Just as Microsoft rolled out support for multidisc changers in its Media Center Edition OS, Sony unveiled a new Media Center system with a 200-disc DVD changer. The black-and-silver Sony VAIO XL1 Digital Living System (DLS) is composed of a sleek, rack-style Media Center PC and a separate multidisc changer. At $2,300, it isn't cheap, but it is relatively affordable compared with other high-end living-room Media Center PCs we've seen recently (that don't feature a monstrous disc changer). The VGX-XL1 DLS is an inventive concept with a lot of promise, but trying to rip large numbers of audio CDs proved an exercise in frustration. Until Sony works out the kinks, this isn't the living-room PC panacea serious media archivists have been pining for.
Setup is a snap. The PC and the disc changer connect via FireWire (iLink, in Sony's parlance) and can either sit on top of one another or side by side. Plug each into the wall, connect the PC to a TV or a monitor, and hit the power button. Even if you don't snake your network cable over to the XL1, it has a built-in 54g Wi-Fi antenna and a wireless keyboard with a touch pad, all in the name of cutting down clutter.
Immediately after getting the XL1 DLS up and running, we threw a book full of CDs at it to test its headlining feature, the 200-disc changer. (You can store DVDs in the changer for easy access, but you can't rip them to the hard drive because of DRM issues. You'd also quickly run out of space, given the resulting large video files.) The changer promised an efficient way to rip a large collection of music; we hoped to come in the next morning and find an iPod's worth of new tunes stored and neatly organized on the XL1 DLS's hard drive (when connected to the Internet, the XL1 pulls down album and movie info). However, after repeated efforts, we'd happily go back to ripping CD after CD on a standard, single-drive PC.
Adding CDs to the XL1's slot-loading drive is simple enough, and it successfully ripped small batches of CDs--20 or 30 at a time. When we attempted to rip between 80 and 150 discs, however, it didn't complete the task even once. In four separate attempts (using two separate review units), it either froze or simply stopped after several hours of ripping, each time completing less than half the task. We could not have been more disappointed with the results.
When the system wasn't trying to rip dozens of CDs, its 2.8GHz dual-core Pentium D 820 processor operated smoothly. In CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 benchmarks, it performed at the lower end of our expectations for its CPU but still within the margins of usability. Media Center systems often sacrifice raw processing power for design, storage, or connectivity. The XL1 DLS's SysMark score of 174 was 4 percent below that of Sony's other new Media Center PC, the all-in-one VAIO VGC-VA11G, which uses a faster but single-core 3.2GHz Pentium 4 640 CPU. The XL1 DLS scored 9 percent lower than the priciest Media Center we've tested, the $6,300 Niveus Denali, which has an older, single-core 3.2GHz Pentium 4 540 processor.
The XL1 performed well in our multimedia-heavy Internet-content-creation tests, making it ideal for multithreaded apps such as Photoshop. The XL1's dual-core CPU is a smart choice for a Media Center system that will presumably be engaged in a variety of media tasks, often simultaneously.
The XL1 DLS wouldn't run our Half-Life 2 test--disappointing, but not totally unexpected for a living-room system. Older games will run better on the included 64MB PCIe GeForce 6200 video card. The system's TV tuner is a standard-definition single-tuner card from Giga. While not a top-shelf brand-name card like a Hauppauge, it produced live and recorded TV on a par with other TV-tuner cards we've seen.
Noise levels were comparable to those of other living-room Media Centers, which is to say that it's pretty quiet. While not silent like the fanless Niveus Denali, the XL1 emits a level of normal operating noise suitable for a living room. However, the DVD changer was another story. While it wouldn't normally run nonstop, the DVD changer produced noise levels 14 to 16 decibels higher than the PC half of the XL1. In real-world terms, it was about as loud as any other multidisc carousel-style changer you've seen.