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-- by Jim Forbes
Three new notebooks from AST Computer, Gateway 2000 and Hewlett-Packard bring together high-performance processors, big screens and great features for an unbeatable combination geared toward professionals who require mobile PCs with near desktop-equivalent features. All three portables offer a 12.1-inch or larger screen, a 166MHz Pentium MMX processor, 32MB (or more) of memory and new hard drives that make short shrift of complex computing tasks.
AST Ascentia P80 166
The AST Ascentia P80 166 has the most basic configuration of the three notebooks in this review. Our unit was an early production prototype, but it was nearly identical to the shipping system. It includes a 166MHz Pentium MMX microprocessor, 32MB of EDO system memory (expandable to 80MB), 256KB of level 2 cache memory, a 3GB hard drive, an internal 28.8Kb-per-second modem and a full complement of external ports, including infrared. The 12.1-inch screen is an active-matrix color panel driven by a Cirrus Logic CT F65550 PCI-based video controller. The notebook comes standard with a 10X maximum speed CD-ROM drive that fits an internal bay.
Measuring 2.25 by 12.1 by 8.98 inches, the P80 166 has a travel weight of 7.9 pounds, including the CD-ROM, the 3.5-inch floppy disk drive and the power supply. AST uses a great keyboard-the keys have about 3 millimeters of throw and offer terrific tactile feedback. We also liked the construction, including the positions of the PCMCIA bay, the hard disk and the floppy disk drive/CD-ROM bay.
Native resolution for the color panel is only 800x600 pixels (although the notebook will drive 1280x1024 displays on external monitors). In fact, the Cirrus video controller on this notebook is one of the unit's most serious shortcomings. Even so, the display used on this computer is brilliant, and the colors are quite crisp.
Battery life was surprising-2.9 to 3.1 hours using advanced power management. Since most 166MHz Pentium MMX notebooks we've tested deliver under 2 hours of power, this portable's battery life is noteworthy. We also like AST's decision to use a removable hard disk on this machine.
With an average processor benchmark score of 321MIPS, the Ascentia's 166MHz Pentium MMX processor is on track with other high-end notebooks. However, the score for its video throughput was disappointing. The Cirrus video controller produced an average of only 13Mpixels per second (by comparison, the Gateway Solo 9100's score was 21Mpixels per second). The uncached disk throughput was 1.56MB per second, which is about average, as were the benchmark scores. It took 27.6 and 14.3 seconds, respectively, to run our Word and Excel tests and 24.2 minutes to complete our multimedia benchmarks.
The AST Ascentia P80 166's construction and reliability are very good, and its battery life is excellent. Its overall performance is about average for this class of notebook, but an improved video controller is needed to make the AST Ascentia P80 166 a serious contender.
Gateway 2000 Solo 9100
Gateway 2000's Solo line of notebooks (manufactured by Sanyo) is one of our favorite notebook families. It's not that Gateway blazes new trails with Solo, but rather that it carefully chooses what it brings to market. The Solo 9100 proves this by blending features that really make this portable a replacement for a desktop.
The Gateway Solo 9100 is one of the most distinctive portables we've tested. Its base configuration includes a 166MHz Pentium MMX processor, 4MB of video memory, a very good 13.3-inch active-matrix TFT screen, a 3GB hard drive, 32MB of EDO system memory (expandable to 180MB), a combination CD-ROM and 3.5-inch floppy disk drive, two USB ports, an NTSC/PAL port and an outstanding audio subsystem. A 33.6Kbps PCMCIA modem is standard.
Everything about the Solo is big. At 2.2 by 12.1 by 9.56 inches, it's slightly larger than most notebooks and has a travel weight of nearly 9 pounds. All of its external connections are on the back, an aesthetic design element that's important to anyone who regularly delivers presentations.
Solo 9100's display, driven by a Chips and Technologies 65554 video controller and 4MB of memory, has the underlying power needed to drive complex multimedia displays. We also liked this notebook's ability to easily connect to large televisions and external monitors, a feature we think is important because it expands the category of peripherals mobile professionals can use to deliver presentations and other content-rich material.
