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-- by Jonathan Blackwood and Jim Forbes
The notebook bar has been raised again. Intel's new mobile 166MHz, MMX-enabled Pentium processor for notebooks is the fastest chip for mobile computing yet.
The two notebooks in this review-Dell's Latitude LM M166ST and Gateway 2000's Solo 2200 S5-166BB-bested the non-MMX 200MHz Toshiba Infinia 7200 (a former resident of our WinList of recommended products) on application macros. Even compared to the best non-MMX 166MHz desktop systems, these notebooks ranked near the top of the pack in application performance. And if multimedia is the air that you breathe, both notebooks blew away any non-MMX Pentium system, notebook or desktop in performance on MMX-enabled applications.
Dell Latitude LM M166ST
It seems like every few months there'll be a new Intel processor and a new NeoMagic video controller chip, and Dell will roll out a new notebook that we'll discover is the fastest there is ... to date.
Thanks to the new LM M166ST, it's happened again. This notebook also has the winsome combination of features that earned its predecessor-the LM P133ST-a spot on our WinList: active-matrix Super VGA, 12.1-inch display; a modular bay that will accept the floppy disk drive, a second (optional) lithium ion battery or a CD-ROM drive (beefed up to a 10X model); terrific battery life, exceeding 2 hours on a single battery under the most rigorous conditions with no power management enabled; and 40MB of RAM, a 256KB level 2 cache and a 2.1GB (nominal) hard drive. Windows 95 is the standard OS, though NT 4.0-including power management and PCMCIA card support-should be available by the time you read this. Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition is also standard (meaning Word, Excel, Access and Outlook, but no PowerPoint). Look over the feature set, and you can almost hear Roy Orbison singing, "Anything you need-you got it."
There are ports galore in this 2- by 11.8- by 8.9-inch, 6.9-pound unit: serial, parallel, IrDA-1, speaker, microphone, external VGA, PS/2 and port replicator. Two PCMCIA slots are on the system's left side; they'll simultaneously accommodate one Type III or two Type II cards. The 87-key keyboard has the Win95-specific keys, and standard 19.1mm spacing and 3.0mm travel. The Ctrl key is located at the extreme bottom left of the keyboard, where it's easy to find for Word and Excel keyboard shortcuts. The keyboard is comfortable to use for long periods, but occasionally a key doesn't register properly, resulting in misspelled words. The touchpad is a good one. But even the best touchpads allow stray movements that send the cursor careening out of position, and the LM M166ST's is no different. The built-in, 16-bit FM-synthesis stereo sound is Sound Blaster Pro-compatible and drives two small integrated speakers. There's also a built-in microphone.
Dell was one of the first manufacturers to catch on to the superiority of NeoMagic's video controllers, and it's paid off well. The latest, the NeoMagic 2093, sports 128-bit hardware acceleration over a 64-bit PCI bus with 1.1MB of video memory. That's enough to drive the 800x600 display up to a color depth of 65,000 colors, or an external monitor up to 1024x768 at 256 colors. You won't have to squint at the 12.1-inch display, even in 800x600 mode. It's bright and beautiful, with crisp images. It's not as large as the new models that are 13-plus inches, but it's much less expensive. Image size is roughly comparable to a 14-inch CRT. The battery takes about 3 hours to charge when the machine is turned off and about 4 hours with the power on.
On our Wintune benchmarks, the LM M166ST racked up average scores of 326MIPS, uncached hard disk throughput of 4.46MB per second (which is a terrific score for a desktop, and even more terrific for a notebook) and video throughput of 13.33Mpixels per second. Average times to execute our Word and Excel macros were 14.22 and 11.33 seconds, respectively. Overall score on Intel's MMX Technology Application Benchmark was 120.57. (See the accompanying chart for a comparison of the overall performance of the Dell Latitude LM M166ST to the Gateway Solo 2200 in this review, and other systems.)
Unlike some manufacturers, Dell provides a three-year warranty for its notebooks: first-year return-to-depot (48-hour turnaround), and second- and third-year parts service.
