Mobile Buyers' Guide: 14" and Larger Notebooks and DTRsby Dustin Sklavos on June 30, 2010 12:53 AM EST
14" and Larger Notebook Buyers' Guide
The back-to-school season is coming and refreshed product lines are already starting to appear on store shelves. While Intel's “Core 2010” line-up (i.e. Core i3/i5/i7 dual-core Arrandale processors) continues to dominate in terms of raw performance, AMD K10.5-based processors are actually starting to trickle into the market just as they promised at Computex, with AMD-powered notebooks available from every major vendor. Meanwhile, Intel has quietly refreshed its mobile line and added some low-voltage kit. It's an interesting market full of sort-of-competition and it isn't at all unlike the desktop processor and graphics markets.
Just like on the desktop, AMD seems poised to deliver the best price-performance at the low end of the notebook market while ceding superior battery life and performance to Intel in more expensive machines. AMD has often touted the importance of a “balanced platform” in their presentations and there's something to be said for that; while Intel does continue to steadily improve their integrated graphics performance, it's difficult to argue for it against the Mobility Radeon HD 4200 you can expect from even the cheapest of AMD-based machines. Beyond all that, AMD has been able to bring affordable mobile tri-core and quad-core processors to market in the Phenom II.
At the same time, the notebook graphics market seems both fiercely competitive and strangely stagnant. AMD has produced top-to-bottom DirectX 11 parts, but their top-end Mobility Radeon HD 5870 is curiously underpowered. It barely eclipses NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 285M, yet another solution based on the DirectX 10-only G92 that is now practically ancient by tech industry standards. The Mobility Radeon HD 5650/5730, both based on the desktop Radeon HD 5570, are a modest improvement on last generation's midrange king, the Mobility Radeon HD 4650. While 5650 and 5730 are numerous, choosing an NVIDIA GPU cedes some performance in favor of their Optimus technology that is capable of completely powering off the GPU and seamlessly switching to the integrated graphics hardware for improved battery life. Do you want DirectX 11 and higher performance, or do you want Optimus and CUDA? Segmentation like this seems like competition at first, but mostly becomes an exercise in compromises. What's more important to you?
Notebook designs in the past couple of years have also taken some unfortunate turns, particularly for media enthusiasts. The now bog-standard 1366x768 resolution found on mainstream notebooks is woefully inadequate for any but the most basic of media work, and this year has seen the alarming disappearance of FireWire and ExpressCard ports from many consumer notebook lines. You can argue that these accessories are niche, but many prosumer-grade cameras still use FireWire (and indeed, many people are still probably holding on to their own tape-based cameras). Removing FireWire wouldn't be such a nasty hit if major manufacturers like HP and ASUS weren't ditching ExpressCard right along with it. ExpressCard never did seem to catch on the way PC Card did, but having some means of expanding notebook functionality beyond USB ports is important.
Mercifully, the tide of glossy plastic that made last year's models so downright unattractive seems to be passing. HP went through a massive redesign of their notebooks that resulted in a vastly simplified, unibody-MacBook-inspired line of sleek, attractive machines. ASUS is making a jump to rubberized and matte plastics on their consumer and gaming machines. Sony VAIO notebooks are as attractive as ever. And Dell's machines have become nicely understated, a far cry from ancient eyesores like the Inspiron E1505 you may still see people carrying around.
Next week Vivek will be walking you through the portable, the ultra-portable, and the downright diminutive notebooks and netbooks on the market and helping you decide which one is right for your needs. This week, however, I'll be picking out the best machines on the market for individuals looking for more desktop-replacement-sized fare. Battery life isn't as big of a factor here, given the larger sizes and increased performance, but we'll try to note any laptops that happen to do better than average in that area.