Sony has always been known for innovative style, which is why it's no surprise to see the Vaio label on this chic notebook. We were impressed by every facet of the design, especially the transparent frame, flip-up keyboard and half-screen display. The L series sits somewhere between a desktop replacement notebook and a desktop PC. It offers a light, portable alternative to a desktop without conforming to the standard notebook chassis design with an adjustable stand on the rear to tilt the screen.
One of the best features of this Panel PC is the half screen display which instantly turns on when the keyboard flips up. Initially, the screen displays the time and a calendar showing the current date. A set of basic media controls are positioned down the side of the keyboard. The included soundFLOW software is fairly simplistic, offering nothing more than skip, play, stop and volume controls as well as a basic filter by artist and album (albums also include playlists). Playing CDs requires nothing more than the disc to be inserted into the slot-drive DVD re-writer located on the side. However, soundFLOW can't create playlists or add albums from sources other than a CD without the help of the installed Sony SonicStage application.
The speakers produce a good, clear sound and are loud enough for music and movies within a reasonable distance, although they would benefit from the addition of a subwoofer. The 15.4-inch widescreen LCD has a native resolution of 1280 x 800 pixels and has good brightness and contrast, but a very shallow viewing angle. From vertical positions it's difficult to see. It also has terrible colour inversion from side angles. This is disappointing, as when using this type of PC, you may not always be sitting directly in front of it.
Overall, the system performed well enough during our tests, though it is far from being the most powerful mobile solution available. It was a little slow in our MP3 encoding test, where we encoded 53 minutes of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3 files, which took 3min 3sec. This was below what we expected considering the specifications. We encoded a full CD using SonicStage, which took 4min 5sec. With the 1.83GHz Core 2 Duo CPU and 1GB of DDR2 RAM it will have no problems with everyday tasks and running the most commonly used software on the market. The GeForce Go 7400 graphics card allows this system to run Windows Vista's Aero interface and also gives the system enough graphics power to play some newer games, albeit at lower settings. Older games will run with ease as indicated by the 3DMark 2001 SE score of 9421.
In a worse-case scenario battery test, we played a DVD on a looping repeat. Despite the larger speakers on this unit, which consume more power than regular notebook speakers, the L series ran the DVD for 91 minutes. This is just short of an average feature film, but the volume is loud enough to comfortably sit back and watch from a distance, something most notebooks can't offer.
The flip-down keyboard is slightly smaller than your average notebook keyboard, so using it feels a little cramped. We would have liked it to be detachable, but it's fixed at the hinge.
VERDICT: The Sony Vaio VGO-LA38G is a welcome change of form factor which retains its mobility while also being a stylish and functional addition to the household.