Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2883
Mobile Buyers' Guide, December 2009by Jarred Walton on December 6, 2009 12:00 AM EST
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There are many different types of laptops right now. They run the gamut from low cost, low performance netbooks that typically deliver good to excellent battery life up through high-end desktop replacement systems that offer performance similar to what you would find in a high-end desktop from a year or two back. In between those two extremes exists a kaleidoscope of options that are roughly classified as "Entry" to "Midrange". This mobile buyers' guide will look at what we feel are the best options for each price range right now, and in many instances there will be several alternatives depending on what sort of laptop you're after.
Before we get to the actual price segments, we want to set the stage for what we're looking at in terms of features and performance. The days where brand made a huge difference in terms of performance and/or reliability are past; these days the vast majority of laptops work well (though that's not always the case, so use your favorite search engine to look for reviews). If you get the same components, then regardless of brand - Dell, Acer, HP, ASUS, etc. - you will get the same performance. There are always exceptions to the rule, so if you're really concerned about how a laptop feels and whether or not it's reliable, we recommend purchasing locally where you can try before you buy and return for an easy exchange if you encounter problems. Beyond performance and reliability, there are a few areas that can and do differ among manufacturers.
One that we have harped on for quite some time now is laptop display quality. The potential to use a high quality LCD on any given laptop has been around for several years now, but pricing considerations frequently result in the use of substandard panels - even on expensive laptops. Unfortunately, LCD quality is something that can be very difficult to ascertain without actually using a laptop, which means judging LCD contrast based on laptop specifications is all but impossible. It's not such a big problem that you can't comfortably use a laptop with a lower contrast LCD, but all other areas being equal we'd like to see better LCDs - and more matte LCDs, please! Right now, your best bet for finding a matte LCD is to get a "business laptop"; apparently, regular consumers don't care about such things but businesses do? Finally, if all this talk of LCD quality isn't bad enough, most laptops use LCDs sourced from several panel manufacturers, so there's no guarantee that all laptops with the same model will have the same LCD. That's why laptop LCD statistics are generally limited to size and resolution. Ugh.
Like LCD quality, build quality is difficult to determine without actually handling a laptop. You can look for reviews online, but even then you have to be careful - what qualifies as "high build quality" for one person may be flimsy and cheap to another. Again, buying locally can help, but you can't always find what you want at local retailers. We're going to walk the aisles of some of our local stores to see if we can spot any clearly standout LCDs among the crowd, and we'll keep an eye one build quality as well; we'd suggest you do the same if these areas are important to you. For the most part, we don't find build quality to be a huge issue, but keyboard layout and feel as well as the touchpad are also an area you'll want to test if you're shopping local.
Battery life is another potentially critical element of any laptop purchase. We have praised Apple for the stellar battery life that even their high-end MacBook Pro systems provide, but there's a "tax" you generally have to pay for a MacBook. Thankfully, we have started to see a bigger focus on battery life from other companies. True, this is often accomplished by using lower power CPUs, particularly the Intel CULV (Core 2 Ultra Low Voltage) processors, but regardless it is now possible to get a reasonable laptop that can last all day on a single charge.
The rest of the equation is pretty much a matter of looking at specs, pricing, and features. Do you want Blu-ray support? What size LCD/chassis do you prefer? How much do you want the laptop weigh? How fast do you want the CPU, GPU, etc. to be? Do you want an SSD or is a conventional hard drive sufficient? Obviously, pricing is going to determine how far you can go in any particular area, and it's possible to upgrade certain areas. Want a larger hard drive or an SSD? You can add that without much difficulty. You can also add RAM quite easily with the vast majority of laptops, though with even $550 laptops providing 4GB these days most people won't need to upgrade memory any time soon; on the other hand, the next jump up to 4GB SO-DIMMs tends to be prohibitively expensive.
Okay, the stage is set, so let's move to the first price bracket: sub-$400 options.
At the bottom of the price spectrum we have laptops that cost under $400. The vast majority of these laptops are going to be netbooks, typically a laptop that's under 12" for the LCD. We're not particularly concerned with that classification, though. Laptop, netbook, or notebook: it doesn't really matter to us. What matters are the features you can get, so let's look at the $400 or less offerings.
Intel Atom Laptops
If you're buying a new laptop for under $400 - and especially if it's $300 or less - you're likely getting something with an Intel Atom processor. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but you should be fully aware of what you're getting. The fastest Atom laptop CPU, the N280, runs at 1.66GHz and offers about the same level of performance as a 1.2GHz Pentium M. Considering 1.2GHz Pentium M laptops were state-of-the-art about seven years ago, we're obviously not looking at lightning fast performance. The difference is that an Atom CPU consumes far less power than any Pentium M; in our testing, the "worst" Atom-based netbook still managed to provide over 5 hours of battery life in typical tasks (with a 6-cell battery), and over 3 hours even for demanding tasks like HD video playback. Netbooks like the ASUS 1005HA can last up to 10 hours on a single charge, making the promise of "all-day" computing a reality.
Netbook options these days typically range from 9.1" chassis designs up to 11.6", with a few 12.1" options. We tend to prefer the larger netbooks simply because they offer a higher resolution LCD. 9.1" and 10.1" LCDs are mostly of the 1024x600 ilk, which can be frustrating with some applications. A few manufacturers have offered 1366x768 LCDs in 10.1" netbooks, but those can be difficult to find. In contrast, all of the 11.6" laptops we've looked at run at 1366x768, which is a good balance of size and resolution, and the 12.1" designs usually have a 1280x800 display.
