The great thing about getting sucked into debates with vendors is that you end up with so much to write about as a result of doing a bit of digging around the Internet. So this next entry represents the intersection of two conversations. One conversation was with HP's acting director of commercial notebooks Steve Shultis who, when asked how his company's AMD Turion-based notebooks fared performance-wise against HP's Intel-based notebooks, refused to discuss the issue and instead referred me to third-party benchmarks (ones that I'd have to find on my own). The second conversation was with Intel's mobile platform spokesperson Barbara Grimes, who would much rather that I not keep trashing her company's Centrino brand. If I could find some comparative benchmark data that shows what sort of bang for the buck you get with an AMD Turion 64-based notebook versus one with the Centrino sticker on it, it would fall right in the middle of these two conversations. So, I took Shultis up on his invitation and sought out some benchmark data. The "research project" once again put me in the shoes of the buyer, a refreshing position for a tech editor to be in, but one that I don't envy very much because of how hard it is validate all the information that's out there, and then use it as the basis of some purchasing decision.
My data comes by way of PC Magazine, whose testing labs I have a great deal of respect for. The test results date back to April of this year when the publication held an AMD Turion-based Acer Aspire 5000 up against two Intel-based notebooks (a Dell Latitude 610 and a Gateway M210) "to see if AMD is ready to take back a share of the mobile market." In that story, PC Magazine concluded:
In our initial tests, we found that the Turion is no Pentium M killer, but it shows promise and is a worthy competitor to Intel's processors. We're looking forward to testing notebooks with higher-clocked versions of the Turion 64, and we'll be sure to report those results as soon as we do.
I agree with this conclusion as long as the only metric you're looking at is performance. But, based on what I know, most people have a budget too. In the context of cost, the findings might be a little different. So, I decided to research the prices of the three systems in question. Looking at the benchmarks, the Centrino-based Dell system barely edged-out the Turion-based Acer notebook. The Gateway system came in a distant third place. I wondered if their prices would reflect the same stratification. They didn't and, after following my research, you may come to the same conclusions that I did.
First: The Turion-based Acer is by far the best value of the three. Neither the Dell nor the Gateway held a candle to the Acer. Second: If Intel wants to prove the promise of the Centrino brand by finding a Centrino system that out does a non-Centrino system (as happened when the Dell out did the Acer on performance and battery life), it should have no trouble finding those proof points. But, if someone else wants to blow that theory up by showing a non-Centrino system out-doing a Centrino system (as evidence by the way the Acer outdid the Gateway), they will also have no trouble in finding those proof points. If there's one thing that the PC Magazine review definitely proves, it's that it's virtually impossible to isolate the effects of the processor, chipset, or radio (the three components that, when specific Intel parts are used, add up to "Centrino") on the battery. For starters, if Dell wants to win battery benchmarks (as it did in this case), it just needs a bigger battery. So, of course it's going to last longer. Meanwhile, at 15.4", the Acer's display is much larger (in notebook terms) than the 14.1" display found on the Dell. It also probably requires more battery power.
Whereas PC Magazine did a good job putting these systems on an even playing field for performance testing, it took quite a bit of homework to get them on an even playing field from a feature perspective to work up a price comparison. Given how it bested the Acer by 90 minutes on battery life, I assumed the Dell Latitude 610 had the optional 6 cell battery as opposed to the standard 4 cell battery. That said, the optional battery doesn't affect cost. Just weight. According to Dell's online configurator, there's no additional cost for the larger battery (switching to it doesn't affect the recalculated price).
The $1595-base priced Dell Latitude 610, with XP Pro, an 80GB hard drive (standard), 512MB RAM (+$79, the configuration tested by PC Magazine) with a DVD+/-R drive (+$149) and Norton AntiVirus (+$69, comes standard with the Acer) brought the Dell's total price to $1892.
Acer doesn't sell its systems direct. So, I had to shop around the Web. An Acer Aspire 5000 configured with the same options (80 GB hard drive, 512 MB RAM, XP Pro, etc.) but with the 1.5" larger display that goes to a higher resolution than the Dell, can be had for $955 at Buy.com. At that price, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, it comes standard with Norton AntiVirus and a DVD+/-R drive. But, along with the Dell's $1595-base price, comes a 3-year onsite warranty. In an attempt to match that on the Acer, Buy.com offers extended warranties above and beyond Acer's standard 1 year warranty and it charges $121 for a 2 years onsite option. There was no three year option. So, to make the price comparisons as fair as possible, I prorated the Buy.com's warranty upgrade as if a three year option were available. I added an additional $60 for a third year. That brought the support cost to $180 (very much on par with what Dell charges for the same thing). That got me to $1135.
According to Gateway's Web site, the Gateway 210 that PC Mag included in its comparison is no longer available. The closest thing on Gateway's site I could find to it -- a system with a 1.6Ghz Pentium M 725 Centrino and a 400Mhz Front Side Bus (FSB) -- was the M325X. I configured it with the same 80GB hard drive size as the others (+$40), a DVD+/-R drive (+$45), and Norton AntiVirus (+$49) like what comes standard on the Aspire 5000. Then, I matched the Dell 3-year onsite warranty (+$210). The M325X appears to have the same 15-inch screen as the Acer. Price as configured was $1325. Obviously, even though the M325X has the same primary guts as the M210 did, we can't assume that its performance is the same. But it's a pretty fair bet that it will still come in third place given how close the Dell and Acer were to each other because of how it, like the 210, has a Pentium M 725a with a 400Mhz FSB while the Dell has the Pentium M 730 with a 533 Mhz FSB.
So, suddenly, at $1892 (Dell/Intel Centrino) vs. $1135 (Acer/AMD Turion) vs. $1352 (Gateway/Intel Centrino), the value proposition of the Acer Aspire 500 is reigning supreme. Again, this is given these three notebooks. I'm rather certain if we look hard enough, we can find some notebooks that flip the story around. And, I also agree that, between the different system on the Gateway front, and the way I prorated the 3 year support on the Acer, this still isn't apples to apples. It's more like McIntosh apples vs. Red Delicious ones. Even so, the Turion-based Acer 5000 is looking good. Damn good. It barely underperformed the Dell in PC Magazine's benchmarks -- to the point that most users wouldn't notice in their applications. Meanwhile, at an additional $757, the Dell costs 66 percent more than the Acer. Holy cow, that's 2/3's more expensive! The Gateway is also more expensive than the Acer unit and, no matter what its performance is, I'm positive that the Turion system will still come out on top from a value perspective.