Review: New Media Center Notebooks Up The Ante

These integrated powerhouses from Acer, HP, Sony and Toshiba stand up to comparably configured desktops

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The latest Media Center notebooks can more than hold their own against comparably configured desktops, while possessing sleeker designs and the promise of portability.

The notebooks considered for this roundup review integrate a wealth of integrated options and peripherals such as speakers, cameras and widescreens with integrated Dolby speakers. They also pack fatter hard drives with plenty of storage and higher frequency RAM. Overall, these notebooks offer the best of both the personal and professional worlds: They are optimized for playback of digital media and the presentation of rich business applications, making them a good choice for the home, dormitory or traveling business executive.

Digital Connect Lab engineers evaluated a handful of systems from top-tier players: the Toshiba America Qosmio G35-AV600, the Acer TravelMate8200, the Sony VAIO SZ160PC and the Hewlett-Packard Pavilion dv8000t.

Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV600
Engineers began this review with the Qosmio because the design, feature set and bundled technology of past products have set the standard for multimedia notebook computers. More often than not, Toshiba has raised the bar and pushed the notebook design envelope, leaving other vendors to play catch-up.

The G35-AV600 (priced at $2,399) is a remarkable unit, although the offerings from the other vendors considered here are not too far behind. That might be one reason Toshiba considerably reduced the Qosmio's price compared with previous offerings.

The Qosmio offers the ultimate in entertainment-oriented features. The review unit was powered by Intel Centrino Duo Mobile Technology featuring an Intel Core Duo Processor with a speed of up to 1.83GHz. The memory consisted of 1,024 Mbytes of DDR2 SDRAM and included two 80-Gbyte SATA hard-disk drives.

The Qosmio incorporates one of the best 17-inch widescreens CRN engineers have seen, providing native resolution of 1,440 x 900. NVIDIA's GeForce 7300 provides 256 Mbytes of video memory and supports today's most advanced 3-D applications, including Microsoft DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 3.0 and true high dynamic-range (HDR) lighting. NVIDIA PureVideo technology offers high-definition video and superb picture clarity with minimal CPU usage. The G35-AV600 delivers a rich sound from the stock stereo and multichannel audio Dolby Home Theater speakers. One thing that stood out was the amplification from the Harman/ Kardon bass reflex technology. The overall build of the Qosmio is solid and will look good wherever it travels.

As for connectivity, the unit supports all 802.11x options, as well as Bluetooth. Those connectivity options give integrators the opportunity to set up a variety of different devices.

CRN engineers would like to see Windows XP Pro on the Qosmio rather than Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE). As odd as that may sound for such a strong multimedia device, the MCE software is not up to par quite yet. Digital integrators we've spoken with say they struggle continuously with the not-so user-friendly software.

Acer TravelMate 8200
Acer is the only vendor in this review that has decided to exclude Microsoft MCE from its notebook product line. Instead, the TravelMate 8200 considered here ships with Windows XP Pro.

The Travelmate 8200 ($2,299) is a high-end laptop designed with Intel's new Core Duo processor, with the CPUs running at 2GHz compared to the Qosmio's 1.83GHz. It includes an ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 graphics card, 120 Gbytes of hard-drive space and ships with 1 Gbyte of DDR2 memory.

As for optical drives, the unit includes a DVD+R Double Layer/DVDRW, which was also found in all units we tested. The built-in Web camera was not included in the other notebooks.
The unit includes built-in Bluetooth and incorporates all wireless access for multiple connectivity options. One note: CRN engineers found the location of the network port--on the side rather than the back--cumbersome.
Aesthetically speaking, the TravelMate8200 is comparable to all other Acer units CRN engineers have reviewed in the past. For the most part, these notebooks include a strong, sturdy design with a carbon fiber cover for the lid.

The 15.4-inch screen of the reviewed unit is bright with a native resolution of 1,680 x 1,050. Although not a full 17-inch monitor, the difference in size is negligible.

One feature that stood out with the Acer unit is that it performs extremely fast no matter the task. CRN engineers were surprised to see how responsive it was when simultaneously using many of the preinstalled multimedia applications.

Sony's VAIO family of notebooks have long been touted as true multimedia units.

The vendor's latest offering, the SZ16OPC top-of-the-line unit ($2,499.99), continues down the path of its predecessors with an ultra-thin and ultra-light appearance.

One thing that has always stood out about VAIOs is the excellent quality of the image on the screen.
Even with this unit's small and thin design, it is still capable of sporting a 13.3-inch widescreen display with true-to-life images. Video played on the unit was vibrant, and all colors were sharp without any streaking or ghosting.

Similar to Toshiba's Qosmio unit, the SZ160PC notebook includes Intel's Centrino Duo mobile technology, running at 1.83GHz. It includes a SATA drive with capacity of 100 Gbytes. It also boasts 1 Gbyte of DDR2 RAM as well as NVIDIA's GeForce Go 7400, which is coupled with Intel's Graphics Media Accelerator 950.
One downside to this notebook was the loosely housed battery. The design should have a tighter construction, leaving no wiggle room for battery displacement.

HP Pavilion dv8000t
Befitting its bethemoth size, HP's Pavilion dv8000t ($2,134.99 with a $50 mail-in rebate) is a multimedia powerhouse.

The dv8000t notebook incorporates Intel's Centrino Duo mobile technology running at 2.16GHz. Of the four units considered for this roundup, the Pavilion system incorporated the most horsepower. It also boasted the largest hard-drive capacity with 200 Gbytes of disk space. The unit included an NVIDIA GeForce Go 7400 integrated graphics processor with 256 Mbytes of VRAM and shipped with 1 Gbyte of dedicated DDR2 SDRAM.

The unit is home to a 17-inch widescreen BrightView panel. Similar to the other notebooks in this review, still pictures and video images both displayed great.
Even though HP claims that this unit will allow consumers to take desktop digital media performance on the road, its size hinders true portability--although, on the flip side, the notebook is extremely sturdy.

As far as connectivity options, the Pavilion dv8000t includes integrated wireless support for 54g 802.11a/b/g WLAN and Bluetooth.

HP shipped CRN engineers an expansion port, the xb2000 Notebook Expansion Base ($24), which provides a true desktop computing experience.
All four units reviewed offer a one-year warranty on their multimedia designs.

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