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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  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    The problem comes in getting anyone - and I do mean anyone - to send us AMD laptops for review. The manufacturers seem to view them as bastard step children that should be kept out of view as much as possible. The Gateway NV52 shows what sort of performance you can expect, give or take, as it has a 2.1GHz QL-64 CPU, but battery life on the newer 45nm parts should be better and performance can be a bit higher as well.

    Even going to AMD doesn't really help, since they don't want to step on any toes by sending out review units. They would love to do that, but if they did they could easily end up with HP (as an example) saying, "We don't like you sending out our product... so we're going to discontinue that SKU."

    Of course, the new Intel HD Graphics actually beat the HD 3200/4200 in quite a few tests as far as I understand things. (I'm still trying to get i3/i5 laptops for review as well.) Even then, HD 3200 at least really struggles in quite a few games to get playable performance - the GeForce 9400M for example looks to be about 60% faster.
    Reply
  • MonkeyPaw - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Actually, I made a mock-CULV out of my $400 Toshiba notebook, equipped with AMD 3100 graphics and an Athlon X2 QL-65. I use a program called K10stat, which allows you to alter the P-states of K8+ AMD CPUs. By default, the QL-65 is a 35W CPU with a max-clock of 2.1ghz, but after I changed the 2 power states to .9v @ 900mhz and 1.0v @ 1.3ghz, I end up with a CPU that consumes 9-17W, depending on the P-state (it stays mostly in the 9W area). That tweak added about 30 minutes to my battery life (6-cell), matching my company-issued 3-cell HP netbook. Even with the reduced clocks, performance is still massively better on the Toshiba. My wife hasn't noticed or complained about performance yet, though we don't demand much beyond internet, iTunes (sigh), and office/budget stuff. Reply
  • OMG Snarf - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    That's a darned shame - the manufacturers don't even respond to requests for hardware? I wonder if that's the manufacturers or some super secret Intel clause (conspiracies ahoy!). I guess I'd have to look through the NV52 reviews again, but its nice to know that a 1.5GHz part should equate roughly to a 2.1GHz part.

    My issue with the new Intel HD is that right now the Core iX UM systems aren't out that I've seen, and as was detailed in another article, there's still the issue of the L2 cache not being power gated and the later inclusion of SRAM to fix this to provide more power savings, so who's to say where those fit in the ultraportable world at this time? I think that will take time to flesh out, and by that point, there will be another 'Tock' and maybe another minor 'Tick' to fill it out. That's already the end of the year, given Intel's performance for last year. And by that point, there might be another AMD mobile chipset, so it all could be moot.

    Finally in reference to the 9400M, the issue is cost. The 3200 can push a few more polys than the 4500 can, so if you want the option is there. The 9400 can, too, if you want to spend double the cost, but the point I got out of this review was low-voltage that was around the Atom/Netbook price point that offered overwhelming performance advantage while still retaining the other features (battery life/portability).

    But I digress. Thanks for the response, and while I'm sad to hear that AMD gets treated that way by the manufacturers, its good to know that its not because of any bias on the editorial staff that others like to claim.

    So long as the illegal overclocking stops for the i3/i5/i7 and X3150 benchmarks ;) I kid, I kid. Heh. Those were the days.
    Reply
  • Drag0nFire - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Well, I'd love to see a review of the AMD-based Lenovo x100e if you can get your hands on it. It may provide competitive performance at the $400-500 price point. Reply
  • Cuhulainn - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    When I saw the article I figured one of those reviewed must have been from the Asus UL line. They get mentioned several times, and seem to be the only options with decent gaming ability + battery life. If nothing else one of them should have made the review list for battery life alone. Isn't that a big part of the reason for using a CULV processor? Reply
  • cblais19 - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    If you look at other reviews on this site, they've done an overview of the UL80vt mentioned in this article, as well as an in depth review. Reply
  • mschira - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    I especially like the Asus approach overclocking the sauce!
    I want a 10" overclocked CULV!
    Forget iPAD and Atom.
    M.
    Reply
  • feelingshorter - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Do you mean the 1810TZ in the conclusion? Which is the SU7300 11 inch laptop. The 4810TZ is a 14 inch laptop. Also did you mean 1410 instead of the 3810? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    No... I've looked at the 3810TZ, 4810TZ, and 5810TZ at stores, played around with them a bit, etc. They're all better, in my opinion, than the 1410/1810. It's not just a case of being larger, either; the keyboards just don't feel quite so mushy as the 1810 chassis.

    The 1410/1810 are good, but more of a "B+" as opposed to "A-". I have no hesitation recommending any of the Acer TZ models that have SU4100, though, which is why I awarded the group (along with the Gateway EC54) a bronze.

    Honestly, though, there's plenty of personal preference in what makes a good keyboard. Some people like the soft touch ("mushy" in my view) keyboards, and others like more of a "clicky" keyboard. If you can try any of the Timeline series out - or really any CULV, including the Lenovo U series and a few others I haven't mentioned - and you're happy, the performance is going to be very similar to what I've shown here.

    Hope that clears things up. :-)
    Reply
  • Roland00 - Thursday, February 04, 2010 - link

    Did the 1410 have the battery in them? Due to the design of the chassis (to hide the battery and not have it stick out), the battery provides a lot of support. With the battery inside there is a lot less give on the 1410.

    I know for I bought one for 350 with the su2300, 2gb memory, and 160gb hard drive.
    Reply

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