Even something as simple as playing a movie on a store-bought DVD can be performed in two ways with different results depending on whether you use Windows Media Player or Sony's Media Bar. Only the latter provides a multichannel Dolby Digital bitstream output, and it's one of only two programs on the MXS19 that can turn on its external composite- and S-video outputs (Giga Pocket is the other). But Media Bar doesn't have the slow-motion, frame-stepping, and multispeed-scan capabilities of Windows Media Player. Then again, the PC's remote control operates DVD playback functions only when you're using Media Bar.
Regardless of the DVD player program used, the progressive-scan picture looked superb on both the Sony LCD monitor and on a traditional tube monitor. Once I adjusted each monitor's own picture controls with DVD test patterns, the fine details in the darkest areas of the image in the Can-Can scene of Moulin Rouge became visible - like the texture in the men's top hats and tails. The picture took on a stunning depth and richness, as it did in other scenes of this visually amazing movie.
SonicStage has some quirks, like that 2 1/2-hour limit on a timer-activated FM recording, and the slight gaps it added between contiguous CD tracks ripped to MD using the original MiniDisc format (the two MD-LP long-play modes produced no such gaps) or ripped to hard disk in the WMA and MP3 formats.
But SonicStage's most surprising quirk is that it totally ignores Internet radio - and the same is true of the other Sony-authored software supplied with the Vaio. Sure, you can listen to streaming audio, or watch streaming video, when you happen across it, using Apple's QuickTime, RealPlayer, or Windows Media Player, but none of the supplied software will let you record any streaming audio or video signals, which could be extremely useful. Fortunately, this can be done for audio, at least, with third-party software like Total Recorder from highcriteria.com. Using this, I was able to record 132-kbps RealAudio Webcasts of the Metropolitan Opera with much better sound quality (wider dynamic range, lower distortion) than is provided over the air here in New York City by WQXR-FM.
On the other hand, I was pleased to find a couple of useful features I wasn't expecting, since they aren't mentioned in the documentation. For example, both Windows Media Player and Media Bar were able to access and play the secondary Dolby Digital soundtracks on DVD-Audio discs. And considering the machinations you have to go through to transfer music to or from an MD using SonicStage, it was an ironic surprise to find that this same program was able to rip the music from the CD-compatible layer of a hybrid Super Audio CD - which some record companies are favoring over DVD-Audio for its supposedly greater security!
I was also surprised to find that ultimately I grew to like the MXS10. Every new PC takes some getting used to, but this one seemed to take just a little longer. There ought to be a guidebook, with flowcharts, showing how to move video data files from one program to another, including the respective picture-quality tradeoffs. But after about a month of regular use, you'll get the hang of it, as I did, and be able to do things like quickly dump DV footage from a camcorder onto the hard disk, edit it, and burn it to a DVD-R.
In the end, I found the Vaio MXS10 quite irresistible for its enormous versatility combined with its ability to keep the quality of A/V signals extremely high. The DVDs I made from edited DV camcorder footage were absolutely or very nearly identical to the originals, depending on the image content and provided I used the highest MPEG-2 encoding bit rate the programs allowed (8 megabits per second).
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