The Sony VAIO VGN-FW198U/H strikes a near-perfect balance of portability, multimedia power, and screen real estate. How? One of the big reasons is the display. This notebook is the first to boast a 16.4-inch widescreen (with 16:9 aspect ratio) making this FW model ideal for watching Blu-ray movies or having two applications open side by side. At the same time, it's considerably lighter than most 17-inch notebooks and only marginally heavier than notebooks with smaller 15.4-inch displays. And with Intel's new Centrino 2 technology for fast productivity performance, better-than-average battery life, and a strikingly sleek design, there's no reason why the VAIO FW Series shouldn't be at the top of your short list.
Measuring 1.46 inches at its thickest point, the VAIO FW isn't as svelte as an Apple MacBook Pro; still, the silver-and-black chassis looks sharp, blending angles and curves in a pleasing way. Open the latchless lid and you'll find an uncluttered keyboard deck, with the comfortable Sony flat-top keyboard set into a plain silver deck. Unlike other "luxury" portables, however, the palm rest has a decidedly plastic feel, but we are happy to see an oversize touchpad to match the large screen. Alas, the mouse buttons on our early production model were a bit loud and likely to annoy others if you're in a quiet room.
Above the Function key row are Sony's handy multimedia-control and volume buttons (but oddly, no mute button). We really appreciate the programmable AV Mode button, which lets you register utilities (Windows Media Center, iTunes, the Webcam applet, and so on) whose icons then appear in a quick-launch ribbon menu when you press the button.
All the requisite ports are here, including HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, USB (three of them), and FireWire. Sony has also included a memory card reader supporting Memory Stick and SD/MMC formats, as well as an ExpressCard/34 slot (yes, PC Cards have gone the way of the serial port, at least on consumer portables).
Sound quality from the up-firing stereo speakers was very good, with decent bass. But their top volume, while fine for personal use, might be inadequate for watching a movie from the couch. Considering the VAIO FW's multimedia prowess, some media mavens will find the lack of an integrated TV tuner and a remote disappointing in a desktop replacement model.
The highlight of this all-new design is the unique-to-Sony 16.4-inch LCD. If a 15.4-inch desktop replacement has you wishing for more screen real estate but a 17-inch (or larger) luggable sacrifices too much in the way of portability, the VAIO FW Series is the answer to your prayers. The 16.4-inch screen, which has an aspect ratio of 16:9 instead of 16:10 (as seen on most widescreens) makes it seem squatter compared to other notebooks of its ilk, but in daily use, you'll hardly notice the difference. It gives you an uncramped view while still allowing the system to weigh a reasonably portable 6.7 pounds.
Image quality from the 1600 x 900 panel is stunning. It employs Sony's Xbrite-HiColor technology, which claims a higher brightness and wider color gamut than run-of-the-mill LCDs, and it shows. Watching the Blu-ray edition of Live Free or Die Hard (via the preloaded InterVideo WinDVD BD player) was a pleasure on this screen, which exhibited natural colors, good details in shadow areas, and very good motion reproduction.
In Windows apps, colors pop, and we found ourselves turning down the screen brightness to work comfortably. So if your viewing environment has a lot of windows or overhead fluorescents, this panel has the candle power to overcome it. The screen also boasts wide viewing angles, which makes the VAIO FW a good machine for multiple viewers to gather around.
Centrino 2 and Other Features
The VAIO FW combines a 2.53-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9400 processor, which has a faster front-side bus (FSB) than previous Intel CPUs, with 4GB of 800-MHz DDR2 SDRAM. We'd prefer DDR3 RAM, which is faster and uses less power, but that's far from a dealbreaker. Rounding out the circuitry are a new chipset (the Mobile Intel 45 Express) and Intel's next-gen 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi chip (dubbed WiFi Link 5100), and onboard Gigabit Ethernet. This notebook trades integrated graphics for an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3470 graphics card. A big but not blazing 5,400-rpm 320GB hard drive rounds out the features.