You will be hard-pressed to find a laptop with more than 2GB for under $400, and Atom-based netbooks typically support a maximum of 2GB RAM (via a single SO-DIMM slot). We recommend getting 2GB if at all possible from the start; with netbooks only supporting a single DIMM, if you upgrade later from 1GB to 2GB, you end up with an extra, "useless" SO-DIMM. A few netbooks include 1GB of RAM soldered onto the motherboard, in which case you can get up to 3GB, but with no 64-bit support there's not much incentive to move beyond 2GB right now.
What would we recommend out of the sub-$400 Atom laptops? One laptop we've tested extensively is the ASUS 1005HA, and it's the best of the Atom netbooks we've used. The overall design and features are pretty typical, but battery life was better than the competition and more importantly, the 1005HA LCD delivered a stellar contrast ratio above 1000:1. It makes a huge difference in the way movies and pictures look, and considering the 1005HA doesn't cost much more than competing options, it's an easy recommendation. There's even a matte LCD version of the 1005HA (the 1005HA-VU1X-WT or 1005HA-VU1X-BK), which is awesome to see (but the casing and bezel are still glossy). So glossy or matte: you get to decide. You can also choose between Windows XP and Win7 Starter, but we'd stick with XP or plan on getting 2GB RAM and running Win7 Home Premium - Starter is a bit too limited for our tastes. It's a shame we haven't been able to find any 10.1" 1366x768 LCDs that offer a similar contrast ratio, as that's the only item on our 1005HA wish list.
There's at least one competing alternative to Atom right now, the VIA Nano, but the only netbook with Nano is the Samsung NC20, which costs over $500. We'll pass on that; performance of Nano appears to be a bit better than Atom, but for the price there are many other options. Also worth noting is that even the smallest SSDs that are worth having cost over $100, so you won't find any good SSDs in this price range. We definitely wouldn't bother with upgrading an Atom laptop to an SSD either - if the increase in performance such an upgrade brings is important, we recommend starting with a CULV laptop instead. That brings us to the other $400 alternatives.
NVIDIA's ION platform uses the same N270/N280 Atom CPUs we've already discussed, but instead of the anemic GMA 950 Intel GPU you get an ION GPU - essentially the equivalent of the 9400M G. ION is significantly faster than GMA 950, but the Atom CPU is such a huge bottleneck that it really doesn't make for better gaming in the majority of titles. ION also helps with video decoding, and the combination of Atom and ION with the Flash 10.1 Beta allows for fullscreen HD video playback on YouTube, Hulu, and other similar sites. Without ION, you'll want to avoid HD Flash video on Atom netbooks.
The only real option for NVIDIA ION in this price bracket is the base model of the HP Mini 311. It's priced at exactly $400 (barring any holiday sales), and it comes with the bare minimum of amenities. You do get an HDMI port and an 11.6" 1366x768 LCD, but you only get 1GB RAM and an N270 CPU. HP's 311 integrates the 1GB of RAM on the motherboard, though, so you can easily upgrade the RAM on your own after the fact. The other ION netbooks are the Lenovo IdeaPad S12, which starts at around $430 with 1GB RAM and XP or $550 with 2GB and Windows 7; meanwhile, the Samsung N510 doesn't have an inexpensive option, going for 2GB and Windows 7 for closer to $600. In short, all of the ION netbooks are in the next price bracket after we make a few upgrades.
Intel CULV Laptops
Atom has a reputation of "fast enough" performance with great battery life and a low cost. It provides all of that, sure, but the catch is you can get something much better from Intel if you look around. The Celeron SU2300 is a dual-core CPU based on the Core 2 architecture, with a 10W TDP. However, TDP isn't a real indication of power requirements, and in testing it appears most of the 10W CULV CPUs are able to match Atom CPUs (within a few hundred milliwatts) in low power states.
CULV laptops do cost more than Atom laptops, but if you're looking at an Atom-based laptop costing $400 or more, you'd be crazy not to take a closer look at the CULV options. Even the Celeron SU2300 (1.2GHz, 1MB shared cache) is more than a match for the fastest single-core Atom CPUs - in raw performance, it's about twice as fast. Dual-core Atom CPUs should match the slower CULV processors, but pricing is going to be a wash as well.
There are at present two CULV laptops that meet our $400 criterion: the Acer Aspire 1410 and the Gateway EC1435u. The differences between these two laptops are mostly cosmetic, so buy whichever you like. Similar to ION, you get an HDMI port, the CPU will provide substantially more performance, and the GMA 4500MHD graphics will help with video decoding (unlike the GMA 950). You also get two SO-DIMM slots and a standard 2GB RAM (but it's 2x1GB so you'll have to ditch the SO-DIMMs if you want to upgrade to 4GB). Battery life is quite similar to what we've measured with Atom netbooks, with over 7 hours out of a 53Wh battery.
If it weren't for the Celeron SU2300 laptops, NVIDIA's ION would be a lot more attractive. That said, Flash 10.1 still doesn't decode all HD videos without a few stutters on CULV + GMA 4500MHD; 720p is usually fine, but higher bitrate videos and 1080p stutter. It's very likely an issue with the Intel drivers and the Flash 10.1 beta, though, as DXVA allows flawless 1080p x264 playback on these systems. Flash 10.1 also appears to have some image quality issues right now, so we're waiting for the final release to see how things pan out.
Other Inexpensive Options
We'll mention these last, but you can often find sales and used laptops for under $400. As one example, the Gateway NV52 we reviewed a few months ago, originally priced at $500, has been on sale for $400 several times during the past few weeks. If you value raw performance over battery life, the dual-core AMD laptops with HD 3200 graphics are worth a look, especially if you can find them for $400.
