As one of the first notebooks with Intel's new Centrino 2 processor (code-named Montevina), the Sony Vaio VGN-FW198U/H might be expected to hog the performance spotlight. This new entertainment notebook, which features a 16.4-inch screen, certainly felt plenty speedy moving among applications in casual use, and it did fine in our formal performance tests. But the laptop's screen will probably turn more heads than its horsepower -- or its speakers -- will.
Sony's premium entertainment model, the VGN-FW198U/H is also built for business. Thanks to a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo T9400 processor (which is fairly middle-of-the-road among Intel's seven new Montevina chips) and a hefty 4GB of RAM, the notebook is a solid performer. It's doesn't produce the fastest lap around the track, but the unit keeps pace with Sony's more compact VGN-SZ791N.
Of course, with great power comes an even greater battery drain. This machine lasted only 2 hours, 32 minutes in our tests. That's about 30 minutes less than we're accustomed to seeing in all-purpose notebooks -- or in power-sucking desktop replacements, for that matter.
This VAIO also turned in solid gaming scores; its dedicated video card, the 256MB Radeon HD 3470, topped out at 83 frames per second in Far Cry (with anti-aliasing turned off). Just resist the temptation to use every bit of the beautiful 16-inch display. Most gaming on this notebook probably shouldn't go much higher than a 1024-by-768-pixel resolution.
Our test model was in fully working order, unlike this press shot.
The screen itself is a real attention grabber. The latest "tweener" -- a screen that falls between two established notebook display sizes -- it's almost freakishly skinny. At an atypical 16.4 inches wide, it's no taller than a 15.4-inch screen but over an inch wider, the better to watch wide-screen high-def movies in the recordable Blu-ray drive, or to view two Web sites or documents side by side. (Even so, when we ran our test disc -- a Blu-ray version of Phantom of the Opera -- we still saw annoying black letterbox bars.)
The screen is also extremely bright without being too reflective. The 1600-x-900-pixel resolution is easy on the eyes when tackling design work. All in all, the screen is a big winner. You certainly won't find a notebook with a similar-size screen -- such as a slightly larger 17 inches -- that's as easy to lug as this 2.9kg (not counting the power adapter) unit.
Although this notebook is billed as an entertainment machine with a great display, its audio falls short. Not very loud or rich-sounding, the built-in stereo speakers were extremely disappointing. This is largely because the speakers are mounted just north of the keyboard. No separate subwoofer means weaker sound. The volume tops out too quickly for audiophiles, and seemed flat as well. Which is a shame, because the notebook comes with some nice media buttons, including ones for Dolby audio tweaking and the usual pile of Sony entertainment applications. But that's why they invented headphones, I suppose.
With its hard, dark titanium-gray lid and black lower casing, the VGN-FW198U/H is sleek-looking overall and would glam up any office or make seat neighbours jealous on your next flight. Dropped hinges with no connections on the back add to the modern effect. And you're fixed for storage with a 320GB hard drive. With its dedicated card slots, you can have a Memory Stick, an SD card, and an Express Card/34 card all plugged in at the same time -- very convenient. An HDMI port is available to hook the notebook up to an HDMI-equipped TV for an even better Blu-ray movie experience.
The notebook is seamlessly manufactured -- maybe a bit too much so. The battery is hard to lift out because the fingerhold is so small. The memory chips and the hard drive, though, are easy to access with a screwdriver, if you ever need to replace or upgrade a part.
Whether you like the keyboard will boil down to personal preferences. Sony has crafted a couple of generations of cutout-key notebooks, much like what Apple's MacBook Air now does as well. With each black key rising separately out of the silver-finished deck, the look is very distinctive, but the keys' action seems a tad wobbly compared with, say, the buttery feel and silent operation of a ThinkPad keyboard. The mouse buttons could be bigger and a little less stiff, too. Overall, though, the keyboard has a great layout and a dedicated number pad.
In short, if you're looking for a fast notebook with the latest in beautiful, functional screens, this Windows Vista Ultimate-equipped unit delivers the goods. And Sony will have 12 fixed configurations from which to choose in retail outlets and online. And while the built-in speakers are anything but entertaining, you'll have no worries if you're happy with headphones.
Alternatively, you could step up to a desktop-replacement-class notebook such as something in Toshiba's Qosmio line (those units have decidedly better speakers with dedicated subwoofers). Or, in the all-purpose laptop pack, consider checking out the Lenovo IdeaPad Y510. While that model may have some flaws of its own, it sounds and looks good for its class.