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Designing Your Audio / Video Dream Machine:
Sony VAIO R Series (10/2004)
by Douglas Dixon
VAIO R Series
Memory and Expansion
Video and Audio Display and Capture
What would make your ideal dream machine for video and audio editing? Is it
heavy iron -- a hot processor with big and fast disks? Or powerful tools --
software for slinging digital media? For video enthusiasts, an integrated system
with high-end, yet affordable, components can provide it all -- power and fun in
an attractive package. This is what Sony has been up to with its VAIO line of
desktop and notebook PCs, and the new VAIO R Series desktop system provides a
wonderful example of how to think about configuring your own dream machine.
Sony originally introduced its VAIO PC line in 1996 (www.vaio.net),
with distinctive designs and purple coloring (think "violet"). VAIO
stands for Video Audio Integrated Operation, as in the integration of video and
audio (obviously), but also the integration of A/V technology for entertainment
with computer technology for processing and integration.
The latest VAIO products, introduced in May 2004, include the stunningly thin
VAIO X505 notebook, weighing just 1.84 lbs, and tapering from 0.8"
at the back hinge to 0.38" at the front. Yet the X505 still includes a
10.4" screen, with Intel Pentium M 1.10 GHz processor, 512 MB memory, and
20 GB hard disk (but a CD/DVD drive, wireless, and even video and network
connectors are external). A definite lust machine, though pricey (starting at
But we're going to focus here on the new R Series desktop systems, the
next generation VAIO designed for "professional quality video editing and
music mastering solutions," and loaded with the latest technology including
Hyper-Threading processor, Gigabit Ethernet, a hot new double layer DVD burner,
and a liquid-cooled design. Ahhh!
This is not a hands-on "review" of the R Series, it's more of a
"preview" -- we'll use the VAIO as a example of how to think about
designing and configuring your own ideal video / audio desktop system.
The VAIO R Series started shipping in June 2004, and is available in several
models (www.sonystyle.com/vaio). The
VAIO RA710G and RA810G are pre-configured systems priced at $1699 and $2199,
respectively (display not included). The RA910G is customizable. Starting at
$1,558, you can load it up with features including a faster processor, more
memory and disk space, and additional optical drive. Sony also offers a wide
range of other options, including LCD displays, peripherals, software, and, of
course, digital cameras and video camcorders. We'll focus here on configuring
the high-end RA910G, based on information and pricing from Sony as of July 2004.
The most striking element of the R Series is the holes sliced through the
middle of the tower case, part of Sony's focus on system cooling and noise
reduction. The system uses a heat pipe cooling system to pull heat away from the
processor, and then dissipate it through a heat exchanger. A large low RPM fan
then cools the heat exchanger, replacing the traditional CPU fan. Further
reducing noise, the system also includes an optical drive with speed-down
functionality, a Firmware-supported silent mode, and large slow speed fans on
the graphics card and power supply. Now you can work in peace!
Configuring your base system starts with the core processor. These days only
1 GHz seems terribly slow, especially for video decoding and compression, and we
want our systems to be doing multiple things at once without slowing us down.
The VAIO R Series is built on the Intel Pentium 4 Processor with
Hyper-Threading Technology, including 1 MB Level 2 cache and 800 MHz front
side bus, available with processor speeds from 3 to 3.6 GHz ($554 additional).
The Intel Hyper-Threading technology allows multiple "threads" of
processing to run simultaneously on the single processor, almost as if you were
running a system that actually had multiple processors (www.intel.com/technology/hyperthread).
This can significantly improve applications that are written to support
multi-threading, allowing you to continue working while a heavy computation like
video compression (or even reformatting a long document) runs in the background
without swamping the system. Or it can help to better juggle the workload when
you have several applications working at the same time.
Then you need enough memory and storage space to manage all that digital
data, and fast interfaces for moving it around within your system. The current R
Series configuration support up to 2 GB of 400 MHz DDR memory (add $316).
It features PCI Express interfaces for up to 16x support for fast
graphics. All the expansion slots are used in the standard configuration,
including one 8X AGP slot of the graphics card. In a pinch, you can remove the
modem card (if you are using broadband networking) to free up a slot.
To speed data transfer to other systems, the R Series includes GigaBit
Ethernet, sharing another 10X faster, stepping from 10Base-T, to 100Base-TX,
and now 1000Base-TX Ethernet (if your network supports it).
