14" and Larger Notebook Buyers' Guide

The back-to-school season is coming and refreshed product lines are already starting to appear on store shelves. While Intel's “Core 2010” line-up (i.e. Core i3/i5/i7 dual-core Arrandale processors) continues to dominate in terms of raw performance, AMD K10.5-based processors are actually starting to trickle into the market just as they promised at Computex, with AMD-powered notebooks available from every major vendor. Meanwhile, Intel has quietly refreshed its mobile line and added some low-voltage kit. It's an interesting market full of sort-of-competition and it isn't at all unlike the desktop processor and graphics markets.

Just like on the desktop, AMD seems poised to deliver the best price-performance at the low end of the notebook market while ceding superior battery life and performance to Intel in more expensive machines. AMD has often touted the importance of a “balanced platform” in their presentations and there's something to be said for that; while Intel does continue to steadily improve their integrated graphics performance, it's difficult to argue for it against the Mobility Radeon HD 4200 you can expect from even the cheapest of AMD-based machines. Beyond all that, AMD has been able to bring affordable mobile tri-core and quad-core processors to market in the Phenom II.

At the same time, the notebook graphics market seems both fiercely competitive and strangely stagnant. AMD has produced top-to-bottom DirectX 11 parts, but their top-end Mobility Radeon HD 5870 is curiously underpowered. It barely eclipses NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 285M, yet another solution based on the DirectX 10-only G92 that is now practically ancient by tech industry standards. The Mobility Radeon HD 5650/5730, both based on the desktop Radeon HD 5570, are a modest improvement on last generation's midrange king, the Mobility Radeon HD 4650. While 5650 and 5730 are numerous, choosing an NVIDIA GPU cedes some performance in favor of their Optimus technology that is capable of completely powering off the GPU and seamlessly switching to the integrated graphics hardware for improved battery life. Do you want DirectX 11 and higher performance, or do you want Optimus and CUDA? Segmentation like this seems like competition at first, but mostly becomes an exercise in compromises. What's more important to you?

Notebook designs in the past couple of years have also taken some unfortunate turns, particularly for media enthusiasts. The now bog-standard 1366x768 resolution found on mainstream notebooks is woefully inadequate for any but the most basic of media work, and this year has seen the alarming disappearance of FireWire and ExpressCard ports from many consumer notebook lines. You can argue that these accessories are niche, but many prosumer-grade cameras still use FireWire (and indeed, many people are still probably holding on to their own tape-based cameras). Removing FireWire wouldn't be such a nasty hit if major manufacturers like HP and ASUS weren't ditching ExpressCard right along with it. ExpressCard never did seem to catch on the way PC Card did, but having some means of expanding notebook functionality beyond USB ports is important.

Mercifully, the tide of glossy plastic that made last year's models so downright unattractive seems to be passing. HP went through a massive redesign of their notebooks that resulted in a vastly simplified, unibody-MacBook-inspired line of sleek, attractive machines. ASUS is making a jump to rubberized and matte plastics on their consumer and gaming machines. Sony VAIO notebooks are as attractive as ever. And Dell's machines have become nicely understated, a far cry from ancient eyesores like the Inspiron E1505 you may still see people carrying around.

Next week Vivek will be walking you through the portable, the ultra-portable, and the downright diminutive notebooks and netbooks on the market and helping you decide which one is right for your needs. This week, however, I'll be picking out the best machines on the market for individuals looking for more desktop-replacement-sized fare. Battery life isn't as big of a factor here, given the larger sizes and increased performance, but we'll try to note any laptops that happen to do better than average in that area.

Portable Notebook
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  • ExodusC - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I noticed you mentioned the HP Envy line on the last page. At $1099, the Envy 14 is looking like a fairly good deal for a premium notebook, considering the specs it offers.

    That being said, is AnandTech planning to review the Envy 14? I'm dying to know. I emailed Anand, but he's a busy man and I'm sure he didn't have time to respond. :) It's hard to find out how to contact the AnandTech writers/editors, honestly.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Most of us are [name] at AnandTech.com... I'm jarred.walton; others are dustin, vivek, anand, brian, rajinder.gill, ryan.smith, and johan. The email stuff should start showing up again in the not too distant future.

    As for the Envy, I've asked multiple times to get one of the Envy laptops, and so far no luck. We've recently had HP ship us a couple business laptops, but they haven't sent out consumer stuff for review in quite a while for some reason. So unless that changes, it's unlikely we'll get an Envy review. :-(
    Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    It's my understanding this isn't at all unusual. I started doing reviews at NotebookReview.com (and still write there regularly), and I've also written for Tech Report. HP tends to be extremely cagey with review hardware of any kind (Sony's even worse that way). Personally I don't think that does them any favors at all; Dell and Acer for example are both extremely forthcoming and proactive about getting review kit in the hands of reviewers. Reply
  • rwei - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Want to borrow mine? ;) I've been enjoying my Envy 17 for a week or so now but I'm incredibly curious to see what you guys think. I might even be half serious about the borrowing.

    As someone who's been using (and still uses, to some extent) an A8Jm from 4 years ago, the change was very interesting.

    Sure, the 17 is way bigger, but the build quality is immeasurably better, and the high quality (for my purposes, anyways) screen/keyboard make for a completely different experience. Of course, I may just be biased because both hinges on my A8Jm are half to fully broken off, and the 7600 Go can't accelerate video. I suspect that Asus' current mid-range 14" line will have similar build issues - gotta make room for those components somwhere in the price.

    I did realize after reading your article I realized that I gave up my Firewire port =(. The thought didn't even occur to me when I ordered. Looks like my 2nd gen 10GB iPod will finally need to be retired...a moment of silence, please.
    Reply
  • Milleman - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    I just hate notebooks with 16:9 screens. Can't do anything productive through that letterbox peep hole, except watching movies or maybe play games. Bot for netsurfing, wordprocessing and other applications, it is just a pain. I want the 4:3 format back on laptops! Reply
  • Akv - Monday, July 05, 2010 - link

    Agreed. 16:9 is an intrusion in the computer productivity world.

    Not everybody watches movies. Some people still write.
    Reply
  • anactoraaron - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    What happened to that last giveaway? Up until that mousepad there was an update posted the next day and nothing now for a few days...

    I still think all of the giveaways Anandtech does is awesome, don't get me wrong...
    Reply
  • therealnickdanger - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    The iPhone 4 and Laptop articles ARE the giveaways - and we all won! :) Reply
  • timpagden - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Interesting snapshot of the marketplace. I am somewhat bemused by the lack of high resolution in notebooks today, a few years (3?) ago, you couldn't move for 1920x1200's in 17" AND with AMD processors! This lack of resolution has pretty much removed me and my family from the notebook marketplace, we now opt for 'transportable' PCs with 1920x1200 LCDs. For on-the-go computing & connectivity, a smartphone (854x480) with a VPN into the at-home servers is looking like the way forward - are we seeing the death knell of the notebook PC? Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    It's actually the reason I opted to replace my current notebook with a Dell Studio 17 (en route) and a netbook. At this point 17"ers are the only place you're going to get a screen with a halfway decent vertical resolution for doing any kind of media work, and actually the 17" lineup is the only place where the move to 16:9 widescreen has actually been beneficial overall. Before, 17"ers were 1440x900 standard, now they're 1600x900. It's true you lose resolution buying top end where you used to be able to snag 1920x1200, but that's not as nasty a hit as the mainstream jump from 1280x800 to 1366x768. It's amazing just how brutal losing even 32 pixels of vertical real estate winds up being for media work. Reply

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