Editor's Note: Portions of this review were taken from our earlier review of the Gateway NV Series (NV5807u).
If Acer stands for value, the Gateway brand that the company acquired back in August of 2007 has evolved into its more stylish cousin--the one that shops at H&M. Take the NV7915u, the bigger 17.3-inch version of the 15.6-inch model that was our top budget notebook pick of last year. This slick machine features Intel's peppy new Core i3 processor, a high-def display, and a 500GB hard drive for an aggressive $649. As long as you don't plan on playing the latest 3D games, this is the best-performing notebook of its size for the price.
Ever since Gateway rebranded itself as a more fashionable notebook manufacturer, the company has been on a roll in churning out good-looking budget laptops, and the NV7915u is no exception. The glossy NightSky Black lid, with its subtle Honeycomb pattern, isn't as luxe as something like the HP Envy 15, but neither does it look cheap. However, the lid doesn't hide fingerprints as well as the Midnight Blue color found on the NV5807u.
Other design flourishes include a matte silver hinge with the power button built into the side (like Sony VAIOs), a glossy upper deck, and LED lights and touch-sensitive controls that glow red. At 6.8 pounds, this notebook is not one you're going to tote around much, but it's lighter than many desktop replacements.
The touch-sensitive controls responded to even the lightest tap. While there are volume controls and a mute button, there are no external controls for multimedia playback. However, there are buttons for Launch Manager, MyBackup (more on that later), disabling the trackpad, and enabling or disabling Wi-Fi.
When you tap the Launch Manager button (a bold P above the keyboard), you can configure the notebook to automatically launch an application of your choosing the next time you press the button.
The NV7915u got quite warm, but not enough to cause major concern. After playing a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the temperature of the touchpad measured 96 degrees Fahrenheit, the middle of the keyboard reached 101, and the middle of the chassis' underside was 102 degrees. We consider anything over 100 degrees uncomfortable, but we doubt this notebook will spend much time on someone's lap.
Keyboard and Trackpad
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Click to enlargeThe keys on the NV7915u are flat, but close together. Even with a full number pad on the right-hand side, the keys were still large enough for us to type comfortably without making typos. The keys' subtle textured finish made it easy to get a grip, too.
At 1.8 inches, the touchpad could be taller, but at least its 3.3-inch width feels roomy. As far as touchpads go, the NV7915u's feels smooth and doesn't offer too much friction. On the other hand, although its mirrored design is appealing, we found the mouse bar uncomfortable; it's a single button, and the strip is too narrow. It took us a while to get used to pressing the far edges of the bar to get better tactile feedback.
Display and Sound
The NV7915u's 17.3-inch, 1600 x 900-pixel display was bright and crisp. While streaming Ghostbusters from Hulu, we noticed nice contrast between blues and reds in addition to rich, deep blacks. While images didn't reverse colors until we were viewing the screen at extreme angles, its glossy finish kicked back a good number of reflections.
The NV7915u's stereo speakers delivered very good quality and more than adequate bass when we streamed John Mayer's "Why Georgia" from Pandora. When cranked to its maximum settings, the volume was more than loud enough for movie watching, and we ended up scaling it back to around the medium setting.
Ports and Webcam
The NV7915u has a strong selection of ports: in addition to four USB ports, VGA output, an Ethernet jack, headphone and mic ports, and a Kensington lock slot, the notebook has HDMI output. You'll also find a 5-in-1 memory card reader.
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The VGA webcam on the NV7915u provided good brightness, color, and detail, but the accompanying software is skimpy: once you record photos or videos, it saves them to your My Documents picture library. Most other webcam consoles have a strip of thumbnails that allow you to easily review recent captures you've taken.
Armed with a 2.13-GHz Intel Core i3-330M processor, 4GB of RAM, and 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium, the NV7915u delivers strong performance. Its PCMark Vantage score of 4,907 is about 400 points above the desktop replacement category average, and just 90 points below the Toshiba Satellite P505-S8010, which uses the same processor but is $300 more expensive.
