Media centres and living room PCs are set to become one of the rising technologies of the next twelve months, and Sony is hoping that its brand new VAIO TP2 media PC will set the standard for the rest of the competition.
Its timing couldn't be better either, because in 2008 more people than ever are waking up to the dream of building a digital home.
The popularity of HD TVs is now firmly established.
And what with faster broadband speeds enabling us to download HD video content for the first time, and with the introduction of video-on-demand services such as BBC iPlayer, media centre PCs are no longer reserved for hardcore enthusiasts who spend most of their hard earned cash on expensive kit.
The Sony VAIO TP2 may look like a biscuit tin, but under that smooth round exterior lays a veritable computing powerhouse. It has been granted a major upgrade from its iPod styled predecessor the TP1, with faster clock speeds and most importantly the introduction of a Blu-ray drive, bringing Sony's high definition format into the living room.
Sony has included one of the new 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processors in the VAIO TP2. This revised Penryn version of Intel’s dual core processor has been lauded for improvements in video processing and decoding, making it perfect for the inclusion in media based PCs.
Inside the case you’ll find 2GB of RAM and also a laptop-style Nvidia 8400M graphics card which gives it enough power to drive video playback, Windows Vista's demanding Aero interface on HDTVs and even some low-end games if you have the desire. There’s also a 500GB hard drive in there for good measure.
Behind a sliding panel in the front of the VAIO TP2 are all the connections and sockets you would expect to find on any PC, with Firewire, SD card, multiple USB, DVI and HDMI ports.
Disappointingly, we were given an early preview model which had no Blu-ray drive fitted. All retail models will have Blu-ray included, and while all the signs look good for quality, there have been reports that Sony has limited the capacity of the HDMI 1.3 ports. That means the TP2 will downgrade fully lossless audio such as Dolby TruHD to Standard or Dolby 5.1 to lower standards.
This will anger some audiophiles, but the truth is that most HDMI 1.3 devices are having issues with lossless audio.
Quiet as a mouse
When building media centre and living room PCs, the cardinal sin is making it so noisy that enjoyment of music and movies is spoiled by the sound of a light aircraft taxiing across the room. Sony has not made this mistake with the VAIO TP2, and it maintains a dignified silence during the most demanding tasks.
So if the TP2 is such a well rounded (excuse the pun) and superbly capable media PC, why shouldn't you just go out and buy one now and spend the rest of you life decaying in front of its mighty entertainment aura?
The price, at a staggering £899, will most likely put off most average home user and stop this from becoming a hit.
The problem with media centre PCs is that they will forever be used as a second PC. Few people would want to have their main PC marching from the office, and invading the sanctuary of the living room. If Sony is to reach outside the existing media PC ownership or rich enthusiasts, they may have missed the mark with the TP2.
For most living room activities such as watching movies and surfing the web, the TP2 is grossly over powered. It's a mighty machine, but media streamers have successfully been freeing music and movies from the office for years, and they don't cost £900. While media PCs are great, you don't need a powerhouse like this to watch and record TV and playback movies.
If you want a Blu-ray device and the ability to listen to music and watch videos from your PC from the comfort of your living room then the obvious answer is to invest in a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360.
At £280 a PS3 will save you £615 over the cost of a VAIO TP2, and lets you stream your media from your main PC over your network, surf the net and play Blu-ray discs.
While the TP2 is a work of computing genius, there are few people out there who would spend that much to bring the benefits of a PC into the living room. If you're in the market to replace your main PC with a living room alternative you can't fail with the TP2, otherwise there are plenty of alternatives.