Sony hasn't skimped on the internal components either. Driving things along is an Intel Core Duo T2500 CPU, clocked at 2.0GHz. The processor is backed up by 1GB of RAM, which is adequate, but I would have preferred to have seen 2GB in a machine like this. One of the beauties of a dual core processor is that it makes true multitasking a reality - something that's very important with a machine like the AR11S. I had the AR11S burning a Blu-ray disc, while Media Center was playing live TV and I was busy writing this review - despite everything that was going on, the system stayed as responsive as ever.
Graphics are taken care of by an nVidia GeForce GO 7600 card, complete with 256MB of dedicated memory. This is a pretty decent mid-range mobile graphics chipset, but don't expect to be able to play the latest games at anywhere near the native resolution of the built-in screen.
As with any Media Center PC, you need a lot of hard disk space, because all that recorded video and all those digital images take up a lot of room. Thankfully Sony has included two, yes that's right two 100GB hard disks. Now, the review unit that I was sent had both drives configured as independent volumes, but the AR11S does have RAID functionality so you could stripe the two drives for ultimate performance, or mirror them for ultimate data integrity - of course you'd have to give up half of the capacity for the latter option.
If you want to get the AR11S connected, you'll be spoilt for choice. There's an Intel PRO/Wireless 395ABG wireless adapter supporting 802.11a,b and g, along with a Bluetooth adapter. There's also a built-in 56k modem and an Intel wired Ethernet adapter - although this is somewhat disappointingly limited to 100Mbit/sec rather than Gigabit.
Connection points abound with this notebook, but for a change I'm going to start at the back. This is where the aerial connection is and for once there is a proper UK aerial socket provided, rather than a foreign or cut down socket that requires some kind of adapter. Well done Sony for making it extremely simple to hook the AR11S up to your external aerial. Also at the rear is the power socket and a USB 2.0 port.
The right side is where the vast majority of connections are. Here you'll find both modem and Ethernet ports nestling behind a plastic flap, but it's the next flap along that's really interesting. The second flap hides the HDMI port, a D-Sub port, S-Video input and output, a Line-out and a four-pin FireWire port. Also on the right is a Type II PC Card slot, an Express Card slot and two further USB 2.0 ports.
The front is adorned with a memory card reader that will accept MemoryStick, SD and MMC formats, a hardware switch for the wireless adapters, an IR port for the supplied Media Center remote control and a catch that locks down the lid.
Obviously the highlight of the left side is the integrated Blu-ray drive, but there are also headphone, microphone and S/PDIF ports in evidence. There's also an integrated webcam mounted above the screen with a modest 0.37-megapixel resolution.
The integrated hybrid TV tuner performed flawlessly under test. Hooking it up to my external aerial it managed to lock down all of the Freeview channels and didn't have any problem holding onto them while viewing. It's good to see that Sony is using an internal IR receiver for the infrared Media Center remote, unlike the Toshiba Qosmio G20 that we looked at last year, which required an external IR receiver to be plugged into a USB port.
As a Media Center PC the AR11S really does excel - the large, high definition screen is a joy to behold and I found myself just watching TV while I was supposed to be writing this review. But it's the ability to be able to pump the video signal out to an external high definition TV that really makes the AR11S a compelling argument - yes it's expensive, but it is a notebook, a Media Center PC AND a Blu-ray drive all rolled into one. That HDCP compliant HDMI cable really does make all the difference here and elevates the AR11S beyond just being a multimedia notebook.
When it comes to price, I doubt that any of you will be surprised that this machine doesn't come cheap. However, when you weigh up what you're getting for the money, I don't think that £1,782.44 is over the top. Considering that BenQ recently announced that its PC based Blu-ray drive will cost £549 by itself, you can see that the AR11S is a bit of a bargain when you factor in the cost of the Blu-ray drive alone.
Ultimately, if you ever needed proof that the convergence between IT and consumer electronics products was real, the VAIO VGN-AR11S is it. With its feet firmly in both camps, it can handle all your computing needs along with the majority of your entertainment needs.
It would be easy to think of the AR11S solely as the first notebook available with a Blu-ray drive, but that really would be selling it short. What you've actually got here is a superb Media Center PC, with all the components to allow it to be the centre of your high-definition entertainment setup. Yes it's pretty expensive, but you really are getting not just cutting edge, but potentially future proof technology here - once Blu-ray movies start to appear, the AR11S will add another very impressive string to its bow.
But the jewel in the crown of the AR11S is the HDCP enabled HDMI port, meaning that not only will you be able to watch Blu-ray movies on the excellent 17in internal screen, but you'll also be able to watch them on your high definition TV in the living room. This really is how Windows Media Center is supposed to be!