The Phoenix BIOS used on the Solo supports Desktop Management Interface (DMI), which allows hardware and software configurations to be monitored from a central station in the network-another feature that's important for corporate notebook users.
Other features we appreciated include the combination CD-ROM and 3.5-inch floppy disk drive. Our tests showed the variable-speed CD-ROM drive delivered throughput in the 10X range. Given the Solo's configuration, we were pleasantly surprised by its battery life of 2.5 hours (using power management)
Basic benchmark results for the Solo 9100 were very good. Its processor delivered an average of 321MIPS. Its 3GB hard drive cranked out an above-average 1.9MBps of uncached disk throughput. Not surprisingly, its video subsystem delivered 21Mpixels per second of video throughput when tested at a resolution of 1024x768 at 16 bits per pixel. The Gateway Solo took 30 and 13.7 seconds, respectively, to complete our Word and Excel benchmarks and 22.3 minutes to finish our multimedia benchmarks.
HP OmniBook 5700CTX
The HP OmniBook 5700CTX has just about everything the corporate user could want, including a 166MHz Pentium MMX processor. It uses a bright, colorful 12.1-inch screen powered by a graphics subsystem based on a Chips and Technologies 65554 PCI video controller (with a native resolution of 1024x768 pixels) and comes with
a 3GB removable hard drive. It's got 512KB of level 2 cache, along with the normal allotment of serial, parallel, PCMCIA and IrDA (4Mb per second) ports, and above-average audio. Standard system memory is only 16MB, but the unit we tested had 32MB.
This notebook, whose competition includes the Toshiba Tecra 760, is aimed specifically at the corporate market. One distinguishing aspect is its BIOS software from SystemSoft which, in the shipping version, will allow you to "warm dock" (or swap) components without a complete system shutdown. This feature is an important consideration for any notebook targeting the corporate user. Another solid business feature is HP's TopTools, preinstalled software that captures and reports the system's configuration to network administrators, thereby simplifying support in networked, enterprise environments.
Like most fully featured 166MHz notebooks, the 5700CTX is large. It measures 1.93 by 11.6 by 8.9 inches and, with its power supply and both 10X CD-ROM and 3.5-inch floppy disk drive packed, has a travel weight of 7.9 pounds.
We liked Instant On, a feature that lets you turn the machine off, pack it up and go without waiting for a complete shutdown cycle. Another feature we liked is the ability to use the 5700's 3.5-inch floppy disk drive configured internally or externally. When it's used externally, the drive can be plugged into the parallel port.
This system's 2.5-amp battery yielded a disappointing 1.75 hours using the advanced power setting and our battery rundown tests, a far cry from the results we had with the AST Ascentia P80 166.
The OmniBook 5700's benchmarks highlight this notebook's stability. Tested at a resolution of 1024x768 pixels at 16 bits, its video subsystem produced 15Mpixels per second of throughput. At a lesser resolution of 800x600 pixels at 16 bits, it bested the Ascentia P80 166 with a score of 16Mpixels per second.
The OmniBook's processor, however, did not score as well as the Ascentia's, cranking out only 317MIPS; its uncached disk throughput totalled 1.5MB per second, comparable to the score for the Ascentia. The results of our benchmark scores were 31 and 17 seconds for Word and Excel, respectively, and 22.4 minutes for our multimedia benchmarks.
Although the OmniBook's performance marginally lags AST's Ascentia P80 166 in some areas, we think the combination of its BIOS, the TopTools software bundle and its more capable video system make it an excellent choice for corporate notebook customers.
Summing it up
While none of the three new 166MHz notebooks we reviewed posted results near those of the reigning 166MHz notebook on our WinList-the Dell Latitude LM M166ST-these three machines are great examples of the new steps being taken in notebook computing. For example, the Gateway Solo 9100 is one of the most complete multimedia notebooks we've ever tested.
Machines like the Solo begin to blur the differences between mainstream (not workstation class) desktop and portable personal computers; they set new standards for high-end corporate notebooks. And the HP OmniBook 5700CTX provides advanced features that include SystemSoft to add "warm dock" capability and HP TopTools to simplify support in an enterprise environment. Look for other vendors to incorporate similar features to keep pace with the leaders.
Windows Magazine, August 1997, page 121.
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