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Performance results

Sony Vaio VGN-A690

Although not as sleek as the Sony Vaio VGN-A690, the Dell Latitude D810 offers the best desktop-style performance for the money.

These potent portables are more comfortable on your desktop

Notebooks, like wines, have good years and bad. So far, 2005 has been a very good year.

In the GCN Lab we've seen the latest rugged portables, notebooks based on Intel's newest mobile platform, and several models in between. Performance is up, prices are down, and they feature innovations'from wide screens to integrated security measures'that make notebooks just about the hottest computing devices around.

Now if vendors can just get batteries to last longer.

For this issue of GCN, however, battery life is less important than usual because we're looking at a few of the latest desktop replacement notebooks. These systems are high-performance, feature-rich portables designed to handle demanding software first and operate on the road second. Although they're sleeker than the 'luggable' computers of a few years ago, you probably wouldn't use them if you spent the majority of your time away from your desk.

Small but spunky

On the flip side, each of the systems we tested'the Dell Latitude D810, the HP Compaq nx9600 and the Sony Vaio VGN-A690'is ideally suited to all but the most demanding applications. That's not to say they couldn't handle something like computer-aided design, but you'd be better off with an actual workstation in such cases.

Still, these notebooks pack a wallop: The average Alterion benchmark score in last year's desktop replacement roundup was 6,927 [GCN, June 7, 2004, Page 34]. The average of these three notebooks was 8,506. That's nearly a 23-percent increase in one year.

Beyond that, what should you expect from today's desktop replacement notebooks? Big, wide-screen displays, such as the 17-inchers on the HP and Sony notebooks; roomy keyboards (the HP has a separate numeric pad); integrated WiFi; multiple add-on paths, including up to four USB ports; and advanced features, such as the Latitude's integrated smart-card reader and Trusted Platform Module.

Of course you'll also have to settle for notebook weights over 8 pounds (without AC adapter or any other accessories) and battery lives well under two hours. But if you're truly in the market for a desktop replacement, that won't matter much to you.

For our money, we'd take the $2,268 Latitude D810, which delivers serious bang for your buck, including best-in-review performance, good security and (by desktop replacement standards) a compact design.

Dell Latitude D810

Pros: Fast, integrated smart-card reader

Cons: Short battery life, no wireless on/off switch

Performance:A-

Features:B+

Battery life:B-
Value:A-

Overall grade:A-

Its screen isn't as big as the other notebooks in this review, but the Latitude D810's performance is bigger, thanks in part to 1G of RAM and an ATI Radeon X600 video adapter. With an Alterion benchmark score of 8,938, it's among the fastest notebooks we've ever tested. The 15.4-inch wide-screen display isn't a slouch, either, showing impressive results on the DisplayMate benchmark tests we use to evaluate image quality (for more on the tests, see www.displaymate.com).

Security-conscious agencies will appreciate the integrated smart-card reader and Trusted Platform Module 1.1, which allows users to create and store encryption keys. Our unit also came with an optional Bluetooth module, in addition to the standard WiFi radio, for short-range peripheral connections.

Not surprisingly, the 8.2-pound Latitude D810 isn't optimized for portability: Its battery lasted just one hour and 37 minutes in our rundown test. We'd also like to see Dell spread out its ports more in deference to section 508 accessibility guidelines. None of the included USB ports is on the left side, and the microphone and headphone jacks should be up front. Although you can turn off the WiFi radio, you can't do it with a one-touch button.
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These quibbles aside, the Latitude D810 is a powerful, affordable notebook that works with Dell's complete D line of docking stations and port replicators. It's a good choice for replacing aging desktops.

Dell Inc., 800-999-3355, www.dell.com

HP Compaq nx9600

Pros: Well-designed desktop replacement

Cons: Still uses a desktop-class processor

Performance:B

Features:A-

Battery life:B-

Value:B

Overall grade:B

The HP Compaq nx9600 is an interesting desktop replacement system, right down to its Pentium 4 processor'a significant choice considering the success of Intel's Pentium M CPU. It's a well-built, roomy portable with a large screen, spacious keyboard (with separate number pad), ATI Radeon X600 video adapter, and a wireless on/off button. And at just $2,249, it's also a pretty good deal.

The 9.3-pound nx9600 is also the only notebook in this review with USB ports gracing three side of the system for easy access. It also comes with one of the new ExpressCard/54 slots for adding memory, new wireless capabilities, security measures and more. And although it didn't display text so well during our testing, its ability to render bright colors was excellent.

But we can't get past that Pentium 4. It contributed to a lower Alterion benchmark score than the other notebooks (although at 7,829 it's still above average), a shorter battery life (one hour and 22 minutes, despite a standard 12-cell battery) and overall noisy operation. Because the Pentium 4 runs hotter than a Pentium M, HP needed to employ more air circulation methods.
There's little doubt HP is building some great notebooks these days, and the nx9600 is nearly outstanding, but the choice of CPU should make you think hard before buying.

Hewlett-Packard Co., 800-752-0900, www.hp.com

Sony Vaio VGN-A690

Pros: Brilliant display, good performance

Cons: Expensive, no built-in Bluetooth

Performance:B+

Features:A-

Battery life:B-

Value:B-

Overall grade:B+

If you're looking for a desktop replacement that must handle large media files as easily as it handles spreadsheets, the Vaio VGN-A690 may be it. Despite sporting the slowest CPU clock speed in this review (1.86 GHz Pentium M), the VGN-A690 is fast, with an Alterion benchmark score of 8,750. And its 17-inch-wide screen, which uses Sony's proprietary XBrite technology driven by an ATI Radeon X600 video chip, is the best of the bunch, earning top-quality marks on all DisplayMate tests. We also like Sony's ErgoBrite display feature, which automatically adjusts the screen brightness to suit your work conditions.

The VGN-A690 has a roomy 100G hard drive and a wide, spacious keyboard that makes typing comfortable. It also comes with a dual-layer re- writable DVD drive and a convenient on/ off switch for disabling the WiFi radio. Our unit had 1G of RAM.

Surprisingly for an 8.8-pound desktop replacement, it only has three USB ports, none on the system's right side. And if you're going to use this in the office, it would be better if it at least had the microphone and headphone jacks up front.

For $2,799, we also expected to see a Bluetooth radio, which we feel could be more important in a desktop environment when connecting to peripherals such as printers or scanners. But we've learned that Sony is a lot like Apple: Its systems are sleek and well-designed, but you always have to consider whether the price premium is justified.

Sony Electronics Inc., 800-571-7669, www.sony.com

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