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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  • jazzisjazz - Thursday, July 1, 2010 - link

    Just a day or two ago I was asked for a recommendation for a truly budget notebook <5-600 out the door.
    I saw the title of the article and thought I had hit the jackpot. Nope. Where can I truly find information that doesn't cater to the larger pocketbook but spies out the manufacturer(s) and model(s) that are offering just that little bit more in quality, performance, reliability, and maybe even design so that I know I have done the best by my hard earned dollars, few though they may be. I went to the guide section and checked out the December article and there was a little more information there including a cautionary reference to buying used. I think it says something about the quality of the review that a portion of the folks who could really use an article that considers the full range of budgets will find better information in a hot deals buyer's thread than at the premiere online pc/tech site. I'm just sayin.........
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, July 2, 2010 - link

    The problem is that spending between 5-600, you just aren't gonna get much notebook. Just about everything there is gonna be running off of integrated graphics (the cheapest machine I found on NewEgg that had dedicated hardware was a Toshiba with a Mobility Radeon HD 5145, basically a Mobility Radeon HD 4530, at about $660.)

    I'd say in that market it's really going to be a crapshoot in terms of reliability, and the picks in our guide often push the budget as low as it will go while still offering decent performance. Go cheap and you'll often get what you pay for, and you may wind up having to get another machine a lot sooner than you would have if you'd spent up a bit for something decent; even if it doesn't break down, the performance is going to be pretty anemic.

    Now, ALL THAT SAID, I do like Toshiba and HP if you're working a very low budget, and in those circumstances I am 100% an AMD man. You're not going to get good battery life, but AMD offers great performance on the cheap and the best integrated graphics in the business (outside of the more expensive IGPs Nvidia sells in isolated cases). An Athlon II or Turion II is bound to serve you pretty well. I'd personally avoid Intel chips in this bracket; they're all going to be running Intel's last generation technology, and AMD hardware will likely be much more competitive clock-for-clock against the cut-down Intel hardware you're apt to find.
  • jazzisjazz - Tuesday, July 6, 2010 - link

    What you regard as a problem I see as a self set reasonable limit.

    I'm not asking you to somehow magically make something available at my price point but rather to thoughtfully evaluate whatever is available.

    I don't buy your argument about a crap shoot in quality because I do believe that you could provide useful information about reliability.

    I say that because my neice was unfortunate enough to buy one of the hp laptops with the nvidia chipset/graphics problems of a few years ago which turned out to be @$750 wasted on a company that despite it's great history has declined to the point that it wouldn't do right by its customers.

    While I keep a HP deskjet 722c printer in operation for when my and everyone elses "new" printer goes on the blink, I can not see ever buying an HP PC ever again, under any circumstance.

    Perhaps the article was a missed opportunity to suggest that manufacturer's put out something with an unimportant feature or two less, a total lack of flash but a solid build and clean look, that just plain works well and reliably. Novel idea Huh?

    As long as it runs the software I need in a manner that is acceptable to me,
    the best for what I have decided to pay, your calling it anemic won't bother me at all. I'd still like for you to provide the information. That's why I come to this site.

    At least your response has provided information sorely missing from the original article. Thanks for responding to my post.
  • EddieBoy - Saturday, July 3, 2010 - link

    HEY! I am typing this on a Dell E1505. It may be an "eyesore" (I'll admit that) but it has been a workhorse for me for several years. And it runs Windows 7 just fine.
  • Bron5 - Sunday, July 4, 2010 - link

    I highly recommend the MSI GE600 in the budget gamer category - would love to see your impressions of it. Switchable graphics works flawlessly and it has the nicely matched ATI 5730 card (perfect for the 1366x768 rez). Runs very quietly in normal use, slight whoosh when gaming, but much quieter than most. Very compact for a 16" unit. Runs cool and is a nice looking rig. Typical screen is nothing to write home about, but adequate. i5-430m processor is fine for gaming and the laptop has better than average sound as well. Games sound great when you activate the built in woofer (using the CinemaPro switch). Great presence and soundstage. Currently selling for $899, it plays all current games well on medium or high settings (most on high), the 5730 supports DX-11, the ports are nicely located and overall design is good.

    I was considering the GX640, but went with the GE600 for the switchable gfx and cooler, quieter operation. Had mine about 3 weeks and very happy with it.
  • Akv - Monday, July 5, 2010 - link

    Maybe I have not read everything correctly, but I would have preferred more insistence on heat and noise production.

    For my use (of a laptop) those presented here all reach a sufficient level of performance and equipment. For gaming and video editing and such I have a large tower with a large screen, and it wouldn't occur to me to do heavy work on a laptop.

    Maybe some article on 15" and 15" laptops with i3 and Intel graphics, or other ULV solutions, would be useful. Kind of for those who want ultra low noise and ultra low heat like in a netbook, but still with a decent screen to do office work and watch a few movies when traveling.
  • 5150Joker - Monday, July 12, 2010 - link

    Asus G73 has:

    1. GSOD issues
    2. Failing 5870s
    3. Proprietary MXM slot and card (probably why it fails so much)
    4. Cheap build quality
    5. Terrible mail in service warranty
    6. Missing keystroke issue (must disable the touchpad in the bios to fix it)
    7. no eSata and other ports

    Yeah you get a lot for the money but at the cost of quality in a big way. You get what you pay for with DTRs.

    Now with an M17x-R2, especially if you look for EPP discounts, coupon codes or use the Dell Outlet you can get a slightly more expensive M17x-R2 with the following:

    1. Aluminum chasis/lid, best build quality of any DTR.
    2. Triple fan/heatsink cooling
    3. RGB LED Display with >100% color gamut
    4. Option of dual ATi 5870s in Crossfire
    5. Alien FX lighting
    6. Dell next business day home service
    7. True full sized keyboard
    8. More ports/eSata etc
    9. Standard MXM 3.0b support (no proprietary garbage)

    Anandtech of course leaves all those little bits out and pimps such a fail laptop from Asus.
  • Yasha613 - Monday, July 12, 2010 - link

    Can someone explain to me why x1080 or x900 is a SELLING point for a DTR? It's difficult to even find a decent one at 17, and I don't see any that new ones that hit 1920x1200 anymore.

    I've had my Dell XPS 1710 since inception. I had thought by the time I'd really be thinking about upgrading or worrying about it dieing all together from 24x7 on use that I could get a 19'+ DTR that would kick it's arse, be half the weight, and be at x1600. W....T.....F?

    Am I alone in my disappointment? I'd actually like to upgrade so I can play some modern games at a decent frame-rate, get a chipset that is 64bit of course, and reap the other benefits of an overall modern laptop rig, but it seems the main interface is going backwards..
  • Ryes - Tuesday, July 13, 2010 - link

    How long does the k42jv battery last for?

    Also I do see that Optimus might be available http://www.thinkdigit.com/FCKeditor/uploads/19-2.j...
  • Alexo - Thursday, July 15, 2010 - link

    "Vivek will have a separate ultraportable guide up next week, with a focus on smaller sized laptops with better battery life."

    A week has passed. And another one...
    Is there an ETA on the ultraportable guide?

    I'm looking to get a 13" with decent performance and good battery life and I'd love to see comaprative reviews of new models, such as the Asus UL30JT (or better, PL30JT with a matte screen) or the Acer TimelineX 3820tg


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