Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 Digital Living System
At a Glance
Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 Digital Living System
This Windows Vista-based Media Center PC is one of the first to support CableCards for decrypting and recording scrambled programming, but it does so with some severe limitations.
Sony says its VAIO VGX-XL3 Digital Living System gives you "TV on your terms." But I found that my terms differ substantially from what this Windows Vista-based Media Center PC can deliver.
The VGX-XL3 ought to be the Media Center PC that finally makes sense in a living room because it uses AMD/ATI's high-definition TV tuner card with a CableCard slot to decrypt scrambled, premium cable TV content such as HBO and Showtime without requiring a bulky set-top box. It also has a Blu-Ray DVD recorder, HDMI output, and fairly brawny PC components. Its attractive case and extremely quiet operation should make it a good fit for almost any home-theater environment.
But this PC, which costs $3300 without a monitor or TV, has some aggravating limitations. For example, you can record TV programs to the device's Blu-ray drive--but not if you have a CableCard installed. (You can record programs to the hard drive whether you've installed a CableCard or not). According to Sony's Web site, the computer is a "full HD 1080 Media Center PC," but it can output only a 1080i signal. (Sony says that applying an nVidia graphics card update will enable 1080p, but it will also prevent DVD playback and cause other problems). The included wireless keyboard has an integrated trackpad that I loathed: Its large buttons are recessed and very uncomfortable to push. As a result, I often resorted to mousing with my right forefinger and clicking with my left forefinger.
As a standard PC, the VGX-XL3 performs adequately. It earned a PC WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 86, which is about halfway between the marks posted by value PCs we've tested recently and the marks posted by power PCs. But Sony made the VGX-XL3 powerful not so that it could accommodate spreadsheet analysis and Internet browsing, but so that it would be responsive when handling demanding entertainment content.
TV That Makes You Work to Watch
Before I could watch any content, I had to download and install 17 Sony updates and 18 Windows updates. Microsoft's updater worked fine, but Sony's updater stalled because it couldn't find the TV tuner card. Consequently, I had to download the updates a second time; and unlike Microsoft's updater, Sony's requires you to install updates one at a time.
After I finished installing the updates--and frequently thereafter--I couldn't see any image, whether entertainment content or PC desktop, on the TV. The reason: Either Media Center couldn't recognize the TV card, or because of incessant HDMI errors. Restoring the picture required that I unplug and replug cables from the PC, the receiver we used for testing, or the TV, or reboot one or more of the devices. I tried out a second VGX-XL3 to see if I'd simply received a bad unit, but the second one had the same problems.
The prerecorded movies I played on the Blu-ray drive looked great most of the time, but they did stutter occasionally--and every once in a while during playback, the PC would stop responding to the cheapo remote that Sony includes. Once I got a message announcing that the disc I was trying to play--Flyboys, a pretty tame PG-13 movie--exceeded the parental level of the player. This incident occurred after I'd already watched a two or three chapters of the movie. I rebooted the PC, and the movie played without interruption from then on.
Unscrambled HDTV programming looked very nice, and I was able to record unscrambled high-definition and standard-definition programming to the system's hard drive, though that video stuttered during playback, too. But the point of using a CableCard is to bring in scrambled programming, so I asked a Comcast rep to install a CableCard in the VGX-XL3. Unfortunately, though the PC recognized the CableCard and confirmed that it had been set up properly, it wouldn't display encrypted channels, notwithstanding several follow-up efforts by Comcast. When I landed on a station that the tuner couldn't receive, the picture froze; after about 15 seconds, the system warned me that it wasn't receiving a signal. A few days later, the same Comcast rep who had set up my test VGX-XL3 also set up a TiVo HD, which had no problems with setup or with replaying encrypted content.
All CableCard-enabled Media Center PCs use the same AMD/ATI card, and all are required to adhere to the same strict rules that the cable industry insists on. So even though I didn't like the VGX-XL3 much, I doubt that any other Media Center PC of the same vintage will provide a more pleasant experience.
Which reminds me: The Digital Living System is a PC. And based on my experience with it, PCs still don't belong in the living room.