In September 2009, we saw AVADirect push the boundaries of portable computing with its honkin’ Core i7-975 Extreme Edition–equipped D900F desktop replacement. That behemoth was both a back breaker (at 15 pounds) and a benchmark buster (at least in our applications tests).
This month, we’re presented with AVA-Direct’s X8100—a rig that’s similarly monstrous but boasts a completely different character. The X8100 features a Core i7-820QM, a true mobile quad-core part. Intel’s Clarksfield chips have obvious advantages in a mobile platform, including a lower price and a much lower TDP (thermal design point)—45W max vs. 130W—than the desktop Nehalems. There’s also more emphasis on Turbo Boost. So, although the i7-820QM has a base clock of 1.73GHz, it can theoretically reach 3.06GHz in single-threaded apps. Photoshop is our only mostly single-threaded application benchmark, and you can see from the numbers that the X8100 performed 20 percent better in that test than our 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo zero-point rig did. But in the multithreaded tests, where the X8100 didn’t have the full advantage of Turbo Boost, the applications scores were even more punishing—with the X8100 achieving leads in excess of 50 percent—such is the power of those two extra cores, plus HyperThreading, plus a superior microarchitecture.
Let’s talk about love. When you love something, you love it for what it is, not what it isn’t. We love netbooks; we don’t care that they can’t really do games, or HD Flash video, or any media encoding to speak of. We know what we want—all-day computing in a formfactor small enough to toss into a knapsack or messenger bag and barely know it’s there, and cheap enough to be viable as a secondary PC. Toshiba’s first netbook, the NB205, came out in the latter half of 2009, but was immediately lauded as a shining exemplar of netbook craft. So, can the NB305, its Atom N450–toting successor, replicate the NB205’s success?
With the NB305, Toshiba has opted for a gentle refinement of the 205 rather than an all-out reimagining. Aside from the new Pine Trail N450 CPU and the Windows 7 Starter OS, the NB305 is virtually identical to its predecessor. Both share standard netbook specs: 1GB DDR2 RAM, a 250GB 5,400rpm hard drive, and a 10.1-inch 1024x600 screen. And the 305 replicates the NB205’s styling almost identically, from the matte-silver plastic chassis, textured lid, and matching bezel to the striped touch pad and chiclet keyboard.
In and of itself, the Asus N61J wouldn’t normally enter our radar. Let’s face it: A $900 16-inch desktop replacement is wholly pedestrian—an affront to the sensibilities of most power users. But the N61J has the distinction of boasting one unique feature that, at the time of this writing, wasn’t available in a more enthusiast-class rig, but which most enthusiasts are sure to take interest in: Nvidia’s brand-new Optimus technology, which changes the landscape of hybrid graphics.
To summarize, hybrid graphics make it possible to switch between a notebook’s integrated graphics and discrete videocard based on need. The concept is hardly new, but Optimus streamlines it. Rather than the user having to shut down applications, manually enact the switch, and then reboot—a nuisance no matter how you slice it—Optimus intuits the correct graphics solution for the task at hand and implements it seamlessly.
The Sony Vaio P is a weird device. It’s much smaller than a netbook, but much better-equipped. It has wireless broadband access from Verizon, onboard GPS, a ThinkPad-style pointing stick, and an eye-straining high-resolution screen. It’s also incredibly expensive. So who exactly is the Vaio P for?
At just 9.8 inches across, 0.8 inches thick, and 4.8 inches deep, and weighing just one pound, five ounces, the Vaio P is made for mobility—it makes a 10-inch netbook look like a desktop replacement. Into those tiny dimensions Sony crams parts that—on paper—put your old Atom netbook to shame. The Vaio P uses a 2GHz Atom Z550 paired with the US15W chipset and GMA500 integrated graphics. By comparison, last year’s typical netbook used a 1.6GHz N280 on an Intel GSE945 chipset with GMA950 graphics. The Vaio P also ships with 2GB of DDR2/533 and a whopping 256GB Samsung MLC SSD, which itself is responsible for $700 of the Vaio P’s price tag. The full Windows 7 Professional OS is a welcome change from Windows XP—or worse, Windows 7 Starter.
The Vaio P’s eight-inch screen offers an eye-watering 1600x768 resolution. This is the first time we’ve ever seen a screen that was too sharp; reading text on it for more than a few minutes hurt our eyes.
First things first: This is not a revolution. Although the Acer Aspire One AO532h boasts Intel’s new Pine Trail processor, the Atom N450, it’s no game changer. Instead, think of it as a highly polished evolution of the standard netbook.
Intel’s first Atom CPU, the N270, was the processor that launched a thousand netbooks, among them the 8.9-inch Aspire One, which was our favorite first-generation netbook, as well as one of the most popular. It’s fitting, then, that an Acer Aspire One is one of the first netbooks to arrive with Intel’s much-anticipated Atom N450, which consumes roughly 20 percent less power, and moves the chipset and graphics functionality into the CPU.
Other than the CPU, not much else is new about the AO532h—it has 1GB of DDR2; a 10.1-inch, 1024x600, LED-backlit LCD; and a glossy, fingerprint-magnet chassis. The hard drive is 250GB, which is nice, and both hard drive and RAM are easily upgradeable. It’s the first netbook we’ve tested with Windows 7 preinstalled, albeit the needlessly crippled Starter edition. The track pad, which supports multitouch, is a textured area that’s flush with the chassis; the chiclet-style keyboard is nearly full-size and easy to type on, although the keys depress lower than the chassis, which can be annoying when hitting the keys on the bottom row, where the sharp edge of the frame can dig into your thumbs.
