At a time when netbooks are stepping up their performance and rapidly gaining market share (and consumers are less willing to spend much in general), notebook manufacturers have been forced to lower their prices and offer even greater values. Exhibit A: the Gateway TC7804u, a $699, 14-inch notebook that offers plenty of style, speed, and performance for the money.
With the TC Series, Gateway continues to assert itself as a more stylish version of its former self. The black lid has a thin metal stripe running lengthwise down the middle; the brushed metal detail, in particular, makes it look sophisticated. Although our review unit came with a burgundy lid, the TC7804u will be sold only in black.
At 5.4 pounds, the TC7804u feels a bit heavy, particularly because it has a wide, 13.4-inch footprint and is 1.5 inches thick at its widest. But compared with the UC Series, which has a smaller, 13-inch screen and still weighs 5.3 pounds, the TC's weight seems more reasonable.
Once you open the lid, the TC7804u looks a little rougher around the edges. The chunky, textured keyboard is partly to blame, as are the orange LED lights and touch-sensitive multimedia controls, which line the right side of the keyboard.
Click to enlargeRegardless of whether orange controls are your cup of tea, we found them unresponsive. We had to hold our finger down and wait a few seconds for the volume icon to appear on-screen. The Gateway UC Series, another budget thin-and-light, has much more responsive volume controls, whose pulsating lights indicate volume level.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Compared with trendy Chiclet-style keyboards, the TC7804u's isn't much to look at. Whatever elegance the glossy lid connotes is offset by the keys, which are two-tiered with a textured finish. In short, the stacked keys look chunky--reminiscent of tortoise shells.
On the plus side, they're comfortable to type on. Our fingers settled comfortably on the large keys, and the matte finish was a refreshing departure from the glossy keys we've seen lately, which look good but can make the typing experience feel sweaty and slippery after awhile. As large as they are, the keys are shallower than they look, and created a good deal of noise.
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The trackpad's dimensions echo the display's 16:9 aspect ratio. At 3 x 1.5 inches, it's wide but much too small vertically; our finger often bumped up against the upper edge of the trackpad. On the plus side, it had just the right amount of friction. The buttons underneath, while small and noisy, are easy to press. The scrolling strip on the right side responds to one finger and works like a charm.
Ports and Webcam
The TC7804u has three USB 2.0 ports (one of which doubles as an eSATA connection), as well as a VGA port, Ethernet and modem jacks, a Kensington lock slot, and headphone and mic ports. There's also a 5-in-1 memory card reader and an ExpressCard/54 slot.
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All ports are on the sides of the notebook (as opposed to the back), which is convenient. They're evenly spaced so that one USB port and the USB/eSATA port are on the left side with the VGA port, modem jack, and headphone and mic ports, while the right side houses the third USB port, along with the Ethernet jack, lock slot, and tray-loading 8X DVDRW DL drive.
The 2-megapixel webcam didn't offer great detail, but our photos and videos had accurate colors and pleasant lighting, and our clips looked smooth. The Video Web Camera software is minimalist to a fault. The dashboard doesn't allow for easy access to photos and videos you've recently taken; instead, it saves them by default to the My Pictures folder. You can change this location in the settings and also program the TC7804u to open a picture in Windows Photo Gallery right after you've taken it.
Display and Sound
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The 14-inch display (1366 x 768) on the TC7804u has a 16:9 aspect ratio, which gives the screen a cinematic and lower profile look than other systems in its class. On a machine this affordable, you'll be hard-pressed to find edge-to-edge glass, which looks better, but at least the bezel is thin and unobtrusive.
When we watched a DVD of A League of Their Own, the image looked bright and crisp, even during fast-moving baseball scenes and dance sequences. Although the glossy finish didn't interfere with our viewing angles from the front, the display looked washed out from the sides.
As for the speakers, the sound was loud enough for us to enjoy the movie and feel immersed in the experience. In absolute terms, its sound is tinnier than a larger multimedia machines. That said, the DVD's soundtrack, which includes lots of big band music and, of course, baseball sound effects, sounded good.
