Like theToshiba Satellite E105and theHP Pavilion dv3510nroffered through Best Buy, the name of the game these days in consumer laptops is exclusive configurations, and the Gateway M-7818u is another such entry. Available only from Office Max, this 15.4-inch budget mainstream model has a good mix of components for its $779 price. Performance is adequate, though as with all budget models, you will have to live with some trade-offs.
The glossy Garnet Red chassis of the M-7818u looks great and makes the notebook seem like a pricier model. The 6.3-pound weight is similar to other mainstream portables and is fine for occasional travel. The color carries onto the keyboard deck, where a full-size silver keyboard in a black frame continues the striking design. Above the Function-key row you'll find Gateway's multimedia control buttons: an aluminum strip with razor cuts separating the different key areas. The controls look great and were very responsive (unlike the first generation of those controls, which were stiff), though on the M-7818u they aren't backlit--the first indication that costs had to be cut somewhere.
Display and Speakers
The 1280 x 800-pixel resolution on the Gateway M-7818u's 15.4-inch widescreen is lower than you'll find on pricier units, but the panel was comfortable to work on and delivered a bright, vibrant image. Colors popped, and motion and color reproduction on our Pirates of the Caribbean DVD were excellent. The panel's horizontal viewing angle was wide, although looking at the screen from above showed a brightness shift.
Another place where the M-7818u's low-price roots show is in the built-in speakers. Pop in a music CD (we used The Killers' Sam's Town) and you'll hear thin, weak audio that sounds like an old transistor radio. Audio quality is passable for other chores, such as online video or for dialog in a DVD movie, but more bass and richer sound is in order, especially for a laptop with multimedia leanings.
Above the screen is a 1.3-megapixel webcam. Gateway's Camera Assistant utility can be launched from the system tray or by revealing the applet by hovering the cursor along the left side of the screen. The camera supports five resolution levels ranging from 160 x 120 to 1280 x 1024. You can capture video, audio, and stills, and add frames or other clip art (though the choices tend to be a bit cutesy). The camera's bright-light performance is typical for such webcams, with good color reproduction and a reasonably sharp image.
Low-light situations confused the M-7818u's camera on our trials. When we first enabled the camera in a dim room, the preview window showed our image momentarily, then went almost completely black. Similarly, changing settings in the applet's control panel would make our image flicker to life, only to go dark after a few seconds. Bringing up the lights a bit helped, and the camera was then able to capture an accurate, albeit grainy, image. This is in contrast to better cameras we've tested, which needed only the light from the laptop's LCD panel to deliver a usable image.
Ports and Features
The M-7818u's specs are mostly typical for a mainstream laptop. You get an 8X multiformat dual-layer DVD burner, a 250GB hard drive, 802.11a/g/n wireless, a 5-in-1 card reader, an ExpressCard/54 slot, three USB ports (but no FireWire), Gigabit Ethernet, and a modem. Gateway has included both a VGA port and HDMI for displaying the PC's image on an external monitor, with the latter enabling audio and video output with a single cable. Unfortunately a Blu-ray drive is not an option.
Power comes from a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T5800 processor and 4GB of RAM, which Gateway has made standard fare even in its $800 laptops. The M-7818u scored 2,096 on PCMark Vantage, which is acceptable for the price but more than 1,000 points below average compared to other mainstream portables we've tested.
In our hands-on use, the M-7818u worked well. It booted Windows Vista Home Premium (64-bit) in a decent 1 minutes and 8 seconds. In iTunes, it converted about 2 hours of music in just under 5 minutes, which is a reasonably quick result for a budget model. Multitasking showed the processor's limits, though; the same iTunes encoding task required nearly 6 minutes with Windows Defender performing a virus scan in the background. With faster machines, we've seen just a few seconds' difference between the two test runs. The 5,400-rpm hard drive showed throughput of 16.0 MBps on the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media), which is a shade slower than other mainstream machines.
As expected, the integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD graphics card is decent for less-demanding 3D titles, but not for high-frame-rate action gaming. On 3DMark06 (which tests DirectX 9 3D graphics, CPU, and 3D features) the M-7818u managed a score of only 589, and on 3DMark03 (which tests DirectX 9 performance) it delivered 1,593. Its 3DMark03 score is nearly 3,400 points below the category average, and its 3DMark06 score is 2,500 points below average for mainstream notebooks. Our gaming tests echoed these results, with the machine delivering an almost-playable 23 frames per second on F.E.A.R. with automatic settings enabled but an unusable 7 fps with the game set to the notebook's native screen resolution.
Wi-Fi and Battery Life
Wireless throughput was above average for the class, at 20.6 Mbps at 15 feet and 20.0 Mbps at 50 feet (the category averages are 18.1 and 15.4 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively). A six-cell battery is standard; it delivered 3 hours and 41 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi)--about 20 minutes longer than the mainstream average.
Software and Warranty
Beyond the Windows Vista components, bundled software is typical for a budget laptop--which is to say light, with a heavy dash of trialware. The most noteworthy inclusions are Microsoft Works 9.0 and a 60-day trial for Office Home and Student 2007, Microsoft Money Essentials, CyberLink Power2Go, and a 60-day subscription to Norton 360. Gateway backs the M-7818u with a one-year standard warranty.
Gateway M-7818u Verdict
All things considered, the Gateway M-7818u is an attractive, budget-price mainstream unit that won't disappoint, as long as your expectations are realistic given the price. The bigger question is whether it's worth going out of your way for. The Office Max-exclusive M-7818u is very similar to Gateway's more widely available M-6340u. The M-7818u has a smaller hard drive (250GB vs. 320GB) but better integrated graphics (Intel 4500MHD vs. Intel X3100) than the M-6340u, and it costs $20 less. If some 3D gaming is on your agenda, opt for the better graphics; if you do only 2D productivity work, the larger hard drive on the M-6340u is the way to go.