GCN LAB REVIEW
6 powerhouse laptops reviewed
Trying to come up with a common theme in a laptop PC roundup review is harder than it looks. With the variety of manufacturers, features and user requirements, assembling a useful comparison between similar products is quite a task.
But the lab was able to assemble a bevy of true powerhouse laptops ready for any task a busy government employee can throw at them. We received laptops for our tests from Apple, Fujitsu America, HP, Lenovo, Samsung Electronics America, and Sony Electronics. Each of these had one of the new i3, i5, or i7 Intel processors with 4G of memory. They all had a display size of 15.4 to 15.6 inches, with most being 15.6 inches. They all had a gigabit network port, audio line in and out, 802.11n wireless adapter, at least two USB ports, a Web camera and, with one exception, a VGA display port. They also each have a digital video port, though they are exactly evenly split between having an extra High Definition Media Interface (HDMI) or a DisplayPort. Beyond that though, the variety of ports and peripheral devices makes the differences outweigh the similarities.
For our Performance grade we use PassMark’s Performance Test 7 software suite. This allows us to look at each element that contributes to system performance and weigh each device’s strengths.
After the performance tests, we put the laptops through our rigorous battery life test. For readers unfamiliar with it, we change the settings of each laptop so that it never hibernates or goes into any power saving mode at any battery level, and keeps the display at a constant 80-percent brightness. Then we have it play a looping video file, cut the AC power and note how much time the laptop takes to run completely out of power. This produces a runtime that is almost always significantly less than the manufacturer promises, as those claims are usually in optimal conditions. Our test will give you a worst case scenario, like if you get stuck on a cross-country flight without a place to plug in and need to work full-tilt until the batteries in your laptop die.
Our Ergonomics grade was based upon the way the system is laid out. The type of keyboard, the size of the touchpad, the positioning of the ports, and to some extent the weight of the laptop all had a say in what grade the laptop earned in this category. We then noted the extra Features the laptop had, such as number and variety of ports, hard drive capacity and extra software. Then we assigned a Value grade based on the laptop's price relative to how it fared in the other categories.
Apple MacBook Pro shines in dual environments
The 15-inch MacBook Pro from Apple has a nice bright 15.4-inch display. It weighs five pounds eight ounces, which makes it one of the lightest in the roundup.
One thing that impressed us right away was the hugeness of the MacBook’s touchpad. Of course, this made a lot more sense when we found out that we were able to perform many of the functions that are usually associated with the iPhone or iPad – such as image sizing, rotation and selecting object – all with just our fingertips. Apple is doing a great job of integrating all its products into a common and apparently well-liked, interface. The way the MacBook works follows this trend nicely.
The MacBook Pro’s weakness was in the number of ports available, although it was by no means inadequate. It did have a FireWire 800 port, a mini DisplayPort port, and a Secure Digital (SD) card slot. However it had only two USB 2.0 ports, which was the least number for any laptop in the review. This would be barely adequate to handle the number of peripheral devices a typical power user might have without adding a hub or two. However, it did have a Bluetooth adapter, thus giving it a bit more flexibility in this area. It was the only laptop in the roundup to not have a VGA port, requiring the purchase of a DisplayPort to VGA adapter if this type of connectivity is needed.
Can the Apple iPad get any workplace respect?
Laptop battery life compared
In our performance benchmark tests, the MacBook Pro produced a score of 1,078.1, the second highest in the review. And it did that despite it being necessary to load Windows 7 on a partition so we could have a platform to run the testing software. The fact that it got such a high score in its non-native operating system was impressive, to say the least. It’s Nvidia GeForce GT 330M graphics adapter did especially well in both the 2D and 3D graphics tests.
But what really knocked our socks off was how the MacBook fared in our battery life test. Even under the brutal conditions of our test, Apple (when running its native OSX) lasted five hours and 13 minutes, outlasting its closest competitor by almost two hours. The new battery technology and energy architecture that Apple has come up with for its latest product lines works really well. Even in a worst-case scenario with a user watching movies the whole time, the MacBook would last through a complete cross-country flight and have a bit of juice to spare on the other end.
The MacBook also has a feature that the others were lacking: a fully lit keyboard. Light comes up through the keys so that you can use the MacBook in any lighting environment from bright sunlight to pitch darkness. And yes, the keyboard was lit the entire time our battery tests were running. Somehow, it still got the best score. That’s impressive.
At $2,199, the retail price is a bit hard to swallow, even given the extremely long battery life and good performance. Fortunately the government price of $1,957 is a less bitter pill.
This laptop would do especially well when being used away from a power source for extended periods of time. It’s combination of an easy-to-use interface, a powerful processor, great battery life and nice ergonomics earn it a Reviwer’s Choice designation for this review.
