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Sony VAIO VGN-AR790U/B

Five Multimedia Notebooks, Tested
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As the driving force behind Blu-ray technology, it’s no surprise that Sony came first to market in May 2006 with a Blu-ray equipped notebook PC. Despite the more than two years that have since elapsed, Blu-ray is really just beginning to become both affordable and viable for notebook PCs. Sony has recently reworked much of its VAIO notebook line, and introduced the multimedia AR790U/B model in mid-2008 as part of that effort.

Although the Sony VGN-AR models all feature a glossy black exterior, the keyboard deck has more of a matte finish and is less likely to show smudges and fingerprints.

What the AR790 delivers is a well designed, nicely equipped multimedia notebook at a middling price. Sony’s successor model to this is the VGN-AR870. Configured to match the innards of our review unit, including a Blu-ray burner, this notebook goes for just over $2,900 on the SonyStyle Website (as compared to $3,300 for an identically configured AR790 at Amazon). You could buy a Blu-ray player, use Vista Home Premium instead of Ultimate and go with two 200 GB drives, and save $600 on the purchase price, to come in just under the price for the HP HDX.

At 8.4 pounds (9.6 with AC adapter and power cord), the AR790 is a typical multimedia notebook in terms of size, weight and handling. Its 17" WUXGA display supports full 1080p resolution, and its 512 MB 8600M GT graphics adapter handled all of our Blu-ray and broadcast HD material with aplomb. The 2.5 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T9300 processor seemed more than adequate for the computing tasks we threw at this machine, as did its 4 GB of DDR2-667 RAM. The chipset is an Intel PM965 Express, with networking support from an Intel 4965 802.11a/g/n adapter for wireless and a Marvell Yukon-based GbE for wired connections. Sony provided an ATI USB TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner along with our notebook, and we used it to good effect in tuning in OTA and unencrypted HDTV channels on the unit.

Left side, from left to right: optical S/PDIF port, microphone-in jack, headphone-out jack and optical drive tray.

The HDMI output was able to deliver both sound and picture to our digital receiver, but we couldn’t pass any high-definition audio schemes other than Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 to that device (this is typical for most PC Blu-ray playback, in fact).

The keyboard layout on this unit features a more or less standard keyboard layout with full-sized keys. But the 2" margin on either side of the keyboard, with media control keys and status LEDs to the left and a power indicator to the right, didn’t leave room for a numeric keypad. For those seeking a good multimedia base station PC, this won’t be a problem. But for those who also want a fully-functional desktop replacement PC, this might be somewhat vexing. Nevertheless, the AR790 (and its nearly identical AR870 successor) makes a good media station, whether in the office or the living room.

Rear view, from left to right: VHF/UHF/CATV input port, air vent, Kensington lock slot, battery connector (for optional external battery), USB 2.0 port and DC in jack.

As we take a tour of this notebook, you’ll find its many ports, connectors and controls on all four of the unit’s edges.

The bezel around the display is also home to a built-in 1.1 MPixel Webcam with an activity indicator light to let you know when you’re "on." Sony bundles a miniature Windows Media Center-compatible remote control with the AR790, which works with other multimedia applications besides what Vista offers. The remote control has a standard USB-attached remote sensor device (much like the Microsoft remote does itself). The MS memory card reader works with standard and Duo-sized media, MS Pro and MS Pro-HG Duo formats. MS Micro (M2) media requires an M2 standard or M2 Duo-sized adapter. The SD slot works with standard SD media or mini-SD media in a standard SD adapter.

Right side, from left to right: 2 x USB 2.0 ports, PC card slot (above), ExpressCard slot (below), Firewire 400 port, AV-in jack (composite video), S-Video-in and S-Video-out ports, HDMI, VGA, RJ-45 GbE and RJ-11 modem ports.

Except for the lack of a numeric keypad, the VGN-AR790 offers sufficient horsepower and capability to do double-duty as a media center and a desktop replacement. As with other multimedia notebooks, it is fairly heavy and also gets warm when running anything more than a moderate load (we measured a temperature of 103 °F/39° C on the underside with an infrared sensor during testing). The placement of USB ports (two front right and one at the rear) is a little odd, especially for right-handed users who may also want to use an external mouse. The built-in speakers are listenable but not on par with those you’ll find in the other units in this round-up. Besides these few minor annoyances, the VGN-790 is a satisfactory multimedia notebook and general-purpose PC.

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  • 1 Hide
    urimiel , November 15, 2008 7:36 AM
    I am really sorry to be the one that points this out. I am Tomshardware reader for quite many years now. This is the first time I have seen an article or any kind of presentation like that. You guys are posting bar graphs and change the legend of each color bar for every different graph... this does not make sense.
  • 0 Hide
    fudgeboy , November 15, 2008 9:59 AM
    Quote:
    You guys are posting bar graphs and change the legend of each color bar for every different graph
    wow, and thats like the basic fundamentals of presentation. the writers on this site really need to go back to high school. they should have a standard layout over the whole thing (like you would if you were doing an experiment)
  • 0 Hide
    Master Exon , November 15, 2008 11:02 AM
    Basically purple is always at the top, regardless of who purple represents. Kinda dumb, but they really should have had the manufacturer's name on the bar itself.

