Sony VAIO AR Series Notebook Review: Blu-Ray Going Mass?

We’ve got the world’s first notebook equipped with a drive that supports Blu-Ray – the new solution from Sony. Read more about this great solution features the most high-end specifications and features in our new detailed review.

by Alexander Britvin
09/22/2006 | 02:13 PM

With the cinema industry developing at a tremendous pace in the last years, it is no wonder there’s so much talk about the battle of optical disc formats which even concerns people outside the computer world. The CD once seemed so capacious and unrivalled, but it eventually passed the baton to DVD format with all of its pluses and minuses (in the abbreviations, I mean). And now even DVDs aren’t satisfactory. A full-size movie in High Definition video format cannot fit even on a dual-layer DVD that offers 8.5GB of storage.

 

The development of new optical media and drives began back in 2002 when a group of major companies (Hitachi, LG Electronics, Matsushita – Panasonic, Pioneer, Philips, Samsung, Sharp, Sony, Thomson Multimedia, and a lot of others), which later formed the Blu-ray Disc Association, introduced their revolutionary format of new-generation discs called Blu-ray Disc.

What’s the difference between Blu-ray and the traditional CD and DVD formats? First, it employs a laser, which is in fact blue-violet rather than exactly blue, with a wavelength of 405nm whereas CD and DVD formats use red lasers with wavelengths of 780nm and 650nm, respectively. Blu-ray makes use of different data reading and processing algorithms than those employed in the DVD, and they provide for a high flexibility of the physical structure of the medium. A pit can be 138, 149 or 160nm deep, so the resulting capacity of a single-layer recordable disc is up to 27 gigabytes. Dual-layer discs with a capacity of 50GB have been released, too, and this is not the limit since Blu-ray disc manufactures are willing to introduce multi-layer media with capacities up to 200GB. That’s impressive indeed, isn’t it? Blu-ray comes in three flavors: BD-ROM (read-only media for distribution of movies, games and other data), BD-R (recordable media) and BD-RE (rewritable).

Who’s interested in promoting this new format in the optical media market? Movie companies are in the first place because Blu-Ray discs have downright paranoid copy protection options. The CSS protection implemented in DVD was cracked and gave way to piracy, but it’s all different with Blu-ray. The new format uses 128-bit Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) encryption with a change of the key after each 6KB of data. As a result, deciphering one key gives you access to only 6KB of data. To get access to all the content on a disc, you’ll need to be cracking it all your life and more, at least with the current level of technology.

The downside of the Blu-ray disc is that its protective layer is only 0.1mm thick. This reduces the distortion of the laser ray and lowers the access time, but there is a higher risk of scratches, dust and other surface damage. For that reason manufacturers of blank BDs would put them into special cartridges at first, but then alternative protective coatings were developed that wouldn’t mind your fingerprints on the disc surface.

Why am I talking about Blu-ray at all, you may be wondering? Just because we’ve got the world’s first notebook equipped with a drive that supports such discs. It is the VAIO VGN-AR series from Sony and, quite expectably from that manufacturer, it is full of other surprises as well.

In the following sections I will give you an all-around description of the VAIO VGN-AR series notebook – VGN-AR11SR - and will test it in comparison with the ASUS W2Jc which has recently been tested in our labs and has a hardware configuration similar to the Sony (for details see our review called ASUS W2Jc Notebook: Mobile Digital Home Solution).

Package and Accessories

We received a test sample of the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR, without a package or accessories, but this computer has already begun selling and we can provide you with photographs:

The Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR came to our labs as a test sample with only basic accessories like a 5200mAh battery, a power adapter and a remote control made especially for Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition.

The accessories to the off-the-shelf Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR also include a couple of batteries and documentation (notebook setup, troubleshooting and system restore guides, a user manual, a warranty, etc).

 

Design and Ergonomics

Judging by the notebook’s appearance and price, its lid is made of carbon fiber, the same material as they use in Formula 1 cars and in the aviation industry. It looks like a well-polished jet-black hood of a luxurious sports car. The large chrome-plated letters VAIO in the middle of the lid and the small logotype of Sony closer to the user leave no doubt as to the noble pedigree of this machine. A chrome-plated molding encircles the notebook, separating its top and bottom parts. The VGN-AR11SR only lacks a rear spoiler to look like a real car! The notebook looks brilliant, but certainly requires some care from you. It will be hard to avoid leaving dirty fingerprints, traces of dust, etc on that glossy surface.

