Sony VAIO AW Series (VGN-AW180Y/Q) Review

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$3999

Pros: Bright display with versatile viewing angles; Excellent performance scores; Strong gaming potential; Built-in TV tuner streams live TV clearly; Built-in CompactFlash reader

Cons: Not the sleekest design; Some hiccups during Blu-ray playback; Short battery life; Pricey

Verdict: Sony's latest multimedia notebook packs a stunning full HD display, Blu-ray burner, TV tuner, Dolby speakers, and twin SSDs. Just be prepared to splurge.

One thing's for sure: Sony knows how to do multimedia. The VAIO VGN-AW180Y/Q has a bright, 18.4-inch, full HD display with a 16:9 aspect ratio and wide viewing angles, Blu-ray drive, excellent TV tuner, and booming Dolby speakers. And thanks to dual solid state drives, the performance is unbeatable, too. Our configuration runs a steep $3,999, but you can keep the price at less than two grand and still get a powerful desktop replacement with most of the above amenities. The design isn't for everyone, however.

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Design

The AW is one of those rare machines whose outside doesn't quite match the inside. In contrast to the glossy black lid and large, silver VAIO logo, the inside is entirely matte (save for the stunning 18.4-inch display, of course). The thick palm rest has a fine, rubbery texture that feels better than it looks. It reminds us of the rubber floor of a playground. Although this notebook is slightly thicker than the18.4-inch HP HDX 18(1.6 inches vs. 1.3 inches), it's lighter: 8.2 pounds to the HDX 18's 9 pounds.

The touchpad, while smooth, has a black checkered pattern. Although it has just enough resistance, we don't like its placement left of center. The touch buttons, while tactile, are noisy and small, especially compared with the large touchpad.

Like other VAIO notebooks, the AW has flat, separated keys, reminiscent ofApple's MacBook. It also has a full number pad on the right side. While not as sexy as the silver keyboard on the HDX 18, these keys were comfortable to type on, and whisper-quiet.

Above the keyboard are touch-sensitive multimedia controls (with two programmable keys thrown in), and above that is a wide speaker strip and fingerprint reader. Unlike panels on other notebooks we've tested, these touch controls worked like a charm. Like other VAIO notebooks, the power button is on the right side of the notebook, where the display and keyboard deck meet. It glows a funky shade of green when powered on.

Multimedia Experience

The 18.4-inch, full HD display is LED backlit and has Sony's proprietary Xbrite technology, which true to its name, helps brighten the display. Unlike the HDX 18, whose 16:9 display was too reflective for our tastes, the AW has versatile viewing angles; we were able to tip the screen far forward, and could watch at nearly 180-degree angles.

When we watched an episode of Heroes on Blu-ray, the screen produced accurate colors and rich details, and for the most part, the scenes looked fluid. But the playback hiccupped a few times: once during a fight scene, and again when we clicked the screen. The speakers, which feature Dolby Digital Live technology, produced loud, rich sound.

TV Tuner Performance

The AW also has a built-in TV tuner with an external antenna. The antenna has a USB dongle, which screws into the end of a long cable, at the other end of which is the antenna itself. The setup is more cluttered than HP's, which consists of an antenna and cord plugged into a TV tuner port. The unsightly setup pays off: we enjoyed much clearer live TV than we did with the HDX 18. Our only gripe: the included remote, which is as large as any that comes with a Blu-ray player or television set, has poor tactile feedback. With the exception of the mute and volume controls, we had to press the buttons very deliberately.

Ports and Webcam

In addition to the fingerprint reader, the AW has a Blu-ray burner, three USB 2.0 ports; HDMI, VGA, S/PDIF output, FireWire, Ethernet and modem jacks; and headphone and mic ports. It also has an ExpressCard/34 slot, an SD Card reader, and a separate 4-in-1 memory card slot, which reads CompactFlash, a format used in high-end DSLRs. We don't see many notebooks with CF readers, and this one, with its powerful innards, stunning 18.4-inch display, and discrete graphics, seems like the perfect place for it.

The 1.3-megapixel webcam comes with ArcSoft WebCam Companion 2, which has a crude but simple interface. Our 1.3-MP photos showed good brightness and pleasant colors. Our VGA video captures were mostly smooth with lifelike sound. During a Skype call, our friend said the audio and video synced well.

