Sony continues its pursuit of the PC-as-home entertainment center with its latest Vaio L Series all-in-one. As with last year's model, this new L-Series has an appealing design, a 24-inch touch-screen display, and a host of digital media options. Among its updated features are a mobile variant of Intel's new third-generation Core i5 chips, a video processing chip borrowed from Sony's Bravia televisions, as well as an attempt at gesture recognition support.
Sadly, none of those additions elevates this system over others in its price range. Although this $1,399 L Series is more down-to-earth than last year's $2,200 model, it's hard to recommend among current competition with larger displays and better computing technology for the same price or less.
Many vendors have brought all-in-one desktops to market with the idea of turning them into home entertainment hubs. Blu-ray drives, HDMI-inputs, and hard volume and display adjustment buttons are all common in these kinds of PCs. Sony has all of those things on its new Vaio L-Series, along with a handful of extras included to set this system apart.
Among those extras, Sony has included a gesture recognition system, as well as a video processing chip carried over from its Bravia TV line. As much as you might appreciate Sony's enthusiasm in adding those features, none of them works well enough to give this system a material advantage over all-in-ones from other vendors.
The Bravia chip in the L-Series is called the X-Reality chip, and its primary function is to amp up the image quality of overly compressed or pixelated video content. In a sea of low-resolution YouTube and NetFlix videos such a chip sounds great, but the resulting quality boost in Windows-based video isn't dramatically better than what you get with a decent dedicated graphics card. Next to the Asus ET2700I and its GeForce GT 540M video chip, TV reviewer Ty Pendlebury and I noticed perhaps more vibrant colors on the Sony, but Keyboard Cat on YouTube and "Ghostbusters" on Netflix both looked the same between the two systems in terms of pixelation and overall sharpness.
Because the L-Series has a dedicated HDMI input, though, the X-Reality chip also comes into play when you connect an outside video source. In that case the display on an all-in-one works like a standalone monitor, and the graphics card does not come into play with regard to image quality. But on the Sony system, the X-Reality chip does affect that external signal, which is how Sony is hoping its TV tech will entice shoppers looking for an all-in-one for home entertainment.
With the help of David Katzmaier, another CNET TV reviewer, I set the Sony system up side-by-side with the 24-inch Lenovo IdeaCentre B520, and the 55-inch Panasonic TC-P55ST50 for reference, and compared the quality on each with a DirectTV signal and a pattern signal generator.
We discovered a few things about the Sony system during this testing. Colors on the screen appeared a bit more vibrant than those on the Lenovo system, but next to the calibrated Panasonic TV the Sony's image appeared unnaturally bright. The L-Series also employs a rather aggressive boost to image sharpness. In can help make the image appear more distinct in some cases, but it can also add an overly done "green screen" affect, making objects appear to pop out from the background in a way that appears unnatural.
We also saw that it muddled the contouring of certain color tones. This was apparent on CNN where, on the L-Series, one talking head appeared to be wearing a heavy dose of tanner. This effect was not apparent on the other screens.
The extra sharpness revealed itself on the test pattern screen, where you can see a thin white border around each black line. We also saw that the L-Series was cutting off the resolution around the edge of the screen, meaning the image was not resolving all full 1,920x1,080 pixels.
You might not expect a PC to have the same video quality as one of the best TVs on the market, but if Sony is going to build the cost of the X-Reality chip into this system, as opposed to, say, a dedicated graphics chip, you would expect the TV chip to provide a net overall benefit. Based on our testing, the chip helped the color and sharpness is some cases, but resulted in muddled, imperfect color rendering in others. Between that and the chopped down display resolution, the trade offs that come with the X-Realty chip aren't worth the added cost.
Gesture control is the other highlight feature of this system, and you're better off considering that an experiment than a legitimate means of controlling the computer. Fraught with sensitivity issues and with limited application integration, the gesture controls are essentially unusable.
A brief tutorial for the gesture control reveals that they are only meant to work in only four programs on the system: Internet Explorer, Windows Media Center, the Media Gallery, and PowerDVD. That's a myopically limited selection of programs, but it almost doesn't matter, since gestures don't seem to register at all.
I went through the tutorial, which outlines the basic hand motions, and I also tried gesturing at various speeds, at different distances from the screen, and under different lighting conditions. I also tried adjusting the sensitivity of the Webcam that acts as the gesture sensor. No matter which variable I adjusted, either by itself or with others, the system wouldn't recognize my gestures outside of the tutorial software.
Sony is certainly not the first vendor with a subpar gesture-based control scheme. Perhaps there exists some combination of lighting, distance, and movement speed I didn't land on that would improve the experience on the L-Series. Even if that is the case, at best that would make Sony's gesture controls too finicky for mass consumption. That would be better than complete nonfunction, but regardless, they need more work before Sony can claim that gesture input is better than reaching for the mouse or the included remote control.
|Sony Vaio L-Series SVL24114FXB||Asus ET2700I||Lenovo IdeaCentre B520|
|Display size/resolution||24-inch, 1,920x1,080||27-inch, 1,920x1,080||23-inch, 1,920x1,080|
|CPU||2.5GHz Intel Core i5 3120M||2.8GHz Intel Core i7 2600S||3.4GHz Intel Core i7 2600|
|Memory||6GB 1,600MHz DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,333MHZ DDR3 SDRAM||8GB 1,333MHZ DDR3 SDRAM|
|Graphics||64MB Intel HD 4000 embedded graphics||1GB Nvidia GeForce GT 540M||2GB Nvidia GeForce GT 555M|
|Hard drives||1TB, 7,200 rpm||1TB, 7,200rpm||1TB, 7,200rpm|
|Optical drive||Blu-ray burner||Blu-ray player/dual-layer DVD burner combo||Blu-ray player/dual-layer DVD burner combo|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11b/g/n wireless|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)||Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)||Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)|
The last big problem for the Vaio L-Series comes from its core PC features. This system simply doesn't offer a robust enough configuration next to competing all-in-ones in the same price range.
Compare the Vaio with the recent Asus ET2700I or the older Lenovo IdeaCentre B520 and you'll see that Sony is charging too much for this computer's core specs. Its mobile Core i5 chip is too slow next to the desktop Core i7s in the other two PCs, and the lack of a discrete graphics chip hurts the Vaio's 3D gaming prospects. The embedded Intel HD Graphics 4000 chip in the L-Series can play mainstream PC games reasonably well, but the discrete chips in the Lenovo and Asus systems will be better. Sony does offer upgrade options to Core i7 and Nvidia graphics chips, but those, of course, send the price tag even higher.
You can also ding Sony for its 24-inch display, at least depending on how you feel about touch screens. I've heard from various vendors that bring touch to 27-inch all-in-one is too expensive for mass market PCs. That hasn't stopped Lenovo, and Acer from bring such systems to market. Some of you might prefer touch in an entertainment PC. I would rather have a larger monitor, particularly given that this system includes a remote control.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)