Large-Screen Notebooks: Bigger Really Can Be Better

From the beginning of the age of mobility, we've been trying to squeeze more computer into smaller, lighter and more mobile notebook cases. A new generation of large notebooks with impressive displays, however, turns that idea on its head.

Forget about those anemic notebooks with tiny screens, cramped keyboards, underpowered processors and miniscule hard drives. Full figured and proud of it, large-screen notebooks are for when a 14-, 15- or even 17-in. screen just isn't big enough. We're talking about an 18-in. or bigger display, a fast processor, multiple hard drives and a TV tuner -- in other words, everything a desktop has to offer, except the desk.

These systems on steroids let you work and play on one system. If you need to justify the excellent DVD and TV capabilities, think instant presentations. You won't waste any time setting up a projector -- just open the massive lid and start the show. With powerful processors, these monster notebooks are also perfect for a variety of heavy data lifting, like video editing in the field, on-site CAD engineering and design work, as well as turning seismic data into underground maps of where oil might be hiding.

Bob O'Donnell, vice president for client and displays at IDC, estimates that notebooks with 18-in. or bigger screens add up to just over half a percent of the world market today, or something like 750,000 units. By 2012, he thinks that could grow to 1.3% of notebooks sold, or 3.9 million units.

"They're great for their intended uses, but they're not for everyone," O'Donnell warns. On top of weighing about the same as five MacBook Air notebooks, these behemoths are bigger than the typical airline tray table. You'll need a special notebook bag, if not a hand truck, to get from point A to B. Plus, the cheapest one sells for about what four basic notebooks go for.

Then there's electricity. These notebooks use huge AC adapters that suck down three times the power of the typical notebook. Expect to pay up to about $80 a year to power one of these machines, about four times what the typical notebook requires.

The latest in large-screen notebook technology comes in two sizes. First, there are those with 20.1-in. displays, like Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion HDX and Eurocom's M590KE Emperor-X, both of which weigh more than 15 pounds each. At the other end is the Acer Aspire 8920, a 9-pounder with an 18.4-in. screen.

Acer Aspire 8920-6671

It may not have the largest screen or a TV tuner, but Acer's Aspire 8920-6671 is a powerful notebook that nicely balances business multimedia, entertainment and economy with size and weight. At $2,599, it's the least expensive of the three notebooks in this roundup, yet can deliver top-quality entertainment and business graphics.

At 1.7 by 17.4 by 11.5 inches, the Acer Aspire 8920 looks positively tiny compared to the HDX or M590KE. In addition, its 8.9-pound heft puts it at the low end of the heavyweight class, and even when you include its AC adapter, the 8920 has a reasonable -- at least for these behemoths -- travel weight of 9.7 pounds.

Inside, the emphasis is on power. The 8920's 2.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor matches that of the HDX. The review unit came with 4GB of RAM and can hold a pair of hard drives; our test system came with a single 320GB hard drive, which limits the number of TV shows, presentations and videos that can be stored on board.

While its 18.4-in. screen is smaller than either the HDX or M590KE, it's the brightest of the bunch, although the display can look washed out at times. The display's 1,920-by-1,080 resolution is midway between that of the HDX and the M590KE; there's a VGA webcam above the display. The system's nVidia GeForce 9650 graphics engine has 512MB of dedicated video memory.

In contrast to the 8920's spare and unfussy appearance, its CineDash multimedia control panel, located to the left of the keyboard, looks like it was lifted from the Starship Enterprise. Like HP's panel, it is touch sensitive, but rather than being straightforward and linear, it's circular with odd shapes and takes a while to get used to.

The system's 19.3mm keys have 2.1mm of travel for reasonably relaxed typing. Its touch pad has a handy quick-scrolling zone on the side and a fingerprint scanner for the security-conscious.

On the downside, the 8920 can't compete on ports. It has four USB ports, plus one each for external monitor, microphone, headphone and HDMI. It does without the extra USB slot that the M590 has, as well as the FireWire, S-Video and external SATA hard drive connection that can be found on the HDX.