    Hey, when will TH compare $300-$450 netbooks? You already did the $2000 ones.
  • 0 Hide
    cangelini , November 15, 2008 5:34 PM
    urimielI am really sorry to be the one that points this out. I am Tomshardware reader for quite many years now. This is the first time I have seen an article or any kind of presentation like that. You guys are posting bar graphs and change the legend of each color bar for every different graph... this does not make sense.


    Heya guys--sorry about that. I should have caught this in editing. The charts are now correct with each notebook appearing in the same place with the same corresponding legend data.
  • 1 Hide
    FrozenGpu , November 16, 2008 3:52 PM
    Master ExonBasically purple is always at the top, regardless of who purple represents. Kinda dumb, but they really should have had the manufacturer's name on the bar itself.Hey, when will TH compare $300-$450 netbooks? You already did the $2000 ones.


    Pretty pretty please with a cherry on top?
  • 0 Hide
    TheGreatGrapeApe , November 17, 2008 7:33 AM
    To me the $300-450 laptops aren't worth an in depth review, just a quicky 2 pager (is it capable as a netbook yes/no) that's a disposable laptop you buy a kids or as a couch laptop or travel one.

    I want to know what my $2K+ buys me, the $300 laptop is the price of one of the options on these things. That's the bigger risk. What's anyone really expecting in a $300-400 laptop, certainly not heaving gsaming, video editing or programming.

    It may seem elitist, but with the limited amount of info out there on laptops period, netbooks shouldn't consume much of the reviews time, nor space, I'd rather see more $1,000 and $2,000 and then $3,000+ reviews those 3 categories have more variability and value than the cheapest ones. Who can't figure out if a $400 laptop is worth it from a visit to the best buy or whatever?

    Personally I want to see an IBM W700 review, tell me if it's worth the $3,000+ (is the built in Wacom pad good enough, the keyboard stiff enough, is it worth it to get turbo memory now that it's faster & bigger or just go SSD and be done with it, etc), not something to tell me which of the cheap laptops is slower than my previous laptops that you could buy at a discount store for as much and which might be just a tiny bit faster but still just suited for M$ office and websurfing and light photoshoping.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , November 17, 2008 2:32 PM
    Is the image for this on the Toms Hardware site supposed to say "Multiedia" on the laptop screen or is that a typo?
  • 0 Hide
    johntmosher , November 17, 2008 10:19 PM
    I have been wanting to find a 20 inch laptop so I was excited to see the HDX review.....But still can't find it for sale online at HP.COM
    Got a sales link?
  • 0 Hide
    maric423 , November 18, 2008 4:41 PM
    johntmosherI have been wanting to find a 20 inch laptop so I was excited to see the HDX review.....But still can't find it for sale online at HP.COMGot a sales link?


    According to the HP Sales guys, its out of production (I got interested and looked for it too). The replacement machine is supposedly the HP HDX 18t, which is only an 18.4", and doesn't have the same hinge structure. Not really a comparable machine. You can still find a few HP Pavilion HDX 20" from third parties if you search around, but I wasn't thrilled about the idea of buying a system they'd already stopped making.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , November 21, 2008 8:00 AM
    Can you please test one more little thing? Linux compatibility.

    Its easy, just toss in an ubuntu live CD, and tell us if things like sound, webcam, wifi etc work out of the box. If they don't, don't bother much trying to get it to work. But Acer for instance is notorious for having buggy ACPI implementation in the bios that detects the OS and only work with Vista. With Linux (possibly even XP) standby will be highly unreliable. Dell and IBM do a much better job at it, and that deserves to be known.

    Doing such tests should be very straightforward and accomplish two things:
    1) inform us linux users (we buy notebooks too you know :)  )
    2) put some pressure on oem's to test their BIOS and hardware with linux

    Id appreciate it. No one does this, please be the first :) 
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , December 15, 2008 1:21 PM
    Bought the 8920G recently, the ATI version, first power on - entered BIOS and set it to boot from CD, started F10 Live.

    Did not do too extensive tests, but webcam, wifi, bluetooth, wired ethernet worked out of the box. Sound did not work, the card seems to be recognized but I never got a sound out of it.

    BEWARE: I started Vista only once till the Acer Arcade initial Setup screen, I did not proceed any further (I do not accept the M$ EULA), however after that I was not able to access the BIOS anymore! The "Press F2 to enter setup" message disappeared. Reflashing did not help, only made things worse because I lost the CMOS setting and could not boot from CD anymore (and at that time the hard drive was already formatted to get rid of Vista).