IRL Review Sony VAIO AW Desktop Replacement Laptop

SONY AW- dont mind the barrel distortion- i was shooting the kit 18-55 Sony on the NEX-5 that has no distortion correction

IRL Review Sony VAIO AW Desktop Replacement Laptop- The VAIO AW is a model I lusted after for some time- certainly I had always had a fascination for ultraportables far more than mainstream and desktop replacement laptops. This most likely stemmed from me absolutely hating heavy laptops – in undergrad, I spent many hours walking between classes, and setting up study booths with a couple text books in tow- a desktop replacement was just too darn big for that stuff. However, as I have spent more and more time locked into a desk/office space, and have lowered the need to do the coffee cafe/university library study date, I’ve been more and more interested in the big brute laptop machines. Sony never really got as heavy in the desktop replacement machine business. They had a couple like the GRT series (16inch 4:3 aspect ratio), FW (16 inch 16:9 aspect ratio), AR (17 inch 16:10 aspect ratio) and the AW (16:9 18.4 freaking inches). These ranged from Pentium 4 to Core 2 Duo CPUs. The AW was the final big brute laptop from Sony, before it dropped to just having 15 inch laptops in the SE/SVS15/F15 models. I knew about the AR and AW series but never paid too much attention before. I did know they were giant models. When I wanted to go back to big brute laptops, I did more research (especialy on the special edition AW photographer edition!). I found out the AR was part of the giant Nvidia recall with faulty GPUs, so that crossed that one out for me- I didn’t want to run the risk of it eventually dying even if it was mint condition (dealt with that in my HP TX1000 see review).

Front view of the AW- MemoryStick and SD card slot reader here, and indicator lights.

The AW was more alluring to me anyways- the 18.4 inch screen was positively insane.  I must admit I had been first drawn to the giant screen from the 17inch Powerbook (and to a lesser extent, the Macbook Pro- I just really liked the silver key layout better). I had been absolutely enamored by the high resolution 17 inch display and just got lost in its pixels (remembering that WXGA resolution was really common like 1200×800, and so anythign higher than that was exotic). The AW managed to trump the Powerbook with extra screen size (although it was 16:9 compared to 16:10). It was also a VAIO, so clearly my fanboy came out. I found out the photographer edition AW was actually pretty bad for long term upkeep- it was a special edition made with the rubber grip on the Alpha camera bodies, and had that material on the wrist rest, in addition to a twin lamp LCD display (twin lamp for better brightness), and a wider ranging color display (which ended up being less than impressive from users’ perspectives on Notebookreview). The big fault was that the special screen really wasn’t that much more distinguishable from other AW screens, and the camera grip material peeled and warped over time.

AW right side- just an optical drive, mic/headphone, and two USB ports- I really think there’s a lot of wasted space here

I ended up missing several auctions and local deals on the AW (I still hit myself over some of those!) because I wasn’t interested in it, until I was. And then I was full of regret and went into full blown search mode. After missing out on a mint edition AW, I managed to talk to the seller who mentioned he had another AW that had some boot issues- it was also located all the way in France. Figuring I should be able to do software repairs, I did a thorough check on AW issues, made sure those weren’t there, and snagged it! It was actually relatively cheap, but shipping was hella expensive because it shipped out a remote village in France (the cool thing was that I was able to Google street view its shipping address and see this random tiny village in all its glory). Anyways, was it worth the hype? Read on and find out in my IRL Review.

SONY AW media keys- they light up when touched and are touch sensitive. AV mode for quick booting to media player pre SSD times when booting up to full OS was too slow.

Design- its a Sony. Classic Sony. You can see the classic Sony green glowing power LED button on the right that just about gives me the shivers. It has the flowing edges on the side first introduced on one of the most elegant models, the Z1. The machine just looks great. It came in several iterations, including silver, black, and the photographer edition. I thought the silver edition looked rather cheap, like the smaller brethren, the FW. The black looks superb. While I would have LOVED the photographer edition, the warping camera grip turned me away. However, I do think I found the better of the two sides- the cheaper silver edition looks like a generic cheap silver laptop, while the black edition looks SUPERB. The contrasting silver trim on both the lid and chassis look awesome with the black. Yup, its all plastic (although I think the lid and bottom might be magnesium), but it still looks good.

fingerprint reader, and the big green power button.

