The $1,650 Sony VAIO RB44G is another fixed-configuration media PC from the midrange Sony RB series. With the same case as the Sony VAIO VGC-RB38G we covered back in March, the RB44G introduces 64-bit processing to the RB line by way of its 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 640 CPU. We prefer the lower-end dual-core CPU/media PC configuration found in Sony's RA-series PCs, but the RB44G still gives you a solid set of features and brisk performance for the price. The delightfully crisp HS75P 17-inch LCD monitor, which costs an additional $400, doesn't hurt, either.
Though not as living-room friendly as component-style PCs such as the HP z555 Digital Entertainment Center, the RB44G's front-panel parts are tucked behind a series of flip-down doors, giving it a cleaner appearance than other desktop tower home-theater PCs, such as the HP Media Center m7070n Photosmart PC. Still, with its tower case, the RB44G is best suited for a small room, such as a den or a dorm room. Wherever you put the system, it will deliver most of the features we've come to expect in a home theater-oriented PC.
Behind the Sony VAIO RB44G's flip-down front doors is a 16X DVD-ROM drive, a dual-layer 16X DVD burner, and an 8-in-1 media card reader. That should be enough movable, writable storage capability for anybody. You'll also find dual USB 2.0 ports and a four-pin FireWire connector but no front-panel audio jacks. If you use headphones, you'll need to reach around the back of the box, which is a hassle.
The back panel reveals the usual raft of connections, including four additional USB 2.0 jacks and a six-pin FireWire port. The VAIO RB44G's GigaPocket TV tuner card accepts plenty of inputs for various home-entertainment components such as TV signal, S-Video, and composite video. The 128MB ATI Radeon X300 graphics card also gives you standard VGA and digital video outputs, so you can accommodate any CRT or LCD monitor. Unfortunately, the Radeon X300's graphics performance isn't as versatile as its output capabilities. On our Half-Life 2 1,024x768-resolution benchmark, the Sony VAIO RB44G couldn't hold up under the strain, delivering a very choppy 20.7 frames per second. You will see improved performance at lower resolutions and with older titles, but this system isn't appropriate for cutting-edge gaming.
Other components serve the VAIO RB44G better, including its aforementioned 64-bit Pentium 4 CPU, its 1GB of system memory (via two 512MB sticks, leaving two slots free), and its single 250GB hard drive. Heavy data archivists might want more space, and fortunately, there's room for three additional hard drives. Though we'd have preferred to see a dual-core CPU--the 64-bit processor/media PC combo seems odd--the Sony VAIO RB44G scored as well as any midrange home-theater PC we've recently reviewed, tying the HP Media Center m7070n Photosmart PC on all of our SysMark 2004 tests. As such, the VAIO RB44G should be able to handle most common digital media-related tasks such as audio encoding and video creation; although because dual-core technology has such a performance benefit in multimedia apps, if speed is a concern, we'd suggest looking for a system that uses a dual-core chip rather than the 64-bit CPU found here. Audiophiles will also be disappointed that Sony uses an integrated motherboard sound chip; we always prefer that home-theater PCs incorporate a discrete sound card.
To bolster its home-theater capabilities, Sony includes a remote control and a USB IR receiver pod, the latter with an integrated receiver and ports to connect the two included IR blasters, used for making the RB44G's remote work with your cable box. Similar to other Sony controllers, the remote is designed to navigate Windows Media Center 2005's applications for viewing DVDs, listening to music, or browsing pictures. Although the remote can move the computer in and out of standby, it cannot start the computer from a cold power-down; likewise, you'll be hard-pressed to return to Windows without walking over to the keyboard and mouse. The included black PS/2 keyboard and the USB optical mouse are unremarkable.