Being a technologist, I’ve become really good and justifying gadget purchases. Recently I was in the market for a[nother] new laptop. This one needed to be more than just your average email & web browsing device, able to handle video editing, software development and virtual machine images (i.e., running multiple virtual PCs on top of it). And because I spend a lot of time on the road, I wanted it to be relatively light but pack a lot of features while looking really good (sounds like me, doesn’t it? Yeah, I hear ya.). And, I wanted to stay in the $500 range.
There are literally dozens of machines in the sub-$500 category. I started by getting a bead on the various processors offered by AMD and Intel. If you’ve done any researching on PCs lately, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that it’s alphabet soup out there, making it very difficult to know whether the “Dual-core CPU” in one machine is better than the “Core 2 Duo” in another. What I found extremely helpful was the CPU Benchmark site by Passmark Software. Here’s what you do: Go to the Searchable CPU List and, using your mouse, highlight the entire table (CPU Type, Passmark CPU Mark, Rank). Open Microsoft Excel and Paste Special the table into a blank worksheet. Now, with some basic editing you can create a log by which you can track where the machines you’re considering fall. If you’d like a copy of the one I created, just leave a comment or contact me on twitter. Note: you may also want to download the Passmark CPU test and run it on your current machine, so you have a baseline, which can be handy when deciding the added value of upgrading your machine.
What I discovered is that most manufacturers downplay the processor nowadays. And for good reasons: most are quite capable of getting the business done. Still, the technologist in me wanted to have bragging rights within my price range for the most bang for the buck. So armed with my worksheet, I began reviewing websites and circulars to draw a bead on no more than 5 laptops to consider. Here are the criteria I used:
Manufacturer. While most innards these days are interchangeable, I still prefer some vendors over others. Acer, ASUS, Dell, Gateway (owned by ASUS) and HP are my preferences, based on design esthetics (except Dell), quality/support and variety of models.
Memory. At least 4Gb, which kinda obligates the manufacturer to put Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit on the machine.
Processor. At least 2Ghz and 64-bit. Not that a 1.8Ghz wouldn’t perform fine, just trying to stay near the front of the curve.
Other. 3 or more USB ports, memory card reader and an HDMI port for hi-def viewing.
Surprisingly, the 4Gb requirement cut down the field considerably, with most machines having only 3Gb. Upgrading the memory is a fool’s game, as it will easily cost $50-$150 to do so, if possible.
The Dell machines were not impressive at all. Despite all of the advertising they do, their prices are relatively high for some reason. And in this price range, their hardware design is very utilitarian. While I like Acer (and recently bought Ian a desktop), I just couldn’t get excited about them. And because ASUS and Gateway are siblings, it came down to price and esthetics between the two, with Gateway coming out on top.
So my list of machines I evaluated netted out to:
- Gateway NV5207u
- Gateway NV5302u
- HP DV6-2066DX
- HP G60-549DX
- Gateway NV7802u
- HP DV4-1551DX
And here’s how they stack up on the Passmark CPU ranking:
I really liked the Gateway NV series alot, and was surprised by both their price competitiveness and the very favorable reviews by critics and consumers. Knowing that ASUS is breathing down their neck to be the #1 PC manufacturer in the world, HP is working hard to earn everyone’s business. Having bought Jacinda a DV series, I’m very happy with their offerings as well.
Most of the machines were available at Best Buy, but the Gateway NV5302u (an upgraded processor of the NV5207u) was not available in store, so they were both dropped from the list (pride wouldn’t let me buy the NV5207u knowing that an upgraded proc was lurking out there).
The HP DV6-2066DX was priced at $599, but had 6Gb of memory. However, the processor was slower than the T6600 offered in models priced lower and with larger hard drives and displays. The pricing of the HP G60-549DX was thisclose to that of the top-tiered Gateway and HP models that I couldn’t really consider it, especially seeing that there was a 15% difference in ranking and 10% difference in CPU performance (see how the chart helps?).
This left me basically with a decision that looks at 2 things: display size and esthetics. The Gateway looks beautiful, and the 17” screen, while seemingly way too big, would be advantageous for presentations. The weight on both was ~6lbs, and I already had laptop bags that would accommodate the width. The HP has US market leadership going for it; being able to get additional batteries or other peripherals with relative ease is a big plus. But the esthetics just didn’t seem to ‘pop’ for me, starting with the trackpad for some reason.
And so I went with the Gateway NV7802u. It only took 2 weeks, and I’m glad the Best Buy employees were patient with me – they finally would just smile and leave me to my own evaluations. No service contact, no bag or other ‘stuff’, just $549 and out the door.
Unboxing the Gateway
This was my first PC purchase from Gateway, and my first introduction to the Geek Squad. The first thing I noticed was that the Geek Squad opens every machine that comes in. This was unsettling to me, as
I much prefer ‘factory-fresh’. From what I was able to piece together, they do some perfunctory setup (like creating restore disks) but also take the liberty to install a small cache of crapware. Maybe they get a kickback for doing this, I don’t know. But I would rather have had the option of not having had someone manhandling my box, and am curious what impact it would have on my warranty, you know?
Other than that, I’ve gotta say that Windows 7 made my setup a breeze – I was on my home network, replete with Dropbox and JungleDisk setup in less than 30 minutes. Installing Office 2007 Ultimate and a few development apps took a little longer, but looking at the beautiful 1600×900 17” screen made it almost pleasurable.
If you read any reviews of this machine, you’ll find that the 1 niggling issue is the keyboard. It’s almost perfectly flat, which is somewhat disconcerting for a touch typist like myself. I think it would have helped to have slightly larger indentations on the F and J keys. And I’m still getting used to having a number pad, opting to just ignore it for the most part.
Battery life thus far has been in the 4hr range, a benefit of having a larger screen makes way for more battery capacity. I’ve read people getting close to 5hrs, and wouldn’t find that surprising if I were to moderate the performance and screen display.
Like the HP, the Gateway has a glossy finish, which I like a lot. Yes, it attracts fingerprints, but I’ll just keep a soft cloth handy.
Well, that’s about it. I know this has been long, but I hope it helps others in thinking about ways to evaluate the myriad of PC choices out there.