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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  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    If you're willing to spend up that much, Sony's 13.1" Z series can be upgraded to a 1080p screen. :) Reply
  • bji - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    Thank you for that information. I was unaware of that model and it looks very interesting. The only drawbacks are the glossy screen and the non-fanless CPU. But it's definitely got the weight and the pixel count going for it. I wish it were 14 inches ... Reply
  • hko45 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    The Dell Studio 17 might be okay, but for a DTR graphics WS, I'd take the Precision M6500 any day. Besides having the i7-920XM, up to 16 GB of RAM, USB-3, Nvidia Quadro FX 3800M card, and WUXGA RGBLED, you can also use the available E-Port Plus docking station when you're at home base with its 2 DVI and 2 DP ports for multiple displays. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    The Precision M6500 is a huge step up in price, mostly because you have to go with higher end options. I would agree build quality is better, but for many multimedia people the Quadro cards aren't necessary. You can get the RGB LED 1080p on the Studio 17 with 720QM for ~$1300 with a 3-year warranty. The cheapest quad-core M6500 is going to run upwards of $2500. Worth it for some? Definitely. But you want to make sure you really need those upgraded components. Reply
  • hko45 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    The real selling point for me is the availability of the E-Port Plus docking station for the Precision lineup. While I may be willing to make-do while on the road, coming home to two calibrated monitors to do my main PhotoShop post processing is the deal maker. I do my "dream" shopping on the main Dell site to see what configuration options are available, and then I keep checking on the Outlet page until something acceptable comes up.

    Incidentally, another reason to go with the Precision (or Vostro or Latitude) is ProSupport, which I don't think you can get on Dell's consumer side. Give me real English-speaking NA support any day.
    Reply
  • hko45 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Jared,

    I forgot to comment on your Quadro remark. Ever since CS4 (CS5 now), PhotoShop takes full advantage of the (Nvidia) GPU. Apparently Adobe worked quite closely with Nvidia so any on my WS configs will only use Quadro boards.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    True... CS5 is CUDA accelerated while CS4 was OpenGL. I haven't done testing enough to say how much difference a fast GPU makes in Photoshop, likely because I just don't do enough complex editing. I also don't know if Quadro makes a difference relative to regular GeForce. Anyway, the M6500 is a good workstation with an awesome RGB LED display, but it's expensive. If you want the extras, though, I have no complaints with it. Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    It honestly doesn't, really, at least in my experience. It's also my understanding Photoshop CS5 is still just OpenGL accelerated (a run through the settings didn't have anything CUDA on it, just OpenGL which is improved further still here); Premiere and After Effects have some CUDA acceleration, but those two are my babies, and the CUDA-accelerated processes are fairly specialized. I use a Radeon HD 5870 in my main workstation, and not having CUDA functionality isn't keeping me up at night.

    The primary use for workstation-class graphics is still going to be Maya and similar software.
    Reply
  • hko45 - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    I turned off the use-GPU setting in PhotoShop just to see whether I'd notice the difference. Big difference. It also doesn't hurt that it's able to take advantage of all the RAM you can throw at--the case for 64-bit OS (and the M6500 can give you 16 GBs). Don't you get tired of water twirly things marking the passage of time?

    Again, I especially like the Precision Mobile WS because it can use the E-Port Plus which has the two DVI and two DP ports for my dual monitors. Admittedly, biggest bang for the GPU capability comes with the Mercury engine in video processing (and who's to say that I won't get more serious with video). However, I've seen enough of what Adobe has done with PhotoShop's ability to use the GPU to bet on the direction its going in its close relationship with Nvidia.

    I don't know about you, but I'd prefer to buy a mobile WS that won't get too outdated within three years.
    Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Thursday, July 01, 2010 - link

    Yeah, but remember, in Photoshop it's just OpenGL and largely dependent on available video memory. No Nvidia secret sauce there.

    We have a GTX 480M notebook getting reviewed right now, I'll check to see just how big of a difference the Mercury Playback Engine might have (if it can be enabled on the 480M at all), but I can tell you I don't feel like I'm missing anything using Premiere on my Radeon, and Premiere IS my bread and butter.
    Reply

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