The Highest-End Notebooks, 2009by Jarred Walton on October 14, 2009 3:10 AM EST
A couple weeks ago we looked at Intel's new Clarksfield mobile CPU. The short story is that it's the mobile equivalent of Lynnfield, except at lower clock speeds and higher prices. We provided a first look at Clevo's W870CU and compared it with a couple other high-end offerings: the AVADirect Clevo D900F and the Eurocom M980NU XCaliber. We didn't have time in our initial article to run all of our usual benchmarks, so today we want to look at the rest of the story and finish out our benchmark suite. We will also be providing detailed commentary on the design and features of the three notebooks -- something we omitted in the first article.
Taken as a whole, these three notebooks represent the high water mark for mobile performance for the next several months -- and perhaps longer. The AVADirect D900F is the pinnacle of "mobile" processor performance… not by using the fastest mobile processor, but by using the fastest currently available desktop processor. Clocked at 3.33 GHz, the Core i7-975 outperforms any Core i7 mobile CPU by a sizable margin. With one core active, Turbo Boost on the i7-920XM can reach 3.2 GHz, but that's as close as you can get (and the i7-975 can still Turbo up to 3.60GHz). Considering the two processors have the same price tag of $1000, the only reason to go with an i7-920XM is if you want lower power requirements.
On the other side of the table, the Eurocom M980NU represents the best of what we can achieve in mobile graphics performance. It pairs two of NVIDIA's GTX 280M GPUs in SLI. Needless to say, the two graphics chips can consume quite a bit of power, so the trade-off is that SLI is only practical right now when using mobile CPUs, and at present GTX 280M SLI is only available with Core 2 platforms. A similar notebook in terms of performance is Alienware's M17x, although the chassis and design is substantially different from the M980NU. Thus, you can choose between maximum processor performance (D900F) or maximum graphics performance (M980NU/M17x), but you can't get both.
The odd man out is the Clevo W870CU. In terms of graphics performance, it can match the D900F, but it's never actually faster. It can exceed the M980NU in CPU performance at times, but it can't keep up with the SLI gaming performance (unless the M980NU is CPU limited). What it does have is the ability to consume less power, sometimes quite a bit less. Unfortunately, this is counteracted by battery sizes. Where the D900F ships with a 12-cell battery, the W870CU only comes with a 4-cell battery. The model we received is rated at a paltry 42 Wh, although it appears that a high-capacity 65 Wh battery is an option at some vendors. Interestingly, the Eurocom M980NU also lists a 4-cell battery, so potentially we could see an 8-cell version offer nearly twice the battery life. Considering the size of the battery compartment, what we'd really like to see is something closer to the 95 Wh battery available in the D900F. The only reason to avoid such a large battery appears to be weight, and the W870CU is 3 pounds lighter than either of the other notebooks if that matters to you -- but it still weighs almost 9 pounds.
Besides performance, there are obviously differences in terms of chassis, features, and pricing. The W870CU is the cheapest of the three notebooks, starting at around $2150 and coming with moderately high-end options for around $2900. The D900F and M980NU both start at closer to $2500, with typical configurations ranging from $3000 up to $3500. If you want to start putting in multiple SSDs, you can of course get prices that scale into the $5000+ range.
As usual, if you're not in the market for a heavy, high-performance notebook it's unlikely you will be interested in any of these offerings. Battery life is horrible, typically lasting around one hour for moderate usage scenarios. As such, the mobility aspect should be viewed more as a UPS/battery backup instead of something that you will be able to use to go mobile. (Note that we'll look at the Alienware M17x separately in the near future, as it has slightly different mobility aspects.) These notebooks do have the ability to function as desktop replacements for many people, but again performance is going to be lower than what you can get in a similar cost desktop. The benefit is that you can easily pack up a notebook and carry it with you, and there are people that do exactly that, using these as mobile workstations. Now let's take a closer look at these three notebooks and see where they excel and where they may fall flat.
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MonicaS - Friday, October 30, 2009 - linkI think the best way to get a high end laptop is to build one. Obviously you are very limited in what you can with a laptop over a desktop, but still the options are enough. The obvious upgrades are HD and Ram. On that note you can Raid to SSD's and put in some serious ram on a 64 bit machine and have a incredibly fast machine. The other benefit of this is that you can basically pick your own laptop to upgrade and not have to buy fugly one.
