A bit heavy to carry, Gateway's Solo 9100 performs well in file access

As screens and hard drives expand and draw more power from batteries, you expect some
weight gain. But remember how awkward and heavy those old luggables were, and how little
their 286 and 386 processors could do? We'll laugh at today's notebooks in another 10
years, too.

The GCN Lab usually compares a notebook with others that have similar features. In this
case it's a little difficult, as the Solo 9100 is a road-warrior notebook or, in view of
its weight, a desktop PC replacement.

The Solo's 266-MHz Pentium Tillamook chip ran Microsoft Windows 95. Its 14.1-inch LCD
screen was bright and easy on the eyes at 1,024- by 768-pixel resolution. CD-ROM and
floppy drives merged into a single module that took up only one device bay. An extra,
included battery could serve either as a spare or as a supplemental power source inside
the CD-ROM/floppy module.

Fitting the battery into either bay required attaching the appropriate faceplate to the
battery. That's a small point, but the faceplates were easy to misplace and didn't attach
firmly. A better design would let the battery fit in either bay without modifications.

In action, battery life was impressive: 2 1/2 hours on the lab's maximum-drainage
torture tests and almost 3 1/2 hours in normal use. With the second battery installed, the
notebook is perfect for long trips--as long as you can handle the weight.

The miniature docking station that came with the unit worked well, but I didn't see
much point to it. The station gave almost no extra functionality and blocked the Composite
Video ports.

Nor did the station replicate the notebook's Universal Serial Bus ports. This might not
be a big deal at present, but what happens when there's a USB monitor on the desk?

The other notebook ports were replicated through the docking station, which also
provided two extra Type II PC Card slots. If you have PC Cards that you need when the
notebook is docked or must hook up a lot of cables, the docking station might be worth
using. Otherwise, its value is limited.

On the lab's benchmark tests, the Gateway Solo 9100 performed well, beating, in all but
one category, the only other 266-MHz mobile Pentium MMX portable the lab has tested, the
Compaq 7792DMT [GCN, Jan. 26, Page 1].

The Solo 9100's processor did slightly better than the Compaq's. Video performance
scored well but significantly lower than the Compaq's score. That surprised me, because
the Gateway notebook has 4M of EDO video RAM.

The biggest difference was in disk-access scores. The Solo did an average of 63 percent
better at file access, and the margin was wider for large files.

The speed difference will matter to users of multimedia and presentation applications.
The Solo's CD-ROM drive also scored better than the Compaq's.

Case design was very good, giving easy access to device bays and PC Card slots.
Speakers sounded better than average. The video and audio ports make this a great
multimedia computer.

The case grew quite hot after about the first hour of use, but not as hot as some I've
seen, thanks to the Tillamook chip's 0.25-micron fabrication process. The Tillamook also
drew somewhat less battery power.

I did notice that the 9100 recovered slowly from suspend mode. The screen came back
immediately, but it took a good 25 seconds before the cursor went active. A cold boot
would almost be faster.

The Solo 9100XL the lab tested is the top of the line and comes with all the extras:
headphones, touchpad, deluxe carrying case, 33.6-kilobit/sec PC Card modem and Microsoft
Office 97 Small Business Edition.

An extra battery and docking station also are standard with the 9100XL, but not with
other 9100 models.

Altogether, the Solo 9100 makes a very complete package. It performs better and costs
about $1,000 less than the Armada 7792DMT. The downside: It's about a pound heavier.


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