Multimedia notebooks

For this comparison we looked at eight "AV Notebooks" — portables that can both capture video and export it back out. The notebooks we received came in a variety of speeds, the slowest being a Pentium III 750MHz and the fastest a Pentium III 1GHz.

For this comparison we looked at eight "AV Notebooks" — portables that can both capture video and export it back out. The notebooks we received came in a variety of speeds, the slowest being a Pentium III 750MHz and the fastest a Pentium III 1GHz.

All the machines shipped with 128MB of RAM, a 20GB hard disk drive, network adaptor, modem, and Windows Me or Windows 2000. We also took a look at the all-new Apple PowerBook G4.

RMIT

While movie editing on desktop PCs is becoming pretty much mainstream, capturing and editing video on notebooks is just now becoming a reality. The internal graphics processors built into portables have long been the bottleneck for video editing, but in many of the latest high-end notebooks they're fast enough to produce an excellent production.

Most of the notebooks shipped with a single IEEE 1394 FireWire port, which enabled us to both capture and output video. We did, however, receive a few notebooks that offered only S-video out, and no way to capture video. We solved this problem by fitting those notebooks with an IEEE 1394 PCMCIA card from QDI.

Product Review
Editors' Choice
Notebook Benchmarks
Acer TravelMate 351TE
Excel 2700C
Editors' Choice
IBM ThinkPad A22m
NEC Versa Txi
Pioneer PowerBook 1G 2200
Sony VAIO PCG-R505CT
Editors' Choice
Targa Visonary
Sidebar Apple Titanium PowerBook G4
Sidebar PowerPad 160
Editors' Choice
= Editors' Choice.

Editors' Choice

Editors' Choice Award

Merit Award

The IBM ThinkPad was easily the best all-round notebook in this comparison. It's super fast, its build quality was excellent, it's fairly easy to upgrade, and it offered everything you need in one single unit, which means you won't have to carry around external CD and floppy drives. The only thing that was missing was a FireWire port.

If you are on a tight budget then the QDI would best do the trick. It can do everything the other notebooks can do, and it's fast and easy to upgrade.

We should also give mention to the all new NEC Tecra. It's a great ultraportable notebook, which is both fast and feature packed. It offers good battery life when combined with its second battery and it features a versatile modular bay.



Notebook Benchmarks

Content Creation Winstone
Content Creation Winstone is a system-level, application-based benchmark that measures a PC's overall performance when running top, Windows-based, 32-bit, content creation applications on Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0 (SP6 or later), Windows 2000, or Windows Me. Content Creation Winstone 2001 uses the following applications:

  • Adobe Photoshop 5.5
  • Adobe Premiere 5.1
  • Macromedia Director 8.0
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver 3.0
  • Netscape Navigator 4.73
  • Sonic Foundry Sound Forge 4.5

Following the lead of real users, Content Creation Winstone 2001 keeps multiple applications open at once and switches among those applications. Content Creation Winstone 2001 is a single large test that runs the above applications through a series of scripted activities and returns a single score. Those activities focus on what we call "hot spots", periods of activity that make your PC really work-the times where you're likely to see an hourglass or a progress bar.

WinBench 99
WinBench 99 is a subsystem-level benchmark that measures the performance of a PC's graphics, disk, and video subsystems in a Windows environment. WinBench 99's tests can run on Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows Me systems.

BatteryMark
BatteryMark measures battery life on notebook computers running Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows ME, Windows NT 4.0, or Windows 2000.

MP3 Ripping
Using MusicMatch Jukebox (www.musicmatch.com) we ripped a 71:39 minute audio CD. We also recorded how long it took to rip the entire CD onto the hard drive.

Premiere 6.0
The main testing involved the capture of a video clip from the Sony DCR-TRV15E. We imported the captured clip into Premiere 6, which was installed on all of the notebooks. Various transitions and special effects were applied to the clip, then we recorded how long each of the notebooks took to render the video clip.

The final product was then output back into the Sony DCR-TRV15E via IEEE 1394.

