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Introduction, Design, User Interface
As you may already know from my ultrabook editorial, I’m not entirely sold on them. There are disadvantages to being thin.
And as if to remind me of it, a Lenovo ThinkPad T420 suddenly appeared at my doorstep. Okay, that’s exaggerating a bit - I did know it was coming - but the timing of receiving an old-school laptop couldn't have been better. Not only because I wanted to take a closer look at a laptop purposely designed to not be thin, but also because we haven’t had a ThinkPad T series for review in, well, forever.
This is a return to form for me. I owned several ThinkPads during my late teens, my college days, and the years just after college. My favorite was a T42 with a 14-inch display.
Of course, laptops have come a long way since then. The ThinkPad T420 we received for review is a good example of a mid-range model. Let’s look at the hardware specifications.
According to Lenovo’s website, this configuration is the second pre-configured option available. It can be had for about $1000 after an eCoupon provided by Lenovo. All of the features above are standard, even the 1600x900 display and Nvidia graphics. They are standard only for this model, however - some less powerful versions are available at lower prices.
The only option that came with our review unit was a 9-cell battery, which will set you back $50. We received both the 6-cell and the 9-cell batteries, so we will be testing the laptop’s battery life with both.
Introduction, Design, User Interface, Display And Audio Quality
We have a lot of laptop reviews here at PC Perspective. As you’d expect, we generally use the same benchmarks and use the same principles whenever reviewing a laptop.
Yet we’ve never before put all of this down in writing so that our readers could understand exactly what we’re doing. Since this is a new year with new laptops to review, now is a good time introduce new benchmarks and get rid of old ones - which also makes this a good time to share information with our readers.
The first page of any laptop review here at PC Perspective is dominated by some very subjective criteria.
Design comes first, and is also the most subjective. It refers to a laptop’s build quality, general layout and attractiveness. This is where we comment on a laptop’s aesthetics, and it’s also where we comment on a laptop’s perceived durability. We look at details like the display hinges, the chassis, the display lid and overall material quality. An ideal laptop design is attractive to the eye, pleasurable to touch, and feels sturdy in normal use.
Introduction, Design, User Interface
Late in December of 2011 we received the Transformer Prime for review. What we did not recieve, however, was the keyboard dock. High demand by journalists for a look at the company's latest and greatest Transformer had left them short of docks, in turn leaving us short of a dock.
Now we've finally had our hands on one. Since it was shipped to us several weeks after the review Prime, we were able to give it our full attention. As with the original Transformer, the dock is one of the features that help the Prime stand out from the crowd - but that doesn't mean it is automatically destined for greatness. If the Prime wants to act like a laptop, it will have to be able to compete with laptops - and that's a tall order for a system without Windows or an x86 processor.
Besides a keyboard, the dock adds a few other specifications that are worth mentioning. Let's take a look at them.
So, as with the previous dock, you’re not just buying a keyboard. You’re also receiving an extended battery with impressive capacity and some additional connectivity. Given the MSRP of $150, however, you’d kind of expect there to be more than just a keyboard.
The Prime seems to have no trouble achieving notable firsts. It was the first tablet with a Tegra 3 processor to go to retail, and now it’s the first tablet to have official Ice Cream Sandwich support. The update, scheduled originally for January 12th, actually went live after a surprise announcement on January 9th during Nvidia’s CES conference.
Since we still have our Prime review unit, this update provides us with a unique opportunity to compare Honeycomb and Ice Cream Sandwich side-by-side on the same device. This update is important for the Prime - and all upcoming Android tablets - because the operating system is something that’s currently holding back a number of products with great hardware.
Honeycomb was never an OS that impressed me. It’s often jerky, lacks elegance, and has poor app support. So long as Honeycomb was the version of Android shipping on tablets there was simply no chance for an Android tablet to defeat the iPad 2. The software simply wasn’t up to the high standard set by iOS.
Ice Cream Sandwich is a chance at redemption. The rumors have spread like wildfire. Various sources have reported improvements including better multi-core support, a faster web browser, improved notifications and much more. Official announcements have generally limited themselves to commenting on feature improvements, however - going into the ICS update I didn’t have any expectations for performance improvements because none were ever provided by Google. Nvidia also never set any expectations about the improvements, if any, we’d see from Tegra 3 processors running ICS.
Now that the Prime is updated we can test ICS out for ourselves. Let’s jump in, starting with the interface updates.
Introduction and Design
As a writer and laptop reviewer, I am constantly bombarded with the chance to look at new laptops. These are the latest and supposedly greatest the industry has to offer. Comparing these modern laptops with each other provides you, the reader, with information about what you should buy today. But it doesn’t provide a wider perspective throughout the years.
There’s a long line of common complaints that are leveled at modern laptops including poor display quality, underwhelming build quality, and crappy keyboards. Certainly, there seem to be room for improvement in these areas on many laptops. Yet nostalgia has a tendency to obscure our view of the past. Was that laptop you used to own really superior to anything on the market today? Or is your memory clouded by the good times you had using it at a friend’s LAN party or writing an important paper twelve hours before it was due?
To find out, we’re going to step into the past and do a review of a nearly five-year-old laptop, the Acer Extensa 5420. This 15.4” laptop was not a top-of-the-line model when it was put on sale in 2007. It was the very picture of mainstream computing, a completely average dual-core laptop with discrete graphics that typically sold for between $500 and $600, depending on the configuration.
Introduction, Design and Ergonomics
The original ASUS Eee Pad Transformer was a bit of an upset in the tablet market. Before its launch, there was no particular reason to believe that ASUS would be able to provide a better product than any of the many other PC manufacturers entering the Android tablet fray. Sure, I like most of the ASUS products that I’ve been able to review, and I believe they have some good engineers. But they also had no experience beyond a few Windows tablets and convertible tablets.
Yet they were successful. At the time I called the Transformer "the best Android tablet on the market today” and gave it with a Gold Award. Consumers apparently agreed, as it flew off shelves with such speed that ASUS has decided to debut a follow-up only half a year after the original hit the market.
Introduction and Design
Back in June of 2011, we reviewed AMD’s new Llano mobile processor line by taking a look at a testbed system. The overall review was favorable, but it was also based on the best AMD had to offer, a quad-core A8-3500M processor running alongside a separate Radeon discrete GPU.
If you take a tour through your local electronics retailer, you’ll find that this is not the most common combination of parts on store shelves. The less expensive and less powerful A4 and A6 processors are more common. In our original Llano laptop review, I theorized that these would remain competitive at their respective price points, but we didn’t have the opportunity to test a laptop equipped with the less expensive hard.
Now, via the ASUS K53T, we finally have a chance to thoroughly examine a mid-range Llano laptop.
Introduction and Design
When I think of inexpensive workhorse laptops, Inspiron is one of the first names that comes to mind. This may partially be because HP remains oddly committed to a strange number-based naming scheme that’s as easy to remember as my second cousin’s birthday, but it’s also because the Inspiron is as common as rice. In college, they seemed to be the most popular Windows PC by far, and they’re still sold by most brick-and-mortar electronics stores despite Dell’s significant online presence.
Part of the reason for this popularity is price, and that means Inspirons are often competent, but can also be a bit dull. There’s always exceptions to the rules, however, and Dell has decided to spice up the brand with the new Inspiron 14z. Starting at $599, this “thin and powerful” laptop could be appealing consumers who want to get on the slim-and-sexy train for cheap, but trying to cram a lot of hardware in a small chassis with an inexpensive price can sometimes result in compromises. Did Dell have to cut corners to make this possible?
Introduction and Design
Ultrabooks are now on store shelves, but that doesn’t mean the more traditional ultraportables are dead - not by a long shot. Thin may be cool, but the high price premium attached to ultrabooks means that they will, at least for now, be a niche product. Meanwhile, the workhorse 13.3” ultraportable will remain popular.
One of the most accomplished manufacturers of this type of laptop is ASUS, which has been building U-Series ultraportables for several years now. We’ve generally given them high marks here, but now there is a new model to check out, the updated U36. Unlike the stylish U33 Bamboo, this model is a tough, simple laptop that seems to take ques from Lenovo’s ThinkPads. Has this compromised the series? Let’s find out.
