Tuesday, May 08, 2007 6:49 AM
Sony's VAIO XL3 Digital Living System is a welcome improvement to previous versions of Sony's high-end home theater PC. The multidisc DVD changer is thankfully absent, and the PC itself comes with almost all the features we expect from a modern, living room-style computer. Similar to its older Digital Living System PCs, Sony isn't afraid to charge a lot for the XL3, which will run you $3,300. For that price, we wish there was a bit more computer here. That issue and the fact that the XL3 only has a single CableCard tuner (which means only limited PVR functionality) hurt our enthusiasm for this system. Overall though, it's expertly designed and about as well-equipped as any convergence hound might like.
The core specs
There's obviously a lot more to a home theater PC than its core hardware, but the spec sheet for the XL3 looks as follows:
- 2.13GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 processor
- 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM
- 256MB GeForce 7600 GTL graphics card
- two 250GB, 7,200rpm hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration
That's not a bad collection of hardware, although we might expect more given the XL3's $3,300 price tag. We'll get more in-depth on the hardware when we discuss performance.
Our main comparison to the XL3 is Velocity Micro's CineMagix Grand Theater. The two systems strike an interesting contrast to each other. While you can order this fixed-configuration XL3 directly from Sony, as well as find it on store shelves, Sony told us that it expects many people will acquire an XL3 through a home theater integrator, that is, someone you pay to come to your house to set up a complete home theater. Velocity Micro, on the other hand, embraces the more self-sufficient tech-minded shopper, who would be inclined to configure a PC his or herself. That difference is extremely evident in each vendor's choice of case.
Of the two, the XL3's slim, sleek chassis is 2 inches shorter than the Velocity's monolithic, brushed black aluminum enclosure. That reduced height makes the XL3 look more like a traditional home theater component. The Sony is also much quieter. Not that the Velocity is overly noisy, but we noticed much less chatter in the XL3 during hard drive access and when it had a movie spinning up in the Blu-ray drive.
The graphics could use a boost
We understand why many people might like a slimmer home theater PC, but Sony's smaller case also means that you have to sacrifice expandability. The XL3 can only accommodate a single half-height PCI Express graphics card, which comes in the form of a GeForce 7600 GTL card. That card, with a single HDMI port as the only means for video output, handles Blu-ray movies very well, and we had no complaints about the image quality or stuttering. Even though we like the XL3's playback, that 3D card seems an odd choice for Sony. Nvidia's faster GeForce 8600 cards came out a few weeks ago, and ATI's next-gen cards, which supposedly make it easier to send audio through the HDMI port as well, are due out soon. Further, for roughly the same price as the XL3, Velocity Micro offers a similar configuration with Nvidia's GeForce 8800 GTS, a higher-end 3D gaming card that not only decodes HD video, but also lets you play games at high resolutions.
That configurability in the Velocity Micro system also gives it an edge over the XL3 in terms of its ability to replace your TiVo or other personal video recorder. The XL3 comes with only a single CableCard tuner. That means it can't act as a full-fledged PVR device that will let you watch digital cable on one channel and record on another. With Velocity, on the other hand, it will cost you an additional $300 to add a second tuner to the CineMagix Grand Theater, but at least you have the option. You also can't add a second CableCard tuner to the Sony after the fact because of CableLabs effectively putting the kibosh on the DIY PC-based CableCard.
How much performance can you expect from a $3,300 PC?
Aside from the customizability, we're also not very thrilled with the XL3's performance as a PC. We'll grant that we don't often expect that much power from a home theater PC, as long as it will play movies, encode, decode, and burn media, and play nice on our network, we're usually willing to forgive pokey performance. And to be fair, the XL3 runs Windows Vista Home Premium and plays Blu-ray movies with little to no trouble. Still, we have concerns about its bang for the buck. The Velocity Micro CineMagix Grand Theater featured in these charts costs $4,385 as configured, so it's not the best apples-to-apples comparison. The HP Pavilion that beats the XL3, though, is a $1,599 PC. The AVADirect system costs $2,750. When we went to Velocity's configurator and assembled a similar $3,200 PC, we were able to do so with a more robust Core 2 Duo CPU and a much faster 3D card. We wish Sony had made more of an attempt to keep this system core specs up to date.
If it doesn't have the best, pure PC bang for the buck, the XL3 offers more connectivity options than the competition. Velocity Micro relies purely on standard PC audio inputs and outputs. That means you need a separate audio receiver if you want to connect the CineMagix Grand Theater to traditional speakers. In addition to the optical audio inputs and outputs common to both systems, the XL3 also has a dedicated expansion card that provides RCA-style audio line-in and line-out jacks, as well as YPbPr analog component video. We suspect most people will simply connect via the HDMI input, but the component video will benefit those with older HDTVs. The analog audio inputs are also a very considerate addition. On the front you'll find a more-or-less familiar connectivity situation, with the requisite multiformat media card reader, USB 2.0 ports, and composite video and audio inputs, but the XL3 also goes the extra step of adding a full-sized headphone jack.
No mouse, but that's OK
We also like that Sony put some thought into the holistic experience of using this PC in your living room. For one, Sony doesn't include a mouse in the box. Instead you get a touch pad-equipped wireless keyboard, as well as a thoughtfully designed PC remote control. Unlike other PC remotes, the XL3's has dedicated buttons for closing and switching between applications. We're less enamored of the keyboard, which seemed to consistently require us to refresh its wireless connection when we brought the XL3 out of hibernation mode. It also needs more media control keys.
In addition to the control hardware, Sony also has an interesting software component in the XL3. The VAIO Living Browser is a custom Web browser designed to make it easy to navigate a Web page using the remote control's menu navigation buttons. It works similarly to using your keyboard's cursor arrows and the tab button to move around to various links and words on a Web page. In our experience, the cursor moved more erratically than we wanted it to, but we give Sony credit for at least trying out a technique for making it easier to navigate PC-centric software without a mouse.
Supporting a true home theater PC is more complicated than a traditional computer as you have many more connectivity issues to consider. Thankfully, Sony provides a handy collection of guides in the box that helps you map out what goes to what. It also includes a brief sheet that explains what you need to do to get CableCard working. You can read more about our experiences with PC-based CableCard. We'd expect our experiences with the Velocity Micro PC in our post to carry over to the XL3 as well, since they all use the same ATI OCCUR CableCard tuners. Thankfully, from what we understand, a much-needed firmware update is on the way soon, which we're hoping will smooth the process.