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Top Computer Makers: Sony

Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page F06

Sony is one of the quirkier PC manufacturers around; its all-in-one V desktops and its sleek 505 laptops have few parallels among Windows machines.

But this company's better values are found in plainer, cheaper machines such as the tower-case Vaio RS720 model we tested. Appearances aside, this model still packed in unusual features that remind you of Sony's day job as a consumer-electronics giant: RCA audio/video inputs, S-Video jacks, FireWire ports ("i.Link" in Sony lingo), a coaxial TV input and even a remote control.

In essence, Sony aims to provide the multimedia convergence that Microsoft promises with its Windows XP Media Center Edition, just with Sony's own software. (One exception: The company's RA desktops do feature Media Center software.)

The results of this go-it-alone approach are mixed. The Giga Pocket program stands atop this heap; it turns a Vaio into a TiVo by providing an onscreen program guide to schedule recordings, then burn them to disc with a separate program, Click to DVD. But if you use a cable or satellite box, there's no infrared relay to control it.

Sony's other media programs fell short. Its PictureGear and CVgate Plus are decent on their own, but the need to switch from one program to another to finish such routine tasks as movie-making gummed up our workflow. The thoroughly mediocre SonicStage rounds things out.

Sony backs its multimedia tools with speedy processors and massive hard drives (193 gigabyte of usable space on the RS720, with the balance used for a system-recovery partition). But the 512 megabytes of memory weren't enough at times.

The hardest part of Sony-style multimedia is mastering often-esoteric programs -- without help from printed manuals. The people on its tech-support line were knowledgeable and helpful, but battling through to Sony's hold music took nine minutes of speaking to its call-screening computer, after which we waited as long as half an hour to hear a live human voice. -- Michael Tedeschi

Hardware reviewed: Vaio RS720 desktop, $1,600 with 17-inch HS74 LCD

3 GHz Intel Pentium 4, 193 GB hard drive, 512 MB memory, no separate graphics memory, 32x/24x/40x CD-RW/16x/4x/40x DVD+/-RW drive, 16x DVD-ROM drive, multi-format card reader, floppy drive, 100-Mbps Ethernet, v.90 modem, two PCI slots open; ports available: seven USB 2.0, two FireWire, one parallel. One-year warranty. One year of 24-hour, toll-free phone support; $20 per issue afterward.

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