As Sony's products are often described, the $1,600 VAIO TP1 Living Room PC is a unique, attractive system that is underpowered and overpriced. It suffers from some unfortunate technical quirks and is more laden with shovelware than any PC we've reviewed to date. This is still a serviceable computer, and we imagine more than a few of you won't mind paying a premium for the distinctive, round design. But if you'd prefer to get the most PC for your money, it would be foolish to pay $1,600 for a system that can't outperform or meaningfully offer more features than a $1,000 competitor can.
In order to fit a computer into Sony's small TP1 enclosure, it had to opt for laptop components, which are more flexible thermally and in size than their desktop counterparts. Thus, the TP1 has a 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo T5600 on an Intel 945GM chipset, complete with an integrated 32MB graphics chip that shares system memory. For its RAM, the TP1 has 2GB of 667MHZ DDR2 SDRAM, which is what we expect for a system in this price range, and largely helps the TP1 overcome its relatively weak CPU.
Before we delve into the performance of Sony's new midrange home theater PC, we should acknowledge that it wasn't designed to storm across our benchmark tests. If your hope is simply that a desktop like this will help integrate your digital-media files into your living room, this PC will work for you, because you don't necessarily need very high-end components. If you want to get into high-definition video, living-room PC gaming, or other, more demanding activities, you might want something like Sony's VAIO XL3 Living Room System or Velocity Micro's CineMagix Grand Theater. But for watching standard-definition DVDs, playing your iTunes library over your home theater system, or recording analog television content TiVo-style, the VAIO TP1 Living Room PC will handle all of those tasks with its current hardware.
The problem we run into with this system is its value proposition. Consider HP's Pavilion Media Center TV m8120n or its Slimline s3020n, Dell's Inspiron 531 or 531s, or Velocity Micro's ProMagix E2035. All of those PCs have more or less the same features as the VAIO TP1, are less expensive (some by nearly $1,000), and--with only one exception--perform better on our benchmarks. You can't even make a strong argument about the VAIO's specialized design, because both the Inspiron 531s and the Slimline s3020n feature small, living-room-friendly cases as well. Our benchmark test results flesh out the gory details, but the fact is that this Sony is a terrible performer compared to other PCs in, and even below, its price class.
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All that said, the VAIO TP1 does offer a relatively complete array of components and accessories, which underscores our point that it despite its underpowered core, it mostly performs the tasks for which it was intended. As billed, the TP1 is capable of playing standard-definition DVDs at 1080p resolution over its built-in HDMI output. It only excels at this task via Windows Media Center, which overcomes the integrated graphics chip's image-scaling issues through an overscan correction capability. The main Windows Vista desktop screen, however, has no such function. That means that when you're not in Media Center, you need to either dial down the screen resolution or suffer from the disappearance of the task bar, the Start button, and any edge-dwelling icons, because of the graphics chip's inability to scale properly on a LCD television. New, dedicated graphics cards from ATI and Nvidia can correct those overscan issues, which makes another argument against the underpowered TP1 in favor of a more robust PC that can support a discrete 3D card.
If you don't mind a little overscanning, the rest of the VAIO TP1's features are about what we'd expect from a lower-end media PC. It comes with an integrate 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi adapter, an ATSC/NTSC TV tuner, and an optical output for digital audio. You also get a fair amount of other inputs and outputs, including a media card reader behind a spring-loaded sliding door on the front panel.
The front-panel door is useful in that it helps preserve the TP1's minimalist aesthetic. A back-panel plastic port cover, cleverly attached by magnets, also helps keep the rear side tidy by wrangling the cables. Sony also considered that you would primarily be driving the TP1 from your couch. The system doesn't include a traditional mouse; instead you get a Vista remote control and a small-scale wireless keyboard that both match the TP1's white case. The keyboard works well enough, but the laptop-style touch pad built into the front edge lacks responsiveness, and neither Sony nor Vista include any software for tweaking its sensitivity.