Apple MacBook Pro 15-inch
Pros: Longest battery life, good performance.
Cons: Limited ports.
Battery Life: A+
Price: $2,199 ($1,957 government)
Fujitsu LifeBook has the ports, if not the power, for any use
The Fujitsu LifeBook E780’s weight of six pounds and five ounces puts it on the heavier side of this roundup. However this is understandable given the housings for all the ports and slots. Many powerusers would gladly heft a couple extra pounds to get their hands on the E780's many extra features.
The keyboard/touchpad layout felt just a bit tight, though by looking at it we couldn’t see a difference between it and the others in the review. Getting to some of the ports might be tricky, but with so many different ones offered, it’s unlikely that you will need to reach all the way into the back to grab one. There is likely a much closer one available, unless you have a lot of devices.
In addition to the expected minimum number of ports, it also had a serial port, an eSATA port, a FireWire port, a modem port, and four USB 2.0 connections. It also had slots for an SD card, SmartCard, ExpressCard, and even a PCMCIA Type I/II PC card. Now, some of these options may seem like a blast from the past, but these are all still in use in the federal government, and there invariably comes a time when a data source or peripheral in one of these formats rears its head. Plus, some government agencies use those various cards for security access, so with the LifeBook there will be no need to revise those plans or find an add-on unit.
Fujitsu has hardwired the firmware of this LifeBook with CompuTrace software. This provides a network administrator visibility of the IT structure, even with remote users. In addition, if the laptop is lost or stolen, the company's team can recover it if it ever connects with the Internet. A one-year subscription to the Computrace service is included in the price of the LifeBook E780, which is a nice bonus.
Unfortunately, the LifeBook didn’t do so well in our performance tests. It generated a score of 713.2, which was the lowest in the review. Despite the superior results in the 3D Graphics category, it wasn’t able to come from behind in many other areas. Given that it has an Intel i7-620M processor, we expected a better score, and could in fact find no reason as to why it might deliver the score it did, though we ran the tests several times and got equivalent results. Perhaps the components inside are just not completely integrated with one another.
Battery life testing was equally disappointing. It lasted a mere one hour and 49 minutes in our admittedly difficult challenge. This is barely time to watch a short feature-length film, or type out a long government report.
Fujitsu has set the retail price of the LifeBook E780 at $1,797. This is a decent price for all of the ports and slots, and for the Computrace service. Government pricing is also available.
This laptop would be needed in an environment where any format of data storage or peripheral could possibly come down the pike, especially if that pike is near an electrical outlet.
Fujitsu America, solutions.us.fujitsu.com
Fujitsu LifeBook E780
Pros: huge variety of ports and slots.
Cons: Low battery life, low performance.
Battery Life: B-
Price: $1,797 (government pricing available)
HP EliteBook long on performance, but short on battery life
The HP EliteBook 8540w weighs in at six pounds seven ounces, which makes it the heaviest in the review, if only just barely. Of course its 8-cell battery might have something to do with it.
As is only possible with this size laptop and larger, the EliteBook has a full 104-key keyboard, though the layout of the keys between the main keyboard and number pad are moved around in places and shrunk in others. This provides for increased productivity when entering data, particularly numeric data. We really liked having the full number pad right there with the keyboard.
In a nod to an important government feature, the HP has a biometric fingerprint reader. This extra level of security is not found on every laptop in this round up, so we wanted to praise HP for taking this extra step.
We were please to find, in addition to what was expected, ports for DisplayPort, FireWire and modem. In addition to the three USB 2.0 ports there were also two USB 3.0 ones. The HP’s are unique in this review. We found the speakers to be crisp and clear, and the 15.6-inch monitor to be bright and welcoming. Also, this unit has a Bluetooth adapter, which can be useful when making multimedia presentations.
The EliteBook managed to earn a score of 1,052.3 in our performance benchmarks. While it isn’t the highest, this puts HP firmly in the top half of the pack. This was primarily due to its Intel Core i7-620M processor, which squeaked out the best performance.
Unfortunately, our battery life test is where the EliteBook didn’t shine so well. It lasted only two hours and ten minutes, which is in the bottom half of the group. However, the worst times were from laptops with 6-cell lithium-ion batteries, while the HP has an 8-cell one.
The retail price of $1,679 is a good one for the HP EliteBook 8540w, considering the USB 3.0 ports helps to future-proof it, and the excellent processing power.
This laptop would be best suited for multimedia editing and presentations, but should probably be plugged in while doing such tasks.
HP EliteBook 8540w
Pros: Good performance, biometric fingerprint reader.
Cons: Short battery life, heaviest in review.
