Notebooks: top 5s

Want to know which notebooks are the fastest, have the longest battery life, can handle 3D graphics, and are the lightest? Check here for the latest details.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor
Are you looking to buy a notebook system? In this regularly updated article, we'll show you the fastest notebooks we've tested, list the ones with the longest-lasting batteries, identify the notebooks that are best suited to playing 3D games, and point out the lightest portable PCs available. If you're thinking of buying a notebook, keep checking this feature to discover which products currently lead the field on a range of important metrics. The release of Intel's Centrino technology on 12 March was a major development in mobile computing. Based around the power-efficient Pentium M processor and 855 chipset, Centrino has brought new levels of performance and battery life to notebooks, as the graph below shows. As we review more Centrino/Pentium M systems, we'll keep updating this chart so you can see how the mobile landscape is developing.

This graph summarises the performance and battery life advances made by the new Pentium M/Centrino notebooks. The previous generation of Mobile Pentium 4-M notebooks (green dots) were good performers (30-50 on Business Winstone 2001), but typically delivered between 2 and 3 hours' battery life. Notebooks that use the desktop Pentium 4 chip (purple circles) can be excellent performers, but battery life rarely exceeds 2.5 hours. Older Mobile Pentium III-M systems (blue triangles) could exceed 3 hours' battery life, but performance was lower (20-40 on Business Winstone 2001). The three new Pentium M notebooks (pink diamonds) we have tested so far occupy the hitherto-elusive top-right quadrant of the graph, where performance is excellent (>50 on Business Winstone 2001) and battery life long (3-5 hours).

Mainstream application performance
The fastest portable PC we've tested to date is Dell's Inspiron 5100, a hefty (3.69kg) desktop replacement system based on the 2.8GHz desktop Pentium 4 processor. However, its mainstream application performance is only just ahead of the best-performing Centrino notebook we've seen so far – Acer's 1.6GHz TravelMate 800. The difference in clock speed between the Dell and Acer systems says a lot about the efficiency of the new Pentium M chip – and points up a problem Intel may encounter when marketing it to a public used to judging CPU performance on clock speed. Third and fifth places in the mainstream application performance chart are also occupied by Centrino notebooks -- the thin and light 1.5GHz Sony Vaio PCG-Z1SP and the business-orientated 1.4GHz Dell Latitude D600. Separating the latter two Centrino systems in fourth place is Dell's flagship consumer notebook, the 2.4GHz Mobile Pentium 4-M-based Inspiron 8500.

Business Winstone 2001 is an application-based benchmark that measures a PC's overall performance when running popular Windows-based 32-bit applications on Windows 98 SE, NT 4.0 (SP6 or later), 2000, ME or XP. The benchmark uses the following applications: Norton AntiVirus 2000; WinZip 7.0; FrontPage 2000; Lotus Notes R5; Access 2000; Excel 2000; PowerPoint 2000; Project 98; Word 2000; Netscape Communicator 4.73. Business Winstone 2001 runs real applications through a series of scripted activities and uses the time a PC takes to complete those activities to produce its performance scores.
Dell Inspiron 5100 Acer TravelMate 800 Sony Vaio PCG-Z1SP Dell Inspiron 8500 Dell Latitude D600

High-end application performance
High-end content-creation-type applications are handled quickest by Dell's Inspiron 5100. This 2.8GHz Pentium 4-based desktop replacement system beats the second-placed 1.6GHz Pentium M-based Acer TravelMate 800 by a bigger margin than in the mainstream application-based test. Another Centrino notebook, Sony's 1.5GHz Vaio PCG-Z1SP, takes third place, but the remainder of the chart is occupied by heavy-duty Mobile Pentium 4-M systems -- Compaq's 2.2GHz workstation-class Evo N800w and Dell's 2.4GHz desktop replacement Inspiron 8200.

Content Creation Winstone 2002 is an application-based benchmark that measures a PC's overall performance when running top Windows-based, 32-bit content creation applications on Windows 98, 2000, ME, or XP. The benchmark uses the following applications: Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1; Adobe Premiere 6.0; Macromedia Director 8.5; Macromedia Dreamweaver UltraDev 4; Microsoft Windows Media Encoder; Netscape Navigator 6/6.01; Sonic Foundry Sound Forge 5.0c (build 184). Content Creation Winstone 2002 keeps multiple applications open at once and switches among those applications. It's a single large test that runs the above applications through a series of scripted activities and returns a single score.
Dell Inspiron 5100 Acer TravelMate 800 Sony Vaio PCG-Z1SP Compaq Evo N800w Dell Inspiron 8200

Battery life
Unless you're using your notebook purely as a desktop replacement system, you're likely to be as interested in battery life as you are in performance -- especially if all you want to do on the move is run mainstream productivity applications like word processor, spreadsheet, Web browser and PIM/email client. Intel's recently launched Pentium M/Centrino technology is set to make a big impact in this area. Our tests using BatteryMark 4.01 show that you can expect over 4.5 hours' life from leading Pentium M/Centrino products like Acer's TravelMate 800. The only non-Centrino notebook to challenge this figure is Panasonic's Mobile Pentium III-M-based ToughBook CF-R1, but its performance is nowhere near the TravelMate 800's level. Even with a Centrino system, if you want seriously lengthy mobile uptime (over five hours), you'll still have to consider fitting a second battery or an optional extended-life battery -- unless you're prepared to sacrifice performance by applying a stringent power management regime that involves running the CPU at a lower clock speed.

BatteryMark 4.01 is a 32-bit Windows benchmark designed to assess the battery life of notebook PCs. It uses software to mimic the real-life performance of a system with power management enabled. When we run BatteryMark 4.01, we turn off the system's power management features, and set the processor to 'maximum performance' mode unless otherwise stated.
Acer TravelMate 800 Panasonic ToughBook CF-R1 Sony Vaio PCG-SR21K Dell Latitude D600 IBM ThinkPad X30

3D graphics performance
Notebook PCs can now deliver excellent 3D graphics acceleration, thanks to recent advances in mobile graphics chip technology from leading manufacturers ATI and Nvidia. The latest graphics chip to hit the notebook scene is Nvidia's GeForce4 4200 Go, which repackages the features and performance of the desktop GeForce4 Ti part for the mobile platform. This has clearly been successful, as Dell's Inspiron 8500 -- the first notebook we've seen to use the GeForce4 4200 Go -- is now well ahead of the pack. A score of around 10,000 under 3DMark 2001 corresponds to leading-edge desktop performance of a year ago, and will rival or beat many of today's mainstream and budget desktops. The next three notebooks in this chart have graphics subsystems based on ATI's Mobility Radeon 9000 chip, the previous top dog in the mobile 3D market. Compaq's Evo N800w uses the OpenGL-optimised Mobility Fire GL 9000, while the Acer TravelMate 800 and Dell Inspiron 8200 use the regular version of the chip. Toshiba's fifth-placed Satellite 5200-701 uses Nvidia's older GeForce4 460 Go. Although notebooks are fast catching up with desktops in terms of 3D acceleration, today's best-performing desktop PCs score around 15,000 in this test. So there's still a performance trade-off if you want portability and 3D graphics -- but it's getting less and less significant.

3DMark2001 is a DirectX 8 graphics benchmark with support for advanced features such as vertex shaders, pixel shaders, point sprites, DOT3 bump mapping, full-scene anti-aliasing and DXTC/S3TC compressed textures.
Dell Inspiron 8500 Acer TravelMate 800 Compaq Evo N800w Dell Inspiron 8200 Toshiba Satellite 5200-701

Weight savers
Of all the notebooks that ZDNet UK receives for review, it's the ultraportables weighing less than 2kg that elicit the most interest. Everyone likes a gadget -- and if it can run full-blown Windows, so much the better. Of course, miniaturisation requires a lot of trade-offs, and you won't find fast processors, large screens, full-size keyboards or built-in removeable media drives among the lightweight notebooks listed here. But if you're a frequent traveller and you don't want to be weighed down by your technology, these are the notebooks to consider. We haven't tested a sub-2kg Centrino system yet, but look forward to discovering how far Pentium M-based ultraportables can push the performance/battery life envelope.

This graph shows notebook weight with the standard primary battery installed, but excluding the AC adapter and any external peripherals.
JVC Mini Note MP-XP7210 Sony Vaio PCG-C1MGP Sony Vaio PCG-C1VFK Toshiba Portégé 2000 Sony Vaio PCG-SRX41P

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