Since we reviewed the all-in-one VAIO V520G earlier this year, Sony has fattened it up and dropped the price. The $2,200 VAIO VGC-VA11G keeps its predecessor's bright 20-inch wide-screen display but adds some bulk. In exchange for the extra heft, you get improved audio output and more easily accessible ports. All-in-one PCs have inherent limitations that will turn some people off (they're hard to upgrade and pricier than comparable midtower systems), but the versatile VA11G makes sense for the space-constrained, combining a TV, a TiVo, a stereo, and a PC into one device. We just wish it had a better design.
The Sony VAIO VA11G has very credible specs: on the inside, a 64-bit-capable 3.2GHz Pentium 4 640 processor, 1GB of 533MHz DDR2 RAM, dual 160GB hard drives, a TV tuner, and a double-layer DVD burner; on the outside, a stunning 20-inch wide-screen LCD display with a 1,366x768 native resolution and Sony XBrite technology for a bright, vibrant picture. The VA11G provided smooth DVD playback, rich colors, and gripping gameplay. The surprisingly robust built-in flanking speakers and the subwoofer hidden in the base also provided impressive audio output.
TV quality was less dazzling--though we've yet to be satisfied by any picture produced by a PC TV tuner. As on other PCs with standard-def TV tuners, the TV picture on the VA11G seemed grainy and soft. Seen from a typical viewing distance, a talking head on a news program looked reasonably sharp; fast-moving images, however, appeared blurry. You won't want to watch a Sunday's worth of football on the VA11G. Also, while the display has the pixels to display a 720p HDTV image, the VA11G doesn't provide a way to connect an HDTV signal. Even if you did mange to squeeze an HDTV tuner card into the VA11G's free (but difficult-to-reach) PCI slot, you would be able to display only over-the-air HDTV signals (no PC currently has the ability to display a cable HDTV signal). You won't get to watch much HD content with the VA11G besides HD movie trailers and other online HD video.
The built-in display on any all-in-one system introduces two problems. First, if you outgrow the PC in a few years, you must throw out a perfectly good monitor. Second, you can't choose the size of the screen. The VAIO VA11G's 20-incher is too small to replace the living room television set, but in our tests, you could easily see each of its pixels when sitting as close as one normally would at a desk. This made for occasionally grainy full-screen DVD playback and live TV pictures. You need to be 5 to 10 feet away from the screen to get the maximum effect. Really, the VAIO VA11G works best as a second TV in a home office or a make-do solution for an apartment or a dorm room.
We're not ecstatic about the VA11G's design, either. The screen's sleek silver bezel looks great, but the black plastic housing behind it is surprisingly bulky, partly because of the integrated subwoofer, which gives the audio output its unexpected punch. The optical drive and the flash-card reader are front mounted and easily accessible, but the plastics around them--the flimsy flip-out door and the sketchy eject button--feel like they might break off at any moment.
The VA11G's design pales in comparison with that of the $699 Apple iMac. Granted, the iMac lacks some features found on the VAIO VA11G, such as a TV tuner, but it's more neatly integrated into one sleek package and costs considerably less. The VA11G's price is more comparable to that of the Gateway Profile 5.5 and the MPC ClientPro 414.
The VA11G ships with a wireless RF keyboard and mouse, doing away with two annoying cords and giving you the freedom to compute from the couch--if you can make out the screen from that far away. Sony has also built the radio receiver into the housing, averting the need for another dongle. It would have been nice for the company to take that concept a step further by folding the Media Center remote-control receiver into the case; the system has a spare PCI slot--although it is not easily accessible--so there's clearly extra room inside. For external expansion, the VA11G has four USB 2.0 ports and one four-pin FireWire connector in addition to an S/PDIF audio out and an S-Video jack.
The VA11G gave us no surprises in CNET Labs' BAPCo SysMark 2004 performance benchmark. Its score of 181 placed it neck and neck with similarly equipped media centers, such as the Gateway 832GM, which uses a slightly slower Pentium 4 630 processor and integrated graphics. The HP Media Center m7070n, which uses the Pentium 4 640, edged the VA11G by 6 percent. As expected, HP and Shuttle media-center systems, both outfitted with Pentium 4 530 chips, trailed slightly behind the VA11G.