Exclusive: First Vista PC Tests

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Vista Opens New Directions for Laptop PCs

New Vista-friendly characteristics grace Asus's W5Fe (right) and Toshiba's Portege R400.
New Vista-friendly characteristics grace Asus's W5Fe (right) and Toshiba's Portege R400.
The first salvo of Windows Vista-based desktops showed little difference in performance and features from their XP counterparts. However, Vista-based notebooks may present a different story. While only a handful will take full advantage of Vista at the outset, the first two Vista laptops we saw suggest that the new operating system could potentially have a greater impact on notebook PCs than on desktops.

Notebooks--which are often more modestly powered than desktop PCs--should reap many benefits from Vista's performance-enhancing technologies. For instance, Vista's ReadyDrive takes advantage of the speed and reliability inherent in the nonvolatile RAM (high-speed flash memory) of the upcoming new breed of hybrid hard drives. ReadyDrive enables the system to boot and wake up from sleep mode more quickly.

The Hybrid-Drive Advantage

With a hybrid drive, applications should also launch more quickly, as Vista will be able to access information from the solid-state part of the drive without experiencing the latency inherent in accessing a rotating disk. Because the notebook will have to spin up the drive's disks less often, it should also use less power and allow you to go longer between recharging sessions. And theoretically, at least, with data being written less frequently to the conventional portion of the hard drive, overall drive reliability should be enhanced.

Windows SuperFetch--another feature new to Vista--should complement ReadyDrive by learning what your most commonly launched applications are and preloading them into memory. Microsoft says that SuperFetch will even predict what applications you are most likely to use on different days and times, to further improve your system's responsiveness.

But hold your horses: None of the early Vista systems we saw featured a hybrid drive. Seagate has announced that its hybrid drive will ship in the first quarter of 2007; notebooks built with such drives will not appear until later in the year.

Vista's ReadyBoost lets you use a USB thumb drive to beef up the memory on your notebook by storing data on the drive as if it were a part of main memory. Microsoft says that this feature will work in concert with SuperFetch to improve performance. It could also be a significant boon to memory-pinched notebook users, since USB flash memory is relatively inexpensive compared with internal notebook memory.

The First Vista Notebooks

We were able to procure two early Vista laptops--Toshiba's Portege R400 and Asus's W5Fe--for initial evaluations. Both had Vista-specific features.

Loaded with Vista Ultimate, the most full-featured version of Vista, the Toshiba unit is the first, according to the company, to support Microsoft's new-to-Vista Active Notifications, via its one-line OLED front-panel display. The display is located along the outer edge of the unit, running as a ticker beneath the latchless-hinged lid. Active Notifications is designed to work with Microsoft's Exchange Server; in Toshiba's implementation, the text-only display shows the time, battery life, wireless signal strength, and whether you have any new e-mail messages waiting; press a button to the left of the display to see any Active Notifications you've received. The notebook has an elegant design, with its slim, black-and-white chassis and swiveling, 12.1-inch wide-screen, backlit LED display.

The sleek, lightweight Asus W5Fe fully implements Vista's SideShow technology, which lets you check e-mail and PC status (for example, wireless connection and battery life), play back music and pictures, and view other data on an external notebook display. The W5Fe's 2.5-inch display sits on the laptop's outer lid. A five-way navigation pad rests to the right of the screen, and made it easy for us to page through the icon-based main menu. The graphical color display is self-powered; in Vista, you can schedule Windows to wake your computer at regular intervals to download the latest info to SideShow.

Melissa J. Perenson and Rex Farrance

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