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Sony VAIO VGN-A160 Review

DT Recommended Product

Highs

  • Fantastic design
  • feels fast and powerful
  • beautiful screen
  • AV Entertainment Dock

Rating

Our Score 8
User Score 4

Lows

  • Too much preinstalled software
  • no scroll wheel
The Sony VAIO VGN-A160 is a masterpiece that fuses cutting-edge technologies with a breathtaking design.

Summary

The A160 is a desktop replacement that is different from those sold by other companies. It is not designed to replace a workstation, it doesn’t feature a full-fledged Intel Pentium 4 desktop processor and it only has 80GB of storage space. The A160 is a notebook that appears to be designed to replace your home’s desktop system rather than an office workstation in most instances, although it would make an adequate computer for the office.

We didn’t give the A160 an award for a couple reasons. There is way too much preinstalled software and junk on the system and it can ruin the user experience. Sony also didn’t add a media card reader (other than their own Sony Memory Stick) and they didn’t include a scroll wheel. These should both be a given in a desktop replacement system, and why they left these out is beyond us.

On the upside, the AV Entertainment Dock that Sony packages with the A160 is simply amazing and includes every conceivable port and connection you can think of; this alone separates the A160 from its competitors. And instead of trying to market the A160 as having audiophile quality sound using integrated speakers and subwoofers, Sony throws in a pair of nice external speakers so that when you are plugged into the docking station you are not stuck with the systems internal speakers.

Lastly, we have to give Sony credit for designing a system that not only features a 15.4-inch widescreen display with Xbrite technology, but does it all in a chassis that is slimmer than the competition. We are on the fence about whether they should have gone with a desktop processor instead of the Centrino chipset and Pentium M CPU though. The bottom line though is that the Sony VAIO VGN-A160 is a masterpiece that fuses cutting-edge technologies with a breathtaking design. Sony fans should be more than happy with their latest offering.

Introduction

When we were first told about the Sony VAIO A Series notebook computers, we were curious to see how Sony designers approached the desktop replacement idea. If you’ve been shopping for a desktop replacement notebook, you probably know that manufacturers have tried several concepts to distinguish their large notebooks from real desktop computers. Some companies have installed Microsoft’s Media Center OS on their notebooks, while others have tried to integrate huge 16:9 widescreen displays and large subwoofers. As the name suggests, desktop replacement notebook computers are not designed to be ultra portable. Let’s face it, at over 10 pounds and no matter how large the battery in the notebook might be, most people will have these systems plugged into the wall. So why not give the system a media dock and external speakers to use while it on your desk at home or work? Sony’s engineers may have come to that same conclusion when they designed the VAIO A series notebooks.

There are three versions of Sony’s VAIO A Series product line. The A150, priced at $2,099.99 is their lowest priced system and features an Intel Pentium M 715 (1.5GHz) processor, a 15.4-inch display, and 512MB of memory. The subject of this review, the $2,399.99 A160 adds an AV Entertainment Dock and speakers, and the top-of-the-line, $2,699.99 A90 comes with a Pentium M 735 (1.7GHz) processor, a 17-inch wide LCD display and the AV Entertainment Dock.

Sony VAIO VGN A160

Performance

The Sony VAIO VGN-A160 has a lot to offer in terms of compatibility, but just how fast is this system? Well keep in mind that even though this system is physically larger than Sony’s others notebooks, its still Centrino based. This means that the Pentium M 1.5GHz processor is the same as the CPU used in Gateway’s 200XL for example. The Gateway 200XL is an ultra-light computer that weighs just over two pounds compared to the A160’s 8 lbs.  In our 3DMark 2001 tests, the A160 outperformed the competition boasting a score of 7318 at 1024×768, 16-bit resolutions. This is because the A160 uses ATI’s Radeon 9200 graphics adapter versus the Intel Extreme integrated graphics adapter found in other Centrino based systems. But when it came to CPU benchmarks, the A160 was stuck in there with the other notebooks scoring a CPU Arithmetic score of 4861.

