Powerhouse portables provide breakthrough features for road warriors and stay-at-home media mavens alike
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006
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Some ultraportable machines deliver the same processing power as the heavyweight desktop replacement models, but there are good reasons to trade up. A full-size keyboard is part of the story, but the main attractions are high-quality audio and a big screen that make your notebook computer a viable replacement for a stereo system and even a TV set in a den or dorm room. Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition isn't a requirement for making your computer more entertaining, but it certainly helps. A full-fledged version of Windows XP with additional entertainment-oriented features, it includes a convenient full-screen menu displaying all your TV, video, DVD, photo and music options. The system also supports TV tuners for viewing live shows or recording programs. It even allows wireless remote control. Keep in mind, though, that a Media Center PC doesn't automatically include a TV tuner or remote—with most systems these are extra-cost options, worth ordering if you're planning to catch the game or the latest episode of "Lost" on your computer, expendable otherwise.
Dell Inspiron E1705 -- I'm not sure about the white and silver color scheme (the heavy hand of iPod design influence at work, I fear), but as an entertainment-friendly desktop replacement machine, this Dell scores well across the board. The bright 17-inch screen is easy on the eyes, the keyboard is very comfortable, and connections for external devices rival any desktop machine, with six USB ports, FireWire, a memory card reader, and both digital and analog connectors for external monitors. Audio performance is impressive for both music and DVDs, pumping surprising volume from the compact speakers, with play/pause/stop/fast forward/rewind/mute control buttons conveniently situated on the front panel. The system ships with Windows Media Center Edition installed, though there's no internal TV tuner option available—an external USB tuner and wireless remote control are available as a $130 option. $949 and up; 15.5'' x 11.3'' x 1.6''; 7.9 lbs.; dell.com or 800-953-6014
Voodoo Heavyweight Envy u:709 -- Throughout the monthlong testing process, everyone who strolled into my living room/computer lab was instantly drawn to this showy machine. No wonder. It looks like a sports car parked on your desktop, with its refined lines and richly polished paint job (even the 11 color names smack of an automotive heritage, from Laguna Seca Blue to Monza Olive). And unlike any of the other machines in our roundup, under the hood beats the heart of a full-throttle gaming machine—an AMD Athlon 64 dual-core processor designed for desktop PCs. The downside: a bit more heat and a lot more cooling fan noise than other machines, 13 pounds of digital pulchritude and paltry battery life (figure about half an hour). The upside: impeccable processing, video and audio performance on even the most demanding tasks, including gaming and video editing. A nice bonus is the 1.3-megapixel camera perched atop the screen, great for capturing video e-mail or online face-to-face chats. This is a niche-audience computer, designed for the serious game player or multimedia maven looking for no-compromise desktop power that you can close up and stow away at the end of the day. If that's you, and you don't mind the Porsche-worthy wallet wallop, the Envy won't disappoint. $4,300 and up; 15.5'' x 11.8'' x 2.0''; 13 lbs.; voodoopc.com or 888-708-6636
HP dv8000t -- I spent hours exploring each laptop covered here, but when it came time to actually write, I relied on this HP machine. The most compelling reason: the display. Most laptop screens rely on a single backlight for illumination. The dv8000t uses two lamps to deliver brightness that looks astonishing (even with the sun shining through the window behind me), and doesn't sacrifice any sharpness or color purity. (The Toshiba reviewed below shares this dual-lamp scheme.) Unique to the HP, the full-size keyboard includes a numeric keypad on the right-hand side, just as you'd find on a desktop computer. All the arrow keys, cursor movement controls and numerals are just where you expect to find them—what a pleasure! While there's no built-in TV tuner to go with the Media Center Edition operating system, HP does offer a card-based option ($130) that slips unobtrusively into an expansion slot, which is very convenient. Finally, the dv8000t is a wonderful multimedia machine, powered by the Intel Core Duo processor, with a high-quality nVidia graphics card and impressive Altec Lansing speakers mounted up front. While eight pounds and change isn't going to make this machine my on-the-road companion anytime soon, it's fine to take room to room. $1,099 and up; 11.1'' x 15.6'' x 1..8''; 8.2 lbs.; hp.com or 888-999-4747
Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV600 -- It isn't often that I say "Wow!" when I unpack any new product, much less a laptop computer. But this Qosmio had me at "hello," and never disappointed as our relationship deepened. Yes, you can get all your work done on the machine if you insist—it runs a fast Intel Core Duo processor, the full-size keyboard is comfy, and with two 80-gigabyte drives installed you have enough storage to run a small corporation. What the Qosmio really wants to do, though, is keep you entertained, a task it handles with aplomb. Just for starters, you get Windows Media Center Edition, a wireless remote and a built-in TV tuner—connect one coaxial cable and you can start watching your favorite shows, pausing and rewinding them, and recording them to the hard drive using a convenient (and free) on-screen program guide. The 17-inch screen is truly a thing of beauty, using dual-lamp technology to deliver brightness that rivals a traditional TV. And the sound system, with harman/kardon bass reflex stereo speakers mounted near the screen, incorporates a Dolby pseudo-surround-sound system that actually works, delivering a big, convincing audio experience from your favorite DVD. $2,400; 16.0'' x 11.6'' x 1.8''; 10.1 lbs.; toshibadirect.com or 800-316-0920
Acer 5670 -- If you're looking for a desktop replacement with less bulk, this new Acer model offers it without sacrificing performance, thanks to Intel Centrino Duo Mobile Technology and a snappy ATI graphics chip. The 15.4-inch diagonal screen lacks the showy brightness of the HP or Toshiba, but it's fine for normal indoor work environments, with impressive sharpness and satisfying color accuracy. You do get a few nice touches, including a built-in camera and slot-loaded DVD burner (you just slip in the disc, instead of having that annoying disc tray stick out its tongue at you when swapping CDs). The 120-gigabyte hard-drive capacity option is also impressive, and the built-in wireless adapter worked well even at extended distances. Audio is OK, though I'd be inclined to connect a set of external speakers for serious listening, and the 3.5-hour battery life is fine but not exceptional. Bottom line: the Acer won't earn you bragging rights in a technological pissing match, but at 6.6 pounds you can carry it with far more comfort than the other desktop replacement systems reviewed here, and for the price you won't have to hide the receipt from your wife. $1,399; 14.3'' x 10.8'' x 1.1''; 6.6 lbs.; acer.com/us or 800-571-2237
Steve Morgenstern covers technology for Cigar Aficionado.
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