The NV7915u's 5,400-rpm, 500GB hard drive transferred a 4.97GB mixed media folder at a rate of 24.2 MBps. While that's just 3.3 MBps slower than the category average, its boot time of 1:15 seconds is 9 seconds longer than average. You'll definitely want to uninstall trialware and get rid of some startup programs.
When we transcoded a 5:05 MPEG-4 file to AVI using Oxelon Media Converter, a multithreaded app, the NV7915u took 1:07; that's five seconds faster than the much pricier Satellite P505, but 6 seconds slower than the category average (which includes faster Core i5 and Core i7 notebooks).
Anecdotally, we didn't experience any lag as we switched between tabs in Internet Explorer (one of which was Gmail, sending attachments). We were also easily able to move back and forth between open windows on the desktop while playing music, including Windows Explorer and the Control Panel.
Like most budget notebooks, graphics performance is given short shrift on the NV7915u. Despite its newer Intel GMA HD integrated graphics, the NV7915u scored just 1,735 on 3DMark06, which is nearly 5,600 points below the category average. To be fair, that average is bulked up by the presence of gaming rigs and their beefy graphics cards. For example, the Satellite P505's score was more than double the NV7915u, and it has a midrange Nvidia GeForce 310M GPU.
Needless to say, we weren't expecting much when it came to gaming tests. The NV7915u's Far Cry 2 frame rates of 11 frames per second (1024 x 768 resolution) and 4 fps (1600 x 900) aren't playable. However, some light mainstream gaming is more than possible, if you're willing to make a few compromises. When we knocked the resolution down to 1024 x 768, we were able to notch a decent 34 fps in World of Warcraft; boosting the resolution to native and increasing the effects, though, brought gaming down to an inadequate 10 fps.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
The NV7915u's six-cell battery lasted 3 hours and 27 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, about an hour longer than average and 90 minutes better than the Satellite P505. It's doubtful this machine will see much time away from an outlet, but it's good to know you can get some computing done unplugged.
The 802.11b/g/n wireless radio delivered throughput of 42.4 and 25.6 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet away from our router, respectively. That's quite good, but a shade below the ASUS UL50VF (46.4 and 28.3 Mbps, respectively).
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The NV7915u recharged quickly, taking just 1 hour and 41 minutes to top off its battery. During that time, it drew an average of 48.1 watts. Its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating of 23.5 (total watts divided by battery life) was excellent--nearly a third that of the desktop replacement average (79.0) and even lower than the thin-and-light average of 26.2.
The NV7915u comes with Gateway's MyBackup software, which you can access simply by pressing the launch button on the touch-sensitive control panel. Although the laptop doesn't come with complimentary online storage, users can back up to any USB-powered storage device.
Gateway's software has a particularly intuitive interface: the screen is divided into four color-coded panels, each of which corresponding to a different kind of file (e-mail, Microsoft Office files, and multimedia), and browser favorites (Firefox and IE only). Within these panels are check boxes for indicating what kind of files you want to back up. Then you can add a job, and even automate it so that the computer regularly saves these items.
In addition to our configuration, the NV7915u, Gateway offers the 17-inch NV7802u with a 2.2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600 processor for $649. If you're looking for a little more power, you can opt for an Intel Core i5-430M processor in the NV7906u (320GB hard drive; $679), NV7922u (500GB hard drive, Cherry Red lid; $679), or the NV7923u (500GB hard drive, Sky Black lid; $679).
Software and Warranty
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The NV7915u comes with a predictable spate of bundled and trial software: CyberLink PowerDVD 8, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 (including a compatibility pack and PowerPoint viewer), a 60-day trial of Norton Internet Security 2009, Windows Live Essentials, and Yahoo Toolbar.
Gateway backs the NV7915u with a one-year warranty, including 24/7 toll-free phone support. To see how the company fared in our Tech Support Showdown, click here.
Thanks to its strong performance, slick design, bright display, and built-in backup software, Gateway's $649 NV7915u is the best value-priced 17-inch notebook we've seen this year. The machine's single, stiff mouse button might be a turnoff for some buyers, and it doesn't have much graphics power, but we're more than willing to overlook these flaws given all that this system offers for the money.