Acer TravelMate 351TE

Acer TravelMate 351TE

Back in April, in our test of ultralight ultraportable notebooks, the Acer TravelMate 351TE was sent to us for review. This time around we pretty much got the same notebook, but with a faster processor.

The TravelMate was definitely one of the best looking notebooks in this roundup (only the Apple was more stylish). The exterior is a nice muted grey and the keyboard was all black. The arrangement of the keys was a little different to what we're used to: they were not set in straight line-the whole keypad was slightly curved. After a while typing with this layout we actually found it to be quite comfortable.

The Acer notebook also has five buttons positioned across the top of the keyboard. Three of the buttons are user programmable and the fourth was a "mail" button that begins to flash once you have received an incoming e-mail. The fifth button acts to launch your Web browser. The touchpad had three buttons located directly below the pad. The left and right buttons are similar to the left and right buttons on a conventional mouse. The centre button can be used to scroll up or down a page.

The Acer is a little under-powered compared to all the other notebooks: it came with a 700MHz Pentium III processor, making it the slowest notebook in this review. The Acer was also equipped with 128MB of RAM and a 10GB IBM Travelstar DJSA-210 hard disk.

Upgrading the hard drive or increasing your system RAM is a piece of cake: the hard drive pulls out after removing one screw from the right-hand side of the notebook and you only need to remove one screw to get to the RAM.

Most of the I/O connectors were located on the back of the notebook. There were two USB connectors, one PS/2 port, one VGA port, network and modem connectors, as well as a port replicator. The Acer does not come with a built-in serial or parallel port, instead Acer shipped an I/O "Y" connector cable which plugs straight into the port replicator.

On the left-hand side of the notebook was one Type II PCMCIA slot and a Smart Card reader. The Acer comes with an all-in one external floppy/DVD-ROM drive. The floppy drive sits atop the DVD-ROM drive and connects straight into the external drive connector on the notebook. The Acer also comes with an IEEE 1394 FireWire port.

The 13.3in display was excellent and the display panel is quite strong as well. Weighing in at just 1.869kg, the Acer was also the thinnest notebook in the roundup, sitting only 21mm high with its display closed.

To handle graphics the Acer comes with a Trident graphics accelerator, which didn't perform as well in WinBench Business Graphics and WinBench High-End Graphics as the other notebooks in our comparison. The Acer also reported poor scores in Content Creation Winstone and took the longest to rip a 71-minute audio CD. It also took the longest to render our home movie-over two minutes.

While the Acer may not be a speed demon it does have portability advantages over most of the other notebooks, and it is superlight.

Acer TravelMate 351TE
Company:Acer Computer Australia
Ph:&nbsp 1300 366 567
Price:&nbsp $AU$4,449

Excel 2700C

Excel 2700C

The Excel 2700C looks like it came out of the same factory as the Pioneer PowerBook. The only obvious difference is the case. The Excel 2700C sports a funkier, slightly more modern case. However, the overall build quality and internal specifications were almost identical.

All the I/O ports, for example, are positioned as those of the PowerBook.

The e@Pc notebook shipped with only a 15GB hard disk drive (unlike Pioneer, who supplied a 20GB drive). However e@Pc did offer more software than Pioneer Computers. The software bundle included MGI VideoWave 4.0, InterVideo WinDVD, and an OzEmail 100-hour Free Internet CD.

There was not much difference in performance between the Pioneer and e@Pc notebook. Again, as we had mentioned before, the Pioneer notebook was a little slower in some of the graphics tests but this was only due to the fact that they had not installed the latest drivers. The e@Pc recorded the highest score in Business Graphics and High-End Graphics tests, and also managed to get the second-best time at ripping an audio CD.

Where this notebook won out was price-a remarkable $2999-which makes it the least expensive notebook in this review.

