Gateway EC5409u

The Gateway EC54 series bucks CULV convention and goes with a larger 15.6" chassis. Yes, it's bigger and heavier, but if you're already carrying a laptop bag around the difference is really quite small. I was recently at an NVIDIA technical presentation, and while everyone else was pulling out their stylish MacBooks and VAIOs, with some Dell and ASUS laptops thrown in for good measure, I was the only one with a Gateway system. Maybe no one else really paid much attention to what I had sitting in front of me, but afterwards I was speaking with one of the NVIDIA marketing folks. We were discussing netbooks and ION among other things, and I said, "Honestly, laptops like this have made me feel that Atom is almost totally irrelevant now. I'm sure we'll see millions of people still buying them, but that's only because they don't know any better." That naturally lead into a discussion of this Gateway laptop, and when I showed him current availability online for $600, he agreed that it was a very impressive offering. So what's so great about the EC5409u?


Gateway EC5409u Specifications
Processor Intel Pentium SU4100
(2x1.3GHz, 45nm, 2MB L2, 800FSB, 10W)
Chipset Intel GS45 + ICH9M
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1066 (Max 2x4GB)
Graphics Intel GMA 4500MHD IGP
Display 15.6" LED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)
Hard Drive(s) 320GB 5400RPM
Optical Drive 8x DVDR SuperMulti
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8131 PCI-E)
Intel Wifi Link 1000 BGN
Audio 2-Channel Realtek ALC269 HD Audio
(2.0 speakers with headphone/microphone jacks)
Battery 6-Cell, 11.1V, 5600mAh, 63Wh
Front Side Flash Reader (MMC, MS, MS Pro, SD, xD)
Left Side Headphone/Microphone
1 x USB 2.0
HDMI
VGA
Heat Exhaust
Ethernet
Right Side 2 x USB 2.0
Optical Drive (DVDRW)
Power Adapter
Kensington Lock
Back Side None
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 14.85" x 10.0" x 1.01-1.08" (WxDxH)
Weight 5.29 lbs (with 6-cell battery)
Extras Webcam
99-Key Keyboard with 10-Key
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
Pricing Available Online starting at $600

First, it has a really attractive design. Glossy plastic is gone, other than around the LCD bezel. The keyboard and palm rest are a nice matte plastic, and the cover is blue brushed aluminum. (You can also get it with a silver brushed aluminum top if you prefer.) I wish Gateway had taken things a step further and eliminated the glossy LCD and the shiny plastic on the LCD bezel and above the keyboard, and I don't see a need for a mirror on the touchpad buttons, but the important surfaces are no longer as prone to collecting fingerprints. I do have to note that after using the laptop for a couple weeks the matte finish shows the wear in the form of "oily spots", with areas on the palm rest and keyboard (especially the space key) visibly marked. You'll have to decide whether you prefer clearly visible fingerprints on glossy finishes or wear spots on matte finishes, unless you can find a surface that's completely immune to marking.

The hinge feels solid and the metal backing of the LCD panel makes it less prone to flexing or twisting. You also get a full size keyboard with a dedicated number keypad, though we do have a few complaints in that area. On the number keypad, the decimal point is in the wrong place, as are the plus and minus keys, and the zero key should be twice as wide. What's more, Gateway doesn't provide any dedicated Home/End or Page Up/Down keys… unless you don't use the numlock function. Again, personal preference comes into play, but like the NV52 and NV58 I ended up leaving numlock off. There's still about an inch of horizontal real estate to the sides of the keyboard that could have been used to fit in a few more keys and alter the layout, but it goes unclaimed. This was at least partly to keep costs down, since this is the same layout Gateway uses on several 15.6" designs. While I wouldn't say it's "perfect", the keyboard is comfortable for regular use and it provided good feedback for my typing style. It was far more comfortable during extended use than either of the 11.6" keyboards.

When we look at the features a few corners have been cut, but there are no major omissions. You won't get a dedicated graphics card, for example, so you'll be stuck with the integrated GMA 4500MHD graphics. (Not surprisingly, that was the NVIDIA rep's one complaint.) The LCD is a glossy low resolution 1366x768 panel, and while we're okay with 1366x768 in 11.6" laptops, 15.6" designs would definitely benefit from 1600x900 or even 1080p LCDs. In other areas, the features weren't cut at all. You get 2x2GB of DDR3-1066 memory, which is plenty for this sort of system (and up to 8GB is supported if you're willing to shell out $380+). The LCD uses LED backlighting, helping to improve battery life by cutting power use. Other components worth mentioning include the Intel WiFi Link 1000 802.11n networking, Gigabit Ethernet, a 320GB 5400RPM HDD, webcam, DVDRW, and flash memory reader. The CPU is a Pentium SU4100, which isn't the fastest CULV offering but it provides a good blend of price and performance. (As we mentioned at the start, the SU9400 is about 15% faster for almost twice the cost.) Overall, the design and construction are very good, and at $600 this is a really great value.

