Five Multimedia Notebooks, Tested


As the driving force behind Blu-ray technology, it’s no surprise that Sony came first to market in May 2006 with a Blu-ray equipped notebook PC. Despite the more than two years that have since elapsed, Blu-ray is really just beginning to become both affordable and viable for notebook PCs. Sony has recently reworked much of its VAIO notebook line, and introduced the multimedia AR790U/B model in mid-2008 as part of that effort.

Although the Sony VGN-AR models all feature a glossy black exterior, the keyboard deck has more of a matte finish and is less likely to show smudges and fingerprints.

What the AR790 delivers is a well designed, nicely equipped multimedia notebook at a middling price. Sony’s successor model to this is the VGN-AR870. Configured to match the innards of our review unit, including a Blu-ray burner, this notebook goes for just over $2,900 on the SonyStyle Website (as compared to $3,300 for an identically configured AR790 at Amazon). You could buy a Blu-ray player, use Vista Home Premium instead of Ultimate and go with two 200 GB drives, and save $600 on the purchase price, to come in just under the price for the HP HDX.

At 8.4 pounds (9.6 with AC adapter and power cord), the AR790 is a typical multimedia notebook in terms of size, weight and handling. Its 17" WUXGA display supports full 1080p resolution, and its 512 MB 8600M GT graphics adapter handled all of our Blu-ray and broadcast HD material with aplomb. The 2.5 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9300 processor seemed more than adequate for the computing tasks we threw at this machine, as did its 4 GB of DDR2-667 RAM. The chipset is an Intel PM965 Express, with networking support from an Intel 4965 802.11a/g/n adapter for wireless and a Marvell Yukon-based GbE for wired connections. Sony provided an ATI USB TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner along with our notebook, and we used it to good effect in tuning in OTA and unencrypted HDTV channels on the unit.

Left side, from left to right: optical S/PDIF port, microphone-in jack, headphone-out jack and optical drive tray.

The HDMI output was able to deliver both sound and picture to our digital receiver, but we couldn’t pass any high-definition audio schemes other than Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 to that device (this is typical for most PC Blu-ray playback, in fact).

The keyboard layout on this unit features a more or less standard keyboard layout with full-sized keys. But the 2" margin on either side of the keyboard, with media control keys and status LEDs to the left and a power indicator to the right, didn’t leave room for a numeric keypad. For those seeking a good multimedia base station PC, this won’t be a problem. But for those who also want a fully-functional desktop replacement PC, this might be somewhat vexing. Nevertheless, the AR790 (and its nearly identical AR870 successor) makes a good media station, whether in the office or the living room.

Rear view, from left to right: VHF/UHF/CATV input port, air vent, Kensington lock slot, battery connector (for optional external battery), USB 2.0 port and DC in jack.

As we take a tour of this notebook, you’ll find its many ports, connectors and controls on all four of the unit’s edges.

The bezel around the display is also home to a built-in 1.1 MPixel Webcam with an activity indicator light to let you know when you’re "on." Sony bundles a miniature Windows Media Center-compatible remote control with the AR790, which works with other multimedia applications besides what Vista offers. The remote control has a standard USB-attached remote sensor device (much like the Microsoft remote does itself). The MS memory card reader works with standard and Duo-sized media, MS Pro and MS Pro-HG Duo formats. MS Micro (M2) media requires an M2 standard or M2 Duo-sized adapter. The SD slot works with standard SD media or mini-SD media in a standard SD adapter.

Right side, from left to right: 2 x USB 2.0 ports, PC card slot (above), ExpressCard slot (below), Firewire 400 port, AV-in jack (composite video), S-Video-in and S-Video-out ports, HDMI, VGA, RJ-45 GbE and RJ-11 modem ports.

Except for the lack of a numeric keypad, the VGN-AR790 offers sufficient horsepower and capability to do double-duty as a media center and a desktop replacement. As with other multimedia notebooks, it is fairly heavy and also gets warm when running anything more than a moderate load (we measured a temperature of 103 °F/39° C on the underside with an infrared sensor during testing). The placement of USB ports (two front right and one at the rear) is a little odd, especially for right-handed users who may also want to use an external mouse. The built-in speakers are listenable but not on par with those you’ll find in the other units in this round-up. Besides these few minor annoyances, the VGN-790 is a satisfactory multimedia notebook and general-purpose PC.

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