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.
Gateway's M460, left, offers a spacious screen, while the Compaq Nc6230 travels well.
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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±RW, while Gateway's supports DVD-RW only.
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.)
Back to Business
If you're looking for a full-featured laptop for business travel, consider the $2199 HP Compaq Nc6230.
It offers all the functionality you need, including a 1.7-GHz Pentium M 735 processor, 60GB of storage, and a bright 14-inch display with a resolution of 1024 by 768, driven by ATI's Radeon X300 graphics chip set with 64MB of RAM. Our preproduction unit came with 512MB of 400-MHz DDR2 memory. The unit has no rewritable DVD drive, but it includes a combination DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive, which should be sufficient for most business users.
You get the usual complement of ports, save for parallel and FireWire ports, as well as gigabit ethernet and an SD Card slot. One convenience for travelers is the easy on/off wireless button. Our unit featured Broadcomm 802.11b/g and Bluetooth support.
Video and audio played back nicely, and the system performed well for its processor class, earning a WorldBench 5 score of 77. Though this model slightly outperforms the Best Buy-winning unit in this month's Top 15 Notebook PCs chart -- the Compaq Business Nc6000 with the older Centrino platform -- its battery life is shorter, and it costs a few hundred dollars more. Therefore, you may be better off opting for the older model.
Overall, though, if you're buying a notebook, look for one with the upgraded Centrino platform -- the price difference is small and the system should last you a bit longer.
Test Report: Sonoma Laptops Face OffM
Systems with Intel's upgraded Centrino platform show few gains now, but the tech sets the stage for future improvements.
(PC World Test Center)