Communications are covered by the system's wired LAN and built-in Bluetooth, augmented by an Intel Wireless Wi-Fi Link 4965AGN. The embedded 802.11a/b/g/n network adapter card was able to move 13.9Mbit/sec. data and had a range of 100 feet, about midway between the best and the worst.

Like the HDX, the 8920 puts audio front and center with five speakers, including a subwoofer. The Realtek audio chip is bolstered with Dolby processing that makes sound crisp and clear for movies but can be a little hollow. Annoyingly, the system increases and decreases the volume three increments at a time. You can always connect to an external speaker set via the system's SPDIF digital connector.

While the system comes with a large remote control and Microsoft's Media Center software, it lacks a TV tuner. I set up an AverMedia USB Hybrid tuner, transforming the notebook into an entertainment powerhouse on a par with the M590 system. It took me 12.7 seconds to start up and get to a station and 1 second to change the channel.

Even with the machine doing several things at once, its fan wasn't loud and its case stayed cool. Its PassMark Performance score of 732.3 was just a little behind the class-leading HDX. The 4,800 milli-amp hour battery -- the smallest of the bunch -- ran for 1 hour 50 minutes on a charge, twice as along as the M590 with its larger battery. Its power use was frugal in comparison as well, with an estimated $49.50 a year in electricity bills.

The 8920 comes with Windows Vista Ultimate and a lot of extra applications, including games, videoconferencing software and Microsoft Works. At $2,599, it's covered by that rarity of rarities, a three-year warranty, which none of the other big machines includes. The warranty extension is worth as much as $270, making its price look even better.

Being the smallest in a class of huge notebooks has its advantages. The 8920 is lighter, easier to maneuver and still performs with the big boys. If it only had a built-in TV tuner, it would be a superstar.

Eurocom M590KE Emperor-X

From a distance, Eurocom's M590KE Emperor-X looks like a typical mainstream notebook that's been doubled in size. Get up close, though, and you'll note some differences: for example, the M590KE is thinner than the competition and has a TV and FM radio built in. However, it also breaks the bank at $4,310.

At 18.7 by 13.4 inches, the footprint of the M590 is within a tenth of an inch of HP's HDX; it's 1.5 inches high in the front and 2.5 inches high in the rear. It weighs 15.1 pounds, a few ounces less than the HDX. Add in the monstrous 2.5-pound AC adapter and you have a backbreaking 17.6-pound travel package. It's a good thing that Eurocom sells a $117 backpack for this oversized system because it won't fit into the typical notebook bag.

Inside the silver and black case is a 2.3-GHz AMD Turion 64X2 processor that's 300 MHz slower than the HDX or 8920's Core 2 Duo CPU, and has much less performance-boosting internal cache.

The test system came with 4GB of system memory and a pair of high-performance 200GB hard drives. Happily, the data is striped across the drives, which increases performance and consolidates the drives to one letter. An 8X Multi DVD burner rounds out the basics, although it can't play Blu-ray discs.

The center of attention is the M590's 20.1-in. display. Capable of showing 1680-by-1050 resolution, it is clear and rich, but it can't show high-definition movies in full 1080p resolution. Behind the scenes is an nVidia GeForce Go 7950 GTX graphics engine with 512MB of video memory. Above the screen is a 1.3-megapixel webcam.

With only an on-off switch, four instant-start application buttons and a key to turn on full-power graphics, the M590 has a Spartan look to it compared to the elaborate control panels of the other two systems. The 19.1mm keys have a generous 2.8mm of travel for comfortable typing, and the touch pad has a dedicated scroll area on the right side, but it lacks the HDX's touch pad on-off switch for using an external mouse.

