The VAIO VGC-V2M's jet-black chassis wouldn't seem out of place on Darth Vader's desk. If arch-villain is the look you're going for this season, this is definitely the most evil-chic looking computer we've ever reviewed. Behind its devilish façade, the £1,400 VAIO is powered by a 3GHz P4, 512MB of RAM and a GeForce 5700 graphics card -- not quite enough to take over the world, but it's powerful enough to run even the more demanding of today's games at decent speeds.
Those likely to be attracted to this Sony are multimedia fans who don't have the space for a traditional television, DVD player and home computer. The VGC-V2M sidesteps the spaghetti-like mess of wires and components that are a part of most home-entertainment systems. It's an all-in-one Media Center PC that, notably, doesn't use Windows XP Media Center Edition but instead runs Sony's own Media Center software.
At a porky 12.9kg, the VAIO may have a small footprint, but it's not the kind of computer you'd want to transport from living room to bedroom regularly. The VAIO's looks are slightly deceptive -- although it seems like a very compact unit at first glance, there's actually a lot of bulk hidden behind the screen. The VDC-V2M's footprint, excluding keyboard, is around 480 by 280mm, and it's just under 400mm tall -- not much higher than most stand-alone LCDs.
Sony has effectively packed half of the VAIO's CPU into the stand and half into the screen. Unlike the extremely thin iMac G5, it's obvious with the VAIO where the computer has disappeared to -- the VDC-V2M's CPU is the same size as the CPU on most desktop PCs. Sony has wedged a lot of computer behind the LCD display.
Although the VAIO's space-saving design is slightly illusory, it's still a hot-looking computer. The rear bulk of the VAIO makes it very stable on a desk and the screen is framed by an attractive high-gloss black frame. Beneath the screen, there's a long speaker fascia which looks like it might conceal a row of small speakers for surround sound, but in fact contains two five-watt speakers for stereo sound.
Attempting to connect your TV aerial to the VAIO exposes the computer's first design flaw: it's very difficult to access the AV ports, because they're located on the bottom edge of the screen. At first, it looked like we'd have to tip the heavy unit on to its side to plug in a video signal. But after some investigation, we discovered that the back of the Vaio's screen is a huge sliding panel. If you shift this panel up, the AV ports become much more accessible -- although not to the point where you can actually see exactly which port you're plugging cables into. For most users this may be a one-time operation, but if you're planning on switching AV cables on a regular basis, it's a lucky dip.
A tray-loading DVD drive is built into the side of the VAIO's chassis. We're puzzled by this clumsy choice of loading mechanism. It would have been much more sensible to install a slot-loading DVD drive. This would avoid the possibility of an improperly seated DVD dropping on to the desk when you're trying to load it. It would also make the drive feel less flimsy.
The VAIO's wireless keyboard and mouse are endearingly eccentric bits of design. The keyboard folds out like a vanity screen on its side. There are three hinged sections and it can be manipulated into a position where the keys are concealed and only the trackpad is accessible. It's an interesting vision of the future, but we couldn’t find any practical reason to have all these hinged sections.
The actual feel of the keyboard is delicious. We don't often fall in love with keyboards, but the way the VAIO's sits under your fingers is a treat worth special mention. The key response is halfway between laptop and desktop. It's an ergonomic blend.
Because the VAIO's body conceals a full-sized PC, there's no significant performance penalty to pay for the chassis's small footprint. The 3GHz P4 is a strong processor and Sony has paired this with a NVIDEA GeForce Go5700 128MB graphics card -- a swift enough combination to deal with video-editing tasks and most modern games.
An 800MHz frontside bus and 200GB hard disk make the VAIO's base configuration of 512MB RAM seem thrifty. The VAIO's RAM is upgradable, but to a maximum of 1024MB. This will be more than sufficient for most home users, but is well below the amount of RAM that many desktop PCs can accommodate.
Rather than opt for Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition, Sony has installed its own home-grown Media Center software on the Vaio. This has a less glitzy, more utilitarian feel to it than Microsoft's Media Center interface, but it is more complicated to navigate. There's less animation, but most menus -- particularly the PVR interface -- feel cluttered and confusing. It's strange, given that Sony has so much experience designing TV menus, that the media interface on the VAIO is not more intuitive. It's nothing you won't get used to, but we felt that Sony has tried to display too many controls on the PVR screen.
Setting up and recording television is identical to the procedure you'd use on any other Media Center PC. Once we'd plugged in an aerial, the on-board tuner scanned for available channels and automatically assigned these to presets. The Sony's PVR works well except for one annoying quirk: there's a lag of at least a second between pressing record and the PVR actually recording the programme you're watching. If you want to capture a TV programme instantly, this can be surprisingly irritating.
One of the VGC-V2M's most interesting features is its ability to write double-layered DVDs. This enables you to cram twice as much information on each disc. The VAIO's dual-layer DVD writer burns double-layered discs at 1x speed and CD-Rs at 16x speed.
The VAIO's 17-inch LCD is gorgeously bright, but does suffer from high reflectivity in a brightly lit room. If you have harsh overhead lighting you might want to take this into account. This reflectivity is partly intentional. Sony uses a technology called X-Black to minimise the amount of LCD-emitted light absorbed by the screen's protective covering. But we found that the X-Black system sacrifices low-reflectivity in pursuit of deeper, crisper blacks.
Most LCDs use a diffuse material to soften reflections, but X-Black uses a relatively clear layer between the LCD and you. X-Black does reduce reflections to a degree, but the result is not comparable to the pleasant silk finish of a regular LCD screen.
Media Center PC manufacturers have faced a difficult trade-off between the reflectivity and clarity of LCD screens. The problem is that we expect our TV picture to be bright with deep blacks, but we expect our computers to have screens without distracting reflections. It's difficult to deliver a hybrid screen that completely satisfies both criteria. Nevertheless, Sony's reputation for LCDs with sharp and vivid colour is well deserved. If you can live with the occasional problem of light reflecting in the VAIO's screen when you're working, you'll love the high quality video image the VAIO can produce in DVD and TV mode.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide