What a catch: laptops that are twice as brainy

The latest portable computers boast two brains so they can juggle many tasks at once. Tim Danton assesses whether they hold their own against conventional thoroughbreds.

Working as a team, these silicon twins juggle computing tasks between them. Or, as the IDC analyst Jean Bozman puts it, dual-core is “a way for computers to walk and chew gum at the same time”.

Your current laptop runs on only one brain, now known as single-core, and you probably think that’s plenty. Handling Word documents and browsing the internet are a doddle, but only because they are straightforward tasks. If you ask Outlook to archive old e-mails, though, you may well find that it’s time to put the kettle on, as this curiously demanding chore eats up all your laptop’s processing puff.

A dual-core machine, however, rolls with a serious challenge by juggling priorities in a way that the most powerful single-core processors cannot. The twin brains also chat, deciding whether to juggle separately or in tandem. We might never see that frustrating egg timer on a portable screen again.

The consumer laptop market has seen UK sales more than double in the past year, driven by the affluent middle classes moving into self-employment or enjoying more flexible working practices.

Those with desktop computers have experienced the benefits of dual-core for a while, so what held back notebooks? Their design always demands compromise, and recently this has leant towards portability rather than performance, creating a choice between trim models with stamina but limited clout or brutes that can disperse the heat generated by a powerful processor.

Dual-core notebooks promise the best of both worlds, and their juggling skills make them potent tools. You can rip a CD to MP3 and search the web while your antivirus watchdog hunts down intruders in the background. You need no longer fear that a processor-hungry program, such as Napster or Windows Movie Maker, will bring your machine to its silicon knees. Wonderful.

Doors has selected eight premium notebooks coming onto the market this spring. Five represent the first wave of dual-core newcomers, which we pit against three of the best housing single-core chips. The results are mixed, so before committing to dual-core, consider these important points. First, these are early days, and you will be paying a premium, if a surprisingly small one.

Second, dual-core may be the biggest advance laptops have enjoyed for years, but view the marketing buzz with scepticism. Enthusiasts were led to expect even thinner, ultra-light notebooks that would run for five hours from a single charge. Sadly, you’ll either have to wait a few months yet, or opt instead for a single-core model such as the new Vaio TX2XP (reviewed here), which, Sony claims, is made from the same carbon fibre as an F1 car.

Crucial differences also exist between laptops built with the new chips made by AMD and those using Intel. AMD’s more potent dual-core chips were designed for desktop computers and require a bulkier chassis. The mighty AMD-based Evesham Quest A620, also reviewed, is the most powerful notebook ever tested for Doors, but weighs a spine-stretching 5.8kg. In contrast, Intel’s first dual-core laptops weigh in at a more shoulder-friendly 3kg or less, with battery lives of about three hours — twice as long as AMD-based alternatives.

Intel’s dual-core machines are labelled either as Core Duo or the WiFi-ready Centrino Duo. On review here are the swish but powerful Samsung X60 and Vaio FE-11S, as well as the ultraportable Acer TravelMate 3012. All are lightweight Core Duo-based beasts that run silently and offer reasonable battery life — by current standards.

The season’s biggest change, however, is that an Apple laptop, under the new tacky name of MacBook Pro, now runs on an Intel processor for the first time. Today, Doors publishes the first UK review.

While the future of laptops undoubtedly lies in dual-core, the downside is that, in their haste to come to market, manufacturers have not yet learnt to maximise battery life or design a small chassis that is able to cool the chip. This will soon change.

Traditionalists believe that laptops should put reliability and a solid keypad before performance. To this end, some specialists stay loyal to single-core technology: look at the new ruggedised Panasonic ToughBook CF-W4 — offered in our prize competition, opposite — or the Lenovo ThinkPad Z60T, optimised for the corporate road warrior.

Another good reason to stick with single-core is that bargains will abound as stocks are cleared. What’s also certain about the new breed is that, for all their virtues as jugglers, the best is still to come.

Tim Danton is the editor of PC Pro

FIRST DECISIONS

  • Consider all aspects of a new laptop, from screen calibre through to build quality, rather than any one specification.
  • Always test a keypad before purchase. Many are not designed for regular typing.
  • Ensure that the battery meets your requirements. Many laptops still struggle to operate for longer than two hours. Halve the claimed battery life for real scenarios.
  • Check the screen’s viewing angles, especially if you intend to give presentations on it.
  • Buy as much hard-drive capacity as you can afford, as upgrading is expensive: 40GB is a bare minimum; 100GB or more is advisable for a desktop replacement or for multimedia buffs.
  • Choose a model with built-in wireless reception, or WiFi. The newer “g” version is preferable.
  • Opt for 512MB of Ram, but do not overinvest in more for basic tasks. Serious gaming or video editing requires 1GB.
  • Expect at least two USB2 ports in a mobile notebook, or four in a desktop replacement, for adding peripherals such
    as a printer.
  • Consider the value added by a software bundle or a longer warranty. Two years should be regarded as a minimum.
  • Protect your laptop with a rugged yet inconspicuous case. Some notebooks include fingerprint-readers, which removes the need for passwords.()

    DUAL-CORE: WORTH BUYING NOW?
    Pros
    Faster, responsive, less likely to freeze or be bogged down by background software, such as antivirus tools; multitask far more effectively, and take advantage of newer software that splits demanding tasks into several “threads”; future-proof.
    Cons Premium pricing in the short term; manufacturers tempted to place too much emphasis on these new processors over crucial factors such as build quality; first-generation dual-core laptops inhabit older chassis — better-designed machines will follow, offering longer battery life.JARGON-BUSTER

    Clock speed Speed at which a laptop’s processor runs, measured in gigahertz (GHz). Slower rates often mean longer battery life.
    CPU (central processing unit) Brains of the computer, where calculations
    take place.
    Docking station Stay-at-home cradle that enables rapid connection of a laptop to external gadgets, such as a monitor or printer.
    Dual-core New generation of processors with twin cores that work independently.
    DVD burner Archives large files or videos onto DVD discs; dual-layer is best.
    Hard drive/hard disk Stores software and data; measured in gigabytes (GB).
    Modular bay dock For adding components such as a second battery
    or external DVD burner.
    Plug-and-play Hardware that can be instantly connected without extra software.
    Ram (random access memory) Expressed in megabytes (MB). The greater the amount of Ram, the better a computer is able to handle multiple or complicated tasks.
    Touchpad Touch-sensitive pad that acts as a mouse. Also known as a trackpad.
    WiFi Means of connecting wirelessly to the net or other computers; 802.11g is faster than its predecessor, 802.11b.

    VITAL PORTS

    Audio line in/out To record audio or add external speakers. Bluetooth Useful method of wirelessly connecting the laptop to compatible devices nearby, such as a mobile phone or printer.
    Ethernet Connects a laptop to a wired network or modem.
    FireWire Fast method of transferring large files on or off a laptop, usually for digital video cameras.
    Memory-card reader Accepts flash-memory cards from a digital camera with no cable.
    PC Card slot For plug-in devices such as 3G or GPRS data cards.
    S-Video Shows any images on a television or external display.
    USB2 (universal serial bus) Fast plug-and-play connection. More popular than FireWire.

    SONY VAIO FE-11S — typically £1,300, or £1,150 from www.comet.co.uk
    Five stars
    Fine-looking, competitively priced dual-core winner

    The FE-11S is one of the first dual-core Sony laptops. As such, you expect a hefty premium, but this smart new Vaio is far from exorbitant. A fancy Intel dual-core processor and 1GB of Ram deliver rock-solid performance, among the best on test, though it is held back by the slower 5,400rpm hard drive, which is a whopping 160GB in size. This is also the first Sony with the Media Center Edition of XP. This, combined with a great 15.4in glossy widescreen that doesn’t suffer from annoying reflections, makes for a fine machine on which to watch movies. Games run reasonably well. At 2.9kg, this is no lightweight, and the battery gives an unexceptional three hours of light use. Nevertheless, with tiptop ergonomics and a potent spec, the FE-11S is a pleasure to use and an all-round winner.

    APPLE MACBOOK PRO 2GHz — typically £1,780
    (or, as reviewed, with 2GB of Ram, £1,989) from
    www.apple.com/uk
    Five stars
    Sensational new Intel-based Mac, priced to match

    This is the first Mac to run on an Intel chip — a new dual-core processor — and it delivers dramatically faster multitasking on Apple’s own suite of software, though third-party programs such as Office or PhotoShop run more slowly. Trademark Apple build quality is evident from the sumptuous 15in screen and keypad. Nifty touches that seem to elude PC makers include a magnetic power cable and a fancy built-in webcam. These help to deliver a polished computing experience, such as instant video chat. The MacBook is rather wide and, at 2.54kg, not especially portable. Despite a decent battery life of 4hr 24min with light use, the machine ran hot on more demanding tasks. Beneath the glitz, an ageing DVD writer, 100GB hard drive and a skimpy one-year warranty offer questionable value. Nevertheless, this is clearly a landmark laptop.

