Sony seems to have cast the Vaio VGC-RC204 to the wayside, citing the newer, more powerful VGX-XL202 as its flagship Blu-ray computer. It's hard to argue with the logic -- the VGX-XL202's component hi-fi looks are a world apart from the RC204's boxy PC aesthetic, plus it ships with the latest Core 2 Duo innards, which should help it wipe the performance floor with its predecessor.
The VGX-XL202 looks like it means serious business. Its angular chassis and bullish front panel makes the sleek Acer Aspire iDea 500 look weedy in comparison. We're pretty sure that if Media Center PCs could fight, the XL202 would be the reigning heavyweight champion.
A brushed silver panel takes up three quarters of the front of the unit, while a shiny black disc section occupies the remaining third. This is recessed slightly, which gives the front of the PC look a jutting underbite, but we think this looks pretty funky.
Unfortunately it all goes to pot when you open the silver panel to access the hidden input/output panel. The inner section is constructed of a dull black plastic and is adorned with ports in a manner that Sony's designers should be ashamed of. Everything's functionally positioned and well-spaced, but the ports seem to have been lumped together with no apparent forethought for the way they look -- it's way too utilitarian for our tastes.
We appreciate the presence of the front-facing S-video and component inputs, plus 4-pin FireWire port and two USB ports. And the full-size headphone port is a nice touch, provided you have appropriate headphones or an adaptor, but the multimedia card reader is recessed so far inside the PC it looks as if it's been kicked in.
The rear of the PC is littered with input/output ports. There's component video input, RCA audio inputs, digital optical in and out, a pair of 6-pin FireWire ports, two USB ports and an HDMI port. You also get two infrared transmitters that can be used to blast an infrared remote control signal to a couple of your existing set-top boxes. This is useful as it allows you to control your Sky HD box, for example, using the Vaio's remote control.
The VGX-XL202 also ships with a 150mm Wi-Fi aerial, a metre-long cable and a funky wireless keyboard with an integrated mouse touchpad. Like Sony's Vaio laptops this has a selection of shortcut keys to help you adjust the volume, launch Internet and email clients and a programmable application of your choice. Connecting the keyboard to the PC is achieved by pressing the 'Connect' button beneath the front flap of the base unit.
Whereas the Acer Aspire iDea 500 was a glorified laptop in PC form, the VGX-XL202 is a full-fledged desktop PC. It's built around Sony's own P5BW-MB motherboard and 1GB of DDR memory occupying two of the four available memory slots in a dual-channel memory configuration. This setup theoretically doubles the data throughput from RAM to the memory controller, minimising the likelihood of bottlenecks.
Tech-heads should also love the Intel E6400 Core 2 Duo processor. It's the third most powerful in the Core 2 Duo desktop CPU lineup, but provides a whole lot of grunt for anything from Web browsing to video editing. Sitting adjacent to the CPU and its suitably elaborate cooling system is an Nvidia GeForce 7600 graphics card -- a mid-range 'family' card that'll let you run most games, albeit at modest resolutions.