Sony – Vaio PCG-GRX616SP review

all-singing, all-dancing, powerful laptop
Photo of Sony – Vaio PCG-GRX616SP
£2,554 + VAT

This is very much a notebook for people who habitually turn left on boarding an aircraft. Or it would be if anyone was actually strong enough to carry it: with its power supply it weighs a substantial 4.2kg, enough to pop the shoulder seams on a bespoke suit. Throw in the shoulder bag and a few bits and bobs and you are starting to look at a big bite out of your cabin luggage weight allowance.

In fact it’s obvious from the weight and size of the machine (355 x 292 x 39.5mm) that Sony doesn’t seriously intend for anyone to carry it around too much. Rather, it’s positioned as a serious desktop replacement aimed at the top end of the business market.

Affluent home users need not feel left out though; there’s a consumer version, catchily named the PCG-GRV616S, which has even faster graphics, less memory and a lower resolution screen than its corporate sibling. Perhaps predictably, the consumer machine also has the more powerful processor, a 2.6GHz Pentium 4-M compared to the 2.4GHz P4-M found in the GRX616SP.

It’s also less expensive – we won’t say cheaper – than the corporate model, at £1,959 ex-VAT compared to £2,554 ex-VAT. Either way, these are significant amounts of money, and beg the obvious question: what do you get for it?

The short answer is “lots”, particularly where the GRX616SP is concerned. On top of the 2.4GHz P4-M, Sony has happily piled up an entire gigabyte of PC2100 SDRAM, and down in the basement there is a cavernous 60GB Hitachi DK23EA hard drive. Graphics are handled by an ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 with 32MB of DDR memory, and fed to a huge 16.1-inch TFT screen running at 1600 x 1200 (UXGA) resolution.

This is impressive enough, but the Vaio also boasts a unique Sony DVD writer which can read, write and re-write in both DVD-R/RW and DVD+R/RW formats. Sony reasonably enough terms the drive a DVD±RW, and clearly hopes that its ability to deal with both standards will be a major attractant for some potential buyers.

When recording or re-writing, this drive it runs at 1x and reads at 2x in both modes. CD-R/RW operations are carried out at 16x/10x (R/RW), and it plays DVD-ROMs and CD-ROMs at 5x and 24x respectively.

We’d expected a notebook as big as the Vaio to be a three-spindle design, but in fact it is only two. If you need a floppy drive, an external USB unit is available for £59. The optical drive is removable, so you have the option of replacing it with things like a second battery or a second hard disk. This sort of thing can come in handy, but may be of less relevance than the mundane but essential tally of ports.

Fortunately, Sony has taken this side of things seriously and you get a fair amount of range. There’s a parallel port and three USB, though no serial, PS/2 or infra-red, but you do get composite TV-out and FireWire (IEEE 1394) in addition to the standard VGA output.

There’s also an expansion bus for use with an optional port replicator (£139 including VAT), something no serious desktop replacement laptop should be without. These days you could arguably say the same about 802.11b wireless networking, and the Vaio has this too, although not invisibly integrated as you might expect but in the form of a PC Card.

Everything else is in place: 56K internal modem and integrated 10/100Base-TX NIC; twin PC Card slots; even a MagicGate (MG) Memory Stick slot to provide yet more versatility when it comes to getting data in and out.

So there are the facts, now on to what the Vaio was like to use? Size has its benefits where notebooks are concerned, so long as you don’t need to carry the machine around too often. In this case the roomy footprint means that the Vaio sports a comfortably spacious keyboard and plenty of palmrest, so typing is a pleasant enough experience.

The vast screen performs flawlessly and generated a bright, even image with a reasonable range of viewing angles, but we weren’t entirely happy with it all the same. The problem is that the quest for ever-higher resolution on notebook displays is outrunning the limits set by the size of the screen itself. Even the 16.1-inch diagonal on offer isn’t enough to cope with 1600 x 1200 ergonomically. Everything is just that bit too small, hard to read or hard to hit with the mouse. For our money, the ideal combination here is 1280 x 1024 on the same diagonal, which is in fact what you get on the consumer model.

In the hands the notebook feels like quality, with a solid, inflexible body and a proper magnesium alloy lid which will help protect the screen from damage while the machine is being transported.

It also rapidly became apparent that the Vaio was well crafted on the inside, which was reflected in impressively lively all-round performance. The term ‘desktop replacement’ can be used here with full justification; even 3D graphics performance was fairly solid (3DMark 2001 returned a result of 5008 in 32-bit XGA), so the notebook should hold its own under any normal circumstances.

Battery life was less remarkable, with a realistic limit of about two hours continuous light use. As we’ve said, this isn’t really a travelling machine, so this will probably do, but it has to be said that rather average battery life is a feature of many Sony notebooks.

The final view on this machine is going to be heavily coloured by the needs of the buyer. If you really, really want a portable with both real sinew and the ability to burn DVDs in both of the existing formats, then you might well be prepared to pony up the cash for the Vaio. If not, then you are left looking at a very impressive and capable machine which costs rather a lot and probably isn’t really what you need, so you won’t be stepping forward with the company cheque book.

We suspect that Sony is fully aware of this and quite happy to have things this way, and on balance it’s encouraging to see that manufacturers feel it worthwhile to produce something like this rather than just churning out business workhorses by the million.

Company: Sony

Contact: 0990 424424

The Sony Vaio PCG-GRX616SP is hugely powerful and unique in having a dual-mode DVD±RW drive, which will be enough to sell it to a certain number of users. The rest of us may find the merits of the UXGA screen debatable, and the price off-putting, but there's no denying that the Vaio is an impressive, ambitious machine.