For a budget $699 laptop, the TC7804u's specs are generous: a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6400 CPU, 4GB of RAM, Windows Vista Home Premium (64-bit), and a spacious 320GB hard drive. Armed with these components, the system scored 2,471 on PCMark Vantage, which is about 350 points below the thin-and-light category average--not bad considering this laptop costs just $699. Its hard drive transferred a folder of 4.97GB mixed media at a rate of 16.7 MBps, which falls slightly below the category average of 17.9 Mbps.
The TC booted in 55 seconds, which is good for a Vista notebook. The system also performed reasonably well in hands-on testing. For the most part, we had no problem checking e-mail, editing our calendar, and loading co-workers' calendars in Internet Explorer, while running a virus scan in the background and downloading and installing Handbrake, the open-source media converter. While surfing, the computer felt fast, but the Google Toolbar add-on felt distracting (read the software section to learn more about programs that come bundled on the machine).
Click to enlargeHowever, once Handbrake finished installing and we chose to open it immediately, the computer slowed down noticeably. Handbrake's splash screen popped up, and although we clicked on the browser in the background to resume reading our mail, it took a few seconds for the TC7804u to send Handbrake into the background.
Likewise, when we did our transcoding test, which entails converting a 2-minute-and-16-second MPEG-4 clip to H.264, it took a reasonable 3 minutes and 10 seconds, but that time grew to 5 minutes and 51 seconds when we performed the test with a DVD playing in the background. Usually, the delta between these scores is 10 or 20 seconds; the fact that the score dropped so dramatically when we increased the workload suggests that the TC7804u is well-equipped for light everyday computing but has a lower threshold for multitasking than other systems.
The TC7804u's integrated Intel GMA 4500M GPU notched 2,281 on 3DMark03 and 912 on 3DMark06. As with the general performance benchmark scores, these numbers fall squarely below the category averages, which are 2,738 and 1,227, respectively.
On our frame rate tests, the graphics card struggled with demanding games. It managed 24 frames per second on F.E.A.R. when set to a resolution of 800 x 600 (we would hope for at least 30 frames per second for tolerable performance). That frame rate plummeted to 5 frames per second once we cranked the system to its maximum resolution, 1366 x 768.
Battery Life and Wireless
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The TC7804u's six-cell battery lasted 3 hours and 20 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which is more than an hour short of the category average but decent for the price. The $799 Gateway UC Series didn't turn in a much longer runtime at 3 hours and 39 minutes. Even the HP Pavilion dv3z, a 13-inch system with a nine-cell battery, lasted just 3 hours and 36 minutes on our test.
This notebook's Intel WiFi Link 5100 802.11a/g/draft-n radio delivered throughput of 19.8 Mbps and 17.1 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively, which is above average for a thin-and-light (the typical notebook in this weight class reaches 18.6 Mbps and 15.1 Mbps).
The TC7804u, which will be available at Fry's starting April 15, is preconfigured; you can't build it to order. At least in this case Gateway was generous with the specs. If you're looking to save $50, Gateway will soon sell the similar TC7306u and TC7307u through Tiger Direct, J&R, and New Age. Both cost $649 and have an Intel Pentium Dual Core T4200 processor.
Software and Warranty
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Like other consumer notebooks, the TC7804u comes with its fair share of software, some of which you won't find essential. The list includes CyberLink Power2Go and PowerDVD 8, a shortcut to Acrobat.com, Adobe Air, Google Toolbar for Internet Explorer, Microsoft Money Essentials, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 (60-day trial), Microsoft Office PowerPoint Viewer 2007, Norton Internet Security (60-day trial), Windows Live Essentials, Windows Live Sync, and a Windows Live upload tool.
The TC7804u has a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, including 24/7 toll-free phone support.
With a fast hard drive, good-looking design, and adequate performance, the $699 Gateway TC7804u offers plenty of value. Sure, you'll find stronger multitaskers with longer battery life if you go for something pricier, but for budget-conscious shoppers, this 14-inch notebook's below-average battery life and finicky touch controls are worthy compromises.