With five USB ports -- one more than each of the other two notebooks has -- the M590 is on a par with desktop PCs. It also has FireWire, LAN, S-Video and modem ports, as well as a DVI connector for driving an external monitor. There's a traditional PC Card slot, flash card reader and an antiquated RS-232 serial port, although the M590 lacks the SATA hard drive connector and HDMI jack that the others deliver.

Its Gigabyte W10GT Wi-Fi radio can connect with 802.11b and g networks, was able to move 15.9Mit/sec. and had a range of 110 feet, a little faster and longer than with the others. An 802.11a/g/n radio costs $95 more, while adding Bluetooth costs $80.

The M590's Realtek audio chip uses SRS Wow 3-D technology to help it make the most of its four speakers. The sound is a little thin, but (neighbors, take note) the system can blast a lot of volume.

The internal AverMedia M103 TV tuner can handle analog and digital TV from broadcast or cable as well as FM radio. My favorite feature is its 16-channel preview screen of what's on. Certainly, when it came to TV, the M590 was the fastest of the three systems, taking 11.9 seconds to turn on and .75 seconds to change channels, but the image wasn't as sharp or bright as that of the HDX or the 8920.

Setting up the tuner to record any show is a straightforward process, but the onscreen program guide was a bit problematic -- unlike every other TV schedule I've seen for this type of computer you can't just click on a show to record it. In addition, the range of its clunky remote control wasn't as far as that of the HDX or the 8920, but it should be more than enough for even the laziest couch potato.

The M590's four cooling fans can sound like a helicopter, but the review unit still had an annoying hot spot on the right side of the wrist rest. Performance is a mixed bag, with a 578.9 score on PassNark's Performance benchmark, 30% off the pace set by the HDX. On the other hand, the M590 had the strongest hard drive performance.

The 6,600 milli-amp hour battery pack powered the M590 for only 50 minutes, not enough time for a full episode of CSI and one-third as long as the HDX's battery lasted. The system uses roughly 50% more power than either the HDX or the 8920, which translates to an estimated $80.74 annual power bill.

The M590 comes with Windows XP Pro, but not much more in terms of software. Its one-year warranty can be upgraded to three years of coverage for $223. At $4,310, it's more expensive and comes up second best.


HP Pavilion HDX Entertainment Notebook PC

After you get over its sheer size and bulk, the first thing you notice about HP's HDX is its massive silver hinge arm. A piece of industrial sculpture, the arm adds both to the system's sophisticated look and the ability to angle the screen just right.

Weighing in at 15.3 pounds, the HDX is a couple ounces heavier than the M590, but a tenth of an inch narrower and thicker. With the 1.9-pound AC adapter, the HDX weighs a cumbersome 17.2 pounds, but HP doesn't sell a special bag for this Tyrannosaurus Rex of a notebook.

The black and silver case has room for every feature I could think of, and then some. Powered by a 2.6-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, the HDX comes with 4GB of RAM and a pair of 250GB 5,400 rpm hard drives that are set up as two drive letters (instead of the M590's single letter).

The optical drive can play the latest Blu-ray movies on the system's mammoth 20.1-in. screen, which is capable of a 1,920-by-1,200-pixel resolution, perfect for 1080p high-definition movies. It's a step up from the M590's lower resolution screen. Graphics are handled by nVidia's GeForce 8800 GTS engine with 512MB of video memory.

HDX's articulating arm hinge allows the display to pivot up and down as well as in and out to get the best view. Although the resolution of the HDX's webcam is one-third that of the M590's camera, it has a microphone array that delivers clearer sound than the M590's single microphone. There's also a jack for an external mike.

While the 8920's CineDash panel catches the eye, I liked the HP QuickTouch panel (also to the left of the keyboard) better. In addition to playing movies and CDs and turning the wireless radio on and off, it can adjust volume, treble and bass; there's even a mute button. The keyboard has 19.0mm keys that have 2.2mm of travel, and the system has a fingerprint scanner.

