Sony seems to have cast theto the wayside, citing the newer, more powerful VGX-XL202 as its flagship Blu-ray computer. It's hard to argue with the logic -- the VGX-XL202's component hi-fi looks are a world apart from the RC204's boxy PC aesthetic, plus it ships with the latest Core 2 Duo innards, which should help it wipe the performance floor with its predecessor.
The VGX-XL202 looks like it means serious business. Its angular chassis and bullish front panel makes the sleek look weedy in comparison. We're pretty sure that if Media Center PCs could fight, the XL202 would be the reigning heavyweight champion.
A brushed silver panel takes up three quarters of the front of the unit, while a shiny black disc section occupies the remaining third. This is recessed slightly, which gives the front of the PC look a jutting underbite, but we think this looks pretty funky.
Unfortunately it all goes to pot when you open the silver panel to access the hidden input/output panel. The inner section is constructed of a dull black plastic and is adorned with ports in a manner that Sony's designers should be ashamed of. Everything's functionally positioned and well-spaced, but the ports seem to have been lumped together with no apparent forethought for the way they look -- it's way too utilitarian for our tastes.
We appreciate the presence of the front-facing S-video and component inputs, plus 4-pin FireWire port and two USB ports. And the full-size headphone port is a nice touch, provided you have appropriate headphones or an adaptor, but the multimedia card reader is recessed so far inside the PC it looks as if it's been kicked in.
The rear of the PC is littered with input/output ports. There's component video input, RCA audio inputs, digital optical in and out, a pair of 6-pin FireWire ports, two USB ports and an HDMI port. You also get two infrared transmitters that can be used to blast an infrared remote control signal to a couple of your existing set-top boxes. This is useful as it allows you to control your Sky HD box, for example, using the Vaio's remote control.
The VGX-XL202 also ships with a 150mm Wi-Fi aerial, a metre-long cable and a funky wireless keyboard with an integrated mouse touchpad. Like Sony's Vaio laptops this has a selection of shortcut keys to help you adjust the volume, launch Internet and email clients and a programmable application of your choice. Connecting the keyboard to the PC is achieved by pressing the 'Connect' button beneath the front flap of the base unit.
Whereas the Acer Aspire iDea 500 was a glorified laptop in PC form, the VGX-XL202 is a full-fledged desktop PC. It's built around Sony's own P5BW-MB motherboard and 1GB of DDR memory occupying two of the four available memory slots in a dual-channel memory configuration. This setup theoretically doubles the data throughput from RAM to the memory controller, minimising the likelihood of bottlenecks.
Tech-heads should also love the Intel E6400 Core 2 Duo processor. It's the third most powerful in the Core 2 Duo desktop CPU lineup, but provides a whole lot of grunt for anything from Web browsing to video editing. Sitting adjacent to the CPU and its suitably elaborate cooling system is an Nvidia GeForce 7600 graphics card -- a mid-range 'family' card that'll let you run most games, albeit at modest resolutions.
The card is a fanless model that's cooled by a heatsink and heatpipe combination, so it operates in perfect silence. Bizarrely though, the card does not have D-Sub or DVI outputs. Only an HDMI port is present, although you get an HDMI to DVI adaptor in the box. Reassuringly, the card is a full-height PCI Express model so it's easily replaceable if it doesn't suit your needs.
Crammed into a housing on the left of the machine's busy innards is a pair of 250GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.9 hard drives in a RAID 0 (striped) configuration. This gives you 500GB of storage space, and faster disk access times than if you were to use a pair of independent 250GB disks.
Multimedia freaks will love the inclusion of a Freeview TV tuner card, but the flagship component in this PC is a Matshita BD-MLT UJ-215S Blu-ray disc drive. This slot-loading device brings several benefits over ordinary DVD drives, most notably its ability to play high-definition Blu-ray movies. When you're not playing movies you can use it to copy up to 25GB of data to an ordinary single-layer Blu-ray Disc (BD) or 50GB to dual-layer BDs.
It's fair to say this puts 4.7GB DVD discs to shame, but it's not a particularly fast drive. It runs at a Blu-ray speed of 1x, but is rather slow when writing to other formats: just 8x for CDs and DVDs. Avid disc burners who've grown accustomed to 52x CD-R drives will be slightly cheesed off about this.
Sony sent us Blu-ray copies of Tears of the Sun and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride to help us put the VGX-XL202 through its paces, but if you buy the VGX-XL202 between now and 1 January 2007, you can claim six free Blu-ray movies of your own, plus a blank BD as part of a special offer.
Don't try playing your Blu-ray flicks through Windows Media Center though -- it doesn't have the foggiest idea what to do with them, telling us in no uncertain terms that there was no disc inserted. You'll need to use the accompanying Intervideo WinDVD BD 5.0 software. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this but it's a pain having to swap between multimedia applications -- especially as Media Center was designed to negate this hassle. As a result you won't be able to use the Media Center remote to control Blu-ray playback -- you'll need to use the wireless keyboard.
As with most Vaios you get a fairly healthy software package, including Adobe Premier Elements 2.0, DVgate Plus 2.2, Photoshop Elements 4.0 and BD Discrecorder for Vaio to name a few.
The VGX-XL202 provides effective all-round performance. Its Core 2 Duo E6400 CPU has two processing cores each running at 2.13GHz, which gives it enough processing power to throw most Windows applications around like a rag doll. It's fine for all everyday office productivity or multimedia tasks, but you may want to upgrade it with an extra 1GB of RAM if you plan to do any heavy image editing.
3D performance wasn't bad -- it ran F.E.A.R. at 33fps and scored 2,922 in 3DMark 2006, which is a respectable total for a fanless, completely silent graphics card. By comparison, the fan-cooled GeForce 7600 GT in the Vaio RC204 scored 3,535.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield