Gateway's M250 models -- the lightest of this company's seven lines of laptops -- can be had for much less than most machines in its weight class. The low-end M250S goes for just $699. But the model Gateway sent for review, the now-discontinued M250XL, cost almost $1,500 after a healthy round of upgrades.
That should be a lesson in self-control when customizing a computer. But Gateway doesn't help matters with its pushy salesmanship: Its Web site adds a $50 carrying case and a $160, three-year service plan to the bill before you even start your order.
All M250 models start with the same basic ingredients: widescreen 14-inch displays, CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drives and smallish, 40-gigabyte hard drives. The tested configuration -- while no longer sold as the M250XL, an M250X can be custom-ordered with the same specifications -- included a faster Pentium M processor, an 80 GB hard drive, a double-layer DVD burner drive (which had repeated problems playing back movies without skipping) and a larger, longer-life battery.
Of those updates, the faster chip, at $340, made the least sense. But the upgraded battery earned its $45 cost with an outstanding performance -- 31/2 hours of DVD playback. This Gateway ran for 4 hours and 53 minutes of music playback with the screen dimmed halfway; with WiFi off and the screen dimmed as low as visible, it lasted a minute less than seven hours.
Those are all terrific figures. But we wonder how folks with the smaller, lighter standard battery would have fared. (The souped-up battery pushed the test M250's weight to 5.4 pounds.)
We liked the M250's generously sized touchpad, which includes a scroll strip at its right edge that serves the same function as the scroll wheel in most mice. Some thought also went into the placement of the M250's three USB ports at the front of the right side.
Gateway did not overburden this machine's hard drive with programs, sticking to basics such as Microsoft Works 8, three months of Norton Internet Security and McAfee AntiSpyware, and a handful of maintenance and CD/DVD tools.
Gateway stores a backup copy of Windows XP on a hidden partition on the hard drive, then throws in some blank CDs and directions on how to create your own recovery discs. After Norton Internet Security bombed out on us, we tried to follow those instructions to reinstall the software. But Gateway's CD-burning software kicked out "not blank" messages and never yielded a fresh CD of the Norton software.
Gateway did provide clear printed documentation and staffed its tech-support line -- a toll call -- with courteous, prepared representatives who answered our calls quickly and accurately. But after the first year of support, Gateway's per-minute fees for tech-support calls will add up awfully fast. -- Rebecca Rohan
Tested hardware: Gateway M250XL, $1,494
5.4 pounds (6 pounds with power adapter), 14-inch widescreen LCD (1,280 by 768 pixels), 2 GHz Intel Pentium M, 512 MB memory (up to 128 MB shared for graphics use), 76.2 GB hard drive, CD-RW/DVD+/-RW drive, Memory Stick/SD Card slot, Ethernet, WiFi, modem, PC Card slot, FireWire port, three USB 2.0 ports.
One-year warranty. One year of 24-hour phone tech support; $2.95 per-minute fee afterward.