In terms of day to day use, the EC5409u provides excellent battery life, just like the other CULV designs. You can easily run typical office tasks for an entire eight hour workday without ever plugging in, and even at its slowest the SU4100 can run circles around an Atom N280/N450. The only areas where the system falls a bit short are the usual suspects for Intel IGP laptops: gaming and video playback. The gaming is pretty much a complete failure, outside of undemanding games like Sims 3 and Spore where it can provide acceptable performance at minimum details. We've discussed this in the past, and the latest Intel HD Graphics in Arrandale are two to four times as fast, so newer laptops can hopefully avoid this problem. The 4500MHD's video support is actually quite good overall, and we were able to view 720p and 1080p H.264 videos without difficulty. The problem is if you place a heavy emphasis on Flash video content, as the current Intel drivers and Flash 10.1 Beta 2 don't always work properly. That may be addressed with future drivers or a final version of Flash 10.1, but right now we would still give the clear win for Flash video support to NVIDIA GPUs.

So where does the Gateway EC54 series rank in the pantheon of CULV laptops? For the pricing, design, and features, this is easily my favorite of the three offerings we're looking at today. I've also poked around at a few other options at local electronics stores, and if you're looking at CULV (i.e. battery life without killing performance) it's going to be hard to beat the EC54 package. The graphics situation is a drawback, but you have the same thing on any of the less expensive CULV offerings, and it really only creates problems if you want to play games or if you want to watch certain Flash videos. (Hopefully the Flash 10.1 Beta 3 - or final release - along with updated Intel drivers can address the playback concerns, though we're not holding our breath). The only remaining concern is the question of size: do you want something closer to netbook proportions, or are you more comfortable with a larger keyboard and an extra pound to carry around? If Gateway were to cut out the number keypad and shrink the EC54 down to a 13.3" chassis, that would be about as good as it gets for CULV designs in my book. The Acer Timeline 3810 and 4810 come close, but they don't have the nice brushed aluminum cover. The other 13.3" and 14.0" CULV laptops (e.g. the Lenovo IdeaPad U450 and Toshiba Satellite T135) continue to use glossy plastic surfaces. ASUS also offers the UL20A, a 12" CULV with a chassis that appears the same as the 1201N, or the UL30/50/80A in 13.3", 15.6", and 14" sizes respectively. All of those are viable options, but they don't change the fact that the EC54 is one of the better CULV designs, and at $600 it won't even cost an arm and a leg.

Dell Inspiron 11z Test Setup
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  • diego10arg - Monday, March 15, 2010 - link

    Hi all,

    I am trying to upgrade my Atom 270N netbook and my primary and only concern is FullHD Playback through HDMI. I will be using an external harddrive for backup and storage purposes, so HD does not matter.

    After looking for a while I found several laptops with Celeron ULV 723, Athlon Neo MV-40, SU4100 and SU7300.

    So far I got this prices (I live in Argentina, prices are in USD)
    . MSI Wind 210-050AR, Athlon Neo MV-40, 2GB RAM, HD250Gb > 609 USD
    . MSI X340-241AR, Celeron ULV 723 1.2Ghz, 2GB RAM, HD320Gb > 699 USD
    . Dell Inspiron 11z, ULV SU4100, 2Gb RAM, HD160Gb > 709 USD
    . ASUS AU UL30A-QX050D, ULV SU7300, 4Gb RAM, HD320GB > 915 USD

    What differences are between CULV 723 and SU4100?
    What would you buy? Why?


    Thanks all!

    Regards,
    DiEGO
    Reply
  • Daeros - Monday, March 01, 2010 - link

    Any word on how something like the 1201n will perform with the new GPU-accelerated versions of Firefox and IE? I feel the current-gen Intel graphics are just unacceptable, so the Ion and AMD laptops are more attractive, but I don't want to feel like I'm trapped in molasses when I browse the interwebs. Reply
  • fwacct4 - Monday, February 15, 2010 - link

    I would like to see noise levels tested for laptops. The thing with desktops is that you can actually hide them some place where noise doesn't bother people, but laptops are always right in front of you, and some laptops have a very annoying high-pitch noise that is noticeable because they are so close to the user.

