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.
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.
It's not one of AMD's new Turion X2 Ultras, but the Gateway's Turion 64 X2 TL-60 processor is a respectable 65-nanometer-process, 2.0GHz CPU with 512K of Level 2 cache for each of its two cores. It's paired with an ATI RS690T chipset, which is paired with 128MB of dedicated memory (and can borrow more from system memory) for its Radeon X1270 integrated graphics.
The latter is an old and humble DirectX 9.0 graphics solution, which put on a slide show (6 frames per second) in our DX9 benchmark test Gun Metal 2 at XGA resolution. It improved to 9 fps in the OpenGL test Lightsmark 2007 at 1,200 by 800 resolution.
Other results weren't quite as rock-bottom, with a 3DMark06 score of 311 at full-screen resolution with no antialiasing. The Gateway rendered Cinebench 10's sample scene in 4 minutes and 20 seconds with both CPU cores firing.
As for overall performance, our usual SysMark 2007 application benchmark doesn't run under 64-bit Windows, but the Gateway gets a Windows Experience rating of 3.0 on Vista's 5.9-point scale. The notebook's suitability for gaming graphics is the low point, but it earns relatively high ratings for both system memory and the 250GB, 5,400-rpm Western Digital hard drive.
Image and Input
Speaking of graphics, the M-1626's widescreen display is reasonably bright (at its top two or three backlight brightness settings) and colorful, if not particularly vivid despite its glossy coating. None of our test unit's 1,280 by 800 pixels were bad, and Gateway's wise/thrifty decision to forgo any higher resolution for its 15.4 diagonal inches made easy reading of even small icon and menu text, even in dimly lit rooms.
The laptop's keyboard is spacious and holds no layout surprises -- all right, the Ctrl key is second from left instead of far left in the bottom row, as we inevitably grouse about, but Delete is in the top right corner where it belongs, and there are real Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys instead of Fn-plus-cursor-arrow impostors.
We wound up disabling horizontal scrolling, which seemed to pop into play whenever we wanted simple horizontal cursor movement, but both the touchpad and twin mouse buttons below it are amply sized and comfortably smooth to use.
In addition to Vista Home Premium 64-Bit, the Gateway comes with 60-day trial versions of Symantec's Norton Security 2008 and Microsoft's Office Home and Student 2007 plus Works and Money Essentials. The Wild Tangent game service and Napster music player are also standard, as is Gateway's consumer-friendly BigFix upgrade notice utility. A nice pull-out sidebar at one side of the screen controls the 1.3-megapixel webcam centered above it.
Frankly, mainstream 15.4-inch notebooks are getting squeezed between 14- and 13-inch and smaller lightweight travelers and 17-inch deluxe desktop replacements. That said, the M-1626 (or another Gateway M Series model, some with Intel and some with AMD power), is a solid, workmanlike choice for its $850 price, especially for anyone shopping for 64- rather than 32-bit Windows. The trouble is, we don't think there'll be swarms of such shoppers at Office Depot.
On a 5-star scale:
This article was first published on Hardware Central.