Introduction, Design and Ergonomics
The tablet market is starting to heat up. After a long period of dominance by the iPad and its long line of Android imitators, we have new competitors looking to spoil the tablet world order. On the high-end we have the incoming volley of buff Tegra 3 based products, and on the low end with have the Kindle Fire, a simple $199 tablet that seems to prefer that its users don’t think for a second about the hardware inside.
That’s actually a bit odd, because the hardware inside is at least competitive. Though priced $300 less than the cheapest iPad 2, the Fire offers a dual core processor at the same clock speed of 1 GHz. It also provides 512MB of RAM and 8GB of storage, neither of which will blow away competitors, but all of which is competitive. While the 7” size of the Fire means there is simply less tablet to build, it’s impressive that Amazon has managed to cram reasonably impressive hardware into one of the cheapest Android tablets on the market today.
Hardware is only a small part of equation, however. Amazon really intends the Fire to be a portal to its world of services, which includes ebooks, streaming video, apps and much more. This is very much a walled garden, even more so than Apple’s iPad, and for it to work the spoils of the garden need to be damn good. Let’s see if $200 is really a good value given that users must buy into Amazon’s services as well.
Introduction, Campaign Testing
As you might have noticed, we’re a bit excited about Battlefield 3 here at PC Perspective. It promised to pay attention to what PC gamers want, and shockingly, it has come through. Dedicated servers and huge multi-player matches are supported, and the browser based interface is excellent.
If we’re honest, a lot of our hearts have been stirred simply by the way the game looks. There aren’t many titles that really let a modern mid-range graphics card stretch its legs, even at 1080p resolution. Battlefield 3, however, can be demanding - and it looks beautiful. Even with the presets at medium, it’s one of the most attractive games ever.
But what does this mean for laptops? Has the resident laptop reviewer at PC Perspective, I know that gaming remains a challenge. The advancements over the last few years have been spectacular, but even so, most of the laptops we test can’t run Just Cause 2 at a playable framerate even with all detail set to low and a resolution of just 1366x768.
To find out if mobile gamers were given consideration by the developers of Battlefield 3, I installed the game on three different laptops. The results only go to show how far mobile gaming has come, and has far it has to go.
Introduction and Design
In the realm of hulking, powerful gaming laptops, Alienware remains king by popular vote. Whatever you think of their laptops (as always, popularity attracts criticism) there is no denying that the Alienware name stands for something among gamers. And to most, they're a dream machine, the laptop equivilent of a Ferrari 458 Italia.
The purpose of a review, of course, is to move past reputation and judge the true capabilities of a product. And in the case of the Alienware M17x, there's a lot to judge. We’ll talk about its bulk later, but I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that this laptop has big bones as well as serious hardware.
One paper, the stars seem to align. But this market remains competitive, thanks to not only to boutique outfits like Origin and Maingear but also to ASUS, which is still on its gaming laptop war-path, producing affordable rigs that can be had for surprisingly little dough. With competition on all sides, can the Alienware justify its $2500 price of entry? Let’s find out.
The Alienware M17x Giveth
Mobile graphics cards are really a different beast than the desktop variants. Despite have similar names and model numbers, the specifications vary greatly as the GTX 580M isn't equivalent to the GTX 580 and the HD 6990M isn't even a dual-GPU product. Also, getting the capability to do a direct head-to-head is almost always a tougher task thanks to the notebook market's penchant for single-vendor SKUs.
Over the past week or two, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a pair of Alienware M17x notebooks, one sporting the new AMD Radeon HD 6990M discrete graphics solution and the other with the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M.
AMD Radeon HD 6990M on the left; NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580M on the right
Also unlike the desktop market - the time from announcement of a new mobile GPU product to when you can actually BUY a system including it tends to be pretty long. Take the two GPUs we are looking at today for example: the HD 6990M launched in July and we are only just now finally seeing machines ship in volume; the GTX 580M in June.
Well, problems be damned, we had the pair in our hands for a few short days and I decided to put them through the ringer in our GPU testing suite and added Battlefield 3 in for good measure as well. The goal was to determine which GPU was actually the "world's fastest" as both companies claimed to be.
Introduction, Design and Display Quality
I’m a multi-monitor addict.
My addiction started many years ago. I had a rather lame customer service job, and as part of my job I needed to manage spreadsheets with customer interactions while also filling in data on a separate, large window. To accomplish this, two monitors were required. I was amazed at the efficiency of the setup, and I bought a second monitor for home use within a few months. Now, I can’t imagine using my desktop with a single display.
Laptops, however, are a different story. Multiple displays can actually be even more useful for road warriors because of the limited resolution of many laptops, yet there are issues with using multiple monitors on the road. Carrying around even a relatively small desktop monitor is out of the question, leaving few options.
Enter the Lenovo LT1421. This unique mobile monitor has a 14” panel and, according to Lenovo, it’s portable enough to be carried about with minimal hassle. Has the company managed to create a unique, must-have product for mobile productivity, or is multi-monitor use with a laptop still a concept that’s better on paper than in reality?
Down to Business
While I'm mostly a PC guy, I favor iPhones. My friends always jab at me because I'm a fairly die-hard techie, and they expect me to be sporting the latest overclocked super-smartphone with eleventy-thousand gigs and a built-in dishwasher. While my phone used to be included in the list of things I tinker with endlessly, I eventually came to the point where I just wanted my smallest mobile device to 'Just Work' for those tasks I needed it to. I just didn't have the time to tinker endlessly with the thing that handled more and more of my work-related duties, yet as a techie, I still enjoyed the ability to cram a bunch of functionality into my pocket. That led me to the iPhone, which I've used since 2008.
Like many iPhone users, I've upgraded through the various iterations over the years. The original, 3G, 3GS, 4, and most recently the 4S. I've also witnessed nearly every iteration of Apple's iOS (including many of the betas). Throughout all of these, I feel Apple did their best to prevent new versions from breaking application functionality, and while they did their best to keep bugs under control, every so often a few would creep in - typically with cross-compatibility of new features that could only be tested in a limited capacity before being released into the wild.
Apple's iPhone 4S introduced some added features to their line-up - enough to get me to bite the bullet earlier than I typically do. I was a bit of an iOS 5 veteran by then, as I'd been using it to test applications for a developer friend of mine. While some of the iOS 5 betas were a bit unruly in the battery life category, those problems appeared to be sorted out by the last and final beta prior to release. With my reservations against the new OS put to rest, the only thing holding me back was the possibility of the new dual core CPU drawing more power than the iPhone 4. The iFixit teardown (which revealed a higher capacity battery - presumably to counter power draw of the additional CPU), coupled with the improved camera and witnessing the endless toying around with Siri finally got me to bite the bullet.
I picked up a 4S from my local Apple Store, restored from the backup of my 4, and off I went. I enjoyed the phone for a few days, but quickly realized there was some sort of issue with battery life. The most glaring indicator was one night where I forgot to plug the 4S in before bed. The next morning I was surprised to find that nearly 40% of the charge was lost while I slept - almost enough to completely shut down the phone (and failing to wake me with the alarm I'd gleefully set via Siri the night before).
Introduction, Specs, Design and Ergonomics
Samsung's Galaxy S II smartphone debuted in the U.S. with Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile in September and we finally got our hands on a review sample. The Samsung smartphone runs on Android 2.3 "Gingerbread" operating system and includes an 8 MP camera with LED flash and 1080p video, front facing 2 MP camera, and Samsung’s custom TouchWiz user interface.
T-Mobile and Sprint’s version sports a 4.52-inch display, but AT&T’s version has a 4.3-inch screen that matches the original international version of the Galaxy S II. We are reviewing T-Mobile's Galaxy S II with 16GB of internal memory (there are two options for 16 and 32 GB). The Sprint and AT&T versions are outfitted with a dual-core 1.2 GHz Orion processor, but the T-Mobile version we are reviewing today sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon S3 1.5 GHz dual-core CPU.
