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Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System review: Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System

Just as Microsoft rolls out support for multidisc changers in its Media Center Edition OS, Sony unveils a new Media Center system with a 200-disc DVD changer. Designed as a living-room computer, the rack-style black-and-silver box is high-end high tech. We had more than our fair share of troubles, however, with the disc changer.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
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Dan Ackerman
6 min read
Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System

Just as Microsoft rolled out support for multidisc changers in its Media Center Edition OS, Sony unveiled a new Media Center system with a 200-disc DVD changer. The black-and-silver Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System (DLS) is composed of a sleek, rack-style Media Center PC and a separate multidisc changer. At $2,300, it isn't cheap, but it is relatively affordable compared with other high-end living-room Media Center PCs we've seen recently (that don't feature a monstrous disc changer). The VGX-XL1 DLS is an inventive concept with a lot of promise, but trying to rip large numbers of audio CDs proved an exercise in frustration. Until Sony works out the kinks, this isn't the living-room PC panacea serious media archivists have been pining for.


Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System

The Good

Slick, inventive design; dual-core CPU; HDMI output.

The Bad

Has trouble ripping large numbers of discs; lacks common PC A/V ports; small hard drive; no mouse included.

The Bottom Line

The Sony VAIO XL1 DLS breaks some new ground for the living-room PC, but the wonky 200-disc changer hurts its overall appeal.

Setup is a snap. The PC and the disc changer connect via FireWire (iLink, in Sony's parlance) and can either sit on top of one another or side by side. Plug each into the wall, connect the PC to a TV or a monitor, and hit the power button. Even if you don't snake your network cable over to the XL1, it has a built-in 54g Wi-Fi antenna and a wireless keyboard with a touch pad, all in the name of cutting down clutter.

Immediately after getting the XL1 DLS up and running, we threw a book full of CDs at it to test its headlining feature, the 200-disc changer. (You can store DVDs in the changer for easy access, but you can't rip them to the hard drive because of DRM issues. You'd also quickly run out of space, given the resulting large video files.) The changer promised an efficient way to rip a large collection of music; we hoped to come in the next morning and find an iPod's worth of new tunes stored and neatly organized on the XL1 DLS's hard drive (when connected to the Internet, the XL1 pulls down album and movie info). However, after repeated efforts, we'd happily go back to ripping CD after CD on a standard, single-drive PC.

Adding CDs to the XL1's slot-loading drive is simple enough, and it successfully ripped small batches of CDs--20 or 30 at a time. When we attempted to rip between 80 and 150 discs, however, it didn't complete the task even once. In four separate attempts (using two separate review units), it either froze or simply stopped after several hours of ripping, each time completing less than half the task. We could not have been more disappointed with the results.

When the system wasn't trying to rip dozens of CDs, its 2.8GHz dual-core Pentium D 820 processor operated smoothly. In CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 benchmarks, it performed at the lower end of our expectations for its CPU but still within the margins of usability. Media Center systems often sacrifice raw processing power for design, storage, or connectivity. The XL1 DLS's SysMark score of 174 was 4 percent below that of Sony's other new Media Center PC, the all-in-one VAIO VGC-VA11G, which uses a faster but single-core 3.2GHz Pentium 4 640 CPU. The XL1 DLS scored 9 percent lower than the priciest Media Center we've tested, the $6,300 Niveus Denali, which has an older, single-core 3.2GHz Pentium 4 540 processor.

The XL1 performed well in our multimedia-heavy Internet-content-creation tests, making it ideal for multithreaded apps such as Photoshop. The XL1's dual-core CPU is a smart choice for a Media Center system that will presumably be engaged in a variety of media tasks, often simultaneously.

The XL1 DLS wouldn't run our Half-Life 2 test--disappointing, but not totally unexpected for a living-room system. Older games will run better on the included 64MB PCIe GeForce 6200 video card. The system's TV tuner is a standard-definition single-tuner card from Giga. While not a top-shelf brand-name card like a Hauppauge, it produced live and recorded TV on a par with other TV-tuner cards we've seen.

Noise levels were comparable to those of other living-room Media Centers, which is to say that it's pretty quiet. While not silent like the fanless Niveus Denali, the XL1 emits a level of normal operating noise suitable for a living room. However, the DVD changer was another story. While it wouldn't normally run nonstop, the DVD changer produced noise levels 14 to 16 decibels higher than the PC half of the XL1. In real-world terms, it was about as loud as any other multidisc carousel-style changer you've seen.

The XL1's 512MB of RAM seems a bit stingy for a $2,300 computer, and the included 200GB hard drive isn't big enough for hard-core media addicts who will want to rip hundreds of CDs and record many hours of TV programming. Though you can't configure the system at the time of purchase, you can upgrade the RAM and the hard drive with aftermarket parts. The case provides easy access to the interior. The system supports up to 2GB of memory and has two open 3.5-inch bays for additional hard drives.

Besides having a huge disc changer, the XL1 DLS is notable for being the first PC we've seen with an HDMI port, the preferred connection for outputting to an HDTV. Sony also includes an HDMI cable. In addition, you'll find a component-video out and S/PDIF in and out ports. The front panel provides a multiformat media-card reader in addition to S-Video and composite video-in ports (for connecting a camcorder, for example). Standard PC connections are missing, including VGA and DVI ports and 1/8-inch audio ports. Though the XL1 is intended for your living-room TV, you can connect it to a digital PC monitor via the included HDMI-to-DVI adapter.

The system comes with a Media Center remote and a Sony multimedia keyboard with a touch pad, but you don't get a traditional mouse. Given that the XL1 is a living-room system, Sony clearly expects the touch pad and the Media Center remote to handle pointing and clicking. A wireless mouse would have been a welcome addition, though.

The software bundle features a healthy selection of software that should cover all your multimedia needs, including Adobe Photoshop Elements 4 for editing photos, Adobe Premiere Standard for editing video, Microsoft Works 8 for productivity, and InterVideo's WinDVD for playing DVDs.

Sony backs the VAIO XL1 DLS with a standard one-year warranty, which includes 24/7 toll-free phone support and Web-site support with FAQs and documentation. The printed materials are top-notch, from the Welcome Mat (which lays out basic setup instructions, including TV and cable connections) to the thick manual, which covers both the hardware and basic Media Center operations. Extended-coverage plans start at $149 for an additional year of service.

Application performance
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo's SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
Creature Scylla S301
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 3800+; Nvidia Nforce-4 Ultra SLI chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (PCIe); four WDC WD2500JD-00HBB0; 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA; Hitachi HDS728080PLA380 80GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA; integrated Silicon SiI 3114 SoftRAID 5 controller (RAID 0)
HP Z555 Digital Entertainment Center
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.0GHz Intel P4 530; Intel 915G chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 (PCIe); Maxtor 6B250S0 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Niveus Denali Media Center
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.2GHz Intel P4 540; Intel 945G chipset; 4,096MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT (PCIe); two Seagate ST3400832AS 400GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.2GHz Intel P4 640; ATI Radeon RC410M chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB ATI Radeon X700 (PCIe); (2) Maxtor 6L160M0 160GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 820; Intel 945G chipset; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6200 TurboCache (PCIe); Maxtor 6L200M0 200GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA


Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 3Support 5