Sony VAIO RX550

Sony packs great digital tools into a sharp-looking case--with just a few design flaws

WHAT'S HOT: The RX550 is one model in Sony's Digital Studio Desktop series, and it comes with features befitting the name--including Adobe Photoshop Elements for editing still images, and MovieShaker for novice home movie directors. You can burn your creations onto CD with the 16X/10X/40X CD-RW drive. If you do more-traditional home office work, the bundled Corel WordPerfect 9 office suite should fit your needs.

Whatever you're working on, it will look great on Sony's 17-inch CPD-G220R monitor, which produced sharp, easily readable 12-point Arial text, and images with rich colors and accurate tones and shading. The screen also functioned well during DVD movie playback, displaying natural colors and well-defined shadows.

You can easily hook up digital cameras or camcorders to the RX550. On the front of the system, hidden under a flip-open cover, we found two USB ports and one IEEE 1394 port (which Sony calls an I.Link). Two more USB ports and another IEEE 1394 port are on the back. All the rear ports--including those for the modem and monitor--are clearly labeled and color-coded, which makes it a snap to set up the system.

Budding digital artists may take some inspiration from the handsome design of this VAIO. The case has ash-gray side panels, the front and top panels have a burnished-silver finish and lilac accent stripes on each side, and the Sony optical drives have rounded silver front plates that match. The color scheme extends to the monitor, speakers, keyboard, and mouse.

WHAT'S NOT: Unfortunately, that great case design is only skin-deep. While you can open the PC without using tools, doing so isn't intuitive and Sony doesn't provide any pointers. You must slide the top of the system off, then pull an unmarked tab to pop off the sturdy side panel.

After opening the VAIO, we found more obstacles when we tried to reach the two open PCI slots and one open internal drive bay and RAM socket. The power supply sits in front of the RAM. You can slide the power supply out after removing a screw and pressing a tab, but the power supply's cables are too short to allow you to pull it all the way out and set it aside, unless you disconnect them. Some components in the cramped interior are removable without tools: For example, the floppy drive and hard drive cage pop out, but the levers to free them are unlabeled and hidden. The optical drives slide back into the system, then slip out through the top. That's a fine design approach, but as with the other components, Sony provides no labels or written instructions to help you.

The basic two-speaker set bundled with our RX550 matches the color scheme nicely but delivers rather weak audio, and cranking up the volume distorts the sound.

WHAT ELSE: Powered by a 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256MB of PC-133 memory, and Windows XP Home, the RX550 we reviewed earned a score of 90 on our PC WorldBench 4 tests--3 points below the average for other Windows XP Home systems with the same CPU.

The sturdy Sony keyboard offers eight Internet and multimedia hot-keys. Typing on it was quiet, but its keys were slow to respond. Hard-copy documentation consists of only a quick-start manual that offers setup information and illustrations. A more detailed system manual is available on CD-ROM, however.

UPSHOT: A useful array of digital editing software, a brilliant monitor, and plentiful ports make this handsome RX550 enticing to digital photography and video enthusiasts on a budget.

By Joel Strauch

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