Sony VAIO VGC-RA830G
At a Glance
If you want to explore digital entertainment on your PC and want it to work as easily as your DVD player, Sony's VAIO VGC-RA830G could be the system for you. This $2200 midsize tower comes with all the hardware and software you need to get started--including the Windows Media Center OS--but Sony has also added something very important: excellent documentation to help you get started as painlessly as possible, plus lots of extra software.
The extensive, clearly written user manual is as close as a shortcut on the desktop, and the printed getting-started guide has clear diagrams and thorough explanations. The complete inventory of all the parts that come with the system is particularly helpful. And inside the getting-started booklet is a printed card explaining how to use the VAIO Recovery Wizard to make emergency backup discs or restore the machine to its factory settings from the hard drive image. No OS disc is included, unfortunately, but at least Sony takes pains to notify you of this with the card. The VAIO Life shell serves as a launcher for the system's help and tutorials, as well as the preinstalled digital media apps. The VAIO Console essentially puts access to all Windows' control panels on the desktop.
In the extensive online help, Sony provides instructions on how to use the system as a networked media server using its own software. Another preinstalled Sony-proprietary application is its GigaPocket PVR software, plus DVD-burning, video-capture and -output, photo editing, and music-engineering programs. This is on top of third-party apps such as Adobe's Photoshop Album SE and Elements 2; Adobe Premiere Standard for VAIO; and trial versions of Norton Internet Protect, InterMute's SpySubtract Pro, and Microsoft Office 2003. All are accessible from desktop shortcuts as soon as you boot up.
On our test unit, Sony preinstalled a wizard for configuring the two 160GB hard drives for RAID; it also installed its own media-playing interface. The latter duplicates and improves on some of the functions of Windows' Media Center. You can choose which you want to use.
Like the software, the case exterior has been designed to minimize user frustration, but with mixed results. Though all the ports are clearly labeled, the front-mounted USB 2.0 and FireWire ports are on the bottom of the front panel. If you put this midsize tower on the floor, those ports will be about as far away from you as possible. The door to the main case compartment opens with the press of a button, but the interior is poorly organized. A bundle of cables blocks clear access to the two open RAM slots; the open PCI expansion slot is blocked as well. The top part of the case (above a tier open in the center for ventilation and visual panache)--which houses the optical drives--cannot be opened without tools. Clearly, Sony did not design this system with much upgrading by users in mind.
The Logitech X-530 5.1-channel speaker set that came with our system didn't take up much room, but it pumped out plenty of loud, clear sound, with strong bass and rich tones. The included Sony keyboard and mouse use infrared wireless; the keyboard worked at 7 feet away from the system, but only when directly facing the IR receiver. It also has only a few media controls: Volume Up and Down and Mute keys, plus a Sleep/Wake key; but the other music and video playback functions can be handled by the Media Center remote.
However, we were underwhelmed by the performance of this machine, which has a 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 550J CPU and 1GB of DDR400 RAM: Its WorldBench 5 score was only 91. Although that's in line with other PCs we've tested with the same configuration, the score is well below those we typically see from current power systems. While we were quite satisfied with its DVD playback, our tests indicate that this VAIO might be relatively slow when handling the graphics- and CPU-intensive tasks it was designed for, such as video editing.
The 19-inch LCD monitor we received with this PC, Sony's $700 SDM-HS95P, has a sleek, thin profile that complements the PC case nicely. The easel-style stand has a roller foot that makes adjusting the screen's tilt very smooth. We were pleased with the clarity of text, although we would bump up the contrast from the factory settings. We saw pleasing, natural tones in our test photo, though details could have been a bit clearer. Our DVD movie looked a little dark, with somewhat murky details.
Sony's VAIO VGC-RA830G, in a handsome tower, makes digital media authoring and playback easy, but suffers from sluggish performance.