Battery Life: B-
Lenovo ThinkPad has all the bases covered
The ThinkPad W510 from Lenovo weighs six pounds and five ounces, which is among the heaviest in the review, and this is mostly because of its 9-cell lithium-ion battery.
We were pleased to find that the ThinkPad has a biometric fingerprint reader. Because some manufacturers didn’t include such an important option, we thought we should point out our pleasure in its presence here. Some government agencies looking for two factor login authentication absolutely need to have this, and it’s clear that Lenovo understands its intended market. It also has ports for eSATA, DisplayPort, FireWire 400 and a modem. In addition to three USB 2.0 ports, it has one powered USB port, which is unique in this review. For example, the powered USB port could be used to drive an access point or a router, which really makes it a good choice not only for a powerhouse laptop, but also as a desktop replacement.
The Lenovo excelled in our performance benchmark tests, producing a score of 1,128.5. Not only did the Intel Core i7-620M processor hold its own against similarly-equipped laptops, but the Lenovo’s outstanding hard drive and optical drive performances put it over the top as the best performer here.
The ThinkPad cranked out the second best time in our battery life tests, lasting for three hours and 21 minutes under our grueling conditions. Although it’s no surprise that a 9-cell battery outlasted the 6- and 8-cells, it’s still a good time.
The price of the Lenovo ThinkPad is $1,439, which is a steal for a top performer such as this.
This laptop would do well in nearly any situation, though some people may find the interface a little uncomfortable. It earns a Reviewer’s Choice designation for acing all our tests and having a great price, to boot.
Pros: Best performance, decent battery life.
Cons: Workspace feels a bit cramped.
Battery Life: A-
Samsung P580 laptop is right for light duty
The Samsung P580 is the lightest laptop in the review, weighing in at five pounds and seven ounces. Of course, the lesser weight does mean a smaller battery than some, but perhaps the increased portability is worth it.
In addition to what we expected to find in the way of ports, we were pleased to see both an eSATA port and an HDMI port. In addition, the four USB 2.0 ports are more numerous than half of the other laptops in the roundup. Beyond that there does seem to be a limit on the number and variety of ports in the P580, probably due to space constraints. Its 15.6-inch display is nice and bright, while the limited keyboard layout does feel a little cramped.
In our performance benchmark test, the Samsung P580 did fairly well, and was the best of the ones with an Intel Core i5-430M processor. It churned out a score of 836.6. This was due in large part because of turning in respectable scores in most of the memory tests. However, its Intel Graphics Media Accelerator adapter did not do as well as some of the other, higher-end video adapters.
The Samsung lasted two hours and 33 minutes in our excruciating battery life test. For a 6-cell lithium-ion battery this is actually rather good. In fact, this is the best time for any of the laptops equipped with one.
The list price of $999 is very good, considering the decent battery life and pretty good performance. This laptop would be best suited for performing office-related tasks or for riding along to sneak some work in during short trips.
Samsung Electronics America, www.samsung.com
Pros: Good performance, good amount of USB ports.
Cons: Somewhat short battery life.
Battery Life: B
Sony Vaio EB Series offers the basics at a low price
Sony’s VAIO EB-Series (VPCEB16FX/B) weight of five pounds and 14 ounces makes it one of the lighter ones in the review. Its small battery size is the primary contributor to this.
We were pleased to find a very roomy interface experience awaited us with the VAIO. A full-function 103-key keyboard and one of the larger touchpads we’d seen on this size laptop make inputting data feel positively spacious. The 15.5-inch screen is an unusual size, but you couldn’t tell the difference between it and one that is 15.6 inches with the unaided eye.
The VAIO had a fair number of ports and slots beyond the initial expectation. There were ports for HDMI and eSATA, as well as three USB 2.0 ports. There was a multicard reader with slots for Memory Stick Pro (Magicgate), ExpressCard, and SD memory card.
The VAIO’s performance under our benchmark tests was close to the worst in the bunch, scoring only 818.5. This was due in large part to its Intel Core i3-330M processor, though it did put up a bit of a fight with its hard drive performance.
In our brutal battery life tests the VAIO got a time of 2 hours and 2 minutes, which was near the bottom of the roundup, though in the middle of the 6-cell battery grouping.
Sony is offering the VAIO EB series (VPCEB16FX/B) for a retail price of $850. This is a really good price for a basic-function unit.
This laptop would do well for a network administrator on a budget that wants to give their users basic laptop functionality. It also happens to be one of the most comfortable to use, which would be a boon to everyone who puts their hands on it.
Sony Electronics, www.sonystyle.com
Sony VAIO EB-Series (VPCEB16FX/B)
Pros: Low price, roomy interface.
Cons: Low performance.
Battery Life: B-
Greg Crowe is a former GCN staff writer who covered mobile technology.