Our opinion on used laptops isn't nearly so positive. Unless you know the seller personally, buying used represents a risk, and buying used from an online auction site like eBay could come back to haunt you. Assuming all goes well, you can get a 2-3 year old laptop offering better performance than most new $400 laptops, but it will have (substantially) worse battery life. You might also find that the battery has gone through enough cycles that it needs replacing, which could end up being another $100 cost. We're not going to say you should never buy used laptops, but we definitely recommend caution. As the saying goes: if a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Entry Level Laptops - $400 to $850
The next step up the pricing ladder opens up some additional possibilities, along with upgraded versions of the sub-$400 options. Some of the upgrades are more useful than others - more RAM or a larger hard drive is something you can add at any time to just about any laptop. A faster GPU, on the other hand, is something you either have for the life of a laptop or you don't. To date, no one has successfully implemented a laptop where you can upgrade the graphics as newer GPUs become available. Besides, even at $800 you shouldn't expect to get a good gaming laptop; you'll need to move to the next category for that.
Intel CULV Revisited
For us, by far the most interesting laptops in this price bracket are the many CULV offerings. With the additional pricing headroom, we are able to add quite a few options beyond the basic Celeron SU2300. Pentium SU4100 doubles the L2 cache to 2MB shared, with a 1.3GHz clock speed. The Core 2 SU7300 and SU9000 chips move to 3MB of shared cache; the SU7300 is clocked at 1.3GHz while the SU9300 is 1.2GHz, the SU9400 is 1.4GHz, and the SU9600 is 1.6GHz. These CPUs are faster than the SU2300, yes, but they do increase the cost of laptops quite a bit. Since the CPUs aren't upgradeable, however, getting a faster CPU may be a worthwhile investment.
Along with upgraded CPUs, CULV laptops are available in sizes ranging from 11.6" up to 15.6", with 13.3" and 14.0" models in between. Most of these laptops offer the same 1366x768 resolution, so it's a matter of getting a larger keyboard and pixels. The 14" and larger options also include optical drives on most models.
Storage and memory options also receive upgrades, with 3GB and 4GB RAM configurations and hard drive sizes ranging from 250GB to 500GB. Unless price considerations prevent it, we recommend 4GB models so you won't have to worry about memory upgrades. We also recommend trying to get a DDR3-based laptop rather than DDR2, since DDR3 uses less power (voltage) and thus improves battery life (all other areas being equal). Hard drives are all basically the same, unless you move to SSDs. If you want an SSD in place of a conventional HDD, consider adding the drive on your own after purchase - most vendors continue to charge a premium for factory installed SSDs, and if you're not careful you could get one of the less desirable SSDs where performance substantially degrades over time.
What CULV laptops do we like? We've got Acer Timeline 1810 and Gateway EC5409u reviews in the works (aluminum cover = yummy!), and both the Acer Timeline and Gateway EC lines are good options (provided you stick with dual-core models). We also have the Dell Inspiron 11z undergoing testing. The systems we've tested all meet the advertised battery life figures (6+ hours), albeit mostly in less demanding tests.
There's also the Lenovo U Series, which appears slightly more expensive but we know a lot of people who like the Lenovo aesthetic. You can pretty much choose any of these laptops based on features and price and you'll get a good long-battery-life laptop.
Our Favorite CULV Laptop
Another laptop we're reviewing is the ASUS UL80Vt. It improves upon the competition in a number of ways. First, ASUS allows CPU overclocking, taking the SU7300 from 1.30GHz up to 1.73GHz - a 33% overclock. This will reduce battery life by about 10% at most; it's 5% or less in more demanding tests, which is a fair trade.
The second big feature is that ASUS includes integrated GMA 4500MHD graphics as well as GeForce G210M discrete graphics, with the ability to switch between the two options on the fly (it takes about three seconds to turn off the discrete GPU and 15 seconds to turn it back on). The G210M isn't a high-performance gaming solution, but when combined with the overclocked SU7300 it will handle nearly any current title, albeit at lower detail settings.
Perhaps the biggest selling point of the UL80Vt is its stellar battery life, helped by an 83Wh battery. Running at stock CPU speed and using the integrated graphics, we have achieved idle battery life of up to 14 hours and Internet battery life of around 8.5 hours. Nothing else we've seen can come close to the flexibility and battery life.
The UL80Vt cost is quite a bit higher than competing solutions, and the laptop isn't "perfect". At just over $800, we feel that the poor contrast ratio (like most other laptops) could have easily been improved. The chassis build quality is also somewhat questionable, showing more flex and torque than we'd like, but it's not bad by any means. All of the other features make the UL80Vt a great laptop. Our full review is still in the works, but the UL80Vt has earned an Editors' Choice award and is currently our favorite laptop in the ~$800 price range.
Outside of sales - and there are many sales going on right now - laptops with AMD processors will mostly fall into this price bracket. The performance offered is good, though certainly there are faster laptops. One of the big selling points for AMD laptops is that they have good integrated graphics (ATI HD 3200) that can run many games, though usually only at low resolutions and detail settings. AMD-based laptops are really a question of priorities, and if you value performance and cost over battery life they are a very compelling option.
The latest AMD CPUs are now being built on a 45nm process and have architectures based off of K10 instead of the aging K8 design. All of these CPUs bear the Roman numeral "II" in their name, so look for the Turion II M500, Turion II Ultra M600, and Athlon II M300 CPUs. These CPUs should improve battery life and performance relative to older mobile Athlon/Turion designs, though it's unlikely they will be able to match Core 2 CPUs. Unfortunately, we're still trying to get a laptop for testing, so we can't provide a definitive answer at this time. We tried to find more information, but the best we could do is a note of "5 hours 15 minutes" with an HP dv7 at BestBuy - that's a 17.3" notebook with an 8-cell battery.