The HDX comes with a good mix of ports, although with four USB slots, it is second best compared to the M590. There are FireWire, external monitor, HDMI, cable TV, and S-Video ports, and even an external SATA plug for a hard drive. It lacks the M590's modem, serial port and DVI ports, but the HDX has an up-to-date Xpress card slot and flash card reader.

The HDX has Bluetooth and a wired LAN connection and Intel 802.11a/g/n Wi-Fi. At 13.6Mbit/sec., its wireless throughput was off the pace set by the M590, and its 105-ft. range was slightly shorter.

With five speakers, the HDX has excellent audio, although it doesn't get as loud as the M590 does. If you want more volume, the system has a pair of headphone jacks and an SPDIF digital optical audio plug for driving external speakers.

Powered by Microsoft's Media Center, the HDX's TV tuner makes it easy to record shows from the program guide, but every once in a while the software froze up on me or the audio was out of sync with the video. The system was slower than the other two at displaying TV; it took 17.2 seconds to start viewing and 1.3 seconds to change channels.

The HDX's remote control is a gem. Not only is it tiny compared to the others, it does everything it needs to and snaps into a handy place next to the keyboard. It had a range of 16 feet 3 inches, nearly 6 feet longer than the M590. My only misgiving was that it's too easy to lose.

The HDX runs quietly and stays cool, even under intense use. It's a powerhouse as well, with a score of 749.5 on the PassMark Performance benchmark; it ran for a phenomenal 2 hours 40 minutes on battery power. That said, the system's power use is on a par with the smaller 8920 and 50% less than the M590; expect to pay about $51.40 a year to power the HDX.

On top of Vista Ultimate, the system comes with a wide variety of games, security, video and basic productivity programs. Some are full versions, others with features limited and others are trial versions.

With a price tag of $3,250, the HDX comes with a one-year warranty, although that can be extended to three years of coverage for $270. A thousand dollars cheaper than the M590, the HDX is a blockbuster of a notebook that might break your back but doesn't break the bank.

How We Tested

On top of the usual array of benchmarks, I added several tests to gauge the multimedia and entertainment abilities of these notebooks. After measuring, weighing and examining every nook and cranny of each system, each was given a thorough workout.

Tests included:

Overall performance: PassMark Performance Test 6.1 exercises every major component.

Battery life: With the system's Wi-Fi radio tuned to an Internet radio station and the audio set to three-fourths of full volume, each system was run down as PassMark's BatteryMon software charted the battery's capacity and recorded the time it shut down.

TV: I watched a lot of TV (someone had to), movies, online videos and several presentations, as well as high-resolution graphics, animation and CAD drawings. After measuring the remote control's range, I timed how long it took to go from the desktop to a TV station. For the Aspire and HDX, it's a two-step process that stops at the Media Center interface, so I timed both. Then, I timed how long it took to move up 10 channels; I divided this figure by 10 to get the average time it takes to go one channel.

Wi-Fi: Using a Linksys WRT54GS router and the PassMark Advanced Network Test, I measured each notebook's wireless throughput with a Dell server via a Wi-Fi wireless link at 15 feet. Next, I started up an Internet radio station and walked away from the Wi-Fi router while holding the laptop. I measured the spot farthest from the router where it still remained connected.

Power use: Finally, I measured the electrical current draw for each system as it performed typical business tasks and showed a TV show. Using the assumption that the typical system will be used for work eight hours a day and for watching TV four hours a day, I calculated how much power is required over a year. I used the Energy Information Administration's national average of 10 cents per kilowatt hour to estimate the system's power bill.

Conclusion

As good as they are at crossing over between work and play, each of these notebook monsters fell short in one area or another. I'd love to make a dream machine out of the best qualities of each: the size and weight of the Aspire 8920, the sound system and control panel of the HDX 9203, and the ports and connections of the M590KE.

If I needed to get one right away, I'd have no problem buying the HDX as my entertainment PC. It offers a great many features, has excellent performance and battery life, and -- most of all -- doesn't break the bank.

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