Look and feel
Like any 17.3-inch desktop replacement, the 7.3-pound VAIO EC Series is large and in charge. No really, we don't care how strong you think you are, the 16.1 x 10.8 x 1.3-inch laptop is best carried in two hands. Though, this really isn't the sort of system we'd recommend moving around in the first place... unless it's from the desk to the couch and back to the desk. There was no fitting it in a 16-inch laptop case or even in our large backpack.
Sony has kept things pretty simple with the design of the EC Series. There's no longer a glossy lid like previous VAIO desktop replacements -- instead there's a very classic brushed silver cover (it's also available in black) that's adorned with a mirrored VAIO logo. Under the lid, things are kept just as minimalistic – the entire deck is covered in white plastic, and the palm rest is shiny with a slight speckle to it. There's an Assist, Web and VAIO button, but unfortunately – or fortunately depending how you feel about them – there's no multimedia buttons on the deck. All media controls are along the function row on the keyboard.
Surrounding the machine are pretty much all the ports you could ever dream of – there are three USB jacks, an eSATA/USB combo, VGA, HDMI, microphone, headphone and an Ethernet socket. There's also an ExpressCard/34 slot on the left side along with a MagicGate and SD card readers on the front. The right edge is home to the EC's 4x Blu-ray drive.
Keyboard, touchpad, screen and speakers
The VAIO EC has a full-sized chiclet keyboard with a dedicated number pad to the right. While the rounded, plastic keys are nicely spaced, they are fairly clicky and they make a slightly distracting sound. However, Sony is selling colored rubber skins to protect the keyboard from dust and debris, or in our case spilled coffee and Tostito crumbs. Sony sent a few along with our review unit and we have to say we love the feel of the soft silicone rubber – the hot pink and blue colors are a little much, but it does add something to the rather sterile design. It you purchase the EC on Sony's site they're offering the skins for free for the time being -- they're typically a whopping $20.
The VAIO EC's touchpad is positioned left of center and directly beneath the space bar rather than smack in the middle of the deck. Honestly, we don't know why this sort of thing has been happening on larger systems, but we did get used to the positioning after some use. The braille-like touchpad does support multitouch gestures, but oddly didn't respond to two finger scrolling – the left side of the pad does function as a scroll strip, however. The right and left mouse buttons are a bit mushy, but comfortable.
The heart and soul of the system is its ultra wide 1,600 x 900-resolution, 17.3-inch display. Since we spent much of our time sitting in front of a 13- or 15-inch laptop, the wider screen made a huge difference when keeping multiple windows open at the same time. We actually wrote this entire review with Microsoft Word on one side and Firefox on another. The quality of the screen is also impressive – it's glossy, but not too much so. Watching No Country for Old Men on Blu-ray was a pretty stunning experience with colors appearing bright and crisp, however we would have obviously preferred a true HD display for watching 1080p content. We have few complaints about the horizontal viewing angles of the screen as we were able to comfortably watch an episode of Mad Men with a friend; vertical angles on the other hand were a letdown.
Flat out (pun intended), the speakers above the keyboard deck are, well... flat. For a multimedia machine, the dual speakers don't provide anywhere near the quality of those on the HP Envy 15 or Pavilion dm4, both of which are smaller systems. They're loud enough, but we just expected to hear a fuller sound when listening to tunes and watching videos.
Performance, graphics and battery life
The Sony VAIO EC's Core i3 processor and 4GB of RAM put up quite the performance showing. We want to note here that our review unit had a 2.13GHz Core i3-330M CPU -- retail units will have a faster 2.26GHz Core i3-350M processor. We will update this review when Sony sends us the final configuration.
Either way, the Core i3 processor in our system scored higher than some Core i5-powered machines on the benchmarks, and in everyday use it was very snappy. We never saw any slow down when running multiple applications, including TweetDeck, Microsoft Word, Google Chrome, Skype, Trillian and GIMP. When we started up Corel WinDVD BD to watch a Blu-ray disc it took a number of seconds for the movie to load, but overall system performance didn't slow when playing. Obviously, Core i7 laptops will best the EC on benchmarks and in real-world use, but this system's Core i3 CPU is nothing to shrug at.
That impressive performance is met by some equally nimble graphics thanks to the EC's ATI Mobility Radeon HD5470 graphics card and 512MB of VRAM. The card aided in outputting some stunning Blu-ray and YouTube 1080p videos to a 40-inch TV. Gaming-wise, the HD5470 took to the task of running our WoW gnome around the forest at 33fps and Batman through Arkham Asylum at 20fps.
|Sony VAIO EC (2.13GHz Core i3, Radeon 5470)||5308||4094||2:33|
|Gateway NV5933u (2.13GHz Core i3, GMA HD)||4784||1725||2:35|
|Toshiba Satellite E205 (2.2GHz Core i5, GMA HD)||5187
|Acer Aspire 5738PG (2.55GHz Core 2 Duo, Radeon 4570)||4049
Like any desktop replacement, the EC doesn't get more than three hours of battery life. On our video rundown test, which loops the same standard def video at 65 percent brightness, the EC ran for two hours and 33 minutes. That's not good by any measure, but honestly we don't anticipate many leaving home with this machine anyway.
Like most PC vendors, Sony loads up the VAIO EC with a good amount of software, but the company has gotten better about it and does offer its "Fresh Start" clean install with Windows 7 Professional. Our unit came with Windows 7 Home Premium and the resulting extra software, but we were actually very happy to see Google Chrome installed and it saved us the step of having to download another browser. (If you haven't been able to tell from our laptop reviews, we're not exactly IE lovers). Additionally, the system comes with Sony's Media Gallery, which organizes all local multimedia into different panes and a timeline view. It's a fairly slick looking piece of software, but there's nothing here that Microsoft Photo Gallery or Windows Media Player couldn't do for ya.
We can't pinpoint anything that's inherently wrong with the Sony VAIO EC – actually, we like it quite a bit -- though we think the design is a bit plain and the speakers are a bit weak. More than that, we can't help but look at the better Core i3 and Blu-ray deals to be had. For instance, the $800 Gateway NV79C35u has the same Core i3 processor and Blu-ray drive as the EC, though it doesn't have discrete graphics. There's also the Core i7-powered Dell Studio 17 with a Blu-ray drive and ATI graphics for $949 at Best Buy. So, what's our conclusion? The EC is a great performing desktop replacement for the family room or for someone looking for a work and play machine that's bound to stay in one place, but just be prepared to pay slightly more than the competition for that silver logo and colorful keyboard you're peering at above.