Los Angeles Computer Repair
Shadowmaster625 - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - link"Unfortunately, 60GB isn't enough space to install even a small subset of our gaming benchmarks"
All you have to do is move the game folders to the big drive when you're not using them, and move them back over to C:\Program Files when you need to use them. It takes all of 2 minutes (or 10 seconds for a multitasker) and is surely smarter than wasting hundreds of dollars on bigger SSDs, no? Are we that lazy?
Draxanoth - Thursday, October 22, 2009 - linkI see a lot of complaints for no good reason in these comments. If you don't like them, don't buy them. Complaining about something you don't own nor want sounds like bitterness at the price tag.
I have an M570etu, which is the dual core version of the GTX280 Clevo model with the orange trim. It's a lot better looking in person, those pictures are awful. 3.2ghz I think but I'd have to check. My battery life is 3 hours non-gaming. It easily functions as both a mobile and a gaming machine. I don't have any problems with Call of Pripyat in HD either. i7 in a laptop is overkill, and if you want one with a decent battery life that's a poor choice. Why is anyone surprised by that?
Meaker10 - Saturday, October 17, 2009 - linkYou can already get official mobile drivers for all laptops for windows 7 the same version as the desktop set for the HD 2,3 and 4 series.
JarredWalton - Saturday, October 17, 2009 - linkTrue, but the real question will be whether this is a one-time thing (because Win7 is launching and ATI has to have valid drivers or they'll be in deep trouble), or if this is a change going forward. I'm inclined to think it's just for the Win7 launch, since they don't provide mobile drivers for anything besides Win7. Vista and XP users are still the vast majority of people and will be for a good while to come, and there are laptop users that literally haven't received updated ATI drivers in years.
I'll keep an eye on things, and hopefully ATI will change their stance officially at some point. At present, searching for ATI Mobility Radeon drivers for XP and Vista only gives you the choice of X1800 or earlier GPUs. It looks like perhaps the integrated HD 3200 on laptops might also have up-to-date drivers in XP/Vista, but discrete GPU laptop owners are out of luck for now if they don't upgrade to Win7.
jmhorridge - Saturday, October 17, 2009 - linkI and my work colleagues must regularly fly to other countries for a week or two, and there perform computations (economic forecasting) that can occupy a quad-core for 2 or 3 hours. These big DTR laptops (or luggables) are the only way to get the job done. Battery life is not an issue -- always used plugged in.
An mATX system (with monitor) would weigh twice as much, might not suit all voltages, and, in a suit case, would bust the flight weight allowance. However, everyone is allowed to carry on a laptop -- no matter how big.
I'm very pleased to see such machines reviewed.
Kishkumen - Friday, October 16, 2009 - link"it appears most notebook manufacturers are convinced users aren't interested in matte LCDs anymore."
Then they are wrong and I will not buy their product. I've passed up some pretty awesome notebooks over the past couple of years. Looks like I'll be passing up many more. If I'm the only one who can't stand glossy displays, then so be it, but I'd rather go without then pay good money for something that is the visual equivalent of fingernails on a chalkboard for me.
EBH - Thursday, October 15, 2009 - linkFalcon NW should have been in the review. Their machines > than any Aienware
JarredWalton - Friday, October 16, 2009 - linkI'm not sure why you say Falcon is so much better than Alienware. They're basically the same thing as AVADirect, but with far fewer options.
Fragbox DRX = Clevo D900F with custom paint.
Fragbox TLX = MSI MS-1722 (GX720) with custom paint.
I/O = MSI MS-1361 (X340)with... yup, custom paint.
AVADirect also offers all three of those, with optional custom paint. Pricing definitely isn't in favor of FNW, though perhaps they have better customer service. Let's see, using as close to identical options as I can get (including custom paint on the AVADirect models):
D900F AVADirect = $4545
Fragbox DRX = $6086
MSI GX720 AVADirect = $2229
Fragbox TLX = $2625
MSI X340 AVADirect = $1292
I/O = $1727
I think the main draw of Falcon is if you want a special paint job with some custom image (i.e. not just the Exotix Single Color option). That can add over $1000, but at least then you have something truly unique. Anyway, inasmuch as performance and features are concerned, Falcon was in this review, albeit indirectly. The same goes for WidowPC and ProStar and anyone else that uses whitebook chassis.
nortexoid - Thursday, October 15, 2009 - linkI'm sure most would be better off buying a desktop (of the same caliber) and a cheap netbook for mobility, and for the same price as these ghastly beasts.
The only market I can see for these things is someone who goes to LANs more often than he should, and who would rather port around a 10lb+ notebook than a desktop + LCD or all-in-one. But this has to be a very small niche market.