by admin ·
We don’t like cheap laptops, but we love inexpensive ones. The difference is one of degree–a cheap laptop looks and feels shoddy, and woefully underperforms. An inexpensive laptop uses its budget wisely, offering a reasonable mix of components at a reasonable price, and doesn’t try to unfairly raise consumer expectations. AMD’s Fusion platform, which packs a CPU and discrete GPU together, has been a hit on inexpensive 11-inch ultraportables, but translating it to a larger 15-inch laptop is another story. At that size, user expectations are quite different, and the handful of attempts we’ve seen at using an Intel Atom or other low-power chip in a midsize laptop have all been failures.
The Toshiba Satellite C655D, for example, was an AMD Fusion 15-inch laptop that did not offer satisfactory performance. However, that system used the very low-end E-240 version of AMD’s CPU. In contrast, the Gateway NV51B05u uses the same E-350 AMD CPU found in the HP dm1 and Lenovo ThinkPad X120e. Those examples are excellent 11-inch laptops for around $400, but that CPU can also feel sluggish, especially while multitasking, when packed into a 15-inch shell.
But for $469, the Gateway NV51B05u is a solid choice for a midsize laptop under $500 (where the options can be thin). For most Web surfing and casual use, it works well, and the graphics capabilities, while basic, are good enough for casual gaming and online video viewing.
The Gateway NV51B05u looks like a standard inexpensive laptop from a few feet away. It’s not until you get up close that you see the plastic body has been stamped with an unusual wood-grain pattern that covers the wrist rest and back of the lid. It’s at least different from the usual, but it also emphasizes the plastic nature of the materials. In the end, we’d chalk it up as an aesthetic choice, and let you decide if it’s a deal breaker.
On the positive side, the system looks and feels slim, especially for a budget 15-incher, and the power brick, while heavy, is compact enough to fit in most laptop bags.
The keyboard will be familiar to anyone who has used a laptop from the past few generations of Gateway systems. Closely spaced flat-topped keys go from nearly one end of the body to the other, although the keys are actually large flat tops sitting on top of narrower spokes, so the edges of each key can wobble a bit. The wider 16:9 aspect ratio allows for a full number pad on the right side.
The touch pad, however, is another story. It’s centered under the QWERTY keyboard, but because of the right-side number pad, that means the touch pad sits more toward the left side of the chassis, which can feel awkward at times. A bigger problem is that the pad is too small for a 15-inch laptop. It gets lost in the same-color wrist rest, and there’s clearly plenty of room for a bigger touch pad. Also bugging us is that there’s a single rocker bar instead of separate left and right mouse buttons–a longtime pet peeve.
The 15.6-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366×768 pixels, which is common for most 11-inch to 15-inch laptops (more expensive midsize models may trade up to a 1,440×900-pixel display). The screen gets more than bright enough, but an overly glossy coating picks up glare from any nearby light source. Off-axis viewing, however, was excellent.
You miss out on obvious extras such as Bluetooth or USB 3.0 here, but a more glaring drawback is the single monaural speaker–however, budget laptops are known for their tinny sound, so you may not be missing much. Still, it’s a rare bit of cost-cutting we usually only see in the cheapest Netbooks.
You do at least get a big 500GB hard drive to go with the AMD E-350 CPU. In our benchmark tests, it performed about as well as other E-350 laptops, all of which have been 11-inch systems so far. It was particularly slow at our multitasking test, especially compared with Intel’s new generation of mainstream Core i-series CPUs, which have really set a new performance bar–but we have yet to see one of those chips in a system in this price range. Note that the Gateway seriously outperformed the Toshiba Satellite C655D, which tried to get away with a slower E-250 AMD CPU in a 15-inch body.
The AMD Radeon HD 6310 GPU, which is the graphics part of the Fusion platform, is a definite step up from the integrated graphics found in last year’s sub-$500 laptops. It won’t play the latest high-end games at high resolutions, but for casual gaming it should suffice, and we were able to easily stream full-screen HD video. In Street Fighter IV, we got 21.4 frames per second at 1,366×768-pixel resolution, and 23.5fps in Unreal Tournament 3 at the same resolution.