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.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
||BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||
||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||
||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
To measure application performance, we use BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
||Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1600 x 1200 4xAA 8xAF||
||Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1024 x 768|
To measure 3D gaming performance, we use Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003, widely used as an industry-standard benchmark. We use Unreal to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8.0 (DX8) interface at a 32-bit colour depth and at resolutions of 1024x768 and 1600x1200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled during our 1024x768 tests and are set to 4x and 8x respectively during our 1600x1200 tests. At this colour depth and these resolutions, Unreal provides an excellent means of comparing the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. We report the results of Unreal's Flyby-Antalus test in frames per second (fps).
Cyberpower Media Center Ultra Edition
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-55; Via K8T800 Pro chipset; 1024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (AGP); Maxtor 7Y250M0 250GB 7200rpm Serial ATA
iBuyPower Media XP
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.4GHz Intel P4 550; Intel 915G chipset; 1024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 (PCIe) ; Maxtor 7Y250M0 250GB 7200rpm Serial ATA
Sony VAIO VGC-RA810G
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004; 3.4EGHz Intel P4; Intel 915G chipset; 1024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon X600 XT (PCI Express); Maxtor 7Y250M0 250GB 7200rpm Serial ATA
Sony VAIO VGC-RA820G
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.2GHz Intel P4 540; Intel 915P chipset; 1024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon X300 (PCIe); WDC WD2000JD-98HBB0 200GB 7200rpm Serial ATA
ZT Media Center X3113
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Celeron D 335; SIS 661FX chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB nVidia GeForce 4 MX 4000 (AGP); Seagate ST380011A 80GB ATA/100 7200rpm
Edited by Lindsey Turrentine
Additional editing by Nick Hide