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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  • ericgl21 - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Eventhough those Precision models are on the expensive side, they are considered well-built and powerful machines.

    I wonder why Anand "forgot" about those...
  • Silma - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Recommending untested products is unprofessional and a joke.
  • sheltem - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Phenomenal laptop but a little pricey, but I was able to swing one for $1861 after discounts. Not a single bit of gloss anywhere, even on the screen. Also has firewire and a expresscard 54 slot that the reviewer was jonesing for :) If you opt for the FirePro 7820, which is the professional version of the Mobility 5870, you can drive up to 4 displays, including the laptop! Tomshardware has a picture here:

    They have a premium panel option called Dream Color 2. It's a 10-bit IPS panel. I opted for the standard 1920x1200 panel which is a 8-bit TN panel.
  • Drag0nFire - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Surprised Lenovo wasn't given any consideration, particularly for the "portability" category. This seems like an oversight. It may not be your personal favorite (and what they did to the screens is a pity), but many people stand by the build quality and overall ThinkPad design. I've never yet met someone who's unhappy about a ThinkPad... and I can say all my friends were jealous of mine in college.
  • racerx_is_alive - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Copied and pasted a few of the winners and suggestions into google, but there were a few that didn't turn up any reasonable responses. Searched amazon and newegg as well, hoping that perhaps some of the recommendations were product families and they'd give me related results. Perhaps the reviewer could include some links to where these laptops can be purchased?
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    All of these should be readily available... we've reviewed many of them. Which ones are you unable to find? I may go back through and try to dig up links, though....
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Or not... it seems Acer has quietly discontinued the 5740G-6979 and replaced it with a much slower HD 5470 model. The 7740G with HD 5650 is still readily available, but it's 17.3" instead of 15.6".

    A few other options for moderate gaming:
    MSI GE600 (i5-430M + HD 5650) for $860:

    Sony VAIO VPCEB1PFX/B (i3-330M + HD 5650) for $920:

    Toshiba A665D-S6059 (Phenom II P920 + HD4250/5650) for $860 (review is coming next week):

    ASUS G51JX-X1/X3 (i5-430M/i7-720QM + GTS 360M) for ~$1100:

    I'm putting in links for the remaining laptops, though.
  • racerx_is_alive - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    Thanks for putting in those links- The two that I had problems searching for were the Acer one you mentioned, and the ASUS at the beginning. I had searched for the text straight from the heading "ASUS K42J" (without quotes) and it didn't give me anything promising on the first page, mostly a bunch of forums. The link is great though.

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

    The K42J is on NewEgg's site:

    It looks like it has a low rating, but one of the users is mostly just griping about functionality that the majority of modern notebooks don't have (he's upset the graphics aren't switchable in the BIOS, which is absurd).
  • bji - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    As time goes on I realize that my dream of ever finding a laptop to better my Panasonic Y2 from 2005 are never going to come to fruition. Because in order to beat the Y2, someone is going to have to offer a laptop that:

    - Has a 14 inch or larger display with a resolution *at least* 1400x1050
    - Weighs no more than 3.5 lbs
    - Is fanless

    I think that with today's tech this is certainly possible; ultra low power Core 2 processors match the power consumption of the Pentium M in the Y2 and should be able to go fanless. Displays are better now than back in 2005 so there's no reason that a 1400x1050 14 inch display is not possible (of course these days it would probably have to be widescreen, but there is no reason that it has to have fewer pixels! 1366x768? That's just pathetic!). And Panasonic already proved that you can build such a machine at 3 lbs 4 oz five years ago. That's 3 lbs 4 ounces including a built-in DVD player/CD-RW drive and a battery big enough for 5+ hours battery life.

    Yes, Panasonic did all that (and more!) in 2005, and I have yet to see any laptop in the last 5 years that even comes close. Things seem to just be getting worse with ever new laptop seemingly heavier than the last, with more cheap plastic than ever, lower resolutions, and OH LOOK SHINY displays.

    I would gladly plunk down another $2,500 for a laptop that was a reasonable update to the Y2. I use my laptops for 5 years at least (still use the Y2 daily) so I don't think that cost is unjustified for a quality product. Unfortunately, in these days when nobody wants to pay more than $1,000 for a laptop, I suspect I may be the last person on earth in this market and no company is ever going to offer any laptop that is actually better than the Y2. So sad.

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