The Media Box Has Arrived!
After two months of delays, the hatbox-shaped Sony VAIO VGX-TP1 PC is finally shipping. Mine arrived last week, and I took a few photos of the various components as I unboxed them.
Just like the initial photos showed, this is a computer with very austere looks in an unusual squat cylinder case. The TP1 has been compared to a roll of toilet paper, a Roomba, a wheel of cheese, and a hatbox. I think it looks like a good device to take the place of my huge, crash-prone, overpriced cable box.
The "TV-side PC" box first reveals a forest of individually-wrapped cables and adapters. I feared a rat's nest behind the TP1, but in the end I connected only three cables to the computer: a power cord, an HDMI cable for both video and audio, and an Ethernet cable. (If you can live with the 24 Mbps or so that 802.11g will reliably provide, then you need only connect two cables. A provided external antenna extends the range further.)
I first connected the TP1 to my TV through my receiver, as I had done with my cable box. No signal showed up at first, so I bypassed the receiver and went straight to the TV. This turned out to be a problem with my receiver: to effect a good handshake, I had to turn on first the TV, then the receiver, then the PC. (Thanks to shinksma of the AVS Forum for setting me straight.) Once powered up, I went through Windows Vista's simple out-of-the-box set-up procedure, which ended with the first of many pitches for third-party services.
Sony has developed a horrible reputation for selling out their customers, and I understand completely. The 24 vendor-sponsored offers out of the box included the new DRM-infected Napster, the disastrous Norton Internet Security, and at least a half dozen pitches for various AOL services. Four feature-length movies are preloaded onto the hard drive but each must be unlocked for $10 to become viewable. Most bizarrely, there was a trial version of QuickBooks preloaded on the TP1's hard drive. Who's going to run QuickBooks on a "TV-side PC"? Many of these offers had uninstallers, but some -- including the 4 GB of locked movies -- required me to dig through the hard drive to delete folders manually. I thought Apple was bad for shoveling 2 GB worth of GarageBand files onto my PowerBook, but Sony has surpassed them by far in the annoyance department.
Once I was able to clear out all the tray trash Sony gave me, it was time to start loading some of my own. First up: Joost, which runs incredibly well on the TP1's Core 2 Duo processor with 2 GB of RAM to play around in. I've watched several programs on Joost and, unlike on my $300 Dell, the video never skips a frame. Next up: iTunes and Amazon Unbox to get my instant gratification from purchased, heavily restricted video files. Not every program performs as well as I'd hoped on a 1280x720 display with the font size turned up. For example, several iTunes dialog boxes have text that overflows their nonstandard title bars and some dialog boxes extend vertically off the screen. I was also disappointed to find that many of the TV shows that I ripped off DVDs, imported to iTunes on my PowerBook, and titled accordingly, are now "movies" with names like 1-1, 1-2, and so forth. All my purchased content's metadata looks perfect, of course.
Sony offers two methods to talk to the TP1. The keyboard includes a touchpad in an assembly that is very reminiscent of my PowerBook's keyboard right down to the lack of dedicated Page Up and Page Down buttons. It's convenient to have both keyboard and mouse close at hand instead of juggling two devices on a couch or coffee table. Once paired, the keyboard-and-mouse assembly stays faithful to the TP1: I haven't had to pair it with the computer again. Sony also included a surprisingly cheap-looking remote control. The remote looks boxy and has small, squarish buttons that don't even come close to telling me what the computer can do. Some of the buttons are overly generic (an "i" button and a left-arrow button do not pull up information or go back, respectively) while critical buttons like pause are small and indistinct. The remote is not backlit and its functions don't appear to be customizable as far as I've seen so far. Since one of the special keys on the keyboard opens Windows Media Center, I have stayed away from the cheap Sony remote so far.
Speaking of Media Center (MCE), I haven't really dug into what Microsoft's 10-foot interface can offer. Living close to a city center should let me pick up some over-the-air digital signals, so I think I'll go antenna shopping soon. I installed MCE Tunes to get a remote-control-suitable interface for my iTunes videos, but it invokes QuickTime in such a clunky way that I've switched back to just using iTunes with the keyboard and touchpad for now. Another plugin, called My Movies, offers a friendly catalog and an interface to rip DVDs to a hard drive, but it too is horribly inelegant: each disc requires that I go through a wizard repeatedly, and I can't rip a disc using the remote interface while doing anything else. I have better things to do than watch a progress bar increase very, very slowly.
Given how much of my media is already ripped in iPod format, I have some regrets about not getting an Apple TV or a (badly aging) Mac mini. I do like how Joost and Last.fm will run on my TP1, and with Unbox installed I can rent a movie from work knowing that it'll be downloaded by the time I get home. There is an active hobbyist community working on MCE plugins and associated software, though there isn't the same polish associated with MCE software that I've come to appreciate about the top tier of the Mac software community. Even though many programs are styled as MCE plugins, they all have subtly different looks and feels. I'll keep plugging away at the TP1 trying to make the most of its otherwise solid hardware.