The platform has two 5.25" half-height and four 3.5" expansion
bays, and can be configured with one DVD burner, an option second DVD-ROM
reader, and multiple hard drives. Sony is offering hard drive configurations up
to a 400 GB drive (add $231), and up to four such drives for a total of 1600 GB
(add $1296). With multiple Serial-ATA connections, the platform has the
possibility of supporting more than 1.5 Terabytes of storage.
However, the hottest piece of hardware on the R Series is the double-layer
DVD burner. Just when you though all those DVD format were starting to make
sense, yes, there's another new format -- but this gives you (almost) double the
storage on each disc. Sony describes the burner as a "DVD+R Double Layer
/ DVD+-RW Drive" -- so let's parse that in pieces (and back to front):
- First of all, it works like you would expect from a CD burner: It works as
a DVD-ROM drive, which means it can read (and play from) regular DVD
discs, including pre-recorded DVD-Video movies, as well as movies and data
burned to recordable discs. And, as a DVD burner, it burns R (write once) and RW
- However, DVD formats are more complicated than CD, so this drive is also dual-format,
supporting both the "dash" and "plus"
varieties of writable DVD media (i.e., DVD-R and DVD+R). Dual drives helped to
resolve the confusion over these two formats, since dual burners can burn to
either format, and the resulting disc, whatever format, should be compatible
with most set-top DVD players and PC DVD drives.
- Just when things stated making sense, we now have a new format -- "double
layer." Instead of just supporting regular single-sinded, single-layer
writable discs with 4.7 GB of capacity, this drive supports the new double-layer
media, which provides up to 8.5 GB of storage.
All this time, movie DVDs were actually manufactured on dual-layer media
(called DVD-9), that store the data on two layers, so that the laser actually
re-focuses through the translucent upper layer to read the data on the bottom
layer. However, until now, dual-layer was only available for replicated
(manufactured) discs, and not something you could do yourself with a home
burner. But in the spring of 2004, new recordable media and dual-layer drives
have started becoming available, lead by the Verbatim Double-Layer DVD+R media (www.verbatim.com).
Be warned, however, that this is brand new and tricky technology, so you
should expect that DVD media and drives will be in short supply, and command a
premium price, at last through this year. In addition, dual-layer equipment will
require new versions of software. For example, you (or the software) will need
to specify where to insert the layer break, the physical break in your data
between the two layers on the disc. And the software needs to ensure that the
same amount of data is written to both layers so that the laser can focus
All this will take some time to shake out in the drive and media
manufacturing, and the authoring and disc-burning software tools. Early testing
with the first dual-layer products has revealed some compatibility problems with
older players, so keep in touch with software and firmware updates for your
applications and drives as the industry works through supporting this new
All that fast processing is great, but your user experience is focused on the
video and audio: the display and the speakers. These days, PCs need to display
everything from scrolling windows to full-motion video to real-time interactive
3D games. The R Series includes the ATI RADEON X600 or X800 256 MB card
(add $360), with dedicated processing for 3D graphics and video processing, at
up to 200 billion operations per second (Giga FLOPS). To display these visions
Sony offers a range of flat panel LCD monitors (not included with the
base system), ranging from 15" ($499) to the StylePro Series 20.1" LCD
Front and back panels
Beyond the visual, you'll want to experience your DVDs and games with full
surround sound. The R Series includes integrated Intel High Definition Audio
with 5.1 surround sound. While the base system includes stereo speakers with
subwoofer, Sony offers 4.1 and 5.1 multimedia and gaming speaker system ($229).
For displaying from the system, there's a VGA/DVI monitor port / TV-out
port, and an audio S/PDIF output to audio components, plus a
For viewing TV, capturing digital media, and displaying the results, the
system includes a variety of both analog and digital connectors, available on
both the front and rear panel for convenient access. The integrated Sony Giga
Pocket TV Tuner / MPEG encoder/decoder lets you watch TV, and record TV and
from other A/V inputs.
For video / audio capture, you can use the coaxial input (VHF/UHF TV),
composite video / audio inputs (front and rear), and S-Video inputs
(front and rear), plus the usual Line In and Microphone audio
Of course, you also can use the i.Link (FireWire) and USB 2.0 connectors
to input and export digital media. Sony has studded the R Series tower with
interface connectors on the front and back to connect to all those peripheral
devices in your digital life.
