Speedstep notebooks group test review

powerful SpeedStep desktop replacement notebook
Photo of Speedstep notebooks group test
£1,899 + VAT

The Solo is a fairly large three-spindle machine weighing 3.6kg, like the Dell Inspiron. The core specification is similar, although this time 96MB of SDRAM is standard, but once again you get a big 12GB removable hard disk and a six-speed DVD-ROM drive. Modularity in the build provides a range of configurations, with the option of exchanging the DVD player for a CD-R/RW and the floppy drive for either an LS-120, a second hard disk or a second battery.

The construction was reasonably solid throughout except for the use of flimsy plastic port covers, and the latest model has a magnesium alloy lid surface to protect the large diagonal screen properly. Comms are provided as part of the standard spec, which includes an internal fax modem, so both PC Card slots remain free for other uses such as networking or perhaps in this case a hardware DVD decoder card.

In addition to the usual ports the Solo has an S/PDIF digital audio output which can be used with a 5.1 speaker set and AC-3 decoder to reproduce surround sound effects from DVD films. Composite video I/O gives you a means of connecting to a TV set, and a set of play controls on the front edge of the case mean that you could stow the closed notebook under the telly and use it as a DVD player. An expensive one, but nevertheless…

Like the Dell, the Solo has a big 15-inch TFT screen, but this time it runs at 1280 x 1024 resolution rather than the normal 1024 x 768 XGA. This boosts the available workspace, which is a definite benefit, although everything does of course get smaller at the same time. The crystalline clarity afforded by TFT stops this from making the screen too hard to read, however, and on the whole we felt the screen represented an improvement over the standard 15-inch XGA panel.

The keyboard was a good size with large Enter, Spacebar and Backspace keys, which along with a generally intuitive layout and a moderately positive action made for fast, comfortable typing.

Apart from its screen, the Solo also stood out from the rest in terms of battery life and performance. With SpeedStep enabled it ran for a laudable 4 hours, and it proved to be very fast indeed, making it entirely capable of replacing a business desktop if that’s what is required of it.

A powerful desktop replacement system, this machine from Gateway is a veritable powerhouse, with impressive multimedia options, a good spec and good overall build quality. Little touches – like the composite video output and DVD controls – set it apart from the crowd.After ‘excessive weight’, the most common grumble about notebooks tends to be battery life… or lack of it. This is a problem which just won’t go away, and the trend towards faster processors, larger screens, more memory and generally more of everything only makes things harder on the battery that has to run the show.

Obviously the industry hasn’t taken this lying down, and various clever power saving schemes have been introduced over the years, mostly centered on reducing the voltage required to run key components and inactivity timers that shut things down whenever possible.

Intel recently combined both approaches in the design of its notebook-specific Pentium III SpeedStep processors, which can detect automatically when the power source is changed from mains to battery, and react accordingly. The maximum processor clock speed drops from 600MHz or 650MHz to 500MHz (the latest 700MHz SpeedStep slows to 550MHz), and the operating voltage is reduced to 1.35V. According to Intel, this can lower power consumption by the processor to the tune of about 40 percent.

Before we go on to look at a selection of SpeedStep notebooks, there’s one caveat: the processor itself only accounts for at most 40 percent of the overall power consumption by the notebook, and testing has shown that SpeedStep by itself doesn’t make an enormous amount of difference to battery life. In fact the increase can be as little as 20 minutes, with 30 to 45 minutes being about average.

Perhaps now you are wondering why we’ve chosen to review a bunch of SpeedStep notebooks, if SpeedStep itself isn’t exactly an epochal technical breakthrough. Well, the real reason to get excited about these processors is that they’ve elevated notebook performance to new and unprecedented heights, in some cases to the equivalent of PIII/600 business desktops. What’s more, the best examples showcase a combination of SpeedStep and smart system engineering which unites this power with impressive battery life, and that’s what makes this new breed of portable a significant step forward. Click the ‘NEXT’ link below to find out more.The cheapest of the SpeedStep machines we’ve looked at is Rock’s Sigma, which combines a 600MHz PIII SpeedStep processor with a sensible 128MB of SDRAM and a mid-size 6GB Toshiba hard disk. The spec is fleshed out by a 6-speed Pioneer DVD-ROM drive, and you get an internal Lucent V.90 fax modem as standard, which is always a worthwhile feature on a portable.

The Sigma weighs 3.35kg, which is about right for a three-spindle notebook, but we did notice a degree of flex in the case body which suggested that better design and thicker mouldings might not have gone amiss here. That said, the plastic lid surface did resist pressure pretty well, and should protect the screen from damage when the machine is closed for transport.

The screen itself is a 14-inch TFT panel running at the now-usual 1024 x 768 XGA resolution, and while it would have benefitted from slightly brighter backlighting, it was otherwise fine. We also quite liked the keyboard, which wasn’t cramped and had the advantage of decently large keys where they are needed, specifically the Spacebar and the Enter and Backspace keys.

Performance was fine for a PIII/600, with the 128MB of memory and a reasonable 8MB ATI Rage Pro LT graphics chipset helping things along, and as we’ve said, even the 600MHz SpeedStep is breaking new ground relative to previous notebook processors when it comes to performance.

We were less happy about battery life though, which proved to be the Sigma’s weak spot. Everything went dark after a little less than two hours, and we’re really looking for rather more than that in our ideal notebook.

Despite the battery life, if you want a notebook at home or in the office rather than out on the road, the Rock is one of the most affordable SpeedSteps around at the moment.The Vaio is easily the most expensive SpeedStep notebook we’ve tested, and although dealer discounting should knock something off it will remain a pricey choice. The spec doesn’t differ wildly from the high-end norm, with 128MB of SDRAM, an internal modem and DVD as standard, although you do get a particularly large 18.1GB hard disk.

The Vaio does have its peculiarities however, most obviously an arrangement Sony calls the Intercooler Flap. When you open the machine, a section of the base hinges down and admits a flow of cool air directly on to the processor heatsink. At the same time, the open flap acts as a stand, tilting the notebook and making prolonged typing more comfortable.

There’s also the Jog Dial, a thumbwheel to the right of the keyboard which you use with a programmable pop-up menu for fast access to a wide range of features from application shortcuts to power management and other system settings. It’s potentially quite handy, but only if you are prepared to spend the time setting it up so that it does what you want.

The notebook is fairly portable at 3.1kg, but the case body was a little on the insubstantial side, which we weren’t too happy about, and the screen lid was plastic, not alloy. You might reasonably expect better general construction quality for this sort of money.

Possibly in order to accommodate the works of the Intercooler Flap, a number of essential ports have been omitted from the notebook itself and transferred to a rather bulky port replicator which will add 700g to the load if you need to take it with you on your travels. While a port replicator is undoubtedly an asset wherever your peripherals are kept, not everybody will be comfortable with the idea of a notebook dependent on one for its parallel, serial and even PS/2 ports.

Sony has equipped the Vaio with a 13.3-inch XGA screen which worked well enough, and we liked the special anti-glare, anti-reflective panel mounted over it, although you do have to be careful not to smudge the thing, especially while colleagues are admiring it. Nevertheless, given the price of this notebook, we felt that the screen was too small.

The Vaio’s keyboard was spacious and pleasant to use, and the machine turned out not just to be fast, but fast by the standards of PIII/650s in general. This was all to the good, but the somewhat average battery life of around 2 hours 20 minutes didn’t compare so well with the likes of the Gateway and the Dell, and once again, it raised the key question of just what you are getting for all this money.

Sony has built the Vaio brand well over the last few years, but branding alone can’t justify the price tag of this machine. The Vaio Note PCG-X18 is undoubtedly fast, but other SpeedStep machines around at the moment offer a better spec for the cash.Like the rest of the SpeedStep machines reviewed here (apart from the Rock), the Omnibook 900B is powered by the 650MHz SpeedStep PIII processor from Intel. What makes it unusual is that unlike the others – and most power notebooks – the emphasis is on portability. Both the reduced footprint and slimmed down 35mm thick case conspire to reduce the weight to just 2.1kg, which is well below the average for this class of machine.

