Test Drive: Gateway 600X Notebook

By Eric Grevstad

Probably seen ads from multifunction printer/scanner vendors that offer “convenience copying,” with “convenience” being a euphemism for “no match for a real copier for everyday use, but OK if you need a copy occasionally.” Lately, laptop vendors have been pitching something similar called “casual mobility” – a market segment for computers that aren’t so much portable as transportable.

These powerful desktop replacements are too big and brief-battery-lived to make sense for business travelers, but can be lugged home for the weekend, or from office to conference room for a presentation. Like mammoth SUVs that are almost never driven off road, they’re notebooks that are only unplugged or moved once or twice a week. And Gateway has an attractive, under-$2,500 example in its 600X – or, as we dubbed it when opening the box, “The Iron Giant.”

Supersize Me
Unlike many entries in the casual-mobility class, the 600X uses a true portable instead of desktop CPU – Intel’s mobile Pentium 4, running at 1.7GHz in our test unit. And its lithium-ion battery pack provides presentation or commuter-train if not DVD-feature or transcontinental-flight cordless life: We averaged a tolerable two hours and 20 minutes’ work before power ran out.

But your first impression of the Gateway isn’t about gigahertz or watts, it’s that the thing is huge – an 11.5 by 13.9 by 1.8-inch silver slab weighing 8.7 pounds. Last month we called the WinBook J4 a bruiser, but the 600X is bigger still.

The keyboard seems an island in a sea of plastic. The laptop is almost too heavy to use in your lap — we sometimes lean back, cross our legs, and balance a notebook on one thigh, but the crushing bulk of the 600X makes that next to impossible. Cram the computer and its 0.8-pound AC adapter into your briefcase, and you won’t have room (or strength) to carry more than a few papers as well.

What could make such a schlep worthwhile? Sure, 1.7GHz of desktop-class Pentium 4 power, 256MB of DDR memory, a 40GB hard disk, and a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive are nice, but available in trimmer, lighter laptops. The 600X has first-class connectivity features, from integrated 802.11b wireless networking to FireWire and S/PDIF ports, but ditto.

But smaller notebooks – even almost-as-big notebooks – can’t match the 600X’s desktop-quality display, a 15.7-inch active-matrix screen that’s barely smaller than a 17-inch CRT monitor. To our knowledge, that’s second among laptops only to the 16.1-inch screen of Sony’s equally gigantic Vaio GRX – and while Sony squeezes in 1,600 by 1,200 pixels, Gateway opts for 1,280 by 1,024 resolution.

This permits a much lower price, and doesn’t make you squint at the tiny menu text or toolbar icons often seen with high-resolution LCDs (or fuss with Windows settings to resize them). But while Gateway’s SXGA is a step up from routine XGA (1,024 by 768), many smaller-screened notebooks offer higher resolution; we think power users might appreciate at least an optional model with, say, 1,400 by 1,050 viewing.

That said, the 600X’s is perhaps the most gorgeous laptop screen we’ve seen – sharp and bright (a default setting dims the backlight on battery power, but we found turning the brightness up only two-thirds of the way was ample), with no bad pixels and snappy response for DVD-watching. It’s backed by ATI’s popular 64MB DDR Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics controller, with plenty of options for TV-out or simultaneous presentations, but this is one laptop that everyone around the conference table can see clearly.

The CRT-replacement screen is clearly the Gateway’s main attraction, but there’s plenty of desktop-replacement power and storage on tap, too – even though we were briefly puzzled by our test unit’s aggressive Intel SpeedStep power-saving settings, which according to our diagnostic utilities seemed eager to downshift the mobile Pentium 4 from 1.7GHz to 1.2GHz at the slightest pause in program activity, even when running on AC power, even after selecting “Maximum Performance” in the BIOS setup screens.

Tech support told us this was normal behavior, and the system indeed sped through our benchmark tests as quickly as other 1.7GHz systems we’ve tried: The 40GB IBM Travelstar IC25N040 hard disk posted a sluggish MadOnion.com PCMark 2002 score of 271, but the system’s CPU score of 4,070 and memory score of 3,741 virtually tie Toshiba’s Pentium 4-M/1.7 Satellite 5105 (or a desktop AMD Athlon XP 1600+).

And the 600X sizzled through BAPco’s SysMark 2002 with an overall score of 149, balancing a solid 105 in Office Productivity with a kick-butt 211 in Internet Content Creation. That edges ahead of Gateway’s 300X desktop, which uses Intel’s new 1.7GHz Celeron-quasi-P4. The Mobility Radeon 7500 more than held up its end of the bargain, posting a 3DMark 2001 SE Pro benchmark of 4,144 and playing Quake III Arena at 101 frames per second in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode (179 fps in 640 by 480 Normal).

The 256MB of PC2100 DDR is expandable to 512MB, while the hard disk can be supplanted by a second unit in one of the Gateway’s two modular bays, which normally hold the floppy drive at the right and Matsushita UJDA720 combo drive (8/8/24X CD-RW, 8X DVD-ROM) at the left. To boost that two-and-a-third-hours unplugged life, you can also replace the floppy with a second lithium-ion battery ($79; a spare main battery is $99).

The Gateway has only one PS/2 and two USB 1.1 ports, half the number found on some full-size laptops, but makes up for it with plenty of other connectors: parallel, serial, VGA, TV-out, and both 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet ports; built-in 802.11b WiFi wireless networking; one Type III or two Type II PC Card slots; an IEEE 1394 FireWire port; and an S/PDIF port for Dolby Digital AC3 output (for enjoying DVDs in surround sound), as well as conventional line-in, microphone, and headphone jacks. Gateway supplies MGI’s VideoWave 4 for FireWire camcorder owners’ video-editing pleasure, as well as Microsoft Works Suite (including Word 2002) and Windows XP Professional.

Compared to several high-end notebooks with onboard subwoofers, the two 1-watt stereo speakers sound predictably weak and tinny (although our coworkers were annoyed that Windows started up loudly every time, even if we’d repeatedly jabbed the front-edge volume buttons to lower the sound during a previous work session). Other front-edge buttons play or pause CD tracks, while four programmable buttons above the keyboard launch favorite applications, Web sites, or Gateway’s above-average help menu.

The keyboard has a competent layout, with dedicated cursor-control keys and Insert and Delete at the top right where you expect to find them, but we were slightly disappointed by its flat, stiff typing feel. Two jumbo mouse buttons and a scroll bar sit below a relatively small but smooth touchpad.

The Bottom Line
The final ace up Gateway’s sleeve is value. Even the top-of-the-line model 600XL with a 2.0GHz mobile Pentium 4 goes for $2,978 (which you can trim to $2,800 by sending in a limited-time rebate and choosing Windows XP Home Edition instead of Professional). And our 1.7GHz test unit – which actually bore the 600XL designation when built but is now a 600X, with the XL designation reserved for 1.8GHz, 1.9GHz, and 2.0GHz models – came to $2,477 ($2,377 after rebate).

In other words, compared to many other high-end notebooks, Gateway gives you an eye-popping 15.7-inch display for the price of their 15.0-inch panels – as we said, it’s not the highest resolution available, and it makes the 600X too heavy and unwieldy for all but occasional transport. But if you want a game-capable home PC you can carry from den to bedroom, or a corporate workstation that IT managers can move to a new cubicle without a cart, there’s a definite niche for “casual mobility” desktop alternatives. And Gateway’s is the best we’ve seen yet.

Pros: Gigantic, gorgeous 15.7-inch display; impressive value – under $2,500 with WiFi, FireWire, Win XP Pro, and more.

Cons: Huge and heavy; as ponderous as it is powerful; stiff keyboard feel; chintzy speakers.

Reprinted from Hardwarecentral.com.

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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