A closer look at laptops with AMD's Fusion processor, part II

In a post yesterday, I took a look at ultraportables based on AMD's low-power Fusion processors. In this second part, I'll cover some of the bigger laptops from Acer, Gateway and Toshiba that have co-opted this chip.

In a post yesterday, I took a look at a netbook and some ultraportable laptops based on AMD's low-power Fusion processors. In this second part, I'll cover some of the bigger, mainstream laptops that have co-opted this chip including the Acer Aspire 5253, Gateway NV51B Series and Toshiba Satellite C650.

These first Fusion chips were never designed for 15-inch laptops. Rather the C-Series and E-Series are low-power APUs designed for netbooks and ultra-thin laptops. (AMD refers to its Fusion processors, which combine a multi-core CPU with Radeon graphics on a single chip, as Accelerated Processing Units.)

AMD has another Fusion APU, the A-Series (code-named Llano) that promises better performance, but it is late and probably won't show up in systems until June. Meanwhile Intel has rolled out its own processor with on-die graphics, known as Sandy Bridge, but even the least expensive version, the Core i3-2100T, lists for well over $100. So to fill in the gap and push prices down, makers have turned to AMD's C- and E-Series processors.

The phrase "good enough" computing has become conventional wisdom. Last week when it reported that PC sales have been slow so far this year, IDC said in a statement that "good enough computing has become a firm reality." There's some truth to this, but these E-Series laptops really stretch the definition of what constitutes good enough. The question is, have they pushed it too far?

Acer Aspire 5253 Gateway NV51B Series While there are some cosmetic differences between the Acer Aspire 5253 and Gateway NV51B Series, you don't have to look very closely to see that these mainstream laptops share the same design DNA. They also have similar specs including a 15.6-inch display (1366x768) and AMD's 1.6GHz E-350 dual-core processor with Radeon HD 6310 graphics.

The Acer Aspire 5253 with AMD's Fusion processors range from $345 to $500. The starting configuration, the AS5253-BZ660, has the 1.0GHz C-50 with Radeon HD 6250 graphics, 2GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive--the same sort of specs you'll find in a 10-inch netbook such as the Aspire One 522. At the opposite extreme, the AS5253-BZ480 I tested is $499.99 with the E-350 with better graphics, 4GB of memory and a 320GB hard drive. Acer offers even cheaper versions of this 15-inch design, the Aspire 5252 with AMD's V-Series, an older single-core processor, and more expensive models with faster AMD or Intel chips.

Similarly, the Gateway NV Series is available with a range of AMD and Intel processors. The model I tested, the NV51B05u, is $469.99 with the E-350 processor, 3GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive (here is CNET's full review of this model). Oddly this isn't the cheapest model in the NV Series. The NV50A02u, which is $449.99 with a 2.1GHz Phenom II N830 triple-core processor, 4GB of memory and a 500GB hard drive, should deliver much better performance at the expense of battery life.

No matter which brand or model you choose, the design is identical. Like all 15-inch laptops, the Aspire 5253 and Gateway NV51B won't be mistaken for ultraportables, but at 1.3 inches thick and weighing 5.7 pounds they are still portable enough to travel back and forth between the dorm and library in a backpack. The size also has its advantages including a full-size keyboard with a numeric keypad, ample wrist-rests and a large multi-touch touchpad with separate buttons. The Gateway NV51B has a slightly different keyboard layout with a special key that launches a Social Networks applet to monitor Facebook, YouTube and Flickr accounts. It's not revolutionary, but it's a nice extra that it easy to set up and works as advertised.

Not surprisingly, the Aspire 5253 and Gateway NV51B posted nearly identical test scores (the extra 1GB of memory in the Acer didn't seem to make much difference here). The scores were also very similar the ones on other laptops with the E-350, namely the HP Pavilion dm1z and Lenovo ThinkPad X120e. In other words, they are faster than an Atom-based netbook but not in the same class as mainstream laptops with Intel Core-i3 dual-core processors.

For comparison, I tested another 15-inch laptop, the HP Pavilion dv6, with an Intel 2.13GHz Core i3-330M dual-core, 4GB of memory and a 500GB. A Monte Carlo simulation in Excel that took 22 seconds with the Pavilion dv6 required more than a minute on the Aspire 5253 and NV51B. The two Fusion systems also took more than twice as long to complete an image editing test in Google's Picasa and to transcode MP3 files to the AAC format in iTunes. The Pavilion dv6 transcoded a video using Windows Movie Maker in 10 minutes 35 seconds; the Gateway NV51B took an additional 30 minutes to complete the same task (the Aspire 5253 failed to complete it for some reason).

