We rather liked the last vast Sony Vaio laptop that we reviewed, the 18.4-inch VGN-AW31M/H, but its specification fell rather short for the price. Now there's a new monster model to up the ante, the cheaper and more balanced, 18.4-inch Sony Vaio VGN-AW41MF/H. It will set you back about £1,000.
To purloin a phrase from Douglas Adams, the VGN-AW41MF/H is big -- really big. The dimensions needed to house an 18.4-inch screen mean that, while this machine has all the usual laptop trappings, they're on a completely different scale -- it's nearly 1.5 feet wide, for crying out loud. The whole package is delivered with the usual Sony style, though. It's surprisingly slim, at 40mm thick, and the contrasting metallic grey and silver case is cool and sophisticated. The laptop weighs a whopping 4kg, which means you won't want to move it around too much once you've found somewhere for it to sit.
Inside is an excellent and generously proportioned keyboard with chiclet-style keys and a separate numeric keypad. The keys are all full-size and widely spaced, but there's some flex around the large return key. It feels as if this part of the keyboard has somehow lifted from the rock-solid base that the rest of it feels fixed to. It's not a big problem, but worth noting.
It's a pity that Sony didn't opt for a slightly higher vertical resolution for the 1,680x945-pixel display, so that it could do full justice to 1080p video. The screen isn't quite as good as the similarly specified display on the VGN-AW31M/H either. Contrast is slightly lacking and images don't have the vibrancy we usually see with Sony's X-black displays.
The VGN-AW41MF/H runs on Windows 7, and we were pleasantly surprised to see the 64-bit edition installed. It's too early to know if this will lead to any serious software-compatibility problems, but it does mean that you have access to the full 4GB of installed RAM, rather than losing a gigabyte or so with the 32-bit version.
A Blu-ray drive and two 500GB hard drives are welcome inclusions too, particularly at this price. The hard drives are configured as two separate volumes, but you can't configure them as a single mirrored volume to wring out some extra performance -- Windows 7 Home Premium won't let you.
The Intel Core 2 Duo P7450 CPU inside the VGN-AW41MF/H is slightly slower than the chip in the VGN-AW31M/H -- it runs at 2.13GHz, rather than 2.53GHz -- but it's still a very capable performer. It notched up a score of 5,407 in PCMark05, making the VGN-AW41MF/H one of the fastest Core 2 Duo laptops we've seen. By way of comparison, the VGN-AW31M/H scored 6,145.
The VGN-AW41MF/H's Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics chipset is the same one that's in the VGN-AW31M/H, so it's no surprise that the laptops' 3DMark06 scores are nearly identical. A result of 6,447 means that the VGN-AW41MF/H is suited to 3D gaming, but you'll need to keep the resolution around the 1,024x768-pixel mark if you want reasonable frame rates with medium detail settings for most recent titles.
The slightly slower processor has a beneficial effect on battery life, but not much. Even so, 1 hour and 40 minutes in Battery Eater's rigorous Classic test isn't at all bad for a laptop like this, although it only lasted 2 hours in the less intensive Reader's test. That's not really enough to get much done away from the mains, but this isn't a laptop that you'll want to drag very far anyway.
The Sony Vaio VGN-AW41MF/H costs about £200 less than the very similar Vaio VGN-AW31M/H and, while it isn't quite as quick, the increased storage capacity is a worthwhile trade-off for a laptop so well-suited to media playback. The only letdown is the screen, but it's not so bad as to be a deal-breaker.
Edited by Charles Kloet