Tonight, Sony VAIO introduced a new flagship series of notebooks to promote its Blu-ray next-generation video format, the VAIO AR, which replaces Sony's AX series in the 17" desktop replacement class. The AR's design was conceived from scratch, with black and silver colors chosen to match other devices in today's digital living room. The laptops in this series are merely 1.32" thin and extremely lightweight (8.4 lbs) for the class, although what they lose in thickness, they make up for in width and depth -- 16.4" x 11.8" -- resulting in a noticeably thick bezel around the screen.
The XBRITE screen, however, overshadows everything else with no difficulty. The standard models in the AR series, AR130G and AR150G, match the existing AX's WXGA+ (1440x900) resolution, while the AR190G, which is the premium, Blu-ray-enabled model improves on that with WUXGA (1920x1200) capable of 1080p resolution. The premium model comes bundled with one of the first Blu-ray Disc (BD) movies, House of Flying Daggers, which Sony showed side-by-side tonight, along with the DVD version. Contrary to what some have said, the difference in quality is instantly noticeable, and according to Sony, it is even more apparent on movies shot in HD (which HoFD apparently wasn't). AR190G comes bundled with an HDMI cable and an HDMI-to-DVI-D adapter so you can take full advantage of BD movies on your HDTV.
The US price for the AR190G is $3,499, which is slightly lower than the Canadian (4000 CAD = 3590 USD) and UK (2000 GBP = 3760 USD) prices that we saw appear on Sony websites in the last two days. The AR150G will be available for $2,299 and the AR130G $1799, with the main difference between the two standard models being a TV tuner. All models will become available by the end of June, although one Sony rep (who was not a speaker at the event) mentioned "a couple of weeks", so there is a slight chance that it will be available sooner.
The specs are, for the most part, what we saw on SonyStyle.ca two days ago, with the differences between the models as the following:
|VAIO VGN-AR190G||VAIO VGN-AR150G||VAIO VGN-AR130G|
|Processor||Core Duo T2500, 2 GHz, 667 MHz FSB||Core Duo T2400, 1.86 GHz, 667 MHz FSB||Core Duo T2300, 1.66 GHz, 667 MHz FSB|
|Graphics||nVidia GeForce Go 7600GT, 256 MB VRAM||nVidia GeForce Go 7600, 128 MB VRAM||nVidia GeForce Go 7400, 64 MB VRAM|
|Battery Life||1.5-2 hrs||1.5-2.5 hrs||2-3.5 hrs|
|TV Tuner||TV Tuner (NTSC) + Remote Control/IR Receiver||<<||-|
|RF Connector Input + Cable||<<||-|
|Remote Control/IR Receiver||<<||-|
|HDD||100 GB x2 in RAID 0, 5400 RPM||160 GB, 4200 RPM||<<|
|Resolution||WUXGA 1920x1200||WXGA+ 1440x900||<<|
|Optical Drive||Blu-ray R/W, CD/DVD+-R/RW/R DL||CD/DVD+-R/RW/R DL||<<|
|HDMI Cable + HDMI to DVI-D Adapter||-||-|
|InterVideo WinDVD BD player + Ulead BD Disc Recorder||-||-|
|House of Flying Daggers BD Movie||-||-|
The specs common to all models are:
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Unfortunately, as you can see from the keyboard view pictures above, the AR line still lacks a number pad. According to one Sony rep, this is because VAIO's designers feel that it would be too confusing to have the touchpad off-center, and they prefer a clean, symmetrical, uncluttered look. However, the media controls are positioned in two sets -- one along the top right edge of the keyboard (FF, RWD, etc), and another along the left side (eject, volume, channel +/- on TV tuner models, and S1/S2 buttons which can be programmed to do "anything" and appear to exist mostly for symmetry). The power button is located on the right side of the keyboard, but is not well aligned with anything, which throws off the symmetry even further.
Power button (view large image)
The right and left click buttons are separated from the touchpad quite a bit, probably also to achieve the clean look, but if anything, this setup will take getting used to. The buttons are located where the lid lock usually is, and the lid is secured in what seems a bizzare manner -- a latch on only the right side of the lid. When down, it is imperceptible (at least, not in the dark event room), so it will not harm aesthetics, but it certainly doesn't look very trustworthy. However, since this laptop is not meant to be carried around outside very often, it may be more convenient to leave the lid unlatched while not in use.
This picture above shows what happens when one tries to lift the left side of the lid while the latch is holding the lid down. The blue light in the picture is coming from the screen. The angle at which the lid pivots, which can be determined from the blue light, is quite small, and actually is quite impressive. The lid is sturdy, and pressing on its back produces no ripples or other signs of weakness on the screen. The lid has "piano black finish", and the bottom of the case is "some kind of magnesium alloy". Overall, the laptop feels sturdy and reliable.
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There are several items to note around the screen. First, the speakers have been repositioned from the sides of the screen to the bottom because the former speaker placement caused sound distortion issues. Second, between the speakers is the VAIO logo which is usually lit up when the computer is on, but it automatically turns off when watching a movie so as not to distract the movie watcher. It is possible to turn off the lighting when not watching a movie as well, but unfortunately, this is done via software rather than hardware. Finally, above the screen is the MOTION EYE camera. It would be very difficult to discern if not for the logotype next to the actual camera -- and even then, it is not bothersome. It is completely under the lid bezel's finish and therefore should be difficult to damage.
Finally, before wrapping up, let's take a look at all the connections...
Left-hand side: A/V inputs, optical drive, hole for the lock. (view large image)
Front right-hand side (nothing is on the left): lid latch, memory card slot, WLAN/Bluetooth on/off switch. (view large image)
Right-hand side: 2 USB ports, PC Card and ExpressCard slots (one above the other), and audio/video in/outputs that are normally hidden behind a sleek silver panel. Another small panel further to the right hides the Ethernet and modem jacks. (view large image)
Right-hand side with all the silver panels closed.(view large image)
Back: TV tuner, fan holes, another USB port on the right, and the power plug.(view large image)
Front view of VAIO AR190G (view large image)
Sony VAIO's new AR series provides a noteworthy offering to the small but quickly growing market for desktop replacements, which is currently about 8% of the total market. It looks better and is as much as two pounds lighter than the competition, the latter of which may attract individuals who would otherwise be interested in 15.4" models. However, it is lacking in multiple areas.
The line reads only two card types. The number lock is conspicuously absent from the setup, and the buttons around the keyboard are scattered in a strange arrangement. The standard models, which are already expensive, come with only 4200 RPM HDDs, and even the premium $3,500 model comes only with 5400 RPM dual HDDs, when 7200 RPM HDDs are no longer scarce. Even the flagship model, AR190G, comes with only 1GB RAM. In short, it leaves much to be desired.
The key feature of AR190G, Blu-ray, undoubtedly looks great. However, at over $1,000 for the drive alone, and given the prices and availability of BD movies, it is hardly worth the price to most consumers. The two standard models are not bad, but in the end, they still have average contents in a pretty case at an above-average price.
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