Introduction and Design
Sound. It seems to be one of the new battlefields on which notebook computers are fighting, which is odd, because audio quality has until recently been so rarely a central focus of notebook manufacturers. Today, the artillery is clearly placed. HP arrived first with Beats Audio, but others have responded, such as MSI with its Dynaudio branded laptops and now ASUS with this Bang & Olufsen tagged N55, which comes with an external subwoofer by default.
Yep, that’s right. It’s not a large subwoofer (that’s the point - it’s small enough to potentially be transported in same bag as the laptop), but clearly ASUS is taking sound seriously with this laptop. Yet there’s so much more to a laptop that its sound, and that’s particularly true with a system such as this. Everywhere you look, the N55’s specification scream performance. A Core i7 quad-core mobile processor is the heart of the machine, and snuggles up with an Nvidia GT 555M graphics processor. What else is there to be had? Have a look.
Introduction and Design
When the Apple MacBook Air originally debuted, geeks took note, and Windows laptop manufacturers ramped up efforts to meet that super-thin laptop on its own turf. Surprisingly, one of the first to respond was MSI, a company that is still struggling to define itself among a mainstream American market dominated by the likes of HP, Toshiba, Dell, and others.
MSI managed to significantly undercut the Air with its X340, but the build quality was also nowhere near what Cupertino’s engineers had managed. Yet MSI is not one to give up, and they’ve made moves to refine the X series over the years. As the price has dropped further, and the processor selection changed, comparisons to the Air have become less obvious.
That’s particularly true with this latest MSI X370, which now makes use of the AMD E-350 Fusion APU. This processor is nothing new, and we’ve tested it before at PC Perspective. Yet this laptop is different from any previously we’ve reviewed product with this processor because of its size.
Kal-El Tegra SoC to use 5 cores
Recent news from NVIDIA has unveiled some interesting new technical details about the upcoming Kal-El ARM-based Tegra SoC. While we have known for some time that this chip would include a quad-core processor and would likely be the first ARM-based quad-core part on the market, NVIDIA's Matt Wuebbling spilled the beans on a new technology called "Variable SMP" (vSMP) and a fifth core on the die.
An updated diagram shows the fifth "companion" core - Courtesy NVIDIA
This patented technology allows the upcoming Tegra processor to address a couple of key issues that affect smartphones and tablets: standby power consumption and manufacturing process deviations. Even though all five of the cores on Kal-El are going to be based on the ARM Cortex A9 design they will have very different power characteristics due to variations in the TSMC 40nm process technology that builds them. Typical of most foundries and process technologies, TSMC has both a "high performance" and a "low power" derivative of the 40nm technology usually aimed at different projects. The higher performing variation will run at faster clock speeds but will also have more transistor leakages thus increasing overall power consumption. The low power option does just the opposite: lowers the frequency ceiling while using less power at idle and usage states.
CPU power and performance curves - Courtesy NVIDIA
NVIDIA's answer to this dilemma is to have both - a single A9 core built on the low power transistors and quad A9s built on the higher performing transistors. The result is the diagram you saw at the top of this story with a quad-core SoC with a single ARM-based "companion." NVIDIA is calling this strategy Variable Symmetric Multiprocessing and using some integrated hardware tricks it is able to switch between operating on the lower power core OR one to four of the higher power cores. The low power process will support operating frequencies up to only 500 MHz while the high speed process transistors will be able to hit well above 1-1.2 GHz.
Introduction and Design
Tablets may be the darling of the tech industry, but they’ve also received their fair share of criticism as well. One of the most consistent barbs throw towards them is the tablet’s inability to serve as a competent platform for content creature. While it’s technically possible to write a document or edit an image on a tablet, it’s certainly not enjoyable.
Part of the problem is the lack of a keyboard and mouse. Touchscreens are beautiful and intuitive, but they’re not precise. While third-party cases and docks have tried to solve this issue, they’re often both clunky and expensive.
It’s little surprise that a tablet designed specifically to work in conjunction with a keyboard dock has hit the market, but it is surprising that the first such device comes from ASUS, a company with relatively little experience building mobile products. The Eee Pad Transformer is already the second-best selling tablet on the market (after the iPad, of course) and reports indicate sales are constrained by supply rather than demand. What is it that has made the Transformer a quick success?