Test Drive: Sony Vaio PCG-GRX570 Review

By Eric Grevstad

Either looks can be deceiving, or we’re simply getting used to the colossal, desktop-replacement models that are this year’s fashion in notebook PCs. When we lifted the Sony Vaio PCG-GRX570 out of the box, it struck us as undoubtedly a big, full-sized laptop. And at 11.5 by 14 by 1.8 inches, 8.25 pounds, it is. We also noticed right away that the GRX has no floppy drive, so you must save your files to CD-RW (or carry an external USB floppy that’s an $80 option).

But it seduces you into that compromise by packing perhaps the biggest, sharpest laptop screen on the market – a 16.1-inch diagonal, 1,600 by 1,200-pixel panorama. The display, backed by ATI’s first-rate 32MB Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics controller for fast performance, is irresistible: bright (albeit at only the top two or three of its nine backlight-brightness settings), colorful, and such a happy combination of size and sharpness that we barely registered the “toolbar icons and menus too small” complaint we’ve made about other vendors’ flagship 15-inch, 1,400 by 1,050-resolution notebooks.

It’s overkill for Microsoft Office, but if you like to work with two application windows side by side, or enjoy a 1,600 by 1,200 view for image editing or design, the Vaio GRX is easy to ogle. Frankly, it’s like having a desktop PC with a 19-inch CRT monitor that you can squeeze into your briefcase for occasional travel.

Falling Prices, Falling Model Numbers
We should explain here that technically, if you visit Sony’s site, it takes a search for last month’s pages to find our test loaner, model number GRX570 – the latest Vaio GRX model listings include the GRX560, with the same 1.6GHz mobile Pentium 4 processor but less memory and storage, and GRX580, which charges $100 extra for an unnoticeably quicker 1.7GHz CPU. To match our test system, you’ll need to configure a 1.6GHz Vaio GRX560 with 512MB of DDR SDRAM and a 40GB hard disk, and you’ll pay $2,400.

That’s not cheap, but it’s not the $2,700 listed at the GRX570’s introduction, and it’s only $130 more than the abovementioned Gateway, which includes a floppy drive but whose 15.7-inch, 1,280 by 1,024-pixel panel makes it the runner-up to Sony’s screen champion.

It also gets you Windows XP Home Edition and Sony’s multimedia-cornucopia software suite, including InterVideo’s WinDVD and Adobe Premiere LE and Photoshop Elements for video and image editing, respectively, plus Sony’s MovieShaker kiddie video editor; Smart Capture and DVgate digital camera and camcorder control programs; PictureGear image manager; SonicStage audio jukebox; and Screenblast Acid and Sound Forge (house-brand versions of Sonic Foundry’s music and audio editing tools). There’s also Sony’s EverQuest for gamers and Microsoft Word 2002 and Quicken 2002 New User Edition for the productivity-minded.

To hook up all your multimedia gear, there’s one IEEE 1394 (what Sony calls iLink) port and three USB 1.1 ports – one of the latter on every side of the notebook except the front – as well as headphone, microphone, and audio/video output jacks, two PC Card slots, and one of Sony’s Memory Stick flash-card slots. Modem, Ethernet, VGA, and parallel ports are at the rear, with cute little doors covering every port or connector all around. You won’t, however, find a PS/2 mouse/keyboard port or wireless networking built in; Sony sells an 802.11b PC Card for $149.

This year’s irrational exuberance of CPU speed has made a mere 1.6GHz Pentium 4 seem relatively tame (especially since Intel’s battery-friendly SpeedStep technology downshifts to 1.2GHz every chance it gets). But in the real world, the GRX is more than swift enough for spreadsheet-crunching, DVD-viewing, or any other application that strikes your fancy: it racks up a BAPco SysMark 2002 score of 144, averaging a 211 in Internet Content Creation with 98 in Office PRoductivity.

The MadOnion.com PCMark 2002 numbers check in at 3,883 (CPU); 4,008 (memory); and 461 (hard disk) – a smidgen ahead of the 1.6GHz Sony Vaio NV170 stablemate we tested last month (probably thanks to 512MB versus that laptop’s 256MB of memory), and virtually tied with the abovementioned, 1.7GHz Gateway desktop replacement.

And, like other ATI Mobility Radeon 7500-equipped portables we’ve tested, the GRX sped through the 3DMark 2001 SE Pro benchmark (with a score of 4,126) and Quake III Arena gameplay – clocking 100 frames per second in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode and even a playable 46 fps in High Quality 1,600 by 1,200.

The 40GB Sony MK4018GAS hard disk didn’t keep us waiting for applications to load, while the CRX810E combo drive is rated for perky 12X DVD playback and 16/10/24X CD-RW performance. Only the generic Yamaha sound chip and tinny stereo speakers keep the big-screened Sony from impressing as a home theater hub.

Today’s generation of semiportable PCs may never stray far from an AC outlet, but considering its jumbo screen, the Vaio delivers tolerable battery life. A test session with lots of optical and hard drive wear (including reinstalling the factory software image) lasted one hour and 45 minutes before the system went into suspended animation or hibernation mode.

A more sedate word processing session, pausing several times to burn files to a CD-RW disc, lasted just over two hours. If you’re planning a transcontinental flight, you can swap out the optical drive for a second lithium-ion battery pack, but the latter is a pricey $250 and you’ll be restricted to using installed software instead of enjoying audio CDs or DVDs.

The GRX has a quick and comfortable if slightly noisy or rattly keyboard, with a full array of cursor-control keys and no unusual or awkward key placements, and a smooth-to-use touchpad with nice, big mouse buttons. Like the NV170, it adds a “jog dial” scroll control with “back” (previous menu, not previous browser window) button below the touchpad. The dial pops up a special menu that lets you scroll through various setup utilities and program launchers and can be cycled through big and small “skins” or designs; as with the NV170, we found it more complicated than useful compared to a conventional mouse scroll wheel.

You can easily find well-equipped notebooks that cost hundreds less, and easily find models that are handier to carry – although we admit again that the GRX feels like less of a leviathan than some of today’s transportable systems. But if having the fastest or lightest laptop is less important to you than working or giving presentations with a genuinely desktop-class display, the Vaio gives you briefcase bragging rights at a fair price.

Pros: Unmatched 16.1-inch, supersharp screen; smooth performance; good software bundle.

Cons: Too big and heavy for daily mobility; barely adequate battery life; not-very-useful “jog dial” scroll button.

Reprinted from Hardwarecentral.com.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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