Above the screen you'll find a 1.3-megapixel webcam, which delivered exemplary low-light performance. In fact, in a dark room, the light from the PC's screen was enough for the camera to capture a usable image. The downside is overall quality: In normal lighting conditions, colors were a bit muted (with a tendency to appear yellowish), and highlights on the subject's face were blown out even when we adjusted the contrast and brightness controls. The camera also had trouble with motion, with noticeable blur whenever a subject moved.
Sony bundles the fine ArcSoft WebCam Companion utility to use with the camera. Its easy-to-use interface lets you quickly snap a shot (or a sequence of shots with the user-settable Burst mode), record video (at up to 640 x 480-pixel resolution), edit shots and videos, and even use the VAIO FW to monitor a location. When the camera detects motion, it will start recording and can be set to notify you via e-mail or by uploading a captured still image to an FTP address. One oddity, however: The ArcSoft Magic-i Visual Effects utility, which can add special effects and cartoon-like accoutrements to webcam captures, must be launched separately. It should be part of the main Companion applet.
Sony VAIO FW Performance
On our benchmark tests, the VAIO FW performed generally above average compared to the field of desktop replacement notebooks we've tested so far this year. The VAIO FW's score on PCMark Vantage (3,634) is among the best we've seen to date and well above the average score (2,934) tallied from others in this class tested this year. On MobileMark 2007, the machine scored 163--not the best score we've seen, but still nearly 10 percent above the average for desktop replacements, which tend to be a speedy group in the first place.
The only place where the VAIO FW trailed the average was in 3D performance, and that's by virtue of the fact that most desktop replacements we get are gaming rigs that come loaded for 3D bear. The VAIO FW's 256MB Radeon HD 3470, by contrast, is a perfectly capable but decidedly mid-level mobile GPU more suited to mainstream gamers than fanatics. It managed 5,974 on 3DMark03 and 2,630 on 3DMark06--both well below the averages (11,320 and 4,816, respectively) for the class. TheHP dv7, which has Nvidia's GeForce 9600M GT graphics card and 512MB dedicated memory, notched 3,930 on 3DMark06. The VAIO FW can handle the occasional gaming session, as witnessed by its playable showing of 37 frames per second on F.E.A.R. at maximum resolution. For more demanding games, however, you'll need to dial back the resolution and effects settings.
Battery Life and Wireless
The VAIO FW's battery lasted 2 hours and 34 minutes, which is 33 minutes above the average for desktop replacements but not spectacular given its relative portability. A mainstream machine with a 15.4-inch display lasts 3:05 on average.
Wi-Fi throughput was very good at 19.9 Mbps at 15 feet and a still very solid 17.8 Mbps at 50 feet.
Solid Software Bundle ... But Too Many "Offers"
As with other VAIO notebooks, when it comes to software, you have to take the bad and the ugly with the good. As the "good," the VAIO Video & Photo Suite includes separate applications for quickly burning Blu-ray and other optical discs (Sony Click to Disc), editing video (Sony Click to Disc Editor), and making music video-style home movies (VAIO Movie Story).
The ugly comes in the form of the Microsoft Works SE productivity suite, which is an ad-supported version of the Microsoft Office stand-in. And then there's the just-plain bad: the trialware that have (sadly) become a Sony staple. The Windows Vista Ultimate (with SP1) welcome pane lists ten "offers from Sony" for AOL, Microsoft, Napster, and more.
Even the VAIO Startup Assistant, which purports to be a step-by-step wizard for setting up your PC, wireless network, and security, quickly devolves into a pitch for Windows OneCare (a 90-day trial is included, at least), QuickBooks, and Spare Backup's online backup service. And oddly, the wizard made setting up a Wi-Fi connection more complex than it needs to be, asking us our router make and model instead of simply popping up a list of available networks and asking us to pick one.
Sony VAIO FW Verdict
If you can ignore those come-ons and focus on the clarity of that gorgeous 16.4-inch screen and the performance of the Centrino 2 platform, you won't be disappointed. The similarly spec'dHP dv7delivered better graphics scores than the Sony VAIO FW and costs $200 less. But the VAIO FW may be just right for buyers that need a big-screen desktop replacement notebook that will actually see some travel time.