Ultimately, AMD-based laptops will typically cost around $100 less than Intel-based laptops with similar features, but they generally offer less battery life and performance. Given the features and performance available in the ASUS UL80Vt, we would recommend staying closer to the lower end of the price spectrum if you're looking at AMD laptops. The overclocked SU7300 CPU should offer close to the same performance as a ~2.0GHz AMD "II" CPU (i.e. the Athlon II M300/M320, slightly slower than the Turion II M500), and the G210M should offer about the same level of performance as the HD 3650/4570. You'd want a laptop with an HD 4650 or a GeForce G120M/G220M (9600M GT) and a Turion II Ultra (Pentium T4300) to surpass the UL80Vt performance, but there's still the topic of battery life.
The HP dv6z and dv7 are two of the few laptops that currently offer the latest AMD 45nm processors. With prices starting at $550 with the current $150 rebate - $630 with 4GB and a high capacity 6-cell battery - it's an interesting laptop but not our top recommendation. Depending on how much weight you place on battery life, graphics performance, and laptop size, you may disagree. In that case, have a look at the HP Pavilion dv6z (we're not sold on 17" laptops, so we'll pass on the dv7).
On the CPU side, Intel has had a clear lead over AMD since the launch of Core 2 several years back. In fact, on mobile solutions it would be difficult to suggest that AMD has ever enjoyed a lead over Intel. Ever since Banias in 2002, Pentium M and Centrino delivered what was arguably a better mobile solution for most users than anything AMD offered; Athlon 64 laptops in the Pentium 4 era were mostly of interest to the high performance crowd.
The CULV processors are great for battery life, but even the ASUS UL80Vt with its overclocked CPU doesn't offer nearly the performance available in other Core 2 mobile offerings. The Pentium T4300 (2.10GHz, 1MB cache) is very inexpensive and it should match most mobile AMD CPUs. Laptops start at around $500, but the GMA 4500MHD IGP is clearly inferior to ATI's HD 3200/4200. The P8400 and P8600 take clock speeds up to 2.26GHz and 2.40GHz, though you'll be hard-pressed to keep costs under $850 with such CPUs. If you want better gaming performance, look for a lower end Core 2 CPU with a discrete GPU or a better IGP like NVIDIA's 9400M.
Our favorite pick right now for Intel Core 2 laptops in this price bracket is the Dell Studio 14z. Maximum battery life is around six hours with the 8-cell battery, and the combination of Core 2 with the 9400M results in a good blend of performance. In gaming tests, the GeForce 9400M is around 50% faster than the ATI HD 3200, making it the current king of IGP solutions as far as performance is concerned. The base model Studio 14z comes with a Core 2 T6600 (2.2GHz, 2MB, 800FSB), 3GB DDR3, 250GB HDD, 1366x768 LCD, 56Wh battery, and Win7 Home Premium. $800 will get you the larger battery, and $850 will allow you to upgrade to the 1440x900 LCD - both upgrades are highly recommended.
While there are plenty of Atom-based offerings in this price range, we feel Atom is a much better fit at the lower end of the price spectrum, and we would recommend against spending more than $400 (perhaps $450) for such a laptop. Regular Core 2 laptops are more than three times as fast (even for the low end CPUs), and CULV laptops are still twice as fast while offering similar battery life. Atom is really about keeping costs as low as possible at the expense of performance, and we can't recommend such laptops in the high price segments. As mentioned already, we also place the VIA Nano laptop (Samsung NC20) in this same category; priced at over $500, there are just too many other compelling options.
If you want a viable Atom netbook for around $500, we'd recommend the Lenovo S12 with 2GB. It's around $520, but we didn't like the HP Mini touchpad or keyboard enough that we'd spend the extra on the IdeaPad S12. About the only thing it can do without difficulty that CULV systems struggle with is 1080p Flash video, but that's at least something.
Midrange $850 to $1150 Laptops
The higher end of the midrange spectrum starts to blend into the high-end market, so we're going to break the Midrange segment into two pieces. We'll start with the less expensive midrange options first. Many of these are merely upgraded versions of the last category - for example, take the Dell Studio 14z and add a P8700 CPU, an SSD, or a 4GB SO-DIMM (5GB total RAM). There's absolutely nothing wrong with such a system, though you do want to weigh the benefits of upgrades against their cost.
Entry Level Gaming
All of the laptops so far qualify as barely capable gaming solutions, at least compared to what you can get elsewhere. With up to $1100 to spend, getting a viable gaming GPU becomes a lot easier. We would recommend trying to keep CPU speed at 2.4GHz for AMD CPUs or 2.26GHz for Intel to avoid bottlenecks on the processor side of the equation, but for most games the GPU is a far bigger concern.
ATI's Radeon HD 4650 and NVIDIA's GeForce GTS 250M are similar in terms of gaming performance (we'd give the edge to NVIDIA, particularly with their mobile driver program), and while they pale in comparison to current desktop solutions like the HD 5850, they can run all current games at reasonable frame rates with some tweaking of the graphics settings. You can also find faster GPUs like the GeForce 9800M for around $1000. Just don't expect great battery life from anything sporting such a fast GPU - two to three hours is the most you're likely to get.
We looked at the MSI GT627 earlier this year, and for the price it's still interesting but it belongs in the next bracket. We really didn't care for the keyboard, though, and we haven't been able to test the other updated MSI gaming laptops to see if they're better. If you can test one in person or are willing to live with a "springy" keyboard, the MSI GT gaming laptops are certainly worth a look. We've looked at Toshiba's X305 as well, and for $1000 that would be our pick for a decent gaming laptop (provided you're okay with the size).
