Notebook vendors are launching a new crop of products to take advantage of Intel's updated Centrino wireless platform. We tested laptops from Dell, Gateway, and HP that are among the first to offer the new technology.
The boost in basic features comes from the new 915PM/GM chip set and platform (a combination previously code-named Sonoma). Upgrades include a 533-MHz frontside bus (up from 400 MHz), support for speedy DDR2 memory (as well as standard DDR), high-end audio, Intel's optional 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, and--for the first time in notebooks--the fast PCI Express bus.
Even though these systems utilize a faster platform than previous notebooks, we didn't expect to see a dramatic increase in performance--and we didn't get one. This update is more about setting the stage for future improvements than setting the world on fire with faster run times today. Happily, these systems don't carry a sizable price premium over non-Sonoma notebooks.
Room to View
We tested a preproduction model of Dell's $2564 Inspiron 6000 and a shipping unit of Gateway's $2184 M460; both offer 15.4-inch wide-screen displays. The Dell's was particularly impressive. Its native resolution of 1920 by 1200 pixels, powered by ATI Mobility Radeon X300 PCI Express graphics and 128MB of RAM, lets you pack more into the screen. Our test DVD appeared bright and sharp, although we saw tiny freezes in movie playback when the notebook was running on battery power. Dell is working on a fix for this problem; in the meantime, adjusting the settings from "optimal" battery life to "balanced" should help. Audio sounded clear and powerful.
The Gateway M460's screen has a resolution of 1280 by 800, driven by ATI's Mobility Radeon X600 PCI Express graphics with 128MB of RAM. DVD movie playback was smooth and clear. Audio also was good, though not as powerful as the Dell's.
Each notebook came with an 80GB hard drive, though the Dell had 1GB of DDR2 400 DRAM, while the Gateway had 512MB of faster, 533-MHz DDR2. The Gateway contains a slightly speedier processor, too--a 2.13-GHz Pentium M 770 versus the Dell's 2-GHz Pentium M 760. Both include rewritable DVD drives, though Dell's handles DVD
Both laptops come with all the expected ports--S-Video-out, FireWire (1394), multiple USB 2.0 ports, and external monitor--but no legacy ports such as serial or parallel ports. The Gateway has built-in gigabit ethernet, while the Dell features 10/100 ethernet. The Dell included its own 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi version, while the Gateway offers Intel's version.
Both systems offer flash memory ports: an SD Card slot on the Dell, and a four-in-one reader (SD, MultiMediaCard, and Memory Stick) on the Gateway. Both systems also feature full-size keyboards, save for some of the function and directional keys.
Both performed well compared with non-Sonoma notebooks in the same CPU class, though the Dell slightly outscored the Gateway on WorldBench 5--89 versus 87.
Overall, the Dell was more impressive, but it costs nearly $400 more, making the Gateway a better deal. (The Dell comes with Windows XP Pro, as does the HP unit we tested; the Gateway uses XP Home.)