to live with for some time yet is low battery life and hefty dimensions. The AR18GP measures in at 416mm by 299.5mm by 33.5-41.5mm and weighs 3.8kg, so you won't be carting it around a great deal.

Nevertheless, the notebook will look great on your desk with its black chassis and chrome trimmings. If Darth Vader was recreated in notebook form, we imagine he'd look something like the AR18GP -- black, bulky and bearing significant grunt.

The chrome trimmings aren't just there to look good, however. They flip down to reveal all of the notebook's ports, which we feel is a great aesthetic touch and makes the unit more akin to something out of the home theatre realm than the beige PC jungle.

Just above the keyboard is a row of handy shortcut keys for navigating your audio/video tracks, while to the left of the keyboard lies volume controls, mute, disc eject and two additional user definable buttons. We found these to be extremely handy during DVD playback, as you're not forced to interrupt viewing in order to adjust settings.

Features
While Blu-ray content is still thin on the ground down under, the Blu-ray disc drive featured on the AR18GP will be highly attractive to content producers, since it provides them with the ability to store and share their home movies recorded on a HD camcorder. Until now, the only way to share this content has been through a portable storage solution, since the current DVD standard's low 4.7GB capacity (8.5GB for dual-layer discs) isn't close to being adequate.

Blu-ray discs are capable of storing 25GB on each layer, meaning that dual-layer BD media will give you up to 50GB of space to play with. By comparison, a HD-DVD disc's single/dual layer capacity is 15GB and 30GB respectively. Sony promises that blank Blu-ray discs are available for purchase now, albeit only single-layer 25GB versions. A write-once disc will set you back AU$34.95, while a re-writable disc costs AU$42.95.

Although it doesn't support the rival HD-DVD format, the Blu-ray drive is capable of reading from and writing to Blu-ray discs, all manner of regular DVD formats and all CD formats. Therefore, even if you're not a content producer, you're still able to enjoy your current collection in anticipation of the torrent of Blu-ray content that's set for release by the end of the year. Content producers that have raised their hand in support of Blu-ray include Walt Disney Pictures and Television, Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, MGM, Lions Gate and, obviously, Sony Pictures.

Of course, in order to take maximum advantage of HD content, you'll need a HD-capable display, and the AR18GP delivers here. It's got a huge 17-inch widescreen WUXGA display, sporting a resolution of 1920x1200. This means that it can play HD content at its full resolution. Dual lamps in the display ensure maximum brightness, and our internal testing has shown quality levels to be superb.

Those that plan on editing their home movies on the notebook and subsequently writing them to a Blu-ray disc will demand a fairly hefty storage subsystem. The AR18GP certainly isn't lacking in this department, offering up dual 80GB hard drives in a fast RAID 0 configuration.

Frankly, while a notebook is great for enjoying content alone or with one friend, sharing video with a group is far better accomplished on a large TV set. To that end, the AR18GP offers up a HDMI connection (making it one of the only notebooks available to offer this feature), S-Video Out and a VGA output. There's no DVI connector, however.

For those that don't have a HDMI-capable surround sound system, digital audio output is also available via an S/PDIF optical connector.

Gamers haven't been overlooked either; the AR18GP offers up an Nvidia GeForce Go 7600GT graphics chip, which is based on the latest technology and is more than capable of running the latest games smoothly.

Both PC-Card and ExpressCard slots are included for adding further functionality down the track. There's also a memory card reader that supports all formats except Compact Flash. Disappointingly, the notebook lacks a TV tuner, which is strange given its decidedly multimedia bent.

One gigabyte of DDR2 memory and a fast Intel Core Duo T2600 (2.16GHz) processor round out the internal component list, and the notebook's networking features are also top-notch, with 802.11a/b/g wireless, 10/100 Ethernet and Bluetooth 2.0 all making an appearance.

A boatload of software is included with the package, such as Adobe Photoshop & Premiere Elements, DVgate Plus, Norton Internet Security 2006, Ulead BD DiscRecorder, WinDVD BD and SonicStage Mastering Studio.

Performance
Whilst reviewing the Toshiba Qosmio G30 we were able to directly compare the quality of HD-DVD and regular DVD content, since many HD-DVD movies are double-sided (offering up a regular DVD version on the back). Unfortunately, this isn't the case with Blu-ray; we were unable to get hold of any official Blu-ray movie releases (let alone a Blu-ray and DVD version of the same film), so it's impossible for us to make any scientific observations regarding how noticeable the quality difference is. Further, at the time of testing there aren't any HD-DVD and Blu-ray versions of the same film available locally, so it's difficult for us to compare the quality of the two next-gen formats at this point in time.

We did, however, sample a small serving of content on Sony's Blu-ray demo disc, and are extremely impressed with the picture quality on offer. The high level of detail offered up by the 1080 lines of resolution is refreshing (regular PAL DVD discs have only 576 lines), and contrary to some early reports on Blu-ray, we didn't notice any image artefacts. Given that both Blu-ray and HD-DVD content is encoded at 1080 lines of resolution we don't expect image quality offered by the two formats to differ significantly. That said, as detailed above, we aren't able to definitively confirm this yet.

The laptop's automatic shutdown feature that kicks in once the percentage of remaining battery life enters the single digits put a halt on our usual MobileMark2005 performance and battery life tests. After much searching, we concluded that there's no way to switch off this feature, so quantitative performance results are unavailable. However, our own testing (as well as inferences from our tests of similarly configured models) show the AR18GP to be a great performer for virtually any task. Gaming, perhaps the most demanding of personal computing tasks, is handled by the notebook with ease -- even taxing titles like Doom 3 ran without a hitch.

Although we weren't able to complete a full MobileMark2005 battery test, it took two hours for the notebook's battery life to reach the sub-10% mark, forcing the unit into hibernation. Thus, don't expect any more than 140 minutes of battery life, which is similar to Sony's promised value of 120 minutes. This ranks favourably to the Toshiba Qosmio G30's score of 108 minutes, but it's still nothing to crow about.

If you're happy to wait a few months for more Blu-ray content to land, the AR18GP is a powerful, multimedia-rich laptop whose only glaring omission is a TV tuner.

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