Gateway's P-7908u FX is another option, building on the past success of the FX line. It has similar components to the Toshiba mentioned above, but it upgrades the GPU to the GTX 260M, which is about 25% faster than the 9800M GTS on average, and it comes with a 500GB HDD for the extra $150. Both are more than capable of running current games, and 1440x900 LCDs fit well with these faster mobile GPUs.
Midrange Quad-Core Laptops
For gaming, quad-core CPUs still don't provide enough of a tangible benefit for us to recommend them over dual-core CPUs. On the other hand, anyone interested in video encoding/decoding or other CPU intensive tasks can benefit from a quad-core processor. With the launch of mobile Core i7, the Core 2 Quad CPUs are going the way of the dodo bird right now, so there may be some good deals if you look around. Q9000 systems offer roughly the same performance as i7-720QM systems in highly-threaded workloads, due to their clock speed advantage (2.0GHz vs. 1.6GHz on the i7-720QM), but the i7 CPUs are more flexible thanks to their Turbo modes.
None of the quad-core offerings are thin-and-light laptops; quite the opposite, in fact: most are going to be 17" (give or take) chassis. Looking on the Internet, we could only find a few Q9000 systems that cost under the $1150 limit we've imposed. The least expensive is $1000, listed at Frys.com, but it's "unavailable for Shipping (try in-store pickup)". If you can find one at a local Frys store, the HP dv7-2040us looks like a good deal. If you go straight to the source, the HP Pavilion dv7-2270us appears to be the same product, but with Windows 7 preinstalled and online availability. We just said that quad-core wasn't the best solution for gaming, but the dv7 includes an ATI HD 4650 GPU, which is good enough for most games at medium to high detail on the 1600x900 LCD. There's a $60 instant rebate right now, which drops the price to $1070, so if performance is a higher priority than size and battery life, give it a look.
The only other quad-core Q9000 alternative we could fine right now is the ASUS N61VN-A1, selling for $1100. It's a 16" chassis, but the LCD is only a 1366x768 panel - rather low for such a chassis. It comes with a GeForce GT 240M, which is slightly slower than the HD 4650. Battery life should top out at around 3 hours, according to online reviews.
Of course, Q9000 isn't the only option. We did find a few i7-720QM notebooks for under $1150. The first is probably your best bet in terms of price, the HP Pavilion dv6t 15.6" notebook. It comes with GeForce GT 230M graphics and a 1366x768 LCD. Battery life should be about 90-120 minutes depending on what you're doing (or twice that with the 12-cell battery upgrade), and $1000 is the cheapest price we could find for a Core i7 notebook. Lenovo has a competing notebook with similar specs, the IdeaPad Y550, priced at $1100. It bumps the GPU up to the GT 240M (only a small clock speed bump relative to the GT 230M) and comes with a 500GB HDD and 802.11n - about the same price as the HP dv6t if you add those items.
Any Good LCDs?
We went through our local Walmart, Best Buy, Costco, Target, and Office Max stores to look at the LCDs and build quality. There were enough options that we ultimately decided to forget about build quality (it's a bit too nebulous to assess in a few minutes) and focus on the LCDs. Over fifty laptops were examined, and we found one - yes, ONE! - laptop where the LCD was clearly better than a 300:1 contrast ratio. We were able to test any of the laptops to determine the exact contrast ratio or color accuracy, and there's always the chance that you'll get the same model laptop with a different LCD, but the sole LCD standout in the retail laptop comparison is the Sony VAIO VGN-SR520G/B. We'd guess the LCD we saw was at least a 750:1 contrast ratio, and the blacks were much darker than any of the surrounding laptops.
Not sure what the difference is or how to tell of a laptop you're considering has a high contrast ratio? Just walk over to the desktop LCDs and open up a sample image - the sample images on a standard Windows 7 installation will clearly show the difference. Desktop LCDs will still have better color accuracy and viewing angles (with a few exceptions), but contrast ratios below 500:1 should be immediately visible to the naked eye.
As far as the Sony VAIO VGN is concerned, the other specs are reasonable. You get a P8400 CPU, GMA 4500MHD graphics, 4GB DDR2, 500GB HDD, DVDRW, 802.11n, and a 13.3" 1280x800 LCD. We've also heard some complaints about the 16:9 aspect ratio LCDs, so some of you will undoubtedly be happy with this 16:10 display. Battery life is listed at 5.5 to 7.0 hours (closer to 5.5 for Internet surfing would be our guess), and the VAIO tips the scales at just 4.3 pounds. If you're looking for an alternative to the ASUS UL80Vt and you want a better LCD, this is the only laptop we could find that's worth consideration. What you end up doing is paying about $100 for a better LCD, which is a reasonable expense in our opinion.
Upper Midrange: $1150 to $1500
Naturally, you can add even more upgrades to many of the laptops mentioned so far to get them into this price range. If you purchased a laptop that doesn't get great battery life, you might consider adding a high capacity battery, or a second battery (or two) if you need to go untethered for a while. Batteries can be quite expensive, however, and the need to hibernate/resume when swapping batteries can be an annoyance.
The short summary of the upper midrange price segment is that you can get faster versions of midrange laptops. Where before you had to decide between either a faster GPU or a quad-core CPU, it's now possible to get both in a single system. You can also upgrade LCDs on some laptop models from large OEMs, like the Studio XPS 16 where the 1080p RGB LED LCD adds $250 to the price. If you want a good LCD, there's a lot to like with the Studio XPS 16 (and presumably any other RGB LED LCDs, though they're hard to find).
The big problem with laptops once you get into this price range is that many are unbalanced in one fashion. Ultra-fast CPUs with low-end GPUs are usually unnecessary, and in fact most laptop users rarely need the fastest CPU options. Adding $250 to move from a P8600 to a T9700 is a lot of money for a small increase in performance; a good SSD would almost certainly be a far more noticeable upgrade (albeit with less capacity). Let's talk about our two top recommendations for this price bracket, representing very different computing styles.
