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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  • hko45 - Friday, July 2, 2010 - link

    So this has boiled down to Nvidia vs ATI.

    My decision tree: Need multiple monitors at home site coming off of identical ports. As far as I could tell, Dell's E-Port Plus is the only reasonably priced docking station that does this. This leaves me with Latitude or Precision laptops. Having had PhotoShop complain about insufficient RAM when I tried to stitch together five large NEF images (and knowing that PP will use all the RAM you will give it), the M6500 seemed to be the best choice. While its not clear that PP takes full advantage of multiple cores (now) like Premiere does, a future-proofed i7 quad processor fits in quite nicely. So my choice is the M6500, and it only offers FX Quadro cards. As for PP only using OpenGL, I'm willing to bet that Premiere's use of CUDA will trickle down to other members of the Creative Suite--certainly within the three year time frame I'm using to drive my purchase decisions, if not by CS6.
  • aylafan - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    You forgot to mention that the Acer Aspire TimelineX 4820TG 14" laptop is available in the US right now. It's one of the most anticipated laptops besides the Envy 14. A great mix between performance and battery life.

    The one out right now has a Core i3 350M, ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650, 4GB DDR3, 320GB harddrive, optical drive, etc.

    Black brushed aluminium lid, 6-8 hours of battery life, less than 1" thin, weighs 4.65 pounds & it has switchable graphics (HD 5650 + Intel GMA).

    All this for just the price of $799.
  • geek4life!! - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I went to my local Best Buy today to look at the 13.3 inch screen sizes as I was thinking about the Asus U30Jc but that screen is too small for me. I found the 14 inch to be a great balance between size and portability. With that said I look forward to more reviews and hopefully that refresh will arrive for the back to school season.
  • aylafan - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    You should look at the Asus UL80JC at Best Buy. It's a 14" laptop and it costs only $699. Core i3 & switchable graphics.
  • aylafan - Wednesday, June 30, 2010 - link

    I meant UL80J. I was confusing the name with the U30JC
  • geek4life!! - Thursday, July 1, 2010 - link

    Thanks I will definitely check it out!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • numberoneoppa - Thursday, July 1, 2010 - link

    Can somebody please tell me why 14" thinkpads were not included in this article? They are by far the most iconic 14" laptop.
  • dumpsterj - Thursday, July 1, 2010 - link

    I actually placed an order for an alienware m11x just a couple days ago (interest free for a year) . My asus F3SV has been a great companion for almost 3 or 4 years now but its 8600gs is having a hard time with bad company 2. I decided to replace both my netbook and laptop with one and the m11x seems to fit the bill. Cant wait to get it (07/15)
  • Shadowmaster625 - Thursday, July 1, 2010 - link

    Can you guys do some testing of notebook IGP performance with single and dual channel memory configurations? Also, could you shed some light on these 3GB AMD configurations. (Do they run in dual channel mode?)
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, July 1, 2010 - link

    The last AMD laptop we looked at with 3GB (Acer Ferrari One) did not run in dual-channel, but that was a Congo platform. Unfortunately (or fortunately I suppose) I don't have any 1GB SO-DIMMs around anymore, and all the laptops pretty much come with 4GB now. It would be interesting to see if the new Danube/Nile platforms with DDR3 are able to do dual-channel even with uneven memory sizes, though. Intel can do that but AMD hasn't allowed it for whatever reason. I don't think the difference will be more than 5~10% but without testing, who knows for sure?

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