PC prices have come way down? A thousand bucks will buy you a first-class desktop? Even less will buy you a capable notebook? This is incredible! What's that you say? Why yes, my name is Van Winkle. How did you know?
Obviously it's no longer news that even non-tech-savvy, non-wealthy consumers are buying PCs at which even experienced power users can't sneer (well, can sneer only at their lack of gonzo gaming graphics or ponderous power supplies). The shelves of Staples or Best Buy or Wal-Mart or [insert retailer here] are full of such machines.
Nor is it a shocker to find vendors better known for direct online and phone sales, such as Dell and Gateway, at your nearest superstore, often selling slightly different, prepackaged configurations of the systems you see on their Web sites. The Gateway M-1626 is one such machine -- a version of the company's M-Series 15.4-inch laptop with a sober black instead of some models' snazzy red or blue case, available for $850 at Office Depot.
It's still a bit out of the ordinary, however, to find a 64-bit operating system between the toner-cartridge and ballpoint-pen aisles. The AMD Turion 64 X2-powered Gateway comes with 4GB of dual-channel DDR-2/667 memory, a chunk more than 32-bit Windows Vista can use but a good amount for the preinstalled Vista Home Premium 64-bit edition.
Technically speaking, we're tickled to see mainstream consumers board the 64-bit computing bandwagon. Practically speaking, we're not sure it's worth it: The number of 64-bit x86 programs is still exceptionally small and still skewed toward specialized and/or enterprise applications. Heck, there are still disappointingly few multithreaded applications that take full advantage of multicore processors.
Until that changes, the main benefit of 64-bit Windows for M-1626 owners will be better multitasking for their 32-bit wares, and -- in something likely to puzzle retail consumers more than it will power users -- they'll give up a small but significant amount of driver and application support to get it. Indeed, the laptop comes with a DVD with both 32- and 64-bit flavors of Vista Home Premium, along with documentation saying, "The powerful, preinstalled Windows Vista 64-bit edition is not for everyone" and giving drive-reformatting instructions for those who "prefer to install 32-bit Windows Vista for comprehensive hardware and software compatibility."
And as far as megatasking is concerned, the supplied 4GB of system RAM is the Gateway's hardware ceiling. That will disappoint geeks who might dream about the operating system's support for up to 16GB.
So, 64-bit Vista aside, what does the M-1626 have to offer? Basically, bread and butter: a capable, full-sized notebook with nice features and decent performance for any productivity (as opposed to gaming or video-editing) job.
Our biggest complaint is that, though the Gateway is more portable than some of its 15.4-inch peers, it has the poor battery life of a larger desktop replacement -- an hour and a half in our disk- and multimedia-intensive sessions, peaking at an hour and three-quarters for undemanding word processing and spreadsheet work. We were also bemused to see Windows' low-battery warning pop up every time we booted the laptop on battery power, even if the battery was actually full.
Clad in matte black with a grippable if slightly smudge-prone textured lid, the Gateway measures 10 by 14 by 1.5 inches and tips the scale at 5.9 pounds -- just under our this-is-too-much-to-carry threshold -- with the AC adapter bringing total travel weight to 6.7 pounds. Fancy styling touches are limited to a flush-fitting strip of Windows Media Center and multimedia control keys above the keyboard.
You'll find microphone and headphone jacks on the front edge of the system, with the Optiarc dual-layer DVD±RW drive -- with LabelFlash technology to etch labels onto special CDs, as with the LightScribe drives in many HP computers -- joined by a USB 2.0 port on the right. VGA and modem ports are at the rear.
On the M-1626's left side are two more USB ports; an Ethernet connector; a flash-card slot for SD, MMC, xD, and MS/Pro storage formats; and an ExpressCard/54 expansion slot. The left side also offers a not-yet-common feature -- an HDMI port for connecting the Gateway to many HDTV sets. Unfortunately, the ATI Radeon 1270 integrated graphics hit the wall at the screen's native 1,280 by 800 resolution instead of supporting any 720- or 1080-line HDTV modes.