I’m particularly proud of that side flow design with the power LED button- its straight inspired by the VAIO Z1 and later brought to life with the 16 inch VAIO FW  (the Z1 is IMHO one of the best designed laptops). Its got plenty of ports too, but I do think they could have pushed the envelope a bit, given how much space they had to work with- more USB ports would be welcome in particular. One thing I don’t like about the design is that there is space for TWO drives on this laptop, but they only put the connector in the second drive if you ordered it with dual drives right from the start. Its a big tease for me, and a bit disappointing- the ribbon connector for this is very rare and very expensive. This is a flagship model- it shouldn’t be nickel and dimed. It should be expected that buyers will want to tinker with it- its a desktop replacement ultimately after all. I love that there is a 2.1 sound system in here (more on that in sound) too. In general, I just think its clearly a Sony, which makes me really proud of it- its got the design heritage and story behind it, and distinguishes itself from any other big screen laptop. Also that 18.4 inch is a rare screen size. Its still in some laptops now, like the MSI GT80 series, but its super rare in general (Dell and Acer made some huge ones too, like the XPSm2010 20 inch monster). Generally, despite the lack of premium materials in its build, it still looks great.

SONY AW subwoofer, RAM slots and battery- that subwoofer is really disappointing

Build Quality-I do not really have any complaints here. It has survived 9 years with really no issues. The biggest problem is that the WiFi card is intermittent, but that particular card is known to have the same issue in other models. Other than that, for a mostly plastic machine, its holding up well over the 11 years of age. Some paint chips here and there but nothing worrisome. I generally think it feels good overall, but I do think it lacks the wow factor for a premium model, like picking up a 17 inch Macbook Pro and just knowing you are holding an expensive object. I think the bottom is metal too, but its nothing to write home about. While the top casing of the lid is magnesium, its just ok in feel.

SONY AW- I have the AW11Z model, a midrange AW model below the photographer edition model.

Power- Its a Core 2 Duo 2.4 Ghz CPu combined with a Nvidia 9600 GT m. The power alone in 2017 is pretty forgettable- back in 2008 it was great, but not spectacular. Notebookcheck says it could have up to 2.53 GHz of a processor- not terribly impressive TBH. The Nvidia card is a middle class card, which is quite good and a nice step up from the 9300 entry Nvidia card on the cheaper AW models. For a machine this big, I feel like a 9800m would be a better fit, just for wow factor. I really don’t notice any hiccups in speed running Windows 10 on this machine. Its unfortunate it uses DDR2 memory, as that’s more expensive than DDR3- I’ve since upgraded the 2GB on this to 4GB. The biggest problem with this machine is probably the platter drive – however, given that I keep my drives clean, its mostly tolerable. I’ve gone about half a year without doing the SSD swap, so its quite ok TBH. Youtube HD works totally fine on this machine, even when paired up with a secondary monitor. For a machine that is 11 years old, thats really good.  I never game, so I never tried this machine. I expect it to perform quite poorly though, given that its an 11 year old gaming chip in its non native OS.

AW left side- heat sink, HDMI, VGA, USB/eSATA, firewire (?) iLink something port, compact flasg card slot, and I’m thinking thats a PCD expresscard slot. Seriously just three USB ports on this machine

Battery-I honestly don’t know what battery is like on this machine because my battery is long dead on the machine. I don’t think anyone should realistically expect long battery life on an 18 inch machine anyways (although I have been fooled with some machines like the 17 inch mac line). Its nice that the battery is hot swappable though.

Magnesium lid- one of the pieces of metal

Heat-Its REALLY quiet with the fan on. I actually became afraid that it wasn’t venting properly, because I couldn’t feel any heat blowing when I put my hand in front of the vent. I did some diagnostic software and the fan was running properly, so I am guessing that the heat sink is big enough that it dissipates more efficiently than the VAIO Z11 that is a heat bomb and has a much smaller heat sink. I feel the keyboard heat up on the left but its not concerning like the heat on the Z11. I usually use it on a cooler anyways, just in case.

AW front wireless switch, and card readers- really dig that silver trim on this machine.