In order to do this the designers have gone for a one-spindle design with an external floppy drive module. Irritatingly, HP charges £192 extra for the CD-ROM drive, but you might prefer to opt for a DVD-ROM player instead, as well as one or more of the other drive options which include a ZIP 100, an LS-120 and a second hard disk.

We noticed some flex in the body of the case, some give in the lid surface and a loose battery retaining panel, all of which placed a question mark over how robust this machine will actually prove to be on the road.

The other niggle was the spec that you get for the price: for such a large fist full of cash there’s not only the lack of a CDROM to contend with, but there’s also no modem and only 64MB RAM as standard, which makes this an expensive system, the 12GB IBM Travelstar hard disk notwithstanding.

Despite the reduced overall size the Omnibook retains reasonable ergonomics thanks to a 13.3-inch screen which delivers adequately readable XGA, and a keyboard that is properly laid out and big enough to be easily usable. You even get a combo pointing device giving you the choice between mouse pad or finger-joystick.

With SpeedStep enabled and running at 500MHz the battery should last around 2.5 hours, but we noticed that even with SpeedStep off and running at full speed the running time only fell by about 20 minutes, which might be good news if you really need the extra power, but as we’ve said, it doesn’t do much for Intel’s claims over the efficacy of SpeedStep as a power-saving technology.

Performance fell some way short of most full-sized 650MHz systems but the Omnibook is still very fast for a sub-notebook and ought to eat up the typically undemanding tasks for which most people use machines like this.One of the heaviest SpeedStep notebooks at 3.6kg, the Inspiron is also the most obviously intended as a desktop replacement, with its 650MHz SpeedStep PIII chip, 128MB of SDRAM as standard, large 12GB hard disk, 6-speed DVD-ROM drive and 15-inch screen. The main case is robustly constructed, but there was quite a bit of give in the plastic lid surface, which really needs to be strengthened to ensure that the screen is properly protected.

This is an all-in-one build, but the main bay can be used for a variety of options such as a CDROM, LS-120 or second battery pack. Also, the hard disk is removable and there’s a spare memory socket for upgrades which should make for trouble-free basic maintenance, which in turn helps to keep the cost of ownership down.

We took an instant liking to the spacious keyboard with its desktop-like layout, large keys and firm, quiet action. There’s no doubt that the keyboard benefits from the Inspiron’s larger than average footprint, but intelligent design and quality of manufacture have also played a key part (pardon the pun) in elevating it above the average. The screen is also a pleasure to use thanks both to its large 15-inch diagonal which improves readability, and to the relatively bright backlight, often a weakness of notebook displays.

Overall performance was impressive, and not far off what you can get from a business-orientated PIII/600 office system. The desktop-level performance and large screen didn’t kill the battery as we’d feared – in fact the Inspiron will run for around 3.5 hours with SpeedStep enabled. Once again however, we noticed that turning SpeedStep off only extended the running time by about 20 minutes.

This is an impressive mix of performance, features and battery life that shows what can be done when manufacturers try hard to create a decent desktop replacement. It’s a heavy machine, as you’d expect, but definitely one of the gems in this round-up.When it came down to deciding which of these notebooks made the grade, and which did not, the process of elimination was actually refreshingly straightforward.

First of all, there was the odd one out, the Hewlett Packard Omnibook 900, distinguished from the rest by its small size and low weight. These are certainly advantages to some buyers, and HP has managed to make the Omnibook quite a comfortable machine to use, but there were question marks over build quality, its battery life wasn’t great, and it was really rather expensive for what it was.

The cheapest of the rest was the Rock Sigma, which would have been all right as the budget choice but for poor battery life, so instead we’d say either keep waiting a while or spend £300 more and go for the Dell Inspiron, which is a very good value system indeed.

The Gateway Solo has better battery life and that 1280 x 1024 resolution screen, which could swing it for some people, but it does cost more – £2,199 + VAT as opposed to the Dell at £1,899. The Sony Vaio, meanwhile, had some nice design features but the build wasn’t very robust, and it’s enormously expensive considering what you get.

Looked at like this, the choice for most of us really lies between the Dell and the Gateway, with your personal choice determined by how much you are willing to pay for extra resolution and longer battery life.

Company: Dell

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