    Desktop replacements

    SAMSUNG X60 — typically £1,174, or £1,052 from www.digiuk.com
    Four stars
    Potent all-rounder, fit for style-conscious homes

    Those seeking a gorgeous laptop, principally for the home, will love the X60. This well-built beast features Intel’s new dual-core processor, a full 1GB of Ram and a posh DVD burner. Gamers enjoy a dedicated, if modest, graphics card that does justice to the latest titles, but the pièce de résistance is a glossy 15.4in widescreen that delivers vibrant colours and great viewing angles, ideal for movies or video editing. Reflections will annoy business execs on the move, and battery life is moderate, but at 2.55kg, the X60 is more portable than you might expect. The full-sized keyboard has no sag and features multimedia-friendly short cuts. So, despite a skimpy one-year warranty, this Samsung is pretty superfly.

    EVESHAM QUEST A620 — £2,500 from www.evesham.com
    Five stars
    Deeply powerful new dual-core Media Center

    The Quest A620 is the most potent laptop ever tested for Doors — hardly surprising, considering that it harbours AMD’s mighty Athlon FX-60 dual-core processor, designed for desktop machines. At a back-snapping 5.8kg, you won’t be shouldering it too far, but that is beside the point. This monster runs 25% faster than the reference desktop computer employed in this review, delivering searing games performance. With 200GB of lightning-fast Sata hard-drive capacity, a posh 17in screen and an optional internal Freeview tuner, this Media Center Edition machine is a real multimedia star, too. In fairness, it needs external speakers. However, factor in a three-year warranty (two on-site) and it’s the big beast of the laptop jungle.

    Business machines

    LENOVO THINKPAD Z60T — typically £1,150,
    or £1,147 from
    www.dabs.com
    Four stars
    Premium reliability, despite modest performance

    They rarely generate techno-lust, but Lenovo (formerly IBM) ThinkPads scoop all the reliability awards. The Z60T is, however, the first ThinkPad to tote a sexed-up (14in) widescreen, albeit with poor viewing angles. At 2.1kg, here is a machine made to survive the road warrior’s lifestyle — a magnesium “roll cage”, for instance, helps shield the innards. It is supremely well designed, with an excellent keyboard and clever work-related touches, such as built-in support software and a fingerprint reader. A single-core, 1.86GHz Pentium M processor provides modest power, though plenty for office tasks, and the lack of a DVD writer is irritating. Far less excusable are the skimpy one-year warranty and the 2hr 29min battery life with light use, requiring a spare. All in, a blue-chip, if overpriced, business utility.

    PANASONIC TOUGHBOOK CF-W4 — typically £1,800, or £1,770 from www.expansys.com
    Four stars
    Highly rugged machine, weighing a shoulder-saving 1.3kg

    Ruggedised notebooks often resemble breeze blocks, but this tiny gem is also durable. It weighs a third less than the Rock Hardbook previously reviewed by Doors, yet is also far tougher. The CF-W4’s lid can take a force of 100kg and will survive short drops. The payoff for hardiness is, alas, performance. A frugal 1.2GHz Pentium M processor offers up to 5hr 40min of continuous battery life, but is currently only single-core and a tad sluggish, although tweaking the Windows settings helps a lot. A three-year warranty is impressive, and a built-in DVD writer offsets a modest, yet sufficient, 40GB hard disk. As with all small laptops, the keyboard is a touch cramped, and limited viewing angles on the sharp 12in screen will hinder presentations. That said, surveyors seeking a tough but friendly companion should measure this up immediately.

    Ultraportables

    SONY VAIO TX2XP — typically £1,700, or £1,516 from www.savastore.com
    Four stars
    A compact and entertaining travelling companion

    The wafer-thin TX2XP is made from carbon fibre and is hyperportable, at a mere 1.24kg. An acceptable 80GB of storage and 1GB of Ram sit inside this whisper-quiet machine. Sony has somehow squeezed in a posh dual-layer DVD writer, too. Most impressively, you can enjoy movies on its glossy 11in widescreen, or listen to music, without booting up Windows. This prolongs the impressive battery life — about four hours for intensive work. The software bundle is also excellent. Compromises have been made — the single-core 1.2GHz Pentium M processor struggles when multitasking, and the one-year warranty is meagre — but for multimedia viewing on the move, this is the ideal partner.

    ACER TRAVELMATE 3012WTMi — typically £1,175,
    or £911 from
    www.misco.co.uk
    Three stars
    Tiny yet powerful dual-core machine, dogged by flaws

    Truly small laptops generally perform like show poodles, but this 1.5kg terrier savages the truism thanks to Intel’s latest dual-core chip. A multitasking marvel, it is more akin to a desktop machine — for tasks other than gaming — and a 100GB hard drive adds bite to the package. However, build quality is far from pedigree, and the small keys irritate. The 12in screen has restricted viewing angles and is, frankly, none too bright. Battery life is an acceptable 3hr 15min with light use, but the huge external DVD writer is a mongrel. This nimble Acer proves that dual-core processing alone does not a best of breed make.

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