Test Drive: Sony Vaio PCV-W10 Review

by Eric Grevstad

Looks aren't everything. You just have to keep reminding yourself of that while looking at the new Sony Vaio PCV-W10, otherwise you could end up sacrificing form for function.

Does Sony's new desktop — the first of the "slimtop" designs popular in Japan to officially reach the U.S. — challenge Apple's swivel-lamp iMac as the most elegant coffee-table PC you can buy? Well, let's put it this way: If it didn't say Sony, you wouldn't be surprised to find a Bose or Bang & Olufsen label on it. The W10 makes Gateway's all-in-one Profile 4 look like a box of rocks.

It also makes DVD movies look terrific, because the Sony Vaio PCV-W10 abandons the usual aspect ratio for a 15.3-inch-diagonal, 1,280 by 768-pixel LCD bracketed by 3-watt stereo speakers. The hinged keyboard folds up to cover the bottom two-thirds of the screen when not in use, leaving a 19.2 by 11 by 7.5-inch conversation piece. And setup consists of plugging in just two cords — the power cable and mouse. (Though there are plenty of interface ports, the look is so clean it seems a shame to clutter it with printer and modem cables; you'll be tempted to get a wireless Internet connection.)

So is the W10 the ultimate space-saving status symbol? Well, it's ideal for the small office that needs to impress clients with its looks, as long a your business can stick with using e-mail and spreadsheets rather than demanding applications: The system's 60GB hard disk, 512MB of memory, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive don't skimp, but its 1.6GHz Celeron processor and SiS integrated graphics controller are decidedly slow by today's desktop standards. And its magazine-cover glamour comes at a price: $1,600, hundreds more than a faster, more expandable, conventional PC with LCD monitor.

Though easy to set up, the Vaio could be easier to move around — it's not too heavy (21 pounds), but lacks anything like a back-of-screen recess or grab handle for carrying one-handed, so you must carefully cradle it in both hands. By default, when you close or flip up the keyboard without turning the system off, it turns into a (somewhat hard-to-read) digital clock that can play background music via Sony's SonicStage audio jukebox software.

When flipped down, the keyboard offers a flat but quite nice typing feel, as well as six customizable launch buttons (which by default open Internet Explorer; Outlook Express; music, photo-album, and DVD player programs; and system help). Two things, though, take a little getting used to.

First, the keyboard uses a notebook-style Fn key plus the cursor arrows in lieu of dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys. However, since it's wide enough to accommodate a numeric keypad, you can use the latter (with Num Lock off) for those functions, although the Delete key is higher and farther away than your fingers expect it.

Second, if you habitually (even unconsciously) work with your desktop keyboard slightly at an angle or to one side of your monitor, you'll be forced into proper posture by the keyboard's being locked into place, front and center beneath the screen. Being able to fold or hang the keyboard over the display is a nifty space-saver, but a detachable, ideally wireless keyboard would be more flexible.

The Vaio comes with a small but smooth optical mouse with scroll wheel, which plugs into one of the three USB 2.0 ports on the system's right side. You'll also find two 4-pin (unpowered) IEEE 1394 — FireWire to you, iLink to Sony — ports for digital camcorders or other peripherals; 56Kbps modem (both line and desk phone) and 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports; microphone, line-in, and headphone jacks; and two Type II PC Card slots suitable for WiFi or other add-ons.

Volume and brightness control dials are on the left edge of the LCD, near a slot for Sony's Memory Stick flash media and the socket for the AC cord (the power supply is built in, not an ungainly external brick like the Profile 4's). Don't look for an external-monitor or parallel printer port, a floppy drive, or any access to the system's innards whatsoever — according to Sony, even upgrading the standard 512MB to the maximum 1GB of PC2100 DDR memory is strictly an authorized-service-center job.

Fashionable, But Not Fast
Even in this gigahertz-goofy age, a 1.6GHz processor is more than enough for most small office jobs — although, while we don't begrudge Intel's Celeron a 400MHz rather than its Pentium 4 siblings' 533MHz front-side bus, we wish Intel hadn't been quite so stingy as to slash its value CPU from the Pentium 4's 512K all the way down to a measly 128K of Level 2 cache.

The Vaio's 60GB Seagate ST360020A hard disk (a 5,400-rpm ATA/100 drive) loads programs swiftly and the system feels generally responsive, but it doesn't quite snap through tasks the way an almost-as-affordable 2.0GHz or even 1.8GHz Pentium 4 would — we're glad Sony preinstalls Adobe's excellent Photoshop Elements 2.0 image editor, but applying the program's artistic special-effects filters is a sure way to find yourself wanting a bit more oomph.

Benchmark-wise, the W10 places near the bottom of this year's review units, with MadOnion.com's PCMark 2002 yielding scores of 3,495 (CPU); 3,002 (memory); and 586 (hard disk). Its BAPco SysMark 2002 tally is an economy-laptop-like 110, with 158 in Internet Content Creation and 77 in Office Productivity. This level of performance is perfectly fine for everyday productivity and even occasional image or video editing. But would-be game players will cross the slimtop off their list when they learn it has an SiS 650 integrated graphics controller — it plays our classic Quake III Arena benchmark at only 19 frames per second in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode, and crawls to a 1,024 by 768 score of 924 in 3DMark 2001 SE Pro.

Looking Good, Spidey
Speaking of crawling, the W10 made us glad we returned our "fullscreen" (ugly TV-set pan-and-scan) Spider-Man DVD in favor of the theatrical-aspect-ratio "widescreen" version: Even though we consider the bundled CyberLink PowerDVD player a few features shy of the InterVideo WinDVD 4 Sony chose for the Vaio laptop we tested recently, the system let us enjoy the web-slinger's antics at full screen width, with almost no black letterbox borders. The LCD can become a mirror unless you tweak its tilt angle, but is bright, sharp, and beautiful.

The lack of a subwoofer prevents booming bass, but the circular speakers on either side of the screen provide adequate audio entertainment. And the Matsushita UJDA730 combo drive (8X DVD-ROM, 16/10/24X CD-RW) not only looks cool (it's vertically mounted, so discs face you as you push them onto the spindle), but provides smooth, quiet playback and CD burning. Indeed, the Sony is one of the quieter desktops we've tested lately.

Sony Vaio PCV-W10

+ Gorgeous, space-saving design; wide screen is ideal for DVDs

+ Convenient control buttons and software bundle

- At $1,600 the price is too high, performance too low

- Fixed, flat keyboard takes some getting used

Besides Sony's impressive house-brand multimedia software such as SonicStage, the DVgate camcorder-control utility, PictureGear Studio image manager, MovieShaker home video packager, and home-network audio/video server, the Vaio comes with Corel's WordPerfect Office 2002 and Adobe's Premiere LE as well as Photoshop Elements. Windows XP Home Edition is the operating system.

No computer installed at the Labs, Weather, & Sports Desk has ever attracted more gawkers and ogling execs from the upstairs offices than the Vaio PCV-W10. Just as important, we're not sure any has more inspired us to, if you'll pardon the expression, think outside the box or rethink PC form factors.

As is, Sony's slimtop is more of a "designer PC" or niche product than a mainstream hit item. But can you imagine a successor with a faster (merely mid-market, not ultra-high-end) Pentium 4 and graphics processor, detachable keyboard, carrying handle — and, say, an HDTV tuner plus Sony's personal-video-recorder software? Looks aren't everything, and we can resist the W10. But when Sony builds the W20, we may be first in line.

Adapted from HardwareCentral

This article was originally published on Tuesday Dec 17th 2002
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