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Three members of the new Vaio FE range are coming to the UK that share the same 15.4-inch X-black screen, run on Core 2 Duo processing power and use Nvidia GeForce Go 7-series graphics adaptors.
The top-line FE31Z has a 1.83GHz CPU, 2GB RAM, GeForce Go 7600 graphics card, a 200GB HDD and costs £1,299 SRP (£1,149 on the street), which seems quite reasonable, if a little pricey.
In the middle of the range is the FE31M with 1GB RAM, a 160GB HDD and an SRP of £1,099 when it goes on sale. Then we come to the runt of the litter -- the FE31H. Its dual-core CPU runs at 1.66GHz, it uses GeForce Go 7400 with TurboCache memory and the HDD is 120GB in size, but the price is listed at £899 (and we've already found it on sale at £800) -- incredibly cheap for a Sony.
Naturally you expect a Sony Vaio to look good but the FE31H is understated, almost to a fault. The chassis is dark grey, while the higher-spec models are light grey, with the all-important shiny Vaio logo on the lid. The keyboard has a gentle slope, which gives it a natural angle for typing, but leaning heavily on the chassis reveals a fair amount of flex, particularly on either side of the mouse trackpad.
The mouse selector buttons are slender bars that are positioned very close to the edge of the chassis. They look great but are very awkward to operate -- it seems Sony has put form before function here. Above the keyboard are shortcut buttons for mute, volume control, Sony Help and switching to an external monitor. The power button is positioned to the top right of the keyboard.
The rest of the layout is very tidy -- the network and modem ports are on the left side behind the DVD-RW drive, and the various ports and slots on the right. On the front are the jacks for a headset, along with a switch for the Wi-Fi adaptor and a slider to lock and unlock the lid. Sony has placed its Motion Eye webcam in the top bezel of the screen, but it's so discreet that you'd never know it was there unless you were looking especially hard.
With the exception of the network and modem connections, which are on the left side, Sony has arranged most of the connections on the right-hand side. Running from front to back is a PC Card slot, an ExpressCard/34 slot, then a (4-pin) Mini FireWire 400 port, three USB 2.0 ports, S-Video, VGA and the AC power port. Though neat, this layout is bound to become awkward. Lefties will prefer a USB port on the left -- particularly if using a mouse -- and connecting more than a handful of accessories at a time means they could get in each other's way.
One answer is to buy docking station model VGP-PRFE1 for your office, which duplicates these ports and also offers composite video output, DVI-D and optical audio, but it will cost you about £160. The inclusion of both PC Card and ExpressCard slots means that you're covered in terms of expansion, however the FE31H doesn't have Bluetooth, so you're likely to use one of the ports or slots to connect an adaptor.
The Nvidia GeForce 7400 Go graphics adaptor uses up to 256MB of system memory and produce a 3DMark 2006 score that is fairly pathetic, however we were able to play Far Cry without any problems at the laptop's native 1,280x800-pixel resolution. If you don't get too ambitious with your gaming you'll find that the graphics are perfectly acceptable, while the widescreen X-black screen is both sharp and clear. This budget model only uses a single lamp in the backlight compared to two lights in the more expensive models, but we were very happy with its performance.
Using the Nvidia graphics adaptor, rather than an integrated Intel chip, means that the FE31H can support the Aero interface of Windows Vista Premium and Sony includes a free upgrade to the new version of Windows in the price. Of course, you'll have to wait until Vista is released to the public before you can get the upgrade.
Sony includes a stack of software but much of it is trial stuff that has a limited life, including products from Symantec and Microsoft Office 2003. You get full versions of Microsoft Works 8.5, WinDVD 5, Adobe Photoshop Elements 4, Premiere Elements 2 and Acrobat 7.0 Elements, which will cover the basic tasks between them.
We've seen so many Centrino laptops that it's fairly easy to predict their performance and the Vaio VGN-FE31H gave us no real surprises, barring a slightly above-average PCMark 2005 score. Its 1.66GHz Core 2 Duo processor and 1GB of DDR2 RAM helped it clock up a very solid 3,349, which makes it slightly quicker than the 20-inch Acer Aspire 9802WKMi.
The standard 4800mAh battery lasted for 2 hours 32 minutes with constant use, which is quite acceptable. You'd probably get 4 hours of life from the optional extended VGP-BPL2C 7800mAh battery, but as it costs £279 we doubt there will be many takers.
In most respects the Nvidia graphics showed little advantage over the Intel GMA950 graphics adaptor that you typically find in a Centrino laptop, except that this Sony is fully ready for Windows Vista Premium. It scored 801 in 3DMark 2006.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield