Test Drive: Gateway Solo 5350XL

Eric Grevstad

We’ll have to recalibrate our price-guessing unit. When we took Gateway’s Solo 5350XL notebook out of the box, we noted its features – a 14.1-inch, active-matrix display; Intel’s 1.06GHz mobile Pentium III; 256MB of SDRAM; swappable-bay design with DVD/CD-RW combo drive; Windows XP Professional — and thought, “Hmm, probably around $2,200 … but Gateway’s working hard for sales these days, so maybe $1,999?”

Bzzzzt. The Solo 5350XL sells for $1,699, or an even $1,600 if you can get by with Windows XP Home Edition instead of the few corporate-network extras of Win XP Pro.

We’ve remarked before that slim, modular laptops – desktop alternatives with a device bay that lets you switch between an optical and floppy drive, instead of packing the weight of both or making you fuss with an ultralight’s external CD-ROM or DVD – are today’s neatest notebooks. And Gateway’s is not only priced to move, but easy to move: A comparably equipped and warrantied Dell Inspiron 4100, one of our favorite portable PCs, costs $97 more (with a slightly slower 1.0GHz Pentium III but slightly faster CD burner) and is half a pound heavier.

Thanks to its 14.1-inch LCD, the 5350XL is able to fit into briefcases where 15-inch-screened laptops are a tight squeeze; it measures 10.1 by 12.4 by 1.4 inches and weighs 5.8 pounds with the combo drive (or 5.7 with the 1.44MB floppy; a second lithium-ion battery pack for the modular bay is a $99 option). The AC adapter adds a pound to your briefcase.

Gateway’s Web site says that the current configuration’s 256MB of memory (presumably for the price of 128MB) is a limited-time offer, but doesn’t specify an ending date. You can order the Solo with 512MB for $200 more, or step up from a 1.06GHz to a 1.13GHz processor for $300, which seems steep for an undetectable difference.

The 5350XL’s bias toward economy shows in one or two places. Our test unit had a 20GB Toshiba MK2018GAP hard disk; Gateway offers a 30GB drive for $75 extra, but nothing larger. The Toshiba SD-R2002 combo drive offers 6X speed for DVD playback and modest 4/4/24X performance as a CD-RW. And the system has no IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port for connecting digital video equipment or speedy external storage devices.

But the Solo is otherwise pretty well equipped. The computer’s left side holds 56Kbps modem and 10/100Mbps Ethernet jacks, as well as the usual one Type III or two Type II PC Card slots and line-in, headphone, and microphone jacks. Parallel, serial, and both monitor and TV-out ports are at the back, as are one PS/2 and two USB 1.1 ports and a connector for a $139 port replicator or $329 docking station.

Wireless network fans can add a $99 internal (Mini PCI) adapter, or of course any of scores of 802.11b PC Cards. In bold defiance of convention, Gateway left out the infrared port that nobody uses.

The 5350XL lacks the audio CD or DVD control keys of some consumer notebooks, but earns kudos for an above-average keyboard anyway: Besides separate cursor arrows and Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys, it has two of the Fn or special shift keys that work with the cursor control keys to raise or lower audio volume and screen brightness.

The typing feel is soft but not mushy, helped by a rubbery padded palm rest, and the Synaptics touchpad offers smooth cursor control (although edge motion felt slow at the default settings). Below the touchpad are a king-sized primary (left) and smaller secondary (right) mouse button, with a two rocker-switch buttons between them; the latter normally imitate a mouse’s up-and-down scroll wheel, but you can use Synaptics’ utility to program them for other functions such as Forward and Back, Minimize or Maximize, or even macro keystrokes.

While Dell and others offer higher-resolution variants of the familiar 14.1-inch TFT display, Gateway sticks to trusty 1,024 by 768 (XGA) resolution. Our Solo’s screen was crisp and bright (though the Fn-arrow keys offer only three brightness settings), with no bad pixels, and switching between LCD, CRT, or simultaneous displays for presentations was easy.

The system’s Intel 830M integrated graphics chipset is a bit less impressive, although it offers nice system-tray control of various high- and true-color (16- and 32-bit) resolution settings. Office applications looked great and DVD movies were smooth, but 3D gamers will cross the Solo off their shopping lists: We clocked a barely playable 33 frames per second in the venerable Quake III Normal (640 by 480) benchmark, and a pathetic 12 fps in High Quality (1,024 by 768) mode. Notebooks we’ve tested with Nvidia’s previous-generation GeForce2 Go and ATI’s ditto Mobility Radeon M6, let alone the newest mobile graphics chips offered by both vendors, blow the i830M out of the arena.

For applications other than games or video editing, however, the 5350XL is a capable performer: Its overall score of 116 in BAPco’s SysMark 2001 benchmark (with subscores of 126 in Internet Content Creation and 106 in Office Productivity) makes it substantially faster than 1.0GHz Pentium III notebooks we’ve tried, more in line with last year’s best Pentium III desktops – which aren’t being sold anymore, but are still solidly adequate systems for most jobs.

And we can’t complain about the three hours and 10 minutes of battery life we got in our intensive-use test, most of which we performed with screen brightness turned down a notch but with near-constant use of the DVD drive for watching movies and installing software; routine word processing or spreadsheet runs should readily reach three and a half hours.

Speaking of installing software, we liked the thick paperback manual and beginner-proof recovery discs Gateway provides – two bright yellow CDs prominently labeled “Applications,” a red “Drivers” disc, and a blue “Operating System” master, all with simple menu instructions for reinstalling or reverting the system. The Softex BayManager software makes swapping the combo and floppy drives without rebooting a cinch, though the supplied InterVideo WinDVD and Roxio Easy CD Creator 5 are both skimpy “lite” versions; Microsoft Works Suite with Word 2002 is in the box, with Office XP Small Business Edition a $129 option.

All told, the Solo 5350XL earns a place on our notebook short list. There are more powerful desktop replacements with bigger displays and hard disks and faster video, and their prices have recalibrated too (falling to the $2,000 level). But the Gateway’s a lot lighter to carry, and the Win XP Home version is a real value at $1,600.

Manufacturer: Gateway Corporation; www.gateway.com

Price: $1600.

Pros: Well-equipped, light in weight, and easy on your wallet; nifty mix of performance and battery life.

Cons: No 15-inch or above-XGA-resolution screen available; sluggish integrated graphics; no 1394/FireWire port; largest hard disk offered is 30GB.

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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