The lid lock is designed as a slider and is placed in a rather unusual location, at the bottom part of the case, a little to the right of the touchpad buttons. The lid is held with a kind of a hook you can see in the next photo:

The color scheme is consistently maintained within: the black keyboard even seems to have a grayish tone against the background of its surroundings, including the touchpad and the buttons on the left.

A white VAIO logo is located below the screen. It is highlighted when you turn the notebook on. Two rather powerful stereo speakers are located on both sides of that logo; they are directed right at the user.

On the same bezel, but above the screen, there is an integrated Motion Eye camera (640x480 pixels) with an operation indicator on the left. It is meant for video conferencing or editing videos.

The Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR comes with a 17” LCD matrix that has a max resolution of 1920x1200 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WUXGA). This is larger than the display of its today’s opponent ASUS W2Jc whose resolution seems already huge enough by notebook’s standards. The display offers superb viewing angles horizontally as well as vertically. The “glassiness” of the screen is somewhat compensated by the multi-layer anti-glare coating that suppresses light noise. However, you still have to take care about proper lighting when you sit down to work with this notebook. The AR series features Sony’s traditional X-BLACK LCD technology that improves image brightness, contrast and saturation.

I measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. I selected the highest brightness setting before this test. The screen brightness doesn’t depend much on the notebook’s power source as you can see:

AC power source:

DC power source:

On the right and above the keyboard (even going beyond it a little) there is a group of multimedia buttons that includes (from right to left):

A few more multimedia buttons are located on the left of the keyboard along with the first group of system indicators. These are:

These multimedia buttons are only useful when you’re sitting close to the notebook, though. But the VAIO VGN-AR11SR is based on Intel’s Viiv platform, which includes all the components of the Napa platform plus Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition and a remote control. It means you can use the latter to control the notebook’s multimedia functions remotely.

The VAIO VGN-AR11SR has an 86-key black keyboard. The movement keys are on the same level with the keyboard’s baseline, so there’s a higher risk of your pressing them accidentally. Moreover, Shift and End buttons are placed right above the arrow keys. The Fn button is located in the bottom left corner, conveniently for people who are used to shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V because Fn is unlikely to be pressed unintentionally instead of Ctrl. Numeric buttons and two special Windows keys are available: the Context Menu key is in the bottom row on the right of the spacebar; the Windows key is in the same row, but on the left of the spacebar. The functional keys are smaller than others; Home, PgUp, PgDn and End make up a vertical column on the right. Num Lock, Print Screen, Insert and Delete are placed in the same line with the functional keys (press them in combination with Fn to access their additional functions). The keyboard is overall a pleasure to use, but Sony’s engineers might have made it a little larger.

Halfway between the notebook’s right edge and the Home button, all alone, there is a round button you should press to turn the computer on.

A second group of system indicators is located on the right of the notebook’s front panel. It remains visible irrespective of the position of the lid and includes (from right to left):

The notebook’s touchpad is designed in a rather unusual way; it doesn’t have a bezel. The touch-sensitive panel is rather small and sunken a little below the keyboard level. It blends into the surrounding surface with its color. The two touchpad buttons are placed on the chrome-plated molding, not quite conveniently because there’s a rather big distance between them and the sensitive area. It seems that the manufacturer supposed that the user would rather work with an external mouse than with the touchpad. There is no scrolling zone or scrolling joystick here.

The Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR is positioned as a multimedia station, so it offers an abundance of ports and connectors. They are all placed properly around the case so that you could use them with maximum comfort.

On the right side of the notebook’s front panel there is a group of card-readers, switches and indicators (from left to right):

The notebook’s left panel offers the following components (from left to right):

The following is located on the right side of the notebook:

The photographs show you that besides the traditionally hidden modem and LAN ports, the manufacturer also covered some other infrequently used connectors with a special shutter to make the notebook look neat and sleek.

The following can be found on the notebook’s back panel:

The 5200mAh battery of the tested notebook is almost half the size of its rear panel and perfectly matches the dimensions of the case. Like in the VAIO VGN-SZ1 series models discussed in our article called Two Sony VAIO SZ Notebooks with Intel Core Duo Inside, the battery locks are located on the battery itself rather than on the notebook case.