Another Good LCD
Dell has been doing some pretty nice sales during the holidays and the Dell Studio XPS 16 is currently going for $1049 ($309 instant savings). We'd add the 1080p RGB LED, HD 4670 GPU, and a 9-cell battery to get the price to $1444. At that point, you can decide if that's all you need or if you'd like an SSD, Blu-ray drive, a faster CPU, or perhaps a different color chassis - we like the white chassis, as the black casing is a fingerprint magnet. Some of the options obviously push the Studio XPS 16 into high-end territory, and without the rebate it's difficult to get a reasonably configured system for under $1500. For a good LCD, it's going to be difficult to beat this particular Dell (even if the contrast ratio is "only" 500:1).
Midrange Gaming II
If you're after raw performance, one of the best candidates we've tested is the ASUS G51J. It comes loaded with just about everything you could want, outside of battery life. The G51J uses the latest Core i7-720QM CPU, which provides four CPU cores with four additional virtual cores via Hyper-Threading. The standard clock speed of 1.6GHz is a limitation for heavily threaded tasks, but the Turbo modes allow single-threaded clock speeds of up to 2.8GHz. The net result is that it provides plenty of speed for most users and is plenty fast for gaming laptops that don't use multiple GPUs.
On the graphics side, ASUS includes a GeForce GTX 260M (similar to the 9800M GT but clocked faster). It's not as fast as desktop GTX 260 cards, but it's fast enough to run many games at the native 1920x1080 LCD resolution and high detail settings. Laptops with GTX 280M are about 20% faster in GPU limited situations, but they also cost several hundred dollars more - we'll discuss those options in the high-end category. The G51J also includes 4GB DDR3 memory and two 320GB 7200RPM hard drives (not in RAID by default). The LCD is a low contrast panel, and battery life maxes out at around 90 minutes (with a relatively small 53Wh battery), but those are the only complaints we have with the G51J. ASUS also has a "3D" model with NVIDIA's 3D VISION glasses and a 120Hz LCD, but the cost for that upgrade is an extra $250.
Really, if you're interested in an affordable gaming laptop, just try to find anything with (in order of decreasing performance) a GTX 260M, 9800M GTX/GT, 8800M GTX, GTS 260M, GTS 160M/9800M GTS (essentially the same thing), 9800M GS, GTS 250M, GTS 150M, or 8800M GTS. Yes, that's a completely confusing list, and that's just the NVIDIA side of things! All of those chips have at least 64 SPs and as many as 112 SPs (for the GTX 260M), with 256-bit memory interfaces. They can all handle 1280x800 at high detail, and 1440x900 for nearly all of the GPUs (with a few games causing problems). You'll want the 96 SPs or more to run 1680x1050 and 1080p resolutions.
On the ATI side, there are quite a few theoretical chips that we're waiting to see in actual laptops, and we're not sold on their mobile drivers. They've updated drivers a couple times with the Win7 launch, but it's not clear if that's the way of things to come or if that was just a short-term decision to get Win7 performance up to snuff. The fastest single-GPU ATI solution that we're aware of is the HD 4850 which shipped in the MSI GT725, but finding that laptop in stock anywhere is a crapshoot at best; performance would be competitive with the GTX 260M should you find one, but pricing is generally going to be above $1500. A rumored Mobility Radeon HD 5670 may come out at some point, but it's not shipping. In fact, the fastest shipping ATI solution that you can find for under $1500 is going to be the Mobility Radeon HD 4670, which has half as many stream processors (320) as the HD 4830. You can find this GPU in the Dell Studio XPS 16, which we already discussed.
High-End Laptops: $1500 and Up
At the top of the mobile price scale, we have laptops and notebooks that cost anywhere from $1500 to $5000 (or even more!), with components to match the prices. Most users spending this much money on a laptop are interested in one of three things: mobile gaming, mobile workstations, or "designer" laptops. We'll look at all three categories briefly.
The gaming and workstation crowds will want to start with reading our last High-end Laptop Roundup. That article will give you a good idea of what level of performance you can expect, and while all three notebooks in that article use Clevo chassis, switching to a different brand may improve aesthetics or features but likely won't change the performance picture.
If you want maximum gaming performance, for the time being you will be best served by a GTX 280M SLI configuration. There are two notebooks to choose from, both sporting similar features.
On the one hand, we have the Clevo M980NU (which we reviewed in the Eurocom M980NU Xcaliber). It supports Core 2 Duo/Quad/Extreme CPUs, and the minimum price for a 280M SLI setup is going to be around $2450; both AVADirect and Sager Notebooks have similar pricing, with a slight advantage to Sager (about $65 for a $2700 notebook). We chose a Core 2 Duo P9700, 2x2GB DDR3-1066, and a single 500GB 7200RPM HDD for our price comparison, with a price of $2779 from AVADirect and $2714 from Sager. If you prefer more detailed customization options, we'd recommend AVADirect over Sager simply by virtue of the number of options they give for each component.
The other option for a GTX 280M SLI notebook is the Alienware m17x. Some of you are probably thinking, "Oh, great… an expensive alternative from Alienware!" Well, you might be surprised by the pricing. We selected the same basic features as the M980NU but with a T9600 CPU (same clock speed as the P9700 but a higher TDP and $30 cheaper). We also upgraded from the default 1440x900 LCD to a 1920x1200 LCD. The final cost ended up at $2724, which is essentially a tie with the cheapest Clevo M980NU offerings. So the cost is the same, but let's discuss some differences.
