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Here’s the most compelling feature on the Sony VAIO VGN-FW180-E/H: the 16.4-inch screen is just amazingly crisp, exceptionally bright and unusually spacious, at 1600x900 resolution…

Price: £1,083


Tech Specs:

OS    Ubuntu
CPU    Intel Centrino 2 2.4GHz
RAM    4GB
Dimensions    384 x 29-37  x 261mm
Weight    3.1kg
Sony Style

Amazingly crisp and bright 16.4-inch screen. Blu-ray drive with HDMI output. Larger than usual 320GB hard drive. 802.11n Wi-Fi for fast access

Only average performance from P8600 2.4GHz CPU and ATI Radeon graphics card.  DDR-2 RAM, 5200rpm hard disk, 3MB L2 cache

Here’s the most compelling feature on the Sony VAIO VGN-FW180-E/H: the 16.4-inch screen is just amazingly crisp, exceptionally bright and unusually spacious, at 1600×900 resolution. After loading Ubuntu, which sensed the correct resolution for the display, the Sony VAIO FW proved itself a capable multimedia laptop, appropriate for developers working on video, photo and gaming applications, or for anyone who cares about their laptop screen being bright and easy to read under any conditions. The XBRITE technology used for the display improves readability for small type, makes colour pop in a movie and brings photos to life in a way that other laptops do not.

Many of the other specifications on this machine are fairly standard, however. The Sony VAIO FW uses an Intel Core 2 Duo P8600 processor running at just 2.4GHz, which often makes the laptop feel a bit sluggish. In tests, even the Evolution mail client behaved like it had molasses in its binary code at times. The ATI Radeon HD 3470 graphics card is not exactly premium grade either, but does support 3D games such as Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, which ran acceptably fast. For code-testing, the Sony VAIO FW is a good standard-issue laptop that has a stylish design. Like the MacBook line from Apple, the soft flat keys on the keyboard mean you can type exceptionally fast without the spongy feel of an older keyboard layout. The hinges for the display are also more rugged than a no-name laptop and feel solid enough to withstand some abuse in the field. The Sony FW also supports 802.11n, so you can go mobile with it and still access a network at over 100Mbps on a wireless feed.

Basic features? For a standard-class laptop, one that does not use the fastest graphics processor we’ve seen in a laptop or support the absolute latest Intel or AMD processor, the Sony FW is equipped with cutting-edge features. The Blu-ray drive, which requires a few software tweaks to work in Ubuntu, means access to movies but, more importantly, a good way to store media files. Because the FW supports Blu-ray, the laptop also has an HDMI port, although we were not able to get it to work with a Panasonic 52-inch LCD display after installing Ubuntu 9. The FW also has a 320GB hard drive, which is twice as big as the storage allotment on most laptops. A couple of the features on the FW did not work in Linux, including the 1.3-megapixel Motion Eye webcam that is just above the display (presumably, the webcam requires proprietary drivers included with the OEM version of Windows Vista). The AV mode interface – which allows you to press buttons near the keyboard to advance through movie scenes or music tracks, for example – also did not work with our MPEG software. (Sony also includes a Movie Story program with Windows – there is no Linux version available.)

Despite these shortcomings, Ubuntu did run reliably on the Sony VAIO FW, if a bit sluggish at times. Part of the problem is that the laptop runs DDR-2 RAM, has a hard disk running at only 5200rpm, and has a 3MB L2 cache on the processor, which is half the cache size of a desktop workstation. This means the FW is a good business machine for checking email and surfing the web, but has negligible value for hardcore 3D development, running simulations or video production. In essence, it is a standard laptop, so that means it is an ideal code-testing laptop that matches what most end-users will use, including options for testing HDMI output, Blu‑ray support and a memory card reader. You can use it for business purposes or client testing, but we’d be wary of using this laptop for actual development work because it lacks the power of a desktop replacement model.

Verdict: 3/5
Performance-wise the Sony VAIO FW is a pretty standard laptop and as such is unsuitable for development work. However, it does feature a crisp and bright hi-res screen, Blu-ray drive with HDMI port, and a larger than usual 320GB hard drive.
John Brandon