Excel 2700C
Company:e@Pc
Ph:&nbsp 1300 652 265
Price:&nbsp $AU$2,999



IBM ThinkPad A22m

IBM ThinkPad A22m

The IBM ThinkPad weighed in at 3.1kg, making it one of the heavier notebooks in this comparison, but what you get for that extra weight is a large display and an integrated floppy and DVD-ROM drive. Inside, the ThinkPad featured an Intel PIII 1GHz processor as well as 128MB of RAM, a 30GB IBM Travelstar IC25N030 hard disk, and an 8MB ATI Rage Mobility M1 video accelerator.

The keyboard was large and easy to use. We would have liked it a bit better if the standard keys had been coloured differently from the function keys-all the keys were black (as is the entire exterior). Despite the lack of colour differentiation, there were good separators between the function keys, and the three audio buttons (the only grey keys on the keyboard): volume up/down and mute. Like the Acer, the ThinkPad had three mouse buttons, and it was the only notebook to use a track pointer instead of a glide pad. You have to be a little more precise when using the track pointer-it's easy at first to overshoot your target-but it takes only a short time to get accustomed to.

The ThinkPad sports an excellent 14.1in display. We found it to be one of the best in quality (second only to the Apple's display). The display is also very well supported at the base. As we have said in the past, IBM notebooks are built with high quality components and are built to last.

The ThinkPad is very upgrade friendly. It's easy, for example, to upgrade system RAM through a panel on the bottom of the notebook. The combo network and modem card is also accessible from the base of the notebook. The IBM hard drive pulls out from the left-hand side of the unit.

The one thing that was missing from this notebook was an IEEE 1394 FireWire port (or even an S-video in connector). We used a FireWire PCMCIA card from QDI for this purpose.

The IBM ThinkPad was easily the fastest notebook on the block. It outperformed all the other 1GHz notebook. It also came up with the longest battery life (using a single battery) and it managed to rip an audio CD in less than 10 minutes. Even though its graphics processor couldn't quite match the SiS graphics processors found in the other 1GHz notebooks, it still managed to get a better overall result in Content Creation Winstone. This was, however, aided by the awesome performance of the hard disk.

We also tested the new PowerPad 160, a portable computer battery, and it managed to run the IBM ThinkPad for a little over 10 hours. The IBM also uses SpeedStep technology, which combines fast processing performance with the best battery life. This has its distinct advantages especially over clone notebooks who use standard desktop CPUs.

The IBM ThinkPad is priced at $5699 and IBM is currently offering an additional 128MB of RAM, which will boost the total memory to 256MB for no extra cost.

IBM ThinkPad A22m
Company:IBM Australia
Ph:&nbsp 1800 289 426
Price:&nbsp AU$5,699

NEC Versa Txi

NEC Versa Txi

The NEC Versa Txi was one of the lightest notebooks in this review-it weighs only 1.849kg. The Versa Txi is NEC's latest ultra-portable notebook and it features a versatile modular bay that enables the user to swap the DVD drive out for a second Li-Ion battery, for example. The second battery is a higher capacity battery (almost twice the life of the standard battery). The Versa also has an external floppy drive that can be connected via one of the three USB ports located on the right-hand side of the notebook.

The NEC shipped with a Intel Pentium III 750MHz processor. Even so, it managed to surprise the whole Test Lab by being able to match the performance of the 1GHz clones in all the tests. It also performed quite well in our Premiere test where it managed to render our video clip in 1 minute 29 seconds (only two seconds slower than the IBM). It also did a good job ripping our 71-minute audio file and we managed to keep the notebook running for a little over two hours using the second battery. With both batteries, we obatined a battery life of 3 hours and 10 minutes.

The Versa used the same colours for both the standard keys and the function keys (our pet peeve). The keys felt a bit light and we also noticed a reasonable amount of bounce in the keyboard. The Versa features an interesting glide pad with three buttons. The right and left buttons are standard cursor buttons and the middle button is a scroll button.

The 12.1in was the smallest display in this roundup (along with the Sony Vaio display). While offering a good sharp picture it was also quite well supported. When we applied pressure to the back of the panel we saw only some very minor rippling. At the bottom of the display are two speakers, which were very small but they produced sound that was quite good.

