Sony's Vaio VGN-AR11S is the first laptop to use an integrated Blu-ray drive. It's also the first laptop we've seen that uses a 1080i-capable display with HDCP decoding capability, giving it full high-definition readiness.
The VGN-AR11S is a large and bulky 17-inch laptop. It doesn't quite match the bloat of the 20-inch Dell XPS M2010 or the Acer Aspire 9800 but at 3.8kg, you won't want to take it much further than your desk. The lid of the laptop is finished in a glossy black colour, though the rest of the unit, including the hinges, is matte black. Although it looks fine for the US market, UK consumers might not like the generous use of chrome around the laptop's outside edge.
To open the lid you'll need to slide a single switch at the front lip of the unit. This worked fine during our test period but felt flimsy to the touch. The bezel of the screen has a glossy finish but this can be forgiven as the screen itself is coated in Sony's glossy X-Black varnish -- intended to help improve the appearance of colours and heighten contrast. The lower section of the bezel has a backlit Vaio logo and a pair of speakers, one on either side. At the top of the screen there's a 'motion-eye' webcam, but don't be confused by the name -- it won't track your movement around the room like the Creative Live Cam Voice does.
The keyboard half of the Vaio VGN-AR11S is nice to look at. We did, however, take issue with the oversize keys -- they take some getting used to and we found ourselves making regular errors.
There's no dedicated numerical keypad, but Sony has installed eight hotkeys to the top right of the keyboard to aid manipulation of the laptop's various multimedia modes. There are buttons for changing the TV (it has an integrated TV tuner which we'll discuss in more depth later), recording television broadcasts, playback controls and for switching the AV mode. A set of standard shortcut hotkeys are located to the left of the keyboard. These let you adjust the system volume, launch two user-definable applications and eject the Blu-ray drive tray.
One major concern was the position of the mouse buttons. The touchpad is logically placed in the centre of the wrist rest but the buttons sit some distance away on the very edge of the front. This means you'll need to stretch your thumb an unnecessarily long distance to reach the left or right mouse buttons, which isn't exactly ideal.
As part of Sony's AR or A series of laptops, the VGN-AR11S inherits a strong specification. It doesn't use a CPU from the next-generation Core 2 Duo range of processors, but it has the second-fastest of the current Intel Core Duo CPUs -- the 2GHz Intel T2500. This is supported by 1GB of DDR2 533MHz memory and an Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 graphics chipset with 256MB of dedicated RAM.
We were also happy to see a pair of 100GB hard drives installed in a RAID configuration 0. Both Raid 1 and Raid 0 setups are available for selection at the time of buying. The former, also known as mirroring, makes an identical copy of all the files you create on both hard drives, so if one fails there's a good chance you'll have the other as a backup. The latter, Raid 1, interleaves data across the two drives in order to improve disk access speed and is sometimes referred to as striping. We'd recommend selecting a Raid 1 setup as Raid 0 effectively limits your amount of storage to 100GB as the other 100GB is being used as backup.
The VGN-AR11S's excellent storage options are cemented by the integrated Blu-ray drive on the left side of the laptop. The Panasonic-developed Matshita BD-MLT UJ-2105 allows you to burn up to 50GB of data to a single Blu-ray disc, which is five times more data than can be stored on an ordinary single layer DVD. This has the obvious benefit of letting you backup the entire contents of the laptop onto just eight discs, but it also means you can play Blu-ray movies. The only drawback of this is the current price of Blu-ray media. It's new, so it's expensive: a single 25GB disc costs around £10.