For one, the m17x is a 17" chassis instead of an 18.4" chassis - though it's a large 17" chassis, so the difference isn't all that great. Some will like the 1920x1200 LCD instead of the 1920x1080 panel on the M980NU, though again they're pretty close. The biggest difference is in the aesthetics and a few extras on the Alienware. Aesthetics boil down to personal preference, but the m17x has zoned lighting that can be customized to your liking and we think it looks better. The bigger factor is that Alienware supports Hybrid GPUs, allowing you to switch off the GTX 280M SLI and run on the integrated 9400M. Battery life is still mediocre in comparison to other laptops, but we managed to get three hours from the m17x in a pinch. That particular setup used dual 7200 RPM HDDs and a Core 2 Extreme QX9300, running in Stealth mode (minimum CPU performance) with the 9400M. We also got two hours of Blu-ray playback using similar settings. That's not going to light the world on fire, but it's nice to be able to get more than an hour of battery life out of your $2500+ notebook.
Frankly, there's no reason that every gaming laptop shipped these days shouldn't support Hybrid GPUs with the ability to switch between discrete and integrated graphics. Typical gaming GPUs will consume at least 6 to 10W even at idle, which rapidly eats into battery life on a 6-cell or even 12-cell battery.
Other gaming options include laptops like the Clevo W860CU/W870CU (15.6" or 17" chassis, respectively). We looked at the Clevo W870CU and didn't care for the construction much, so we'd recommend going with the W860CU instead. You get the same basic features but with a smaller chassis, and you lose support for the second HDD.
What about ATI gaming laptops? First, the Alienware m17x also supports HD 4870X2 CrossFire, which is one option. Our testing of the ASUS W90Vp suggests that the GTX 280M SLI is faster, however, and NVIDIA's mobile driver program is definitely an advantage, so we can't see spending $100 extra to get 4870X2 over an SLI setup. A more interesting alternative is the HP Envy 15, which comes with the HD 4830. Performance of the GPU is going to be lower than the GTX 260M by virtue of the fact the 4830 uses a 128-bit interface, but the Envy 15 does look quite nice. A base configuration with i7-720QM will run $1800.
If you're looking for a truly powerful mobile workstation, there's really nothing else that can match the CPU power offered in the Clevo D900F. It will accept the fastest desktop Core i7 Bloomfield processors, giving you up to 3.33GHz of steady number crunching prowess. The D900F is a beast, weighing nearly 15 pounds and delivering an hour of battery life, but as a transportable workstation it will outperform any mobile CPU by a significant margin. Companies like Eurocom even support up to 24GB of memory if you need lots of RAM for a mobile server.
If you're looking for something less bulky, Dell's Precision M6400 is very nice and even has (or at least had?) a matte LCD option. The M6500 is the new Core i7 version of the M6400, with a higher base price. Both models have four SO-DIMM slots and support up to 16GB of RAM, or 8GB via four SO-DIMMs without breaking the bank. These notebooks are truly intended for workstation use, though, as they come with either NVIDIA Quadro or ATI FirePro GPUs, and they have a 3-year warranty standard.
If you're more interested in aesthetics than performance, look at the HP Envy and Dell Adamo laptops. We've already mentioned the HP Envy 15 as a gaming option, so we'll confine our discussions here to the Envy 13. Also note that the base model Adamo actually comes in at $1500, but any upgrades will bump you into the "high-end" territory.
At their core, Adamo laptops (including the XPS) are essentially CULV designs, but with an emphasis on being thin. The standard Adamo laptops ship with Core 2 SU9400 CPUs (1.4GHz, 3MB L2, 800FSB) - it's marginally faster than the Pentium SU4300 found in significantly less expensive laptops. Adamo battery life is listed as 5+ hours with a 40Wh battery. The Adamo XPS is a more exotic design with a fold-down keyboard, and it comes with a 128GB SSD and a 4GB DDR3 SO-DIMM with a starting price of $1800. The newer Adamo is available in black (onyx) or white (pearl), and it's available in two basic configurations. The $1500 "Admire" model has the same SU9400 and a 128GB SSD, but it ships with 2GB DDR3. The $2300 "Desire" ups the ante significantly, with 4GB DDR3, a 256GB SSD, and a Core 2 SL9600 CPU (2.13 GHz, 6M L2, 1066FSB). The SL9600 is a 17W TDP vs. 10W TDP for the SU9400, so battery life may also be slightly lower in that configuration.
The HP Envy 13 is similar in many ways, but with a bit more in the way of customization options as well as some higher performance accessories; specifically, HP includes a discrete ATI HD 4330 GPU on all Envy 13 models - good for graphics performance, but bad for battery life, but thankfully it's disabled and you use the IGP by default when unplugged. You can get the Envy 13 with SL9400, SL9600, or SU9600 CPUs (the latter two add $100 each, with the SU9600 actually providing the lowest performance but best power characteristics). Envy comes with 1GB DDR3 soldered on the motherboard and either 2GB or 4GB in the SO-DIMM slot. For the hard drive, HP lets users choose between a standard 250GB 5400RPM HDD, or you can upgrade to a 160GB SSD. That means unlike the Adamo, you're actually getting what we consider to be the best current SSD. HP also gives you a choice between a 13.1" 1366x768 LCD panel, or a 1600x900 panel for $100 more. Last, we'd look at adding the extra capacity 6-cell battery (which you can only get by purchasing the standard 4-cell with the 6-cell).
All told, the Envy 13 with the upgrades listed above will price out to $2475 ($2350 without the extra battery), and in terms of specs it looks to be better than the Dell Adamo. Having used neither one in person, we can't say which has the better feel, but there are numerous complaints about the Envy 13 touchpad and we recommend caution before taking the plunge. Honestly, while both laptops look nice, we'd still recommend saving a bundle of money and dropping down to something a little less stylish and a lot more affordable - any of the CULV laptops we mentioned earlier should suffice.