System Configurations:

Sony VAIO VGN-A160
Windows XP Home; 1.5GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 9200 64MB;  80GB Hard Drive

Gateway 200XL
Windows XP Professional; 1.6GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Intel Extreme Graphics; Toshiba MK6022GAX 60GB Hard Drive

Gateway DS 450 XL
Windows XP Home; 1.5GHz Intel Pentium M; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 32MB; Toshiba MK4018GAP 40GB 4,200rpm

Features and Design

The A160 is a relatively thin laptop when compared to its competitors, despite having a 15.4-inch widescreen display and a large keyboard. In fact it’s at least a quarter of an inch thinner than the multimedia notebooks we found form the HP and Toshiba camps. But don’t let its size fool you; the A160 still weighs in at a little over 8 pounds, without the external speakers and port dock. But for a desktop replacement, this is actually not that heavy.

Sony decided to use a Centrino chipset and Pentium M 715 1.5GHz processor with 512MB of RAM in the A160. While this won’t give the system the same horsepower that you would get out of a desktop system, it is perfectly acceptable for all of the A160’s intended tasks. Memory is always a big influence with most of today’s applications and at least Sony gave the A160 512MB of memory. And if that is not enough, you can always upgrade the system to 1GB. 80GB of hard drive space might be too small for some multimedia enthusiasts though, so you may want to add an external hard drive for more storage space. We checked out the A160’s competitors and they all seem to come with 80GB drives, so there is nothing unusual about this – especially considering the price premium for 2.5-inch hard drives. For complete specs, click on the specifications tab and link located on the top and bottom of this review.

The design and styling of the A160 is both unique and breathtaking. If Darth Vader had a favorite laptop, we are fairly sure that it would be the VGN-A series. The dark granite-like color and black highlights have been a cornerstone in Sony’s designs lately; just like white has been for Apple. The color scheme Sony chose to go with this system works well. The dark colors make the system appear smaller than it really is and the downward sloping corners give the A Series a very distinctive look – there are no square corners on the entire laptop. Everything about the A Series is very clean as there are no knobs or buttons protruding. Sony hides a lot of the inputs and outputs behind covers which help ad to the smooth lines.

Sony VAIO VGN-A160

The AV Entertainment Dock has every input/output you can think of

Setup and Use

Setting up the A160 is relatively easy, just follow the setup prompts and enter your information. Once we went through the MS Windows setup process, we were greeted by more preinstalled software than we had ever seen. It’s as if Sony’s marketing team went on a shopping spree, selling as much hard drive space to software vendors as possible. There is so much software preinstalled on the system that it takes an excruciatingly long time to boot into Windows. And once you’re in, you can’t go long without getting some sort of pop-up reminding you to pay or register for their software. Normally, computer manufacturers choose one vendor per software type, but not Sony. They have different brands of the same type of software installed. For example, our system came with both McAfee and Norton Antivirus programs installed, Microsoft Office 2003 trial and Works 7.0 software, Internet explorer and Netscape etc. They even preloaded the Google toolbar to show up in your web browser. There comes a point where when enough is enough. Its software preloads like this that can ruin a nice system. We’ve always thought that part of owning a Sony is the great user experience and Sony has hurt this a lot. We uninstalled a lot of the software which we did not want to use and moved on. No doubt you’ll want to do the same.

The A160 runs incredibly quiet for a system of this size. This is due to their decision to go with a Centrino based chipset and Pentium M processor. We noticed that the A160’s 4000mAh battery pack is physically smaller than batteries we have seen from other manufacturers. It could be the size of this battery which also helps contribute to the systems relatively cool touch. Both Gateway’s 200XL and Apple’s Powerbook line can get so hot when in use that you cannot set it on your lap; the A160 never seems to heat up to that point.

Another feature the A160 has is Sony’s patented Xbrite technology which is used in the system’s LCD display. The Xbrite display has a smooth plastic feel to it when compared to other LCD displays. It also helps to increase the screen brightness and quality of the colors without any sort of fading or wash out. In fact it reminds us a lot of Polaroid sunglasses. Light reflection is minimized to an extent and the richness of the colors are enhance. Black levels are also darker than notebooks without this technology. Sony’s 15.4-inch widescreen display is capable of displaying HDTV resolution up to 1,920 by 1,200 resolutions, and if you have an HDTV in the house, you should be able to playback movies onto your home theater system using Sony’s AV Entertainment Dock which features both VGA/ DVI and SPDIF outputs.  We first saw Sony’s Xbrite technology used in their small TR1A laptop system, and we are glad they chose to bring it over to their other notebook lines.