Performance

For a steep $3,999 you get a 2.8-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9600 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and Windows Vista Ultimate (as a 64-bit OS, it promises performance gains over 32-bit systems). These high-end components delivered a PCMark Vantage score of 4,424. That's almost a thousand points above the desktop replacement category average, and second only to theLenovo ThinkPad W700. Then again, HP's HDX 18, which has the same CPU and 4GB of RAM, scored just 300 points less--and it costs $1,850 less.

On the LAPTOP Transfer Test, the 500GB, 5,400 rpm HDD and dual 64GB solid state drives (hence, the enormous price tag) transferred a 4.97GB file of mixed media in 3 minutes and 59 seconds, a rate of 21.3 MBps. That's just shy of the category average (24.3 MBps), and not much better than the HDX 18's dual 7,200-rpm, 160GB hard drives, which transferred the same file at a rate of 17.5 MBps. Given that the AW costs almost twice as much as the HDX 18, we expected a more dramatic gap in the performance scores. However, using the SiSoftware Sandra Lite benchmark, the AW's Samsung SSDs performed admirably, achieving a read rate of 178 MBps; still, it's slower than a single80GB Intel X25-M SSD, which notched a sky-high 234.6 MBps in the same test.

On our practical tests, the system took 1 minute and 25 seconds to boot, which is about 25 seconds too slow for a Vista notebook (the computer comes bloated with trials of Windows Live OneCare, the security program, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007, and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom). That said, we had no problem working within two windows and four tabs in Internet Explorer 8, editing a Google Doc, watching a YouTube clip, checking our e-mail, and reading a blog. Even when we ran OneCare and Disk Defragmenter in the background, we didn't notice any performance impact.

Gaming Performance

The AW is well-suited for gaming. The Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT and 512MB dedicated memory notched 16,835 on 3DMark03, which is more than 3,000 points above the category average--and this category is filled with plenty of dedicated gaming rigs. It even scored 5,179 on 3DMark06, which tests high-end gaming performance, and that's only 200 points below the category average. The HDX 18, armed with the same graphics card and amount of memory, scored 4,000 points less on 3DMark03 and 1,000 points less on 3DMark06.

On our frame rate tests, the AW managed 59.8 fps in World of Warcraft, which is average (the HDX 18 scored about the same). On F.E.A.R., however, a more graphically demanding game, it squeaked out 28 frames per second on autodetect settings (1024 x 768) and 22 fps on maximum settings (1920 x 1080). The latter number is pretty good given this notebook's 1080p resolution. If you want a gaming notebook, however, opt for a system with Nvidia GeForce 9800M graphics.

Wi-Fi, Battery Life, and Warranty

The AW's Intel WiFi Link 5100 wireless-N radio, a staple of Intel's Centrino 2 platform, delivered throughput of 19.3 Mbps and 16.5 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively, which is above average but not as strong as the HDX 18's wireless performance.

Battery life isn't anything to brag about. The AW lasted 1 hour and 44 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, about an hour short of the average. Still, this shouldn't be a deal breaker, given how unlikely you are to leave an 18.4-inch beast of a notebook unplugged for long.

The AW's warranty is pretty standard: one-year parts-and-labor with 24/7 toll-free phone support.

The Verdict

The Sony VAIO VGN-AW180Y/Q is a powerful, feature-packed entertainment notebook. We prefer the design and keyboard of the sleeker HP HDX 18--and we found the Blu-ray playback to be more reliable--but this desktop replacement is a solid splurge-worthy option with a better looking 16:9 display and crisper TV tuner. And you can pick it up for a much more affordable $1,799 if you forgo the dual solid state drives and drop down the clock speed and RAM.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 2.8-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9600
Operating System MS Windows Vista Ultimate
RAM 4GB
RAM Upgradable to 4GB
Hard Drive Size 628GB
Hard Drive Speed 5,400rpm
Hard Drive Type Multiple Drives
Display Size 18.4
Native Resolution 1920x1080
Optical Drive BDRW DL
Optical Drive Speed 2X
Graphics Card Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT
Video Memory 512MB
Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth Bluetooth 2.0
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) HDMI
Ports (excluding USB) Firewire
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) S/PDIF
Ports (excluding USB) Modem
USB Ports 3
Card Slots SD memory reader
Card Slots ExpressCard
Card Slots 4-1 card reader
Warranty/Support One-year parts-and-labor/24/7 toll-free phone
Size 17.2 x 11.4 x 1.6 inches
Weight 8.2 pounds
Company Website http://www.sonystyle.com