There are memory and hard disk drive compartments at the bottom of the notebook. The rest of the components are hidden under a common cover you have to unfasten two dozen of screws to remove. There are also some stickers here with information about the model and the OS.

Also at the bottom panel, there is a docking station connector for those users who want more interfaces than are available on the notebook itself. This connector is covered with a plastic shutter:

There are two slots in the memory compartment, both occupied with 512MB modules. You can replace them with larger-capacity ones, but keep it in mind that the maximum amount of memory this notebook supports is 2048MB.

Software Bundle

Besides Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, the notebook comes with a large software bundle that includes the following applications:

Audio:

Video and TV:

Photography:

CD-DVD recording:

Office applications:

Security, etc:

The Recovery system is placed on a hidden partition on the hard disk. The manufacturer doesn’t enclose system restore discs with the notebook, but you can make them by yourself by doing the following:

Choose Start → Programs → VAIO Recovery Tool

Then take two recordable DVDs and follow the instructions the program will give you. Choose the Create a Recovery Kit option and insert the first DVD into the optical drive. When the first disc is written, the program will ask you to replace it with the second one.

That’s all. After this process you’ll have two discs: Application Recovery and System Recovery. Label them and keep in a safe, dry place. I only wonder why the manufacturer didn’t take the trouble of including ready-made recovery discs as a nice gift to the potential notebook owner.

Closer Look at Software

It is supposed that the gigantic (for a notebook) screen with a resolution of 1920x1200, the two hard drives with a total capacity of two hundred gigabytes, and the TV-tuner from AVerMedia make it possible to use the VAIO VGN-AR11SR for video processing as well as for watching movies and TV programs, listening to music, etc. What else would you want a notebook with such gorgeous characteristics for?

The market positioning of this model is clearly indicated by the stickers “Full HD 1080” and “Blu-ray”, and the preinstalled applications (running on top of Windows XP Media Center Edition) will help cut your costs on purchasing special-purpose software for working with multimedia content. Let’s see what exactly the notebook offers when it comes to processing video.

First of all, it offers Windows Movie Maker version 2.1.4026.0, the standard tool you can find in almost any version of Windows. Besides this basic functionality, there are more advanced programs available. I used them to capture video in HDV 1080i format from a camcorder and then burn it on a Blu-ray disc.

DVGate Plus

This program offers you to choose from four options when you launch it:

It’s all very simple as you can see. I will try to capture video from a Sony HDR-HC1E camcorder (in HDV 1080i format), so I choose the first item in the menu.

Then I attach the camcorder to the computer via FireWire interface (note that you need a FireWire cable with two 4-pin connectors for that). The capture process goes smoothly and without problems. Files in .m2t format are saved into the folder you have specified and become available for further processing in video-editing applications.

Click to DVD version 2.5

As its name suggests, this program allows you to author a DVD in a simple and easy way. First, you import videos and pictures from external devices like a camcorder or camera. Then you design the menu of your DVD. And the last step is to preview the resulting multimedia disc. If the preview is all right, you can then burn it onto a physical medium.

Of course, the program supports High-Definition Video (HDV), that very format for which you should buy this notebook with its large screen and 200GB of hard disk storage. After the video file is imported from the camcorder, I can proceed to making the disc menu.

Then the DVD movie is previewed and written to a medium. I took a 25GB TDK BD-RE 2x and inserted it into the notebook’s Blu-ray drive and let it burn:

As a result, I got a disc that could be reproduced on the reviewed notebook itself, using InterVideo WinDVD BD for VAIO. The simple version of the player, InterVideo WinDVD, is installed in the system, too. I want to advise you to check out the firmware version of your Blu-ray drive: some media may be found unreadable with version 1.0 firmware.

Update the firmware of your Blu-ray drive to avoid such errors.

After all the manipulations, I can sit down before the notebook and enjoy high-quality video being reproduced on a large screen.

You can also use the notebook’s video outputs to send the signal to the wide screen of a home cinema (after all, home Blu-ray players are going to cost a fortune when they hit the market).

If you want to learn what other applications you buy along with the notebook, glance though the following list:

Ulead BD Disc Recorder works with BDAV format (Blu-ray Disc Audio-Visual). When this program starts up, it offers you to capture video from a camcorder or open an existing video file or import a Video DVD (if it is not copy-protected). In this program you can capture video, do some basic editing and burn it on Blu-ray discs.

