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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  • yyrkoon - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Jarred. Without even having to read the article/comparison here, I could have told you this would have been a no brainer.

    Last year I purchased a Toshiba Laptop with a T3400 CPU in it for less than $400( barely ) with free shipping. Now technically, this CPU is labeled as a "Pentium dual core. What that means exactly, I am not sure. But what I can tell you about this complete system is that at max load, it draws less than 40W( 17W light duty / idle ), and will play all but the most intense games reasonably well.

    Now what really surprised me about this laptop, after the fact that I did not think it could even play Hellgate: london( and it does, well, mostly ). Was that it encodes h264 video at close to the same speed as my desktop. Granted, my desktop is somewhat aged, but is no slouch. A P35 based system running an E6550 with 4GB of ram. Over Clocked to run 1:1 with the memory( 2.8Ghz ). Now perhaps I am missing something here, like perhaps Handbrake is not the best app to use to encode h264 ( x264 ), or maybe I am missing something else. Either way, I am fairly impressed. Which as I get older is something that is not as easy as it once was to do.

    So my point here, is that if an older system based off older technology can do well in this arena. I can see why newer technology can put the Atom to shame for a slightly higher price, and slight higher power consumption.

    One thing that does have me confused. Is why vendors/ OEM's have not implemented low power / performance parts for the common desktop. There certainly is an interest, all one has to do is search the web for a while and find 1000's of people out there trying to do different various things along these lines.

    For instance. Many of us possibly know that getting a low power desktop is not much of a challenge(read: ~50W full load, including an LCD ). However, popping in a discrete video card that has any sort of decent performance will more than likely triple your load at the wall. Why nVIdia/ATI insist on bleeding us dry with costs on the cards, and then insult us further by requiring us to buy an even bigger power supply. Not to mention the first born children we're obligated to give our local power companies for powering such beasts. Is it too much of a stretch of imagination to put a mobile graphics processor on a PCI-E 16x PCB ? I think not.

    With the above said. No, this does not imply gaming. Discrete graphics vs. integrated / onboard is a huge performance gain on its own. There are many different application out there that could benefit from this, and gaming is just a minor part of that.
    Reply
  • Souka - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    My brother bought a HPmini netbook for our Mom, she hated how slow and unresponsive it was.

    All she did on it was read her hotmail, look at some gardening sites, and read the news... She was quite disappointed how slow it was compared to her 8 year old Pentium4 thinkpad laptop.

    I tweaked it best I could for performance, cpu typically wasn't very busy, 200mb+ free ram, hard drive not too busy... just plain sluggish.

    I even removed the Antivirus and all unecssary runtime apps... no noticible difference


    Ended up getting her a cute little used Sony Vaio ULV book... she loves it...and I paid just a bit more than the netbook.
    Oh yeah...the Vaio gets 5-8hrs run time on used battery... nice

    Reply
  • Mumrik - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    The display is "11.6" LED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)" in the box for the Gateway. It should be 15.x... Reply
  • aglennon - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    I always wondered, Would battery life when playing videos be longer if you played the videos off of a flash drive rather than the hard drive?

    You could put the hard drive to sleep to save on the battery draw. Or would you?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    My experience is that powering of the hard drives may not occur as frequently as you would expect. Even when idle for over an hour, if you look at a running laptop you will often see the HDD activity light blinking periodically. I can try to test this, but I'd be surprised if the results change much. They could even become worse because of all the USB activity.... Hmmm, this could be interesting. Would USB flash drive model make a difference? Most of my flash drives are pretty old/slow, but they should handle movies fine. Reply
  • aglennon - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    It seems it may. I think it would depend if you could truly put the HD into standby mode. In the specs I've been able to find, USB flash drives pull about 60-80mA compared to WD 2.5" Hard Drives which pull about 500mA when running, 400Ma when idle, but only 50mA when in standby.
    I would think it would expand battery life considerably for those long airplane flights.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    Testing is underway. I had to use DivX, since my largest USB device is only 4GB and my x264 video is larger than that. Either way, it should be enough to tell if things have changed at all. (I also need to verify the result with the HDD, since I think I have a different DivX codec doing the work now. I used Win7's native support initially, since it's lower CPU use and better battery life than ffdshow.) Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, February 07, 2010 - link

    So here are the results (bearing in mind that I am not using the built-in Win7 codec because the ffdshow codec has taken priority and I didn't want to take the time to figure out how to fix the problem):

    DivX from USB: 268 minutes
    DivX from HDD: 291 minutes

    So, by my testing using a USB flash stick reduced battery life by around 8%. Ouch. Or put another way, it looks like USB increased average power use from around 12.8W for the HDD to 13.9W (based on battery capacity).

    My best guess is that the HDD isn't powering down, and/or the USB traffic is creating a lot more CPU usage than SATA HDD accesses. It's also entirely possible that the USB device I used is less than optimal - read/write speeds are nowhere near what you could get with a modern USB 2.0 stick, let alone USB 3.0. I think it can read/write at 13MB/s at best.
    Reply
  • crimson117 - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    How does the recently released Alienware m11x stack up? Reply
  • synaesthetic - Friday, February 05, 2010 - link

    Hardware Heaven has a review of the M11x already up. They're claiming that it's the best Alienware system yet.

    I'm on the fence. I don't like the design much and I think the screen's too small for the weird form factor. Really I think they should have bumped the chassis size up slightly and tossed in a 13.3" display.

    The price is very tempting though... entry-level configs starting at $800 and directly competing with systems like Asus's UL30Vt, but with a LOT more graphics muscle.
    Reply

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