After loading the changer with a batch of DVDs, I heard a whirring noise as the next disc clicked into place and then waited for about 30 seconds while the system figured out which movie it was and retrieved its cover art and information. After that, a menu of box-art images appeared onscreen. Then the process was repeated for each of the other discs. Later, I highlighted and clicked on 8 Mile. Having had enough of Eminem, I decided to move on to Paycheck. Total time to change discs was 35 seconds.
Like the HP, Sony's Media Center proved reasonably robust and A/V component-like. The changer, not the computer, was noisy while it juggled discs. Of course, you wouldn't expect to be changing discs during a movie. The computer didn't crash, but it did produce a gallery of obscure error messages, including "Stack Overflow" and "Your video card or drivers are not compatible with Media Center."
Aside from leaving out an FM tuner, about the only place Sony really dropped the ball in the XL1 is with HDTV compatibility. The one TV tuner isn't high-def, even for over-the-air broadcasts, so you can't capture HD broadcasts to the hard drive. You can add a third-party HDTV tuner card, but you have to know what you're doing. Worse, while its HDMI digital video output is HDTV-capable, the PC's component-video output delivers only standard-def 480i video. That means you'll be watching some pretty fuzzy-looking menus and programs on your big-screen HDTV if it doesn't have an HDMI or DVI input.
That was certainly the case when I fed the XL1's component-video signal to an older Pioneer plasma TV. I'd have bypassed the problem by using the Pioneer's computer VGA input, but the XL1 is also the first computer I've encountered in years that doesn't include a standard VGA output! Sony says that's by design in this entertainment-driven system, and that restricting the component outputs to 480i is Microsoft's doing. But the component outputs on the HP Media Center PC were able to pass HDTV without flinching. To its credit, the display from the XL1 looked beautiful when I used the supplied HDMI cable to link it up to a new HDMI-equipped HDTV. (Sony also supplies an HDMI-to-DVI adapter for those who need it.)
I still couldn't get the XL1 to play any HDTV programs I tried to bring into the system. When I downloaded an HD trailer for The Interpreter from Movielink, the HP played it perfectly while the Sony kept issuing "video error" messages. Even Sony's technician was stumped.
Clearly, high-def lovers looking to record and archive HDTV programming will have to look elsewhere - though Sony says that early this year, it plans to replace the Vaio VGX-XL1 with the XL2, which adds an HDTV tuner, at the same price. In any case, by incorporating the megachanger, Sony has introduced some unique features to the Media Center, including the abilities to rip CDs in bulk, readily copy a whole library of TV shows to multiple discs, and, best of all, manage a big DVD collection with ease and elegance.
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