That's a big gap in performance, especially when you consider the Pavilion dv6 configuration I used is more than a year old. I've also run some tests on a laptop with a new Sandy Bridge dual-core and it widens the gap even further--though AMD will eventually answer with its Llano APU.

The good news is that Aspire 5253 and Gateway NV51B perform well on battery life tests--at least as far as 15-inch laptops go. On a torture test of continuous Web browsing with the display set to maximum brightness, they held out for 2 hours 40 minutes; the Pavilion dv6 died right around 2 hours. The systems have a rated battery life of 4.7 hours-which is probably pushing it a bit--but I would expect to easily get three to four hours in normal use.

Toshiba Satellite C650 Like the Acer and Gateway, the Toshiba Satellite C650 is available with a range of both AMD and Intel processors--there are 28 different models in all starting at $349. The difference, however, is that if you choose the AMD E-Series processor, the Satellite C650 only offers the 1.5GHz E-240 single-core version.

The good news is this gave me a chance to see just how low computer makers can go on prices for a mainstream laptop. The bad news is it also gave me a chance to see just how low they can go in terms of performance. The model I tested, the Satellite C655D-S5130, is $398.99 direct with the E-240 processor, 3GB of memory and a 250GB hard drive (here is CNET's take on this model).

At 1.5 inches thick, the Satellite C650 is slightly thicker than the other two systems I tested, but it weighs a bit less at 5.5 pounds. The Satellite C650 has a large keyboard with square keys placed closely together, a separate numeric keypad and a large multi-touch touchpad with separate buttons. My only reservation with the design is that the Satellite C650's display flexed quite a bit and the thin back cover didn't seem to offer much protection. The displays on the Aspire 5253 and Gateway NV51B felt stiffer and sturdier. All three systems have many of the same features including a multi-format DVD writer, two USB 2.0 ports, an SD card slot, VGA-out and Ethernet, but the Satellite C650 does not have HDMI for connecting to a TV.

On my tests, the Satellite C655D-S5130 was notably slower than even the other E-Series laptops. The Monte Carlo simulation in Excel took twice as long to complete as it did with the Aspire 5253 and Gateway NV51B. The audio transcoding test in iTunes that took nearly 15 minutes on those two systems required an additional 10 minutes to complete with the Satellite C655D-S5130. To get a better idea of just how slow the E-240 is, consider the scores compared to the Pavilion dv6 equipped with a 2.13GHz Core i3-330M dual-core processor. That system took 22 seconds to crunch the Monte Carlo simulation in Excel; the Satellite C655D-S5130 needed 2 minutes 23 seconds to complete the same simulation.

To be fair, Toshiba is clear to position the Satellite C655D-S5130 as a laptop for "real-life basics" and I didn't run into any issues with basic productivity tasks. In addition because it has the same Radeon HD 6310M graphics, the Satellite C655D-S5130 can handle basic games, Web pages loaded with Adobe Flash content and HD video. It certainly did not feel fast, especially with multiple tabs open in a Web browser, but the Satellite C655D-S5130 can handle the basics.

Despite the slower, single-core processor, the Satellite C655D-S5130 didn't offer much more much more battery life. Like the Acer Aspire 5253 and Gateway NV51B05u, it lasted around 2 hours 45 minutes on my test and would probably get close to four hours in normal usage (the rated battery life is six hours).

Of the three models I tested, I prefer the Gateway NV51B05u. I like the design best and at $469.99 it strikes the best balance of price, performance and features for a budget laptop. The Satellite C655D-S5130 costs even less, but the performance of AMD's E-240 is simply too big a compromise. At the opposite extreme, it doesn't make much sense to spend $500 for the Acer Aspire 5253-BZ480 when you can get a 15-inch laptop with a faster Intel dual-core for a bit more. To be clear both the Satellite C650 and Acer Aspire can be configured with a range of other AMD or Intel processors too.

There's a good case to be made for AMD's E-Series in an ultra-thin laptop such as the HP Pavilion dm1z, but unless you are on a very tight budget it is not the best choice for a 15-inch notebook. Yes, the E-Series will squeeze more life out of a battery, but that's not as big an issue with these larger laptops. And if you want to play games, you'll still be better off with a laptop with discrete graphics. Instead I'd recommend a model with an AMD Turion II or Athlon II or an Intel Pentium P6200 or older Core i3, which you can find online for less than $500. The trend may be towards good enough computing, but it still needs to be good enough.