For some time now, we've been crying out for new PC case designs to shoehorn a Media Center PC into your home cinema. You'd have a tough time finding room for the £1,550 Sony VAIO VGC-RA304's vertically oriented case in your A/V rack; a small form-factor case such as Shuttle's XPC G2 7500M would work better, spacewise. Still, we'd argue that the VGC-RA304 is one of the more living-room friendly Media Center PCs we've seen. Why? One word: acoustics.
Sony didn't punch a hole in the middle of the RA304 just to be different. The tunnel through the middle of the case -- above the motherboard and below the optical drives -- is an air intake, and it's part of the system's unique cooling system, which uses liquid-cooled pipes to shuttle heat away from the processor and toward the large heat sink in the top half of the case. Behind the heat sink sits a large, relatively slow-spinning fan that blows heat out of the back of the system. Our test PC ran so quietly that we sometimes couldn't tell whether the RA304 was on or off.
Without the usual din of cooling fans, we were able to pick up every word of The Office at normal volume levels. A good thing, too, because the bundled 2.1 Sony speakers have a limited range. They provide acceptable audio if you are glued to a screen at your desk, but if you integrate the RA304 into your home cinema, you'll obviously want to use a more powerful speaker set.
You won't need a more powerful Media Center PC, however, than the Sony VAIO RA820G. And at £1,550, it's one of the lowest-cost models in Sony's R series. With Intel's 3.2GHz Pentium 4 540 processor on the 915P Express chipset, 1GB of 400MHz DDR memory, and a 200GB Serial ATA (SATA) hard drive, the system can handle almost any multimedia task, including recording TV, burning DVDs, editing photos, and downloading and playing music.
Its SysMark 2004 score of 194 is right on a par with that of other systems in its class and its 225 score on the graphics-laden Internet content-creation portion of the test speaks well of its multimedia capabilities. With ATI's low-end PCI Express (PCIe) graphics card, the Radeon X300, the RA304 is a good choice for running most graphics apps aside from the latest games.
The ATI graphics card occupies the RA304's lone 16X PCIe slot, a 56Kbps modem takes up one of the two 1X PCIe slots and the TV tuner card occupies one of the three PCI slots. The system ships with two 512MB DIMMs of PC3200 memory and there are two empty memory slots, should you want to add more memory later. The 200GB hard drive provides ample storage and you have room to add two more SATA drives, should you become a TV-archiving junkie.
You'll be able to clear up some hard drive space with the RA304's double-layer DVD+RW drive, which can fit an entire uncompressed movie on to one (still very expensive) disc. A front-panel media-card reader makes it easy to import photos and MP3s, although we dislike the cheap plastic panels Sony uses to hide the drives and the media-card reader. We expected a more polished look on such a high-end system, especially from image-conscious Sony.
The company claims that our preproduction review unit wasn't shipped with the usual care, but the fact remains that one of the panels snapped off during shipping and the slide-down panel covering the media-card reader refused to rest flush against the case when closed. In addition, we would have preferred a wireless keyboard and mouse to the included wired units, since a Media Center PC isn't necessarily going to be resting atop a desk with you sitting directly in front of it.
Sony includes its own branded apps for managing your photos, music and videos. Its GigaPocket software is redundant on a PC that's running Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 -- both apps perform the DVR functions of recording and pausing live TV -- but we found use for Sony's SonicStage music suite, which includes Mastering Studio, an app that lets you input music from analogue sources, such as vinyl records and cassette tapes. Sony's PictureGear is an easy-to-use photo editor, but if you're not satisfied with it, you can opt to edit with the bundled Adobe Photoshop Elements. The VAIO Media app lets you share the RA304's data with other Windows XP machines on your home network.