Sony Vaio PCV-RS100

In a recent survey, we noted that last year’s freefall in PC prices had slowed or even, in the case of some under-$1,000 models, reversed. Here’s more evidence: Last weekend, while we were testing the Sony Electronics Vaio RS100 desktop that had just reached us after some delay with the evaluation loan request, the $800 system abruptly disappeared from Sony’s Web site in favor of a new RS220 model priced at $1,000.

So we must apologize for this review’s poor timing. But while we don’t usually urge readers to rush to their local retailers in search of closeout specials, some of you might want to see if the corner superstore still has RS100 models in stock. Why? Because while the RS220 makes several hardware improvements for its higher price, they don’t strike us as critical — or, to put it another way, they don’t fix our biggest complaint with the system.

DVD Burning on a Budget
The PCV-RS series is Sony’s entry-level retail desktop, but its big sales pitch isn’t pinching pennies so much as making movies — home videos recorded to DVD, thanks to a 4.7GB DVD-RW instead of merely a CD-RW drive. Rival HP’s lowest-priced DVD-burning desktop, the Pavilion 754n, combines a DVD+RW drive with the same 2.53GHz Pentium 4 processor and $1,000 price as the DVD-RW Vaio RS220. (More costly Sony systems offer a format-bridging DVD+RW/DVD-RW drive.)

To bring DVD recording down to $800, the RS100 model here makes do with an Intel Pentium 4/2.0A processor (with an up-to-date 512K of Level 2 cache, but the older 400MHz rather than 533MHz front-side bus). It also has a frugal but adequate 256MB of DDR266 memory and 60GB hard disk, along with plenty of USB 2.0 and IEEE 1394 (i.Link in Sonyspeak) ports, a standard 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet adapter, and well-above-average software bundle including Sony’s cool Click to DVD semiautomatic DVD creator.

Before you turn up your nose at the computer’s mere 2.0GHz of CPU speed, please note that the Pentium 4/2.0A will kick the stuffing out of the weenie-cached 2.1GHz and 2.2GHz Intel Celerons still appearing in plenty of economy desktops. While setting no speed records, the Vaio posts a perfectly perky score of 162 in BAPco‘s SysMark 2002, with 238 in Internet Content Creation and 110 in Office Productivity.

Its FutureMark PCMark 2002 numbers are 4,788 for CPU; 3,228 for memory; and 771 for the hard disk — the last snappy enough to help make the system feel a bit quicker than comparable 2.0GHz mobile Pentium 4 laptops, which executives still consider to be high-performance status symbols.

Unfortunately, when you remove three screws and open the case, you’ll see the Sony’s Achilles’ heel or glaring omission: Intel’s bottom-feeder 845GL chipset with integrated graphics, with no AGP slot for possible upgrades. The system stumbles to a poor 3DMark 2001 SE Pro score of 972, and plays Quake III Arena at a slowly-moving-target level of 25 frames per second in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode.

We’ve complained long, loud, and often about otherwise well-equipped consumer PCs with chintzy integrated graphics that are too slow to play current games; when such a system is touted for demanding digital video editing and DVD production, we get downright mad. (The new RS220 has a fractionally faster 845GV chipset, but no AGP slot either, so our criticism still applies.)

For the record, the rest of what’s under the hood is more appealing, with wide-open access to two memory sockets (one holding a 256MB DIMM, the other empty) and two PCI slots — a third is blocked by the CRM riser slot and 56Kbps modem. There’s room for an additional hard disk beneath the 60GB Maxtor 5,400-rpm drive; two 5.25-inch bays are occupied by a 40X ASUS CD-ROM and the Toshiba SD-R5002 — a 2/1/12X DVD-RW and 16/10/40X CD-RW combo drive.

Two USB 2.0 ports and one 4-pin IEEE 1394 port are behind a fold-down panel on the front of the case, just below the Vaio logo that serves as a spooky blue glowing power indicator. Around the back are two more USB 2.0 ports and — a welcome touch — a 6-pin or powered IEEE 1394 port for digital video peripherals, along with parallel, serial, VGA, Ethernet, PS/2 mouse and keyboard, and audio (microphone, line-in, and headphone) ports.

A Bountiful Bundle
In addition to a pair of compact speakers (no subwoofer), the Vaio comes with the best keyboard we’ve seen on a Sony desktop in years — finally abandoning the company’s inexplicable notebook-style layout without dedicated cursor-control keys (even though Sony notebooks have them) in favor of a conventional design and firm if plasticky typing feel. Volume up, down, and mute buttons and a sleep/suspend key perch above the top row. It’s an improvement that earns cheers, though the cheap mechanical rolling-ball rather than optical mouse gets a boo.

We’ve earlier mentioned Sony’s Click to DVD as a worthy rival — if not Windows PC vendors’ only rival — to Apple’s iDVD; especially if you’re using a Sony MiniDV camcorder, its ability to automatically adjust audio and video quality to fit a tape onto a blank DVD-R, with attractive chapter-menu backgrounds, is a great first step into DVD authoring, with custom-chapter-editing and slide-show further steps just a click away.

The Windows XP Home Edition-based Vaio also provides Sony’s exemplary digital photo and music management and home-network file-sharing utilities. And we were pleased that, in addition to Security Center, CyberLink PowerDVD, and Quicken 2003 New User Edition, the RS100 came with Corel’s WordPerfect Office 2002 suite — including the CorelCentral and Presentations modules left out of many OEMs’ WordPerfect-and-Quattro-Pro-only “Productivity Pack.”

Such capability tempted us to classify the RS100 as a capable, general-purpose productivity PC with the convenience of high-capacity DVD-RW backup or storage, plus — despite its sluggish graphics — at least the option of occasional or beginner-level dabbling with digital video.

But frankly, that rationalization works better with an $800 price than the new RS220 model’s $1,000 tag; the latter system has a 2.53GHz CPU, more memory, and a bigger hard disk, but its lack of decent graphics or an AGP slot disqualifies it from our recommendation. We don’t mind vendors’ trying to make a profit, but we suspect CPU inflation is skewing the consumer PC market as much as grade inflation skews college scores.

Adpated from HardwareCentral.

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