Gateway's NV series, which includes mainstream and desktop replacement-sized laptops alike, always makes our list of favorite budget notebooks. That's because for the money they offer an attractive design, strong performance, long battery life, and reliable Wi-Fi. The 17.3-inch NV7901u, which boasts discrete ATI graphics and an Intel Core i5 processor, is no exception. While the NV's same old design quirks--namely, a slightly uncomfortable keyboard and stiff touch button--still make it imperfect, this machine is a great deals for multimedia mavens (and even gamers) on a budget.
For better and worse, Gateway hasn't messed with the NV series' design, including its glossy, subtly patterned lid (our system was black); the wide, cylindrical hinge; the matte chassis; the flat, flush keys; nor the single, stiff touch button. While multimedia shortcuts are built into the function keys (a la the MacBook Pro), there's a row of touch-sensitive buttons above the keyboard, from which you can adjust the volume, launch Gateway's MyBackup software (more on that later), and enable or disable Wi-Fi and the trackpad. There's also one programmable button, marked "P," from which you can launch any application you like, such as a Web browser or Microsoft Word.
At 7 pounds and 16.2 x 11.0 x 1.0-1.4 inches, the NV7901u feels heavy in the hands and is a pain to carry for more than a few feet. And yet, its weight is reasonable for a notebook this size. The Dell Studio 17, another 17-inch notebook, weighs 7.8 pounds.
Although the NV7901u gets warm, it still doesn't become quite as hot to the touch as other big screen notebooks. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, we recorded temperatures of 91 degrees on the touchpad, 94 degrees at the center of the keyboard, and 94 degrees on the underside of the notebook. The typical desktop replacement reaches temperatures of 91 degrees, 94 degrees, and 95 degrees in these respective spots. However, the NV7901 did reach 105 degrees near the vent, which is hot.
Display and Sound
Click to enlargeOne of the best reasons to buy the NV7901u, aside from its strong performance and long battery life, is its gorgeous 17.3-inch display, whose high resolution of 1600 x 900 is as ideal for multitasking with lots of open windows as it is enjoying HD movies. Although we really dug the colors while watching an episode of "Modern Family" streamed from Hulu as well as an episode of "Heroes" on DVD, we found that the reflective finish limited our viewing angles from the sides and with the lid pushed forward.
We're less enthused about the speakers: even though the audio was loud, everything from "Just a Friend" by Biz Markie to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" sounded tinny with weak bass notes.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The NV7901u's keys feel too closely grouped, given the machine's 16.2-inch-wide footprint. Even though the individual keys are large, we too often hit the wrong one, a mistake we seldom make on island-style keyboards. Typing didn't feel as comfortable as it did on various island-style keyboards we've tested; we scored 81 words per minute on the Ten Thumbs Typing Test, whereas we usually score around 88 wpm. The good news is that the layout has a number pad.
While the 3.5 x 2-inch touchpad is amply sized and has a low-friction surface, the stiff, thin touch bar beneath it is awkward to use. We wish Gateway would switch to twin touch buttons already.
Ports and Webcam
The NV7901u's ports include four USB 2.0 ports, HDMI and VGA output, Ethernet and modem jacks, and headphone and mic ports. It also has a tray-loading DVD burner and a 5-in-1 memory card reader.
The laptop's 1.3-MP webcam showed good detail and bright colors in a Skype call, as well as very little motion blur. However, the bundled Video Web Camera software is so minimalistic that it's actually difficult to use. More drop-down menus or buttons would be nice.
For $849, this version of the 17-inch NV, the 7901u, has a 2.26-GHz Intel Core i5-430M CPU, 4GB of RAM (upgradable to 8GB), and a 500GB 5,400 rpm hard drive. Together, these components managed a score of 5,814 in PCMark Vantage, a Windows benchmark, which is well above the desktop replacement category average of 4,851. It's good for the price, too; the Toshiba Satellite P505-S8010, which costs $949 but has a slower 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3 CPU, notched 4,997 on the same test.
