Wed 6/20/01 — Which home computer vendor sets itself apart with stylish design and case colors and emphasizes digital video editing as a “killer app” for camcorder owners? Trick question; you could say Apple, but you’ve probably guessed that we’re talking about Sony Electronics and its Vaio (officially an acronym for Video Audio Integrated Operation) PCs. The consumer electronics giant has attracted ample attention with its pricey but desirable lightweight laptops and slimline, LCD-touch-screened “pen tablet” desktops, but we decided to get at the bottom of the Vaio mystique with Sony’s new entry-level desktop — the PCV-J200, priced at $850 with a $50 rebate.
While you don’t get a monitor (Sony sells color-coordinated, flat-faced 17- or 19-inch Trinitron CRTs, not tested here but shown in the supplied photos, for $300 or $450 respectively), you get a lot for your 800 bucks. The slate-blue microtower packs a 900MHz AMD Duron processor, 128MB of SDRAM, a 40GB hard disk, and a combo DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive. It also holds probably the biggest cost-saving secret, an SiS 730S chipset with integrated audio and 2D/3D graphics (borrowing 16MB of system memory for the latter).
A 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet adapter make it ready for either dial-up or broadband Internet access, and three USB ports are joined by a IEEE 1394 FireWire — or, as Sony prefers to call it, i.Link — port to connect that digital camcorder or other video or storage peripheral. Sony’s own MovieShaker, a friendly, drag-and-drop video editor akin to Apple’s iMovie, heads a menagerie of multimedia applications preinstalled alongside Microsoft Windows Millennium Edition. (You can preorder a copy of Windows XP Home Edition for an extra $30.)
Value-wise, the J200 stacks up handsomely against rival PCs with low-end graphics and sound. On Compaq’s build-to-order Web site, we configured a Presario 5000 desktop with a slightly slower Duron/850 CPU, separate DVD and CD-RW drives, and no 1394 port for $888. Dell offers a comparably equipped Dimension L with DVD/CD-RW combo drive and bundled 1394 adapter and MGI video editing software, along with a quicker 1GHz Intel Pentium III, for $1,067.
You expect a compact case to leave little room for expansion, and the Sony’s is no exception. The 4.8X DVD/4-4-24X CD-RW and 1.44MB floppy drive fill the two front-accessible drive bays, leaving just one 3.5-inch internal bay vacant. The Asus motherboard has four PCI slots — two of which are taken by the GVC modem and D-Link Ethernet card — and two DIMM sockets, half hidden by power supply cables and both occupied by 64MB PC133 SDRAM modules. The system maximum is 512MB, though the most Sony lets you order the computer with is 256MB (a $120 upgrade).
PS/2 keyboard and mouse ports leave all three USB ports free; serial, parallel, IEEE 1394, VGA, and headphone, line-in, and microphone ports complete the rear-panel array. Oddly, unlike Compaq and HP home PCs that make it easy for consumers to plug in camcorders and cameras, the Vaio leaves the USB and 1394 ports buried at the back instead of routing them to the front of the case.
Though it uses conventional rolling-ball instead of optical technology, Sony’s two-button, scroll-wheeled mouse is above average for PC-bundled pointing devices. We’re less pleased with the Vaio’s keyboard, which offers a snap-on wrist rest (resembling a car’s rear spoiler, or maybe a cowcatcher) and half a dozen programmable buttons to launch your browser and other applications in familiar home-PC fashion.
The keyboard has nothing between the main keys and numeric keypad, omitting the traditional double row of Insert, Delete, Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn above the inverted-T cursor arrows. Instead, the navigation commands are piggybacked on the arrow keys via a special shift or Fn key, as in some notebook PCs, while Insert and Delete are awkwardly placed above the keypad.
The compressed design saves only a couple of inches of desk space, and adding Fn to Ctrl, Alt, and Microsoft’s three space-wasting Windows keys makes the bottom row feel clumsy. We found ourselves turning off Num Lock and using the keypad for navigation, but between its layout and plasticky typing feel, the keyboard had already earned our thumbs-down.