"Sony" and "budget" are two words you typically don't find in the same sentence, but the company has taken the sub-$900 plunge with its new NR Series and surprised us with very good performance. At $829, the VGN-NR160E/S targets consumers who need Core 2 Duo power on a budget. Sony still has some notable issues with crapware, but there's a lot to like about this notebook. It has everything users need for everyday productivity and light multimedia use and offers plenty of style to boot.
The NR Series comes in three colors: Granite, Wenge, and Silk. The 6.2-pound chassis is nicely textured on the lid and keyboard deck and has rounded edges and clean lines. Compared with the 5.4-pound Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch (which the NR resembles, thanks to the white and silver color options), the VGN-NR160E/S seems a little bulky. However, opening the lid reveals an extremely crisp and sharp 15.4-inch WXGA XBrite-Eco LCD running at 1280 x 800-pixel resolution.
The bubble-tipped full-sized keyboard felt spacious and durable, and we had no problems pounding out text documents. Above the keyboard are two buttons: an S1 programmable multipurpose key, which you can set through a pop-up window in the toolbar, and an AV Mode button. AV Mode launches Windows Media Player only after a full bootup, which makes it pretty useless. Around the edges you'll also find a very nice mix of inputs, including four USB ports and memory card slots for both Memory Sticks and SD Cards.
Inside, the components are more impressive for the price. You get a 1.5-GHz Core 2 Duo processor with 667-MHz FSB and 2MB cache, as well as 1GB of DDR2 RAM, which provides plenty of processing muscle for everyday use. We had zero problems multitasking when we were watching a DVD, booting up Paint Shop Pro, browsing the Internet, and doing some light word processing. We were also pleased with the 160GB, 5,400-rpm SATA drive, which should have plenty of space for all your documents and multimedia.
PCMark05 and 3DMark03 scores were well below average for a mainstream machine at 3,080 and 1,459 respectively, but when compared with our recent roundup of sub-$800 mainstream notebooks, it had the fastest times for both tests, as well as the longest battery life at 2 hours and 19 minutes on a DVD rundown test and 3:41 during a productivity test.
Sony is still struggling with crapware issues, however. This system had enough of it to affect performance considerably. After removing some unnecessary applications, the PCMark05 score jumped to 3,219. That's 139 points higher than the out-of-box configuration, so we'd recommend removing anything you don't need right away to boost system performance.
The VGN-NR160E/S' wireless networking connection performed very well despite the lack of 802.11n capability. The system managed 17.3 and 16.8 Mbps of throughput at 15 and 50 feet from our access point, respectively. There's one catch, though: For some reason, Sony implemented a software wireless switch in addition to the hardware switch at the base of the chassis. We toiled for some time trying to connect to our router and diagnose the problem with Vista's network troubleshooter, but to no avail. Eventually Sony informed us of the second switch. Getting the wireless to work isn't difficult, but this extra step isn't intuitive and is likely to create some headaches.
Aside from some minor quibbles, the Sony VAIO VGN-NR160E/S is a relatively speedy, solid notebook, and the fact that you can get such performance for just over $800 is a huge win for design-conscious consumers. The VGN-NR160E/S is not all that portable, but the large hard drive and crisp display make it a good choice for home users. Once you axe the crapware, you'll be satisfied with what this machine delivers.
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