We recently reviewed one end of the desktop-replacement laptop spectrum in the shape of the £410 Toshiba Satellite L350 and now here's the other -- the Sony Vaio VGN-AW31M/H. With an 18.4-inch screen, this is one serious slab of Sony technology and it has a price tag to match: £1,100. So, given that it costs nearly three times the price of the entry-level Toshiba, does it provide three times the PC?
It may be something of a monster, but understated styling and a slender chassis make the Vaio AW31 look much less imposing than most desktop replacements. Anyone who's familiar with Sony's smaller Vaios will recognise some scaled-up design cues, such as the circular screen hinge with end-pieces that contain the power button and power socket. Overall, it's a very classy-looking laptop that doesn't scream, "I cost a packet!" Though some people would no doubt prefer rather more bling when spending this amount of money.
Lift the enormous lid on its stiff hinges and you'll find a full-width keyboard with separate numeric keypad. As long as you like the Sony's usual rubbery 'chiclet' style, it's an absolute joy to type on -- the keyboard is rock-solid and the keys perfectly proportioned.
The half-size function keys are a permissible concession, particularly since there's a full-size cursor key cluster and conveniently placed column of Home/End/Page up/Page down keys next to the oversize Return key. If only all laptop keyboards were this well designed...
The 18.4-inch screen is clearly one of the reasons for the Sony Vaio VGN-AW31M/H's high price. Not only is it huge for a laptop, but it has an equally expansive widescreen resolution of 1,680x945 pixels. The depth of the laptop (almost 30cm) means the screen sits at a comfortable distance when typing and while it can't be folded flat, it does tilt far enough back to make actual lap-top use viable -- although the weight of the screen makes this a precarious balancing act.
The screen's 945 vertical pixels obviously aren't quite enough for full 1080p video, but they're still enough to do justice to HD content, and the AW31 is equipped with a Blu-ray drive to provide it. The glossy screen does a smashing job with movies too, and the wide horizontal viewing angle means a few people can gather round and still have a clear view.
Audio quality is better than most laptops and while the sound won't shake the windows at full volume, it at least stays clear and undistorted -- perfect for watching the Vaio's huge screen from across the room. Four gigabytes of RAM is welcome (though, as usual, 1GB is wasted with the 32-bit version of Windows Vista), but although ample, the 500GB hard drive seems slightly meagre for this kind of money. There is room inside the capacious chassis for more storage and models higher in the range -- this is far from the most expensive model -- offer increased storage in the form of an additional one or two 64GB SSDs.
Anyone spending this amount of money on a laptop this size is going to want to do more than wrestle with a word processor and watch movies, but the Sony Vaio VGN-AW31M/H specification does lend itself to much more demanding applications such as video editing. Seventeen-inch gaming laptops at this price tend to come equipped with quad-core processors, but the 2.53GHz dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo P8700 chip that Sony supplies is still a highly capable performer and turned in a PCMark05 score of 6,145.
Again, at this price, the performance of the AW31M/H's Nvidia GeForce 9600M GT graphics chip is good, rather than great. Its 3DMark06 score of 6,469 is enough for the laptop to play the latest 3D games, but they'll only run smoothly at well below the screen's native resolution and with detail settings at a sensible level.
If you're buying a laptop this enormous to run on battery power, you're usually in for a hefty disappointment, but the 4400mAh battery lasted for 1 hour and 20 minutes in BatteryEater Pro's demanding Classic mode, and 2 hours 48 minutes in the gentler Reader mode. This is pretty good going for a laptop this size and the AW31 should be good for around two and a half hours of general use when unplugged.
With its big, brilliant screen, the Sony Vaio VGN-AW31M/H is well-specified and highly desirable, but its high price isn't quite matched by its performance. Faster, cheaper laptops are available, but it's rather like choosing between a Ford Focus RS and a Mercedes S Class -- brash power at a bargain price has its appeal, but some prefer to sacrifice a little performance for the sake of rather more panache.
Edited by Nick Hide