Our first look at the AR21S showed an impressive notebook, filled to the gills with technology. Featuring Blu-Ray technology and a very substantial notebook at a competitive price point, it was obvious that a closer look was needed.
Unlike popular belief, stylish notebooks weren't invented by Apple but rather Sony. When Apple launched their PowerBook G4 range, Apple said they wish to take Sony's lead on styling. They may have overtaken Sony on that front but looking at the AR21S, you can see Sony's design teams can still come up with the goods.
The AR21S is a desktop replacement but one that manages to look relatively svelte. Thanks to excellent exterior styling and some superb little touches the AR21S is a joy to behold. The lid and LCD surround is finished in piano gloss black and lacquered to such a high brilliant finish that you could use it as a bathroom mirror.
There's lovely attention to detail all over the AR21S. Buttons are flush mounted, the faux chrome lining around the side is pierced with activity and functionality LEDs and the power button has an integrated light to display the state. It's all impressive stuff but not what you'll be interested in when you purchase this notebook.
The AR21S will be bought for the sole reason that it has a Blu-Ray drive. While it may sound like a shallow reason to purchase a £2000 computer, it isn't a bad one. The first thing I did with this notebook was not to gaze upon the utterly excellent LCD screen but to plug a HDMI cable into the AR21S and hook it up to my Pioneer plasma to watch a film.
A special edition of InterView's WinDVD supporting Blu-Ray playback is bundled with the notebook. The software is almost identical to the standard WinDVD commonly found and film playback was generally very smooth with no noticeable lip-sync problems.
I'm a bit of a sceptic when it comes to high definition formats. Personally I believe a lot more can be achieved with current "standard" definition formats if compression was reduced. I've seen hours of high definition demos in the past two years but nothing in the relative comfort of my living room. So when I loaded up Tears of the Sun I expected to be under whelmed but ended up being startled by the quality. I watched it both in 720p and 1080i on my Pioneer PDP-505XDE and was left speechless. Quality on the 1080p AR21S's LCD panel was just as stunning.
As a Blu-Ray player, the AR21S is just fine. Samsung's BD-P1000 Blu-Ray player costs in the region of £900, yet the drive in the AR21S is a recorder too. Nevertheless, deducting the £900 from the AR21S's £2000 price tag you're paying around £1100 for a very capable notebook computer.
The AR21S's party piece was always going to be its Blu-Ray functionality but an impressive supporting cast of features means this is a notebook that isn't a one catchphrase performer.
Whether you want to watch movies or work with pictures, the 17" WUXGA screen is a joy to behold. With a resolution of 1920x1200 and featuring Sony's X-Black glossy coating, colours are vibrant, contrast is high and detail is pin sharp. The brightness is exceptional thanks to what Sony call "Double Lamp" technology.
Because the AR21S is a Media Center notebook it features a DVB-T tuner built in. Sony have also thrown in a remote control. The whole thing works as you would expect from a Media Center machine; that is very well. The remote is a little too light and toy-like but surprisingly ergonomic.
A motion eye camera is set above the LCD screen and resolution is also good. Don't get be wrong, it's not good enough to capture a rendition of Lord of the Rings in high definition but as a web-cam it's absolutely fine.
No guts, no glory
One could spend hours eulogizing the AR21S surface attributes and not realize that underneath there lies a notebook computer of very decent specification.
Powered by Intel's Core 2 Duo T2700 processor which runs at 2.0GHz, the AR21S zips along just fine. Traditional notebook tasks such as word processing, e-mail, Web browsing are dealt with relative ease.
There's plenty of memory too, with 2GB of DDR2 RAM supplied so keeping a huge number of applications open is not an issue. Long term memory is taken care of thanks to two 100GB hard drives which are combined in RAID 0 to give around 190Gb of capacity and a slight speed boost.
If you want to play games, and we do, graphics power are provided by NVIDIA's Geforce 2 Go 7600 which has 256Mb video memory. Games like Call of Duty 2 and Battlefield 2 played well at the native 1920x1200 resolution with 4x anti-aliasing enabled. In big fights things became a little choppy but that's to be expected at such a high resolution. The AR21S managed to score a respectable 2831 in 3DMark 2006.
Wireless connectivity is present in the form of 802.11a/b/g support, built in Bluetooth and Infra-Red (IrDA). There's the usual Sony MemoryStick/MemoryStick Pro slot along with an SD card slot too. 3 USB ports, wired LAN and modem connectivity are all present. A PC Card and Express card slot is neatly tucked away as well. A single i.Link/Fireire port allows you to connect digital camcorders. Video out is done through HDMI, but Sony don't bundle a DVI or D-Sub converter.
As you might expect all this goodness comes at a price. I'm not talking about the £2000, which is a relative bargin, but the AR21S's weight and battery life. With a weight of around 3.8Kg, you won't be carrying this around much. Battery life quoted by Sony as a woeful 90 minutes. In our testing we found this to be a true estimation. If you're playing back movies while using the battery, expect around 50 minutes. The AR21S isn't a portable Blu-Ray player by any means.
Sony has come up with a gem of a notebook with the AR21S. Yes it has hopeless battery life but you'd be a fool to lug around the best part of 4Kg for any length of time. The feature set of this notebook is outstanding and the attention to detail is something that is usually found on Apple units.
Powerful enough to do everyday tasks and game fairly hard, the AR21S is all about the piano gloss exterior, the sumptuous 17" 1920x1200 screen and the Blu-Ray recorder. Desperately want a Blu-Ray player this Christmas? Buy a Vaio AR21S, you won't regret it.