HP touts the $900 ProBook 5310m as being the world's thinnest full-performance notebook, but its slim form factor doesn't mean limited functionality. The 5310m ultra-portable is burly enough to satisfy demanding business users, and it boasts a price tag that won't blow out your IT department's budget.
The 5310m, which is just .93 inches thick, was built specifically for small- to medium-sized businesses, but it breaks the mold of the blandly colored, chunky business notebooks your employees are probably accustomed to. This HP features a beautiful, black, anodized, brushed-aluminum finish with glossy black accents, augmented by a magnesium base for additional protection. It’s outfitted with a spacious, spill-resistant keyboard that remains comfortable even after entended typing sessions. The multi-touch trackpad offered a little too much resistance to our finger swipes and gestures, but this is far from being a a deal breaker.
Gone are the Atom processor’s days of monopolizing the low-cost mobile-computing market. This should come as welcome news to folks who want the price and portability benefits of a netbook but more robust performance.
Take Toshiba’s Satellite T115 as an example. To say that it has an 11.6-inch diagonal screen, weighs 3.6 pounds, and is coated in a high-gloss black finish inlaid with a subtle geometric pattern is to describe any number of netbooks on the market today. The fact that the T115 costs $480 only drives home the similarity.
And yet, the T115 is different from netbooks in one very significant way. It houses a traditional notebook processor. It’s just a single-core, single-threaded, 45mn, 1.3GHz Pentium M, but that proved plenty sufficient for making mincemeat of our zero-point netbook’s benchmark scores. That machine’s Atom N270 is clocked 23 percent higher at 1.6GHz, but the Pentium beat it by massive margins—from 27.4 percent in MainConcept all the way up to 128.7 percent in 3DMark 03.
To say that netbooks have historically been hobbled by Intel’s integrated graphics is to unfairly ignore their slow single-core CPUs, 1GB RAM maximum, miniscule keyboards, and awkward screen resolutions. It’s an unfair assertion, of course—netbooks came into existence to be cheap, portable, low-powered machines. But the definition of netbook has been stretched, to the point where HP’s new Mini 311, while still considered a netbook, has an 11.6-inch 1366x768 screen, Nvidia integrated graphics, a large keyboard, and can support up to 3GB of DDR3 RAM, for less than $500.
At first, the Mini 311 looks a lot like any other 11.6-inch netbook on the market: Intel Atom processor, 1GB of RAM, 3 USB ports, and a somewhat squashed keyboard. But the RAM is DDR3/1333, not the typical DDR2/667, and it’s soldered to the mainboard, leaving a SODIMM slot free for an additional 2GB of RAM. The screen has a maximum resolution of 1366x768, significantly better than the standard 1024x600—for one thing, websites and programs built for 1024x768 won’t break. And thanks to the Ion platform, the Mini 311 can display 720p HD video, and output 1080p over the HDMI port—that’s right, a netbook with an HDMI port.
GammaTech’s Durabook D14RM is the antidote for folks who are really rough on their hardware. The notebook’s gray and black magnesium-alloy case, complete with black rubberized corners, not only makes the rig look burly, but also serves to protect it from aggressive manhandling.
GammaTech says the notebook complies with MIL-STD-810F guidelines for ruggedness, so we put those claims to the test. We “accidentally” knocked the D14RM off a desk when the machine was open and running a program, dropped it from a standing position onto a concrete floor (a few times, because it gave us such a thrill), and spilled a full 16-ounce cup of liquid across its keyboard. The D14RM withstood all that abuse without any apparent damage to its structure or functionality. And mind you, the D14RM uses a mechanical hard drive. Yes, an SSD seems like a more obvious choice for a notebook that’s meant to be tossed about, but then it wouldn’t be nearly so affordable.
If there’s one thing that might take your mind off your financial woes, it’s some good old-fashioned fragging. And Asus is happy to oblige by offering the most affordable full-fledged gaming notebook that we’ve ever tested. The G51Vx-RX05, sold exclusively through Best Buy, costs less than a grand—OK, at $999, that’s a technicality, but still, this 15-inch notebook is cheap. It’s half the cost of the 15-inch iBuypower M865TU gaming rig we reviewed in November.
Of course, Asus had to cut some corners to get there. The notebook’s Core 2 Duo P7350 CPU, for example, boasts a mere 2GHz clock speed—that’s 33 percent slower than the iBuypower’s proc. And true to form, the G51Vx-RX05 performed about 30 percent slower than the iBuypower (our new zero-point rig) in our Premiere, Photoshop, ProShow, and MainConcept benchmarks.
A Power Control Panel option in the G51Vx-RX05 lets you overclock the CPU by up to 150MHz. That’s a 7.5 percent boost, which amounted to around five percent of additional performance in our CPU-centric benchmarks: Using the so-called “Extreme turbo” mode, we shaved 11 seconds off our original Photoshop time and a minute off of Premiere Pro. That doesn’t do much to bridge the gap between the G51Vx-RX05 and its higher-clocked competition, but it does add some value to the package.