Sound-this was a disappointment. I was expecting a lot from my first laptop advertising 2.1 speaker setup. However, it just sounds OK, and not memorable. The 2010 Macbook Pro has a 2.1 set up and sounds much much more rich. I never liked Sony VAIO’s speaker systems and this is no exception. Its unfortunate because there is SO MUCH FREAKING SPACE on this machine to have really put out a full complement of great speakers. A shame really for a massive desktop replacement system. Like enough space to build in ports for the subwoofer.  Seriously shameful. There’s two speakers (or 4 if I remember the parts correctly) under the grills on the top of the laptop, and the subwoofer on the bottom. Meh.

AW numeric pad- lots of buttons including volume here- nice that its dedicated instead of a function key

Screen- YEAH 18.4 inches in full HD looks spectacular and is impressive everytime I open the macine. Yes its not a 4K display, but I really don’t need that. It just looks amazing. It does lack some of the brightness and pop that the Z11 has (my favorite screen really), and looks a bit dim, but its still quite good- in comparison to the smaller brethren VAIO FW and F1, their screens are washed out and just dull. This is a great screen to watch movies on, and do work. I just freaking love it. Its so freaking big. Viewing angles are ok, not great, but not something that I think is a functional issue. It is a glossy screen though, that doesn’t have that balance between glossy and glare that the Z11 balances well. I’m being hard on this screen because this is a flagship statement model, and Sony has made better screens before. This AW11 model is a twin lamp screen- apparently the lower model is a single lamp model and is less bright overall. I don’t notice any obvious uneven backlighting on this machine. I really wish I could see the camera edition model in person, as I am still interested in it, with its ADOBE RGB screen claims.

Comparing screen sizes- Sony’s biggest laptop at 18.4 inches, and one of their smallest, the X at 10.4 inches, and a 19 inch 4:3 Sony monitor in the background. You can see how big the footprint of the AW is here. Its nearly 6 times heavier than the X. 
Screen is glossy on the AW and good but not as impressive as other screens Sony has put out on their VAIOs

Usability really have no complaints about using the machine overall. The keyboard is pretty decent, but not my favorite (that belonging to the Thinkpad X301). I like the full size keyboard on here- really useful with that numeric pad. The keys are the right size (and they better be since there is a ton of space to work with). I like the complement of ports on here, but do think they could have added extra USB ports given its size. I am disappointed the keys aren’t backlit- Sony didn’t really push for backlit keys until after this generation, but its not like the technology was not there- Apple had been backlighting their keys for years before the AW came out. For a flagship model, this really should have had that. The only other complaint I have about usability is that this is seriously difficult to find a carrying case- I am using a weekend bag to carry this machine. Sony made an AW specific bag that I am particularly fond of that you can see below- I never see this go up for sale, so I will likely not get it. Its also monster heavy to carry and not just huge- its 8.81 lbs- BUT considering how much other 18.4 inch laptops weigh, this is actually quite decent. Its a far cry from ultrabooks though haha. Not to mention that the powerbrick is much larger, so that adds a lot of weight too.

VAIO AW bag looks really slick
One of my favorite looking machines seriously- even though that top deck is plastic, it still looks good.

Conclusion- I gotta be honest, while I like the design of this machine looks wise, and I like the giant freaking size of the screen, I jus thave this gut feeling that they could have done more with it. If I shrunk the machine down to like a 16 inch laptop, it would be just an average mainstream laptop. I’m thinking this as I finish the review on the VAIO Z11, which is just freaking dynamite. The whole package is just standout as a machine (aside from battery). Meanwhile the AW is great, but not standout. I’m really not sure what’s missing but it doesn’t get me like other huge laptops like the MSI GT80 series that has a mechanical keyboard built in, and an amazing sound system. Still. I love the design and the screen size that I am willing to overlook that lack of finesse. Should I have gotten the cheaper AW series though, I think I would have a different opinion with a more drab grey color scheme and lower resolution screen. I am hard on this machine because its a statement machine and it should have a whole bunch of impressive features, and not just a big screen. Maybe that’s what the photographer edition AW would have hit better with. Anyways, I still love it cause it looks good and its so freaking huge. I’d get it again in a heartbeat.

Pros- HUGE screen, full size keyboard/numeric pad, great looks, decent power, ok heat management, quiet, ok build quality, HUGE SCREEN AGAIN HUGE; Cons- meh sound system despite being 2.1, limited ports for its size, screen quality is good, but not as good as Sony’s best screens, unnecessarily not providing secondary connector for a second 2.5 inch drive despite there being a space for one, lacks a certain pizazz for a flagship/statement model. 

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