Sony says its VAIO VGX-XL3 Digital Living System media-centre PC gives you "TV on your terms". But your terms may differ substantially from what this Windows Vista-based PC can deliver.

The Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 ought to be the PC that finally makes sense in a living room, because it uses AMD/ATI's high-definition TV tuner card with a CableCard slot to decrypt scrambled, premium cable TV content. It also has a Blu-ray DVD recorder, HDMI output, and fairly brawny PC components.

The Sony VAIO VGX-XL3's attractive case and extremely quiet operation should make it a good fit for almost any home-theatre environment.

But this PC, which costs $3,300 (around £1,650 ex VAT) without a monitor or TV, has some aggravating limitations. For example, you can record TV programs to the device's Blu-ray drive - but not if you have a CableCard installed. (You can record programs to the hard drive whether you've installed a CableCard or not).

According to Sony's website, the Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 is a "full HD 1080 Media Center PC", but it can output only a 1080i signal. (Sony says that applying an nVidia graphics card update will enable 1080p, but it will also prevent DVD playback and cause other problems).

The included wireless keyboard has an integrated trackpad that we loathed: Its large buttons are recessed and very uncomfortable to push. As a result, we often resorted to mousing with a right forefinger and clicking with a left forefinger.

As a standard PC, the Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 performs adequately. It earned a WorldBench 6 Beta 2 score of 86, which is about halfway between the marks posted by value PCs we've tested recently and the marks posted by power PCs.

But Sony made the Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 powerful not so that it could accommodate spreadsheet analysis and internet browsing, but so that it would be responsive when handling demanding entertainment content.

TV that makes you work to watch

Before we could watch any content on the Sony VAIO VGX-XL3, we had to download and install 17 Sony updates and 18 Windows updates. Microsoft's updater worked fine, but Sony's updater stalled because it couldn't find the TV tuner card. Consequently, we had to download the updates a second time; and unlike Microsoft's updater, Sony's requires you to install updates one at a time.

After we finished installing the updates - and frequently thereafter - we couldn't see any image, whether entertainment content or PC desktop, on the TV. The reason: either Media Center couldn't recognise the TV card, or because of incessant HDMI errors.

Restoring the picture required that we unplug and replug cables from the PC, the receiver we used for testing, or the TV, or reboot one or more of the devices. We tried out a second Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 to see if we'd simply received a bad unit, but the second one had the same problems.

The prerecorded movies we played on the Sony VAIO VGX-XL3's Blu-ray drive looked great most of the time, but they did stutter occasionally - and every once in a while during playback, the PC would stop responding to the remote that Sony includes. Once we got a message announcing that the disc we were trying to play - 'Flyboys', a pretty tame PG movie - exceeded the parental level of the player. This incident occurred after we'd already watched a two or three chapters of the movie.

We rebooted the Sony VAIO VGX-XL3, and the movie played without interruption from then on.

Unscrambled HDTV programming looked very nice, and we were able to record unscrambled high-definition and standard-definition programming to the Sony VAIO VGX-XL3's hard drive, although that video stuttered during playback, too. But the point of using a CableCard is to bring in scrambled programming, so we asked a Comcast rep to install a CableCard in the VGX-XL3.

Unfortunately, although the PC recognised the CableCard and confirmed that it had been set up properly, it wouldn't display encrypted channels, notwithstanding several follow-up efforts by Comcast. When we landed on a station that the tuner couldn't receive, the picture froze; after about 15 seconds, the system warned us that it wasn't receiving a signal.

A few days later, the same Comcast rep who had set up our test Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 also set up a TiVo HD, which had no problems with setup or with replaying encrypted content.

Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 Digital Living System: Specs

  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 / 2.13 GHz
  • 2MB L2 cache
  • Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium
  • 2GB RAM
  • 2x 250GB serial ATA hard drives
  • BD-RE - IDE optical drive
  • NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GTL PCI Express x16 - plug-in card
  • 802.11a/b/g
  • ethernet, fast ethernet, gigabit ethernet
  • 429x399x130mm
  • 10.4kg
  • 1-year warranty
  • Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 / 2.13 GHz
  • 2MB L2 cache
  • Microsoft Windows Vista Home Premium
  • 2GB RAM
  • 2x 250GB serial ATA hard drives
  • BD-RE - IDE optical drive
  • NVIDIA GeForce 7600 GTL PCI Express x16 - plug-in card
  • 802.11a/b/g
  • ethernet, fast ethernet, gigabit ethernet
  • 429x399x130mm
  • 10.4kg
  • 1-year warranty

OUR VERDICT

The Sony VAIO VGX-XL3 Digital Living System is a PC. And based on our experience with it, PCs still don't belong in the living room.

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