For people with simple needs, Gateway’s MD2601u offers an attractive design, fast hard drive, and strong wireless range. The only people who won’t like it are people who demand longer battery life or who plan on doing lots of gaming or heavy multitasking. Otherwise, for $499 (at Best Buy) this 15-incher is one of the best budget notebooks we’ve tested this year.
With the exception of screen size, the MD2601u is identical in design to the 14-inch TC Series, which we reviewed recently. It has the same glossy burgundy lid with a thin, brushed-metal stripe running length-wise down the middle. The black bezel also has a glass finish that’s thin and shallow enough that you won’t miss having a glass-to-glass display.
Under the lid, the MD has a glossy keyboard deck, complete with orange touch-sensitive controls, a brushed-metal palm rest, and textured, chunky keys. As with the TC series, the multimedia controls didn’t exactly respond to the slightest tap, but we mastered them quickly enough.
At 6.6 pounds and 1.7 inches thick at its thickest, it’s not exactly svelte. While it’s relatively easy to move from room to room, we don’t expect many users to travel with this notebook.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The look of the rough, closely grouped keys against an otherwise glossy chassis is jarring. That said, we had an easy time typing on them. We enjoyed the shallow pitch of the keys, as well as their large size, although the panel itself felt a bit stiff.
The touchpad, on the other hand, is one of the more elegant details on the machine. It’s rimmed in metal, and the sides angle downward at geometric angles, meeting at the touchpad in the middle. The pad felt large enough, and its textured surface provided just the right enough amount of friction, making it easy to draw the cursor across the screen. We quickly got the hang of the scroll strip on the right side and had a good amount of control over how far pages scrolled. The long touch buttons provided good tactile feedback and weren’t too noisy.
Display and Sound
The 15.6-inch (1366 x 768) display has a 16:9 aspect ratio, that extra-wide, movie screen–like design that’s become de rigueur on mainstream notebooks. Although it looked sharp when we watched an episode of Heroes, the reflective finish limited viewing angles, both from the sides and from the front with the lid pushed down; any off-angle made the screen looked washed out.
The speakers produced loud sound and were great for watching movies, but music, including tracks by James Brown and The Roots, sounded tinny and the bass was low.
Ports and Webcam
The MD2601u has a generous selection of ports, most of which are easily accessible on the sides of the notebook (the audio jacks, as is often the case, are on the front side): four USB ports, HDMI and VGA output, Ethernet and modem jacks, two headphone ports, a microphone port, and a Kensington lock slot. It also has a 5-in-1 memory card reader.
The notebook also has a 1.3-megapixel webcam, which produced fluid, sharp video, although skin tones looked reddish.
The MD2601u has a 2.1-GHz AMD Turion X2 Dual-Core Mobile RM-72 CPU, Windows Vista Home Premium (64-bit), 3GB of RAM, and a 250GB 5,400-rpm hard drive. Although we weren’t able to run PCMark Vantage, our usual performance benchmark, our other tests hinted at good performance. The hard drive, for instance, transferred a 4.97GB folder of mixed media at a rate of 20.2 MBps, whereas the average mainstream notebook does it at a rate of 18.3 MBps. The notebook took 1 minute and 6 seconds to boot, while the average is 1 minute flat, but we blame the bundled software more than the components.
In our hands-on testing we always felt the MD2601u was fast enough for our needs. We had no problem switching between several tabs in Internet Explorer, all the while downloading and installing iTunes, QuickTime, jZip, and Handbrake. Moreover, we had no problem Web surfing when we started watching 720p clips in QuickTime.
When it came to heavier multitasking, though, the MD2601u’s low-end specs became obvious. For example, it took 10 minutes and 9 seconds to transcode a 5:05 MP4 clip to the AVI format using Handbrake. That time rose to 22:18 when we zipped a 4.97GB mixed media folder in the background. Even the Toshiba Satellite L300, which has an older 2.16-GHz Intel Pentium processor and 2GB of RAM, performed the same task in 7:57 and 17:49, respectively.
Although the MD2601u’s graphics scores fall below the mainstream averages (5,972 and 3,075 for 3DMark03 and 3DMark06, respectively), its integrated ATI Radeon HD 3200 card still performs better than the integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD card you’ll find in many other budget systems. For instance, whereas it scored 2,650 and 1,293 on these tests, the $499 15.4-inch L300 scored 2,090 and 735 with the GMA 4500MHD card.
When it came to real-world gaming, the MD2601u’s scores were decent. When we tried playing Far Cry 2, a graphically intensive game, we saw rates of 16.5 frames per second with the display set to 1024 x 768, and 6.4 fps once we cranked the effects and resolution to 1366 x 768.
The MD2601u does a better job with less-intensive graphics cores. Using Google Earth, for instance, we flew to the Gaudi House-Museum in Barcelona. The flight there had a few hiccups, and the screen took a few seconds to look sharp once we zoomed in on our destination, but overall the experience was fluid.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
The six-cell battery lasted 2 hours and 24 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which falls squarely below the 3:13 category average. If you intend to keep this multimedia machine plugged in most of the time, it’s not a deal breaker. But for people who like to Web surf on the couch and around the house, the weak battery life is the MD2601u’s most serious drawback.
On the flip side, the Wi-Fi performance, powered by an Atheros 802.11b/g/draft-n radio, is excellent. We saw throughput of 20.4 Mbps and 19.9 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively, whereas the average mainstream laptop manages 18.6 Mbps and 15.8 Mbps.
The MD2601u is one of several preconfigured SKUs for the MD Series. Although it is listed at $649 on Gateway’s site, Best Buy sells it for $499. If you don’t like the burgundy color, Best Buy also carries the $529 MD2614u, which has the same specs but a glossy black finish.
Gateway offers eight different SKUs for the MD series, including the two above. At the bottom end, the MD7330u (available for $549 at Newegg.com) has a 2.0-GHz Intel Pentium Mobile T4200 CPU, 3GB of RAM, 32-bit Vista Home Premium, a 320GB hard drive, and draft-n wireless. The most expensive SKU is the $999 MD7826u, which includes a 2.26-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P8400 CPU, 4GB of RAM, 64-bit Vista Home Premium, a 320GB hard drive, and an Intel WiFi Link 5100 draft-n wireless radio. Both of these high and low-end machines come in black.
Software and Warranty
Like many low-cost consumer notebooks, our MD2601u came with a good deal of trial and bundled software, including Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 (including a compatibility pack and PowerPoint 2007 viewer), CyberLink LabelPrint and Power2Go, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, Microsoft Money Essentials, Symantec Norton 360, PowerDVD, Windows Live Essentials, and Yahoo Toolbar. The system comes with a one-year warranty, including 24/7 toll-free phone support.
For little more than most netbooks, the Gateway MD2601u offers style, a large 16:9 display, strong wireless range, and good performance for everyday tasks like Web browsing, word processing, and media playback. All budget notebooks demand some compromises, and this system is no exception: its multitasking might and battery life are all lacking. Nevertheless, at $499, the MD2601u is a great value.