The Versa does not offer much in the way of memory expansion. It only has a single expansion bank together with the 64MB of RAM on board. The 20GB Toshiba hard disk is a bit tricky to get to but removing the Toshiba DVD drive is a piece of cake and it is interchangeable with a second battery.

The Versa is feature packed. It comes with a modem and network adaptor as well as a mini TV out port and a mini IEEE 1394 FireWire port, which is conveniently located on the front of the notebook. It also has a VGA port on the back of the notebook and two Type II, or Type III PCMCIA slots. We also found an external parallel printer port and a microphone and headphone/S/PDIF jacks on the front of the notebook.

Out of all the notebooks the Versa was one of the best-balanced notebooks in this review. It comes bundled with MS Word 2000, CyberLink, PowerDVD, and a Recovery CD. The NEC also comes with a three-year warranty-longer than any of the other notebooks in this comparison.

NEC Versa Txi
Company:NEC Versa Txi
Ph:&nbsp 1800 632 777
Price:&nbsp AU$5,499



Pioneer PowerBook 1G 2200

Pioneer PowerBook 1G 2200

This notebook looks a lot like many of the clones we have tested in the past (we received almost identical notebooks from e@Pc and Synnex). Fortunately, it seems to be one of the better built clones around. These clones are also about half the cost of some of the name-brand notebooks with similar specifications.

The Pioneer PowerBook features a PIII 1GHz processor and 128MB of RAM, a 14.1in display, and a 20GB hard disk drive. The keyboard provides adequate feedback, though it is a bit noisy when typing fast. There is a slight colour differentiation between the standard and function keys. This is extremely helpful if you are someone that takes a while to find all the keys on the keyboard, however the distinction is a little hard to make out in low-light conditions. The PowerBook provides plenty of space to rest your palms while you type. If you ever listen to music while you type, however, you may find that your hands cover the speakers placed on each side of the notebook rest.

The rear of the notebook features two USB ports, a PS/2 keyboard/mouse port, a serial port, external VGA, a parallel port, modem and network jacks, as well as a S-video out port and an IEEE 1394 FireWire port.

What's interesting is that both the modem and the network lines are connected via the same jack. If you want to use the network and the modem at the same time you would have to by a connector (which costs about AU$25). On the left-hand side of the notebook is a Type II PCMCIA slot, floppy disk drive, an audio line out, and microphone jack. On the right-hand side is a Toshiba SD-C2502 DVD-ROM drive.

Upgrading isn't too bad-the memory is fairly easy to get to. You only have to unscrew a panel on the base of the notebook. But if you wanted to get to the hard drive you would have to release the four keyboard latches at the top of the keyboard. This is a little tricky but once you have done that, all you have to do is remove three screws to release the hard disk. It can also get a little messy taking out the battery-this requires the removal of the two screws that hold the battery lock in place. Then you have to slide out the battery cover and disconnect the battery from the mainboard.

The Pioneer PowerBook was the slowest of all the clones. We discovered that Pioneer did not use the latest drivers for its SiS 630 graphics processor. The other two clones (QDI and e@Pc) used the new SiS 630/640 drivers and for that reason they performed slightly better in WinBench Business Graphics and WinBench High-End Graphics, and overall in Content Creation Winstone.

The 14.8v 3600mAh Li-Ion battery drove the Pioneer PowerBook for 2 hours and 27 minutes under our test conditions using Ziff Davis Battery Mark 4.0.1. It performed marginally better than the other clones and it scored second best overall.

Pioneer PowerBook 1G 2200
Company:Pioneer Computers
Ph:&nbsp 02 9690 2888
Price:&nbsp AU$3,135

Sony VAIO PCG-R505CT

Sony VAIO PCG-R505CT

The Sony Vaio shipped to us with a docking station. Together with the docking station the Sony Vaio weighs in at 2.8kg. On its own it weighs only 1.7kg, making it the lightest notebook in this review. The docking station housed the Vaio's DVD-ROM and floppy disk drive as well as a range of I/O ports. On the back of the docking station we discovered a network adapter, two USB ports, a mini IEEE 1394 FireWire port, VGA, and a serial and parallel port. The docking station also has a vent, which helps keep the Vaio cool by pushing out the hot air from the CPU out through the left-hand side of the docking station.

The Vaio sits snugly on top of the docking station. It clicks into place with relative ease and it comes off just as easily. There are two latches on either side of the docking station that pull out to release the Vaio. There is also an indicator on the Vaio, which lights up to tell you that the Vaio is plugged into the docking station.

Taking a closer look at the Vaio while it was sitting on the docking station we realised that the USB port on the left-hand side of the notebook cannot be used while it is connected to the docking station. Even though the docking station has additional connectors on the back it would have been nice to be able to have access to this extra USB port.

The Vaio itself is built to last. Even though it's light, it's actually quite strong and it offers excellent support for the display. We could hardly get any sort of rippling on the display even after applying pressure to the back. The keyboard also offers good feel and it doesn't jump around as it did with some of the clones. The area where your palms would rest is also stable which makes typing more comfortable. The Vaio uses a glidepad and also features a scroll button like the NEC but in the Vaio's case it's a small wheel, which is actually easier and more comfortable to use.

The Vaio has network and modem capabilities built into the notebook. It also features two USB ports, headphones and microphone jacks as well as a mini IEEE 1394 FireWire port, single Type II PCMCIA slot, VGA port, and an MG memory stick slot.

Inside the Vaio is an Intel Pentium III 850MHz processor, but its performance didn't quite live up to our expectations. The Nec actually outperformed the Vaio in all the tests except WinBench Business and High-End Graphics tests. The Vaio uses the Intel 815 graphics accelerator, which did quite well and in fact it performed as well as some of the SiS-based notebooks.

The Vaio is innovative and, combined with the docking station, it offers flexibility and portability that many of the other notebooks can't. The main drawback is the relatively high price.

Sony VAIO PCG-R505CT
Company:Sony
Ph:&nbsp 1300 137 669
Price:&nbsp AU$5,899



Targa Visonary

Targa Visonary

The Targa notebook was the third clone that we tested. Targa is a German brand which, we haven't seen much of. The actual notebook is manufactured in Taiwan and its build quality was just as good as the other clones (though its case was a bit squarish and plain). The Targa notebook was also the heaviest notebook we looked at, weighing in at 3.478kg

An Intel PIII 1GHz processor powers the Targa notebook. And it was one of the fastest performing notebooks in our comparison (only the IBM was faster, but not by much).

The keyboard was well supported and provided a good all-round feel. Another positive thing about the keyboard is that the function and standard keys were coloured differently. The display was also very solid-we didn't see much rippling after applying pressure to the back of the screen. Display quality was also very good. Colours were nice and warm, and the brightness across the display was very even. The Targa notebook is a breeze to upgrade. The RAM sits underneath the keypad and the hard drive is underneath a panel on the base. The CPU can also be easily upgraded from the base of the notebook (with most of the other notebooks it requires a lot of work to remove the CPU).

This Targa notebook features the same SiS components as the other two clone notebooks. It uses the 630/640 graphics chipset, SiS 7018 Audio chipset and a SiS 900 PCI Fast Ethernet controller. It also features a HAMR 5600 56K modem, a 20GB Hitachi DK-23CA-20 hard disk, and an 8X Teac DVD player.

The Targa did not come with an IEEE 1394 card as standard. We had to use a PCMCIA IEEE 1394 card from QDI to do our Premiere tests. QDI supplied the Lab with a SwannFire IEEE 1394 Card (which we also used to test the IBM notebook).

The Targa was the second-fastest notebook in Content Creation Winstone. It also produced some good scores in WinBench Business Disk and was up there in WinBench Business and High-End Graphics tests. It managed to rip an audio CD in under 30 minutes and the battery ran the notebook for a little over two hours. On top of all this, the Targa managed to render our movie in the shortest amount of time.

There's no doubt that the Targa is the pick of the clone notebooks. QDI offers a few different options and extras, which are worth mentioning. Upgrading to 512MB of RAM would cost you an additional AU$250. For Windows 2000 there is a AU$195 upgrade charge. For AU$3,374 you get Windows Me, which includes a recovery CD. (We, however, tested this notebook with Windows 2000.)

Targa Visonary
Company:QDI
Ph:&nbsp 03 9545 6233
Price:&nbsp AU$3,374

Sidebar

Apple Titanium PowerBook G4

Apple Titanium PowerBook G4

The all-new Apple Titanium PowerBook G4 is the world's first notebook make of AU99.5 percent pure titanium. It is just 2.6cm thick and weighs only 2.429kg. This is quite remarkable considering it has a 15.2in wide-screen display. This display is absolutely stunning-you can watch DVD movies on your notebook in wide-screen format. The picture quality was also superb. This was easily the best TFT of the lot.

On the outside the PowerBook is all grey-silver. It looks reserved but modern and stylish at the same time. The keyboard is made up of transparent black keys, which offer excellent feedback, and the huge palm rest area made it even more comfortable to use. We did not, however, like the small function and arrow keys. Despite being such a wide notebook it has a standard-sized keypad. It would have made more sense to place a wider keypad, which would have stretched from one side of the notebook to the other. Apple instead has speakers on each side of the keypad.

The PowerBook is powered by a Power Mac G4 400MHz processor and came to us with 128MB of RAM (and can be expanded up to 1GB). Upgrading the RAM is easy-all you have to do is unfasten two spring loaded clips from the keypad to reveal the RAM banks and CPU. These can be unfastened by hand-you won't need a flathead screw driver and you don't have to search around the edges of the keypad to find these clips like you have to do with most of the other keypads. Another thing that impressed us was the array of heatsinks assembled over the CPU and the graphics processor.

The PowerBook also features 8MB of video memory and a 10GB hard disk. Upgrading the hard disk may take you a while. You have to remove the entire base (which requires removing eight screws). Also featured was a one-inch thick slot-loading DVD drive. The PowerBook does not come with a serial or parallel port but with two USB ports instead. The back of this notebook features a single IEEE 1394 port, which we used for video capture. There was also TV-out port, which lets you connect your PowerBook to a television, VCR, or other video device.

The PowerBook also features a built-in 56K modem and an Ethernet port, which enables you to connect to a high-speed 10/100Base-T Ethernet network. The PowerBook also has a built in AirPort antenna cable, which attaches to the end of the optional AirPort Card. We could not actually compare the performance scores of the Apple with those of the other notebooks but in respect to build quality and features it was definitely one to be reckoned with.

Apple Titanium PowerBook G4
Company:Apple Australia
Ph:&nbsp 13 36 22
Price:&nbsp AU$5,495



Extend Your Laptop Battery Life

PowerPad 160

The PowerPad 160 is a portable computer battery. We attached it to the IBM ThinkPad we reviewed and found that it managed to keep our notebook running for a bit over 10 hours. This is not a bad effort and combined with its own battery, the IBM could keep going for 13 hours in total. This is ideal for business users who need those extra hours on long flights. Unfortunately, this extra battery life comes at a cost: at least $1179 to be exact. This seems like a high price to pay but it probably works out cheaper than buying additional batteries for your notebook. The PowerPad also comes with plugs and cables to suit almost every notebook.

There are two models out at the moment: the first is the PowerPad160 A, which can be charged using the existing laptop power unit. The package comes with all the necessary cabling and the PowerPad160 itself.

The PowerPad160 B comes with its own charging adaptor because some notebooks' chargers simply don't supply sufficient voltage. Also worth mentioning is the PowerPad 210 (which provides up to 20 hours). This is scheduled for release in the next few months.

Specifications:
Capacity: 15V, 11 Ah, 160 Wh
Weight: 1.1kg
Dimensions: (220 x 295 x 9.5mm)
Fast Charge: 80 percent charge in less than four hours
Warranty: 12 months

PowerPad 160 A & B
Company:Voice Recognition
Ph:&nbsp 02 6242 4458
Price:&nbsp PowerPad 160 A AU$1,179; PowerPad 160 B AU$1,199