    I'm sure there are a lot of people interested in having quiet laptops, so I hope that noise level can be compared among laptops as well, and especially with CULV processors which are low voltage, there is an opportunity to present a particular model as being particularly quiet, which would really be a selling point for some.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, February 16, 2010 - link

    All of the CULV laptops tend to run very quiet, to the point where my SPL meter has trouble detecting the noise level over the background noise in the room (around 30dB). Even under a heavy stress test like CINEBENCH, the fans rarely reach a level that I would consider distracting (so typically under 35dB). When you're not running a stress test, the fans are often stopped. Out of the three, the Gateway EC5409u seems to be a bit quieter, likely because it's larger and has even more room inside to dissipate heat, but the others weren't loud by any stretch. Reply
  • viewwin - Tuesday, February 09, 2010 - link

    I would like to see the next version of Ion mixed with a CULV CPU for a decently powerful HTPC. Reply
  • acron1 - Tuesday, February 09, 2010 - link

    A couple of weeks ago I was looking to replace my Toshiba NB205 with something small but with a bit more punch. I ended up with the Toshiba Satellite T115D-S1125 primarily because of the HD3200 graphics. I knew that in terms of battery life the Intel based solutions are better choices but I wanted the extra graphics power available from ATI. Battery life while browsing the web, some flash and email is just over 5 hours... Reply
  • Hrel - Saturday, February 06, 2010 - link

    I'm still waiting for a CULV laptop with a screen of AT LEAST 1600x900 and a dedicated GPU that's about equivalent to the GT240 from Nvidia; I'd prefer it be from Nvidia but since I want DX11 AMD will do fine; the 5series really steps it up. Asus has what I agree is the best CULV laptop, I just want the CPU overclocked to 2GHz, a screen with a resolution of 1600x900 and a GPU about as powerful as a GT240 for 1000 bucks or less. That's totally reasonable. And I want it NOW! 15" chassis too, btw. Reply
  • Schugy - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    I don't think that I care about the time I can wait in front of my Netbook but I need to know whether the battery can encode xxx thousand frames to complete the task. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    In that case, FPS is a more useful figure than the time taken, since you don't know how many frames are in the video we choose to test. (For reference, we use a 1080p MPEG2 video for the DivX test with 719 frames.) You would also need to know how long the battery lasts under a heavier CPU load, which I haven't shown here. If you look at the "100% CPU power draw" figure and divide the battery capacity by that amount, you can get an estimate... but the power settings will definitely come into play.

    Let's see if I can help: a 90 minute DVD as an example encoded into DivX would require the encoding of approximately 162000 frames. Now our test results show 5.14 FPS, but that's a far more complex 1080p encode. DVD quality should be a lot faster. A quick test of a 3978 frame chapter of a DVD yields an encode rate of 43.71 FPS (91.0 seconds) on the Gateway EC5409u. That means for a 90 minute 30 FPS DVD (like my test video), you'd need at least 61.77 minutes of battery life. I don't even need to run a test to say that it wouldn't be a problem for CULV on that sort of encode. Atom N450 would still take about 40~50% longer, but again that's not a problem.

    Then again, the default settings result in a low quality encode. If you do a 2-pass DivX encode targeting better quality, total time required increases over two-fold. I just tried it out and the EC5409u managed to encode the same 3987 frame DVD chapter in 237s, or 16.83 FPS. That means roughly 2.7 hours for a 90 minute DVD, or over 3.5 hours for a two hour DVD encode. If that's what you're trying to do, it's unlikely you'll manage the entire encode while on battery.
    Reply
  • buzznut - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    I have the 8200M chipset, I really wouldn't recommend it for gaming. As the article suggests, a discrete graphics option would be better. I think the chipsets that allow the discrete card to turn off when not needed to save battery life are the best options.
    My laptop has a 2.1 Ghz dual core and 4 gigs of ram, with 4 gigs ready boost. It can't game very well, its heavy and the battery life is atrocious. It gets quite hot while watching video, probably the cpu while using flash, and struggles with hidef.

    Given today's options, I would not have gone with the notebook I currently have, as it is too big to carry with the addition of my enormous and heavy chem and bio books. Why drag it along when the battery will die after 2 hours? Most days it sits on a bed side table. I think I would go for a culv with the switchable chipset I mentioned. I am quite jealous of my wife's netbook and 8 hour battery life.

    Nice article, it would be nice to visit again in 6 months to see how the mobile market changes.
    Reply

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