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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  • MedX91 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Fortunately AT does focus on other rigs than mainstream ones. Just got totally frustrated with a 1400$-Machine from Dell (Latitude 6410) which is poorly assembled, with grabs on the display and other lapsi as well. Never ever again.
  • mele - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    While I realize that things like design and looks are very subjective. I can't help but find almost all of the mentioned laptops downright ugly. Some are not that bad, but if Im spending a 1000 or more dollar on a piece of machinery I want it to look and feel good too.

    Below are just a few things I'd like manufacturers to pay more attention to:
    - Plastic usually feels cheap.
    - A form factor that does justice to the term portable (and yes, even a 15 or 17 inch laptop, doesn't have to feel chunky)
    - Already mentioned above - Screen quality does matter!
    - Battery life - while I personally don't need 10 or even 14 hours, it's ridiculous that many average performing laptops still can't top 2,5-3 hours while in use.
    - You shouldn't have to struggle to work with a trackpad.
    - Hinges shouldn't break or crack while they do the thing there are made for...
    - Be conservative when putting in (blinking) lights. They should never be a distraction.
    - in case of doubt: simplicity usually gets the job done!

    I have high hopes for the new Envy 14, as it might be one of the first laptops that combine Macbook good looks with powerful components for an attractive price. I just wish more manufactures would care about their design. The outside of the laptop should be more than just the box you put stuff in.
  • Dustin Sklavos - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I don't totally disagree and it seems like a lot of changes in the industry have almost nothing to do with customer feedback (16:9 aspect displays, I'm looking at you).

    I do take issue with expecting amazing battery life out of an 8 pound land monster, though. About the only really powerful machine I know of that gets good battery life is the Dell Studio 17; with the 9-cell battery it pushes more than four hours. This is the exception, not the rule.

    And frankly, if you're going to be spending up on a performance laptop, you need to weigh costs of components, etc. The notebook market is nicely cutthroat; many manufacturers hit their low prices by using cheaper shells and they do have to cut some corners. If you want great battery life, great portability, and great looks, expect to pay for it with a business-class notebook. Prices generally really are where they ought to be for what you get.
  • mele - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I think that perhaps I wasn't clear enough. Please allow me to clarify.
    I have no trouble with high performance, or otherwise beast-like machines having a battery life of 30 minutes or on the other side of the spectrum, machines with 10+ hours of battery life that perform like a high-end smartphone. However I do feel that the balance between battery life and performance is off. It feels like the middle segment performance wise is nowhere near the middle in battery life. All I'm saying is that between 3.5 and 5 hours of battery life (which is not like, outrageous imo) on a middle off the road laptop should be much more common than it is now.

    As for the other part. Of course I realize that great battery life, great portability and great looks are gonna cost more. Combine it with good performance and you're going to have to fork over a boatload of money. That's the fine. However, I do feel, as with performance vs. battery life, that the balance between specifications and other important qualities of a laptop (like design, chunky-ness, built quality etc..) is off.

    It is in my experience these qualities get more value to people over laptop purchases (time), since they just didn't realize the 'other stuff' is important too.
  • GSJ - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    This notebook was mentioned in the U30jc article. Google search does confirm the existence of such a notebook. Some Asus articles from Taiwan mentions it's spec.

    It is basically same as K42J mentioned in this article but with USB 3.0 and non-glossy finish.

    Any info on when this notebook will be launched in US.
  • Axbattler - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    It would have been useful to include the weight of the various laptop mentioned. Granted that at 14, and especially 15" and beyond, weight might be secondary to some. However, the lighter 14" can also be not too far from the heavier 13", which I consider quite ideal for frequent travels, while more likely to have better GFX cards.

    Another thing that would be nice to mention is connectivity. ExpressCard and FireWire aside, the presence of eSATA is handy, especially if it is going to act as desktop replacement. While they are getting more common, they still can't be taken for granted.
  • fabarati - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    My mother was in the market for a new laptop, 15"-ish, with HDMI. Basic performance, etc. After much looking, I settled for the then brand new, not reviewed yet Dell Vostro 3500. I went for what was the cheapest one, with a core i3-330m and igp. Only extra was changing the colour to red. It turned out to be a really good laptop. And cheap too!
  • teohhanhui - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I ordered the Dell Vostro 3400 (red as well). Can't wait for it to arrive.
  • jgrunhut - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I'm on my second Vostro 3400. Absolutely love it, except for an irritating fan noise issue (still waiting to be fixed via a simple BIOS update).

    One of the cheapest thinnish (<1.2 in) laptops I have seen to date (only paid $619 CDN for i3 350, 3 GB RAM, 320 GB HD, intel Core graphics).

    It would be great if Anandtech could review one of the new Vostro 3000 series laptops... especially if you could use your muscle to get Dell to hurry up and fix this fan issue ;)
  • fokka - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    so was my mother in law, ordered her the cheapest vostro 3300 with 3 years warranty. great little sucker.

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