Speaking of the AV Entertainment Dock, this is one of the most useful docking ports we have seen in any system. Not only does it have four USB ports on it, but it also has multiple video in and out ports allowing you to seamlessly use this system with your camcorder, or other home theater components. Using Sony’s VAIO software, the company boasts that you can use the video inputs on the AV Dock to record TV shows and other video to the system, much like a personal video recorder. We were not able to test this feature in time for our review, so if you have advanced experience with the Sony software and AV dock, then please post it in our forums.

Performance

The Sony VAIO VGN-A160 has a lot to offer in terms of compatibility, but just how fast is this system? Well keep in mind that even though this system is physically larger than Sony’s others notebooks, its still Centrino based. This means that the Pentium M 1.5GHz processor is the same as the CPU used in Gateway’s 200XL for example. The Gateway 200XL is an ultra-light computer that weighs just over two pounds compared to the A160’s 8 lbs.  In our 3DMark 2001 tests, the A160 outperformed the competition boasting a score of 7318 at 1024×768, 16-bit resolutions. This is because the A160 uses ATI’s Radeon 9200 graphics adapter versus the Intel Extreme integrated graphics adapter found in other Centrino based systems. But when it came to CPU benchmarks, the A160 was stuck in there with the other notebooks scoring a CPU Arithmetic score of 4861. That’s because it has the same processor and memory as the other systems. For complete test results please click on the performance tab and link above and below this review.

We found the integrated 802.11b/g adapter worked well in our offices, even though multiple walls. Reception was good and we did not encounter any drops while it was in use. Battery life was also admirable lasting 2 hours 13 minutes – long enough to watch a DVD on a plane flight.

Some disappointments we had with the Sony VAIO VGN-A160 included the lack of a scroll wheel on the system. Using a touchpad is already more difficult than using a regular mouse, and when you take the scroll wheel away, you better have your fingers in shape. We had to constantly hold down the left touch pad button while dragging our cursor down the side of the webpage so we could scroll down the page – that got old real fast. We were also upset to see that only Sony’s Memory Stick is supported on the system. Photographers may be annoyed that their flash storage card may not be supported. We understand that Sony wanted to promote their own products, but don’t alienate users for the better good, in the whole process.

Conclusion

The A160 is a desktop replacement that is different from those sold by other companies. It is not designed to replace a workstation, it doesn’t feature a full-fledged Intel Pentium 4 desktop processor and it only has 80GB of storage space. The A160 is a notebook that appears to be designed to replace your home’s desktop system rather than an office workstation in most instances, although it would make an adequate computer for the office.

We didn’t give the A160 an award for a couple reasons. There is way too much preinstalled software and junk on the system and it can ruin the user experience. Sony also didn’t add a media card reader (other than their own Sony Memory Stick) and they didn’t include a scroll wheel. These should both be a given in a desktop replacement system, and why they left these out is beyond us.

On the upside, the AV Entertainment Dock that Sony packages with the A160 is simply amazing and includes every conceivable port and connection you can think of; this alone separates the A160 from its competitors. And instead of trying to market the A160 as having audiophile quality sound using integrated speakers and subwoofers, Sony throws in a pair of nice external speakers so that when you are plugged into the docking station you are not stuck with the systems internal speakers.

Lastly, we have to give Sony credit for designing a system that not only features a 15.4-inch widescreen display with Xbrite technology, but does it all in a chassis that is slimmer than the competition. We are on the fence about whether they should have gone with a desktop processor instead of the Centrino chipset and Pentium M CPU though. The bottom line though is that the Sony VAIO VGN-A60 is a masterpiece that fuses cutting-edge technologies with a breathtaking design. Sony fans should be more than happy with their latest offering.