The new USB version 2.0 (also known as Hi-speed) steps up to 480 Mbits/sec,
from 12 Mbps for USB 1.0 (www.usb.org), around
the same range as FireWire at 400 MB/sec. (What Sony calls i.LINK is what you
know as FireWire, also known as IEEE 1394, see www.1394ta.org.)
The R Series includes seven USB 2.0 connectors and two i.Link connectors (4-pin
on the front for connecting to consumer devices, and 6-pin on the rear for
computer and peripheral connections).
The connectors on the front panel are great for hooking up devices to
transfer data, including digital still cameras (typically USB), DV digital
camcorders (typically FireWire), portable devices and music players, and even
USB thumb drives for transferring data. Stepping up to USB version 2.0 is a
great help with these for faster uploading of digital photos and quicker backup
to thumb drives.
The rear connecters work well for more permanent connections, such as
external DVD burners and external hard disks for backup and auxiliary storage of
large video files. You can use a pocket-size USB or FireWire drive for easy
backup and mobile storage (around 60 GB for under $300), or a big, big FireWire
/ USB 2.0 drive to offload those huge video files (around 500 GB -- half a
terrabyte -- for under $600).
Unfortunately, the R Series does not include the new yet-even-faster FireWire
800 interface (also known as IEEE 1394b). Although it's not yet widely
supported in today's devices, redoubling the FireWire bandwidth will supply
plenty of headroom for activities like real-time DV capture to external hard
disk while simultaneously burning to external DVD. However, since all the slots
are in use on the R Series, adding a new interface board may require some
juggling (such as removing the modem card).
Once you have built your A/V dream system to enjoy playing your DVDs and
photos and music, you might also want to take advantage of that power to design
and share your own media creations. Sony bundles a broad range of VAIO Creation
Suite software with the R Series, with its own media software, plus Screenblast
products from its Sony Pictures Digital group (www.screenblast.com)
and some third-party products from companies like Adobe (www.adobe.com).
To organize and edit your digital photos, use Sony PictureGear Studio
to import and manage digital photos, and Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0 for
For organizing and creating your own music, start with Sony SonicStage
music jukebox to manage your music library and export to compatible portable
devices, and SonicStage Mastering Studio with MP3 Encoder to import and
enhance analog music. Then use Screenblast ACID to mix your own audio
soundtracks from loops, and Screenblast Sound Forge to edit and enhance
your digital audio.
To organize and edit video, use Sony Dvgate Plus to capture, edit and
record digital video, and Adobe Premiere LE for more advanced
professional video editing (the Video Premium package ($170) upgrades to the
full version of Adobe Premiere).
And for DVD, use the InterVideo WinDVD player to watch your discs, and
Sony's Click to DVD tool to author your own DVDs.
Sony also includes the VAIO Media application to share your files and
media across the network.
Sony's VAIO systems are great examples of how to design A/V dream machines
that combine the horsepower, interfaces, and applications required to not just
enjoy digital media, but to create your own productions. Any such system walks a
fine line between cost and performance, built-in vs. external components, and
stable vs. cutting-edge technology.
Some general suggestions:
- You can always build your own system for less if you have the time and
knowledge, but there are great advantages to an integrated system like the VAIO
supported by a single vendor.
- With the advent of FireWire and USB 2.0 you can easily add on more disk
space and other external peripherals, but it's probably worth spending a little
more up front for more built-in memory and disk space in your main system. And,
if you have any more room in your budget, paying extra for a larger-resolution
display does allow you to juggle more windows on the screen.
- The base configuration of the R Series definitely should hold you for a
while without needing to upgrade, with its PCI Express bus, serial ATA disks,
and Gigabit Ethernet. You may eventually want to step up to FireWire 800, which
will require juggling slots. Just be aware the Double Layer DVD drive is very
new, so expect some software and firmware upgrades to get it fully mastered.
The final point on the VAIO R Series is that it runs actually runs the
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004, so you can use it in a living room kind of
environment and control its media functions by a remote control. When you're
done creating and computing, you can kick back, relax, and dream away, playing
music, or watching TV with the integrated TV programming guide.
Sony VAIO Information - VAIO.net
Sony VAIO Products - SonyStyle
Intel - Hyper-Threading
USB-IF - USB Implementers Forum
FireWire - 1394 Trade Association
Verbatim - Double-Layer DVD+R media
Sony - Screenblast digital media software
Adobe - Photoshop and Premiere
Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004