However, the Gateway NV's 500GB hard drive transferred a 4.97GB mixed media file at a rate of 21 MBps, while the average desktop replacement does so at a much faster rate of 30.7 MBps. The hard drive also booted in a slow 75 seconds (the average Windows 7 notebook of any size takes one minute).
In our hands-on time with the NV7901u, it was more than capable of keeping up with us as we moved from tab to tab in Internet Explorer, read blogs, and shopped online in various stores. The laptop was quick to load pages with lots of product thumbnails, and we had no problem minimizing the browser when we needed to to use other programs, such as Skype. When it came to more heavy-duty computing, the NV7901u converted a 114-MB MP4 clip to AVI in 56 seconds, something the average desktop replacement takes 1:09 to complete.
In addition to offering strong performance, the NV7901u has more powerful-than-average graphics. Its discrete ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 graphics card and 1GB dedicated DDR3 video memory produced a score of 7,418 on 3DMark06, a graphics benchmark. That's almost 300 points above the category average. Even when you compare that score to scores from gaming rigs in this price range, and not just any big screen notebook, the NV7901u's score is still impressive: the Acer Aspire 5740G, which has the same graphics card and memory, received a lower score of 7,166 in 3DMark06.
When it comes to real-world gaming, the NV7901u's frame rates were always on a par with, if not better than, the category average. For instance, its Far Cry 2 frame rates of 73 fps (1024 x 768) and 30 fps (1600 x 900) were about average for a machine this size, but its World of Warcraft frame rates of 211 fps (1024 x 768) and 52 fps (1600 x 900) were impressive. By comparison, the 5740G, at its native resolution of 1366 x 7668, notched 35 fps in Far Cry 2, and 64 fps in World of Warcraft.
In non-gaming graphical tasks, such as Google Earth, the NV7901u was smooth enough, but there's a clear limit to what it can handle. For instance, it took us 10 seconds to "fly" to the Eiffel Tower in Google Earth, and another 10 seconds to load the maps, which, in that part of the globe at least, aren't packed with detailed 3D drawings. When we flew from the Eiffel Tower to the Chrysler Building, the journey took a similar 11 seconds, but fully loading the 3D map took a long 33 seconds.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
The NV7901u lated 3 hours on our battery test, which is 33 minutes longer than the average desktop replacement. The similar NV7915u ($599), which packs integrated graphics, lasted 3:27, and the Core i7-enabled configuration of the Dell Studio 17 lasted 3:34. We're more than willing to make the tradeoff, especially considering this notebook won't spend much time away from an outlet, and we've seen plenty of other big screen notebooks, last much less.
The Atheros 802.11b/g/draft-N wireless radio delivered strong throughput of 50.4 Mbps at 15 feet and 24.8 Mbps at 50 feet. The average desktop replacement manages just 21.4 Mbps and 16.8 Mbps, respectively, at these ranges.
In addition to running at slightly cooler temperatures than other notebooks its size, the NV7901u is more energy efficient. Its battery recharged to 80 percent in just 59 seconds and to 100 percent in 1:32. It consumed an average of 51.6 watts while charging and a total of 4,747.2. By dividing the battery life by the total watts consumed to fully recharge the battery after we ran it down, we derived a LAPTOP efficiency index of 26.4 (lower numbers are better, in this case). The average desktop replacement has a LAPTOP efficiency rating of 60.2, which suggests more wastefulness.
Software and Warranty
Click to enlargeThe NV7901u comes with a boatload of trial and bundled software. Programs include: CyberLink Power2Go, CyberLink PowerDVD 8, eBay Worldwide, and trials of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 (compatability pack and PowerPoint 2007 viewer included) and Symantec Norton Internet Security.
The NV7901u comes with a one-year warranty, including 24/7, toll-free tech support. To see how Gateway fared in our annual tech support showdown, click here.
If you can deal with its stiff touch button and reflective display, the $849 Gateway NV7901u is a strong choice for people who want a notebook with a screen large enough to multitask and watch movies. And it has the power to play most of the latest games. The Acer 5740G, which has the same specs and offers slightly better framerates for $749, may seem like the better deal, we'd give the edge to the Gateway, which has a larger and a higher resolution screen. Neither notebook will get moved around much, and we prefer the extra real estate.