We've reviewed a few large-screen workstation-class notebooks over the past couple of years, including HP's EliteBook 8730w and Lenovo's ThinkPad W701. Impressive as these systems were, we wanted to see just how far the notebook form factor can be pushed. So we invited desktop replacement specialist Eurocom to send in its Panther 2.0: as you'll see, the specification and performance of this beast is truly startling — as is the price: £7,664 (ex. VAT).
Let's begin with the specs of the power supply, just to give you an idea of the territory we're in: the AC adapter measures 20.7cm by 11.1cm by 5cm, weighs a couple of kilograms and is rated at 300 watts — yes, that's 300W for a 'laptop' power brick ('brick' being the operative word).
The 17.3in. Eurocom Panther 2.0 weighs 5.5kg — and that's without the hefty 300W AC adapter
We generally frown on car analogies, but the Panther 2.0 has a black-clad, muscle-bound appearance that brings to mind the hulking US Presidential limousine. It measures a stately 41.9cm wide by 28.6cm deep by 5.65-6.07cm thick and at 5.5kg is one of the heaviest notebooks we've ever examined. Add the AC adapter and you're looking at over 7kg. Don't even think of plonking this leviathan on your lap, or you might do yourself an injury — apart from anything else, there are three fans on the underside that require sufficient airflow to keep the power-hungry internal components from overheating.
Thanks to its 17.3in. display — which is glossy, LED-backlit and has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels — the chassis has plenty of room for a full-sized keyboard. But although the keyboard has well-spaced 'chiclet'-style keys, a row of full-height number keys and a separate number pad, we found it slightly awkward to use. This was due to a combination of the size of the wrist-rest area (it's some 12cm deep) and the way the system lies flat on the desk. We found it noticeably easier to type with the computer propped up by a few centimetres at the back. There's a good multi-touch touchpad in the wrist-rest, with two mouse buttons flanking a fingerprint reader. The touchpad also has a vertical scroll zone on the right-hand side, but lacks a horizontal scrolling function.
Although the Panther 2.0 has a full-size keyboard with a separate number pad, we didn't find it all that comfortable to type on
Between the keyboard and the screen are a number of touch-sensitive buttons for toggling the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios on and off, firing up the system's webcam and adjusting the audio (volume up/down/mute). Also in this area are a series of LEDs reporting hard disk activity, Num, Scroll and Caps Lock, and power and battery status. The screen hinge area houses no fewer than five speakers, and there's a sub-woofer on the underside too. If you want the full surround-sound experience, you'll need to plug in a set of external (5.1 or 7.1) speakers.
The Panther 2.0 chassis has plenty of room for ports and slots, and Eurocom makes full use of the available space. The left-hand side has the following connectors, starting at the back: DVI-out; antenna jack (for an optional TV tuner); HDMI-out; two USB 3.0; eSATA; FireWire 800 (4-pin); HDMI-in; and multi-format flash card reader (SD- and Memory Stick-compatible media).
The right-hand side is somewhat less busy, carrying three USB 2.0 ports and a quartet of audio jacks (headphone, microphone, S/PDIF and surround sound combo, and line-in). If the Panther 2.0's weight doesn't discourage casual thieves, there's a lock slot at the back of the right-hand side too.
The back is largely given over to fan vents, but also houses the power input, while the front has an infrared receiver and a power status LED.
To say that the Panther 2.0 has a top-end specification is an understatement. The processor is Intel's Core i7 980X Extreme Edition, a desktop-series CPU that runs at 3.3GHz, has 6 cores and 12 threads, benefits from 12MB of shared L3 cache and has a power envelope (TDP) of 130W. It's not a second-generation Core 'Sandy Bridge' processor, but it remains at the top of the desktop Extreme range for the moment. The only Extreme Edition Sandy Bridge processor launched so far is the 2.5GHz Core i7-2910XM, a mobile CPU with a TDP of 55W. A range of other Core i7 and Xeon processors can be specified: the 980X adds £649 to price with the entry-level 3.06GHz Core i7-950.
The Panther 2.0's three SO-DIMM sockets were fully stocked with 8GB DDR3-1333 modules in our review system, giving an impressive total of 24GB of RAM. Equally impressive is the price of this option — an extra £2,201 over the entry-level 6GB (3 x 2GB) configuration. The chipset is Intel's X58 Express.
Continuing the heavy-duty specs, the graphics subsystem comprised two SLI-linked 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M GPUs. The price for this 3D performance-enhancing option is £760 compared to the entry-level single 1.5GB GeForce 470M.
Eurocom didn't stint on storage for our review system either. The operating system (we installed Ubuntu 10.10) resided on a pair of 128GB Solidata SSDs, configured in RAID 0 for maximum performance. For data there was a 750GB Seagate Momentus (ST9750420AS) SATA II (3Gbps/300MB/s) drive spinning at 7,200rpm. The optical drive was a multi-format DVD/Blu-ray writer, the Panasonic UJ-240A. The cost of this storage subsystem pushes the price further into the stratosphere: £669 for the first SSD, £776 for the second, £224 for the hard drive and £240 for the optical drive. The entry-level configuration, by the way, is a single 320GB, 7,200rpm hard drive.
For wireless connectivity there's 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi (Intel WiFi Link 6300) and Bluetooth 3.0+EDR.
Performance & battery life
To evaluate the performance of the Panther 2.0 running Ubuntu 10.10, we turned to Phoronix Test Suite, a widely-used testing and benchmarking platform. For each test we've pulled one or more sets of results from the Phoronix Global website for comparison.
BYTE Unix Benchmark 3.6
This benchmark for scientific and numerical computing comprises Fast Fourier Transform, Jacobi Successive Over-relaxation, Monte Carlo, Sparse Matrix Multiply and dense LU matrix factorisation tests.
This is a test of 7-Zip using p7zip with its integrated benchmark feature.
The Panther 2.0 is beaten by the 980X EE desktop, but performs 58 percent better than a desktop based on the Core i7 950
Video CPU Usage
This test records CPU usage while playing back a 1080p H.264 video sample (from Big Buck Bunny) for several minutes using MPlayer.
Thanks to its powerful graphics subsystem (dual SLI-linked Nvidia GeForce GTX 480M), the Panther 2.0's CPU usage is very low in this test
LAME MP3 Encoding
This test measures the time required to encode a WAV file to MP3 format using LAME, an open-source MP3 encoder.
The Panther 2.0 is beaten by the 980X EE desktop, but performs 41.5 percent better than a desktop based on the Core i7 950
Dbench is a benchmark containing only file-system calls for testing disk performance.
The benefit of the Panther 2.0's pair of SSDs in RAID 0 configuration is evident in this test, especially with moderate numbers of clients
We're not in the slightest bit surprised to discover that the Panther 2.0 is a power-hungry beast that won't last long on its 78.4Wh battery. We tested power consumption using a Voltcraft VC940 Plus multimeter, with the battery out and the system idling at the Ubuntu 10.10 desktop and running the Phoronix video encoding test. Under load and with screen brightness at 100 percent, the Panther 2.0 drew 113.1 watts on average, which corresponds to a measly 41.1 minutes of battery life. When idling with the screen at 50 percent brightness, it still drew 88.1W, giving a maximum estimate of just under a hour's battery life (53.4 minutes). Of course, given its weight and bulk, the Panther 2.0 will rarely, if ever, stray far from a mains power source and the battery is more of a temporary UPS than anything else.
We asked Eurocom to provide us with a top-end Panther 2.0 specification, to see how many features can be squeezed into, and how much performance extracted from, a clamshell-format chassis. Although few users are likely to require the eye-watering £7,644 (ex. VAT) system we reviewed, the Panther 2.0 is a highly configurable transportable platform that can be set up as a gaming system, a professional workstation or a server. A basic Core i7 950-based system starts at a much more reasonable £1,947 (ex. VAT).
Eurocom's standard warranty is one year return to factory depot with one year of technical support. You can upgrade to two years for £107 or three years for £192 (ex. VAT).
If you're after great industrial design or long battery life, this hulking desktop replacement is not for you. But if you value a wealth of configuration options and excellent performance, take a look at Eurocom's Panther 2.0. Just be prepared to rack up a hefty price tag.