Roxio DigitalMedia SE is a simple version of the software suite for burning optical media. It can be used to create data discs, perform backup copying, burn Audio CDs, work with disc images in various formats, etc. A nice feature of this program I’d want to mention is that it prevents the system from entering the standby mode when you are formatting a medium to perform the active task correctly.

Image Converter 2 Plus is a tool for converting video from one format into another. Particularly, it supports uncompressed AVI, MPEG-1, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, QuickTime, and WMV. It can also convert pictures and supports Memory Stick cards.

Sonic Stage File Conversion Tool is a tool for converting files in OpenMG format.

Sonic Stage Mastering Studio can capture analog audio (from a microphone, tape recorder, LPs) and then, after processing, burn it on a CD or a DSD Disc (high-quality audio format).

HDV Proxy File Manager is a utility to create a proxy file when working with High-Definition Video. A proxy file has worse image quality, so it requires less system resources to be processed (when you apply special effects, create transitions, etc). After the project is complete, all the changes you’ve made to the proxy file are applied to the original video file.

VAIO Media is a program that offers centralized access to multimedia files on your local computer as well as on other computers that are member of the VAIO Media network.

Windows Media Digital Enhancements includes four components from Microsoft: Windows Audio Converter (to covert audio files), Windows CD Label Maker, Windows Dancer (it shows a dancing man on your Desktop), and Windows Party Mode (it transforms your computer into a music box for your party).

Adobe Premier Elements 2.0 is a value version of a video-editing suite. It is intended for home users and amateurs, but offers enough functions for you to create a good home movie or organize your video archive.

Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 is a value version of the famous image-editing software from Adobe Systems. This cut-down Photoshop is quite sufficient for processing photographs and picture on an amateur level.

Configuration

The Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR represents Intel’s Viiv platform. In other words, it is oriented at home multimedia systems that are not supposed to be portable. However, the notebook from Sony is indeed a portable computer.

The notebook is based on a Core Duo T2500 processor (2.00GHz clock rate, 65nm Yonah core, shared 2MB L2 cache). Besides the time-tested Enhanced Intel SpeedStep technology (it allows lowering the CPU clock rate at low loads by reducing its multiplier), the processor supports Dynamic Power Coordination (the power consumption of the cores can be varied separately depending on the current load) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused cache segments are turned off to save power). For more information about the new processor, check out our Centrino Duo Mobile Platform Review.

The notebook is equipped with an Intel Calistoga 945PM chipset and a wireless adapter Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG. The chipset supports DDR2 SO-DIMMs, thus offering more memory bandwidth at lower power consumption, and a PCI Express x16 interface for an external graphics card. The ICH7-M chip is used as the chipset’s South Bridge and is connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface. The South Bridge supports one Parallel ATA port, two Serial ATA ports, eight USB 2.0 ports and Intel High Definition Audio. It also offers six PCI Express x1 lanes to connect external devices. For more information about this platform, refer to this article on our site or visit the website of its developer.

Being an implementation of the Viiv platform, the notebook is also equipped with a network adapter Intel PRO/100 VE Network Connection.

Besides a future-oriented optical drive, the VAIO VGN-AR11SR just couldn’t do without some other special feature. Here it is – a discrete graphics adapter NVIDIA GeForce Go 7600 GT. It doesn’t support TurboCache technology just because it doesn’t need it, having as much as 256MB of dedicated graphics memory. The graphics core is manufactured on 0.09-micron tech process and has reduced power consumption. It supports Shader Model 3.0 and HDR and thus allows running all the newest game titles. Nvidia’s PureVideo technology provides high-quality HD video playback while PowerMizer 6.0 manages the power consumption of the core to save power and reduce heat dissipation. The GeForce Go 7600 specifications are listed below (you can also refer to the manufacturer’s website):

The VAIO VGN-AR11SR is equipped with two 2.5” Toshiba MK1032GSX hard disk drives (5400rpm, 100GB, Serial ATA). The two drives are united into a RAID array using Intel’s Matrix Storage technology.

It may seem strange, but this notebook from Sony is equipped with a Blu-ray burner from Panasonic. It’s the BD-MLT UJ210S model that supports dual-layer media. The manufacturer of the drive did a good job as it put two lenses into it while keeping the size of the tray intact: the red laser is for CD and DVD media and the blue laser is for Blu-ray.