What about Apple?
You might have noticed that we haven't said a word about Apple so far. There are enough fans that we felt a more thorough overview was warranted. Apple MacBooks fall into either the midrange or high-end categories, though it can be difficult to stomach the cost of the more expensive MacBook Pro models. Here's the rundown.
The Apple MacBook line becomes an option with $1000 to spend, though you're limited to the base model MacBook. It comes with a Core 2 Duo 2.26GHz, 3MB L2, 1066FSB CPU (presumably the P8400), GeForce 9400M IGP, 802.11n, Bluetooth, a 1280x800 LCD, 250GB hard drive, 2GB DDR3 (standard), and OS X. We'd go ahead and grab the 4GB memory upgrade as well, which bumps the price up to $1100. If you're not interested in Mac OS X, we'd skip Apple in general, but many people have made the switch and have no regrets.
Apple MacBook Pro
We have already done significant coverage of the latest MacBook Pro offerings. The short summary is you can get good performance and great battery life in an attractive chassis. As Anand puts it, most of the decision has been distilled down to choosing your LCD/chassis size… most, but not all.
The Apple MacBook Pro 13" model starts at $1200 (less if you don't go through the Apple store - see below). It's nicer than the $1000 MacBook, but you're still going to need to answer the question of whether you want to switch to OS X or not. If you're not looking to leave the MS Windows camp, we don't see much point in buying a Mac. 2.26GHz CPU, 2GB DDR3, and a 9400M IGP, all for just $1200. You can get a Dell Studio 14z with a faster CPU, the 900p LCD, a 3-year warranty, and an 8-cell battery for about the same price, or stick with a 2.2GHz CPU, 768p LCD, and 1-year warranty (but keep the 8-cell battery!) for $914. The Mac looks nicer, and it will deliver better battery life when running OS X, but by no means is it competitive in terms of pricing.
The base 15" model "forces" an upgrade from the 2.26GHz to a 2.53GHz CPU and from 2GB to 4GB memory. Beyond those upgrades, Apple charges a $200 price premium for the 15" model, part of which goes to the 1440x900 LCD and larger battery. This is the opposite of most PC laptops, where smaller laptops are usually more expensive (provided components are the same), since it takes more effort to cram the same amount of "stuff" into a smaller chassis. The 15" model also offers a $50 upsell to a matte LCD… highly recommended!
The move from the 15" to the 17" comes with a similar premium and required upgrades. You get a minimum 2.8GHz CPU, 9400M IGP + 9600M GT graphics, and a 500GB hard drive. There's another $200 charge for the larger MBP, which includes a higher resolution 1920x1200 LCD and battery upgrades. An anti-glare (matte) LCD is again available… too bad we can't add one of those to the 13" model.
While many people look to Apple when buying a MacBook, if you don't need to customize you can save about $50, and many merchants are currently offering up to $150 mail-in rebates. The base 13" MBP is available for $1050 after $100 rebate, and the upgraded 13" goes for $1300 after $130 rebate. 15" stock configuration MacBook Pros are available for $1500 ($130 rebate), $1750 ($150 rebate), and $2000 ($150 rebate). Finally, you can get the 17" MBP for $2200 ($150 rebate). The only drawback is that none of these offers will get you the matte LCD… so you're really looking at a $200 cost to upgrade to the matte LCD, which is a bit much for most users.
Lots of Options
There are so many options out there that even with 9000+ words, I feel like I've glossed over many areas. You can see that our focus has tended towards laptops we've had hands-on time with, but we looked at pricing from online vendors like Newegg, Buy.com, and others to try and flesh things out. Even with those efforts, we have undoubtedly missed some great laptops. What we've tried to do is to give you a good idea of the features and performance you can expect with a variety of components.
Grab an Atom netbook and you'll get Atom performance and battery life; the same goes for CULV designs, but there's a huge difference in pricing based on aesthetics and how thin a particular model happens to be. For the higher end options, most users are looking for either better GPUs or better CPUs, or a good SSD. SSDs can be added to pretty much anything with a noticeable boost to performance when you launch applications, which is nice, but even the fastest SSD won't help you improve frame rates on a slow GPU, and it won't magically cause an Atom CPU to crunch numbers faster.
Simply put, there are a ton of laptop options. We've mentioned Acer, ASUS, Dell, HP, Gateway, Lenovo, and a few other brands where they looked interesting. Still, we have certainly missed some potentially interesting laptops. Take a quick look at the Lenovo ThinkPads and you'll see how many models there are.
Sony has a lot of options as well, with prices that are typically higher than the competition. We mentioned the one VAIO as being the sole high contrast LCD we could find at local retail stores, but that doesn't mean all VAIO laptops have good LCDs – most were just as bad as the other laptops we looked at. Sony also has some odd limitations with how you configure your laptop, like allowing different colors only if you upgrade the CPU and/or GPU on some models. Weird. Still, Sony has some laptops that come very close to the level of Apple design, if that's your thing.
We could spend another couple weeks looking at all the interesting laptops from various vendors, and that's all without running a single benchmark. It you've ever shopped for laptops and felt overwhelmed, we feel your pain. Whether you simply want long battery life or you're after the ultimate in portable performance, we hope we've given you some ideas of what to look for with this Mobile Buyers' Guide.
Open Mic Night
We know we talked about reviews of several laptops in the past month, and those are still coming, but we wanted to detour for a bit to look at the big picture of what's available and how much it will typically cost. With the stage set, we're going to shut up and let you do the talking. Do you have a favorite laptop? Sound off in the comments and let us know. The mic is now yours, so let us hear your input.