Gateway 2000 Solo 2200 S5-166BB
Gateway's new Solo 2200 S5-166BB notebook was the fastest notebook we'd ever tested-until the Dell Latitude arrived. Combine this with a superb feature set, and you'd think such an exemplary machine would leapfrog its competition and land squarely on our WinList. However, the Latitude is a marginally better performer.
But what a machine Gateway hath wrought! This 166MHz MMX Pentium notebook will ship with 80MB of RAM, a 2GB removable EIDE hard drive, Zoomed Port video, a 64-bit PCI graphics controller/accelerator with 2MB of video memory, an 8X CD-ROM drive, modular floppy disk drive, integrated EZ Pad touchpad cursor controller, 12.1-inch, color active-matrix screen and 256KB of pipeline-burst cache memory. Not bad for $5,099. A 33.6Kb-per-second PCMCIA data/fax modem is standard, although the unit supplied to us by Gateway 2000 did not include this peripheral. Also, the preproduction unit we examined had only 40MB of RAM.
The Solo comes with a full complement of ports. There are external serial, parallel, PS/2, stereo audio out (for headphones or speakers), line-in, line-out and microphone jacks. Add to these an NTSC/PAL jack (for using this notebook to display information on televisions equipped with comparable jacks) and an infrared port, and you can connect to just about anything.
Supplied software includes Microsoft Office, Franklin's Personal Information Manager, Microsoft Windows 95 and a variety of communications packages.
The on/off switch is positioned on the left rear portion of the system case, just to the right of five LEDs that display system status. Like most current portables, system functions (such as speaker volume and other features) are controlled by function keys.
The PCMCIA bays are on the back of the left-hand side of the system case. We tested three PCMCIA modems-all were correctly identified by the Solo's Plug-and-Play BIOS. There's an internal expansion bay on the right-hand bottom side of the case for the 8X CD-ROM and 3.5-inch floppy disk drives. We found the drives difficult to remove, but perhaps the process becomes easier as you get more accustomed to the unit.
The keys on the 85-key keyboard have a nice feel and offer solid tactile feedback. The touchpad is in the middle of the integrated palm rest and incorporates two paddle switches oriented lengthwise on the front of the system case; it was one of the better touchpads we've used.
The 12.1-inch screen on the Solo 2200 is not as bright as some other comparably sized displays, though the color rendition was quite good. The stereo output on the two integrated speakers should be more than adequate for most one-on-one settings, although we recommend using external speakers for delivering presentations to larger groups. The battery life on the Solo 2200 S5-166BB is 2 hours on a single 3500-milliwatt lithium ion power cell. If you need more battery life than that, you may want to consider buying an optional second battery.
The Solo posted superb benchmark scores for its processor and video subsystems. The 166MHz MMX Pentium clocked 324MIPS. Its Chips and Technologies video accelerator produced 11.66Mpixels per second throughput. Average uncached hard disk throughput was 1.37MBps. The Solo completed our Word and Excel application macros in average times of 16 and 11 seconds, respectively. These are scorching scores, and come close to those of the Dell Latitude LM M166ST, with the exception of the relatively poor hard disk throughput. The Solo 2200 S5-166BB had an overall score of 134.22 for the Intel MMX Technology Application Benchmark, slightly better than the Dell.
What sets the Gateway Solo S5-166BB apart from machines like the MMX versions of NEC's and Toshiba's high-end notebooks? Its 80MB of base RAM. Even when equipped with 40MB of EDO memory, it beat NEC's, Texas Instruments' and Toshiba's comparable offerings.
The Gateway 2000 Solo 2200 S5-166BB was almost good enough to merit a place on our WinList. But it's the Dell Latitude LM M166ST that will replace its sibling, the Dell Latitude XPi CD P150ST, on the list. Its benchmarks were even more impressive than those of the Solo, plus it boasts a much faster hard disk, a 128-bit graphics controller and a 10X CD-ROM drive. And it costs much less. Rarely do two such groundbreaking portables come to market at the same time. Either notebook would be a superb choice, but in a head-to-head competition, the Latitude LM M166ST wins by a nose.