Here’s the speed formula of the BD-MLT UJ-210S:

Read:

Write:

The notebook comes with two 512MB modules of DDR2-533 SDRAM that work in dual-channel mode. The memory slots are accessible through the compartment in the bottom panel of the case.

I measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebook’s surfaces with an infrared thermometer after it had worked for half an hour in the Classic test mode of Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 24°C during this test) and got the following numbers:

The table below lists the technical specs of the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR and compares them with those of the ASUS W2U00Jc02:

Test Methods

The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests (I also had to use a floppy drive to install the drivers for the RAID array). Then I installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (downloaded from the manufacturer’s website), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0.

The following settings were used for the tests:

Two power modes were used. First, I selected the Always On power mode for the maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then I switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.

Our tests:

  1. Performance benchmarks: synthetic (SiSoftware Sandra 2005, PCMark 2004), office and multimedia (Business Winstone 2004, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004), and games (3DMark 2003 3.60, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament 2003)
  2. Battery life tests (Battery Eater Pro 2.60)

There are three test modes in Battery Eater 2.60:

I used the first two modes as they are in Battery Eater, but in the Idle mode (when the test utility doesn’t put any load of its own on the notebook) I played a DVD movie.

Performance

So, today we’ve got two multimedia applications oriented notebooks with rather advanced and similar configurations. Let’s see which is better. As usual, I will first run synthetic benchmarks. SiSoftware Sandra 2004 measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark 2004 benchmarks the computer performance in office and multimedia applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).

The two notebooks have identical CPUs, so they score about the same number of points in the CPU tests in both power modes. When the notebooks work on their batteries, in the Max Battery mode, the frequency of the Intel Core Duo T2500 processor is lowered to 1.00GHz with a consequent drop of the results. The ASUS W2U00Jc02 wins the memory tests because it has more system memory which is also clocked at a higher frequency. As for the graphics subsystem tests, the Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 GT looks better than the ATI Mobility Radeon X1600. The latter has lower GPU and memory frequencies and its power-management technologies work more aggressively to save power.

The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time to simulate multi-tasking: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint, FrontPage, WinZip, and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition.

The Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 test determines the performance of a computer in the following multimedia applications: Windows Media Encoder, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Micromedia Dreamweaver MX, and Micromedia Director MX.

The latest program versions were used, adapted specifically for dual-core processors. The results are presented in the following table and diagrams.

It is the CPU that bears the highest load in the benchmark from PC Magazine, but the ASUS W2U00Jc02 wins the test when powered from an AC source because it has more memory, a higher memory frequency and a faster disk subsystem. The results of the notebooks become closer when they switch to their batteries and lower their CPU clock rates to 1.00GHz.

The notebooks both have discrete graphics processors with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory, so I tested them only in 3DMark 2003 3.60.

3DMark uses a set of 3D scenes rendered by its own graphics engine to check the capabilities of a computer’s graphics subsystem.

The higher GPU frequency helps the VAIO VGN-AR11SR win this test in both power modes. You can note that its GPU performance doesn’t degenerate as much as on the ASUS notebook when the notebooks work on their batteries.

Next, I tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3 :

ATI claims victory in Quake 3 , but the GeForce Go 7600 GT is better than its opponent when the notebooks work on their batteries.

The final graphics test makes things even more confusing. The solutions from ATI and Nvidia look equal irrespective of the power source. The tests suggest that the VAIO VGN-AR11SR is not just a multimedia box, but a gaming station, too. Its performance is high even when you disconnect it from the wall outlet.

Finally, I will check out the notebooks’ battery life with Battery Eater Pro 2.60. The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:

The ASUS W2U00Jc02 can last up to 3 hours on its battery and the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR can’t match that result. The battery of the reviewed notebook should be rather considered as an integrated UPS. This is an indication that Sony doesn’t intend this computer for working outdoors.

Here are the battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes:

Conclusion

Sony’s designers and engineers keep on turning out top-notch products. Having packed a high-performance hardware stuffing and a 17” display into the VAIO VGN-AR11SR, they also managed to keep the notebook small. So, the only thing that may disturb you in this really perfect machine is its high price.

As for the fashionable optical drive with a blue-violet laser, it is so far a future-oriented feature. But with the potential behind Blu-ray technology, I think this is going to be a very near future. Anyway, the owner of a VAIO VGN-AR11SR can boast having the most progressive solution for optical storage right now and here.

Highs:

Lows: