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InfoHQ Tech Watch Newsletter No. 5 - Desktop Replacement Laptops                             May 12 , 2003
 
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Welcome to our fifth InfoHQ Tech Watch Newsletter- Desktop Replacement Laptops. In this newsletter we discuss the mysterious desktop replacement laptop and its cousin the mythical "laptop gaming machine".

A laptop that is a desktop replacement?

"What is a desktop replacement laptop?", you might ask. In theory these are laptops that are so powerful and versatile you will no longer need or desire a desktop. In my opinion, such a beast has not yet been invented. However, many computer manufacturers and some laptop/notebook users would have you believe otherwise.

Meet the Pentium 4 desktop replacement laptop

Manufactures are currently making laptops that have desktop Pentium 4 CPUs and use the 533 MHz bus and DDR RAM. This is in contrast to the true mobile processors that include; Intel Pentium 4-M and Centrino mobile processors that have a 400 MHz bus, and the AMD XP/XP-M with a 266 MHz bus.

Pentium 4 desktop replacements are currently being manufactured by Dell, HP/Compaq, Alienware, and others.

Faster isn't always better

So making a laptop faster is a good thing, right? Not necessarily. By putting a desktop Pentium 4 into a laptop chassis, manufacturers have sacrificed some of the features of the laptop to get maybe a 5%-10% speed improvement.

As the Pentium 4 desktop CPU does not have the power saving features of a mobile CPU (Intel's SpeedStep or AMD's PowerNow!™ Technology) it will always run at it's full speed, which means it will use up a laptop battery faster than a mobile CPU and it will generate more heat. As a result, laptop manufactures are compensating with larger laptop batteries and better cooling systems.

Well you might think that this will solve the problem, however it actually creates another problem -- increased weight. Laptop-desktops are some of the heaviest laptops manufactured with a weight of over 9 pounds. Contrast this to a typical Pentium 4-M or AMD XP-M laptop which usually weigh under 7 lbs.

So when buying a laptop, I suggest you avoid the desktop replacement, and stick with a laptop built around a true mobile processor e.g. Pentium 4-M, Centrino, or XP-M. If you ever have to run your laptop on its battery, or carry it around for very long, you will be thankful you do not own a laptop-desktop.

In search of the mythical laptop gaming computer

The following conversation took place in our InfoHQ Help Board where a visitor was on a quest for the "gaming laptop".

Barry wrote:

I need advice about a laptop.

I am a student and need a laptop mainly more than a desktop because I'm not always at home. However I have a few problems. I was wondering about video cards, I want to be able to play today's top games and newer games coming out but most companies don't offer Gforce4 cards and such. I was looking at a Sony Vaio notebook, it has a Radeon 7500c 32MB DDR SDRAM graphics chip is this good enough to last me a year or two. If not is there anywhere where I can get a really good graphics card in a laptop. Dell offer a 64MB "Intel extreme graphics" chip how good is this. Which is better?

Also I'm kind of confused about this Wireless LAN stuff, my college has a wireless LAN, they say I need a 802.11 WI-FI compliant card. Can I get this off most companies will any wireless LAN card work? if I get a card do I have to do away with my modem and therefore cant connect the "old fashioned way".

I also need to know about upgrading my laptop in a year or two, can I get my processor, ram, video card etc. updated or do I have to buy a new laptop.

Finally if I waited till September would I be able to get better deals and maybe a newer graphics card or processor. Does anyone know a good time to buy a laptop or a great place to buy them.?

InfoHQ Response:

Laptop graphics card are much slower than desktop graphics cards as they do not have the advanced 3D functions of their desktop counter parts.

The problem is, most of the circuitry on a 3D card is for the advanced 3D functions. So to reduce heat, the 3D cards are reduced in size and function, which means most of the advanced 3D stuff goes.

Dell offers a 64MB "Intel extreme graphics" chip how good is this?

It's not so good. This chipset uses "shared RAM" for its video storage. Shared RAM is main system RAM that has
been allocated (more like stolen) by the video chipset. System RAM is slower than dedicated video RAM, and you have less RAM to run programs.

What's better?

Well the newest and fastest laptop chipsets are the ATI® Mobility Radeon 9000 and the NVIDIA® GeForce4 4200 Go.

The ATI Radeon Mobility 9000 has been derived from the desktop Radeon 9000 card which is basically a business video card with some 3D functions and the GeForce4 4200 Go has one quarter speed (fill rate) of the desktop GeForce 4 Ti 4200.

And no, you can't upgrade a laptop's video chipset other than add additional memory (only if the manufacturer provides for memory upgrade and it may have to be done by the laptop manufacturer).

Also I'm kind of confused about this Wireless LAN stuff, my college has a wireless LAN, they say I need a 802.11 WI-FI compliant card.

If you buy the right kind of wireless card it should work with your wireless LAN. However, you will have to find out if your card has to be 802.11a, 802.11b, or 802.11g compatible (these are all speed ratings).
Also, some LANs might require that you run Windows XP Pro to hook into their LAN.

You will still need a modem or LAN connector to connect your laptop to the wired Internet unless you use a wireless LAN at home.

I also need to know about upgrading my laptop in a year or two, can I get my processor, ram, video card etc. updated. Do I have to buy a new laptop?

You can not upgrade the basic system components of a laptop which include: screen, graphics chipset, CPU, and internal sound chip (although this can be bypassed with an external sound card if allowed by BIOS). And yes you would have to buy a new laptop to upgrade.

Finally if I waited till September would I be able to get better deals and maybe a newer graphics card or processor?

There is no seasonal time of the year to buy computers or components. I track national computer store Sunday ad sales in my News and Rumors page and I have noticed that they usually have really good sales at least once a month.

I think the same goes with online manufacturers like Dell. They have a new promotion every couple of weeks, so if you don't like what you see, wait a week or two.

If you keep waiting for something new to come out, you will never buy. Other than the usual faster processors and graphics chips there are no big changes I have seen by September

Barry then replied:

Thanks for your speedy informative reply to my questions,

I need your advice again, should I get a Radeon 7500c graphics card for
my laptop or should I go for the Intel graphics supplied with the dell.
It says that the dell has 64MB of RAM for video, if I have 256MB of
normal
RAM would the Radeon 7500 have 64MB of video ram? Also if I have 512MB
of
normal RAM is that even better for the video ram.

Thanks again

InfoHQ reply:

With the Intel Extreme Graphics Chipset system RAM will be allocated up
to the following amounts for video purposes:

With 128 MB of system RAM the video chipset will use up to 32 MB - 48 MB
depending on the video driver used.
When greater than 128 MB of system RAM exists, the chipset can allocate
up to 64 MB of system RAM for video purposes.

More RAM is always better. The best amount is probably 512 MB, however
performance gains exist up to 1 GB of memory.

When not in use, the video system releases memory back to system RAM.

The ATI 7500 chipset has its own video RAM of either 16 MB or 32 MB.
Which means that this memory is used first, before any system RAM is
used.

In the case of these two chipsets, I would go with the 32 MB ATI 7500.

_________________

Conclusion: The desktop replacement laptop, and its cousin the gaming laptop, really do not exist. While it is possible to use a faster desktop bus, desktop CPUs, and additional video RAM in laptops, the result is, at best, performance equivalent to a desktop computer manufactured over 2 years ago.
If you have no access to a desktop and price is not a factor, then by all means buy one of these rare and mythical beasts. However, for the typical person, we suggest you avoid these dream machines, and buy a more mainstream, practical laptop with a mobile CPU.

Thank you for participating in our InfoHQ Tech Watch Newsletter.

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