Intel Core 2 CULV Roundup: Who Needs Atom?by Jarred Walton on February 4, 2010 4:00 AM EST
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)|
1 x USB 2.0
|Right Side||2 x USB 2.0
Optical Drive (DVDRW)
|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)|
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.