Attack of the Mega-Notebooks
The ability to tote around a compact personal computer in a briefcase or backpack has been the real source of the mobile PC boom. So, it’s no surprise that, as desktop sales have stagnated, the market for laptops has seen spectacular growth.
Truly mobile laptops, however, have their limitations. The quest for increased mobility means increased battery life, lower power requirements, or both. Those compromises are fine when you’re traveling, but sometimes you need a lot of PC horsepower and don’t have the room for a full-sized desktop model. One popular alternative has been the small form factor PC, such as the Shuttle XPC series or the Aopen XCube we reviewed recently. While these are very small PCs indeed, transporting them does require lugging around a keyboard, mouse, and monitor.
Sometimes you just need a lot of horsepower in an all-in-one package. It’s that need for power in a transportable form that has given rise to the desktop replacement notebook. These compact PCs offer nearly all the strength of a desktop system but come in a notebook form factor – albeit one that appears to have bulked up on performance-enhancing drugs.
We took a look a pair of these mega-notebooks: Voodoo PC’s Envy m:855 and PC Notebook’s Panther 4HR. Bear in mind that these are not “desknote” units — they ship with batteries and can be used untethered from wall power. But you won’t just toss them into your briefcase for your next business trip, either – not if you value your back, at any rate. Do these massive laptops deliver on their performance promise — or do users still need to make compromises? As usual, it’s not as cut and dried as we would like.
The two PCs we look at here are built and sold by two smaller companies. VoodooPC is the first to market with an Athlon 64 notebook PC, while Utah-based PC Notebook offers up a system with a 3.2GHz desktop Pentium 4 and is the first laptop with a RAID array. Both sport ATI’s Mobility Radeon 9600 3D graphics hardware, but both also offer unique features. Let’s look at the base specs.
PC Notebook Panther 4HR
Voodoo PC Envy m:855
Intel 3.2GHz Pentium 4; 800MHz FSB
Mobile Athlon 64 3200+ (2.0GHz clock rate)
1GB DDR400 memory
1GB DDR 400 memory
128MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9600
64MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9600
16.1″ 1280×1024 TFT
15″ 1400×1050 TFT
2 x 60GB, 7200RPM 2.5″ hard drives in RAID 0 striped array
1 x 60GB, 7200RPM 2.5″ hard drive
DVD-R/-RW drive (Toshiba SD-R6012)
Intel Integrated 5.1 channel
C-Media 5.1 channel
Reduced travel, separate numeric keypad
Internal Gigabit Ethernet
Internal 10/100 Ethernet
Optional 802.11b (not included)
56kbps V.90 integrated
56kbps V.90 integrated
Integrated, internal (remote control included)
USB 2.0 Ports
4 (on back)
4 (2 on back, 2 on side)
1394a, 6-pin, full size
1394a mini-size, 4-pin
1 input / 1 output
Yes (DVI-I with adapter)
1 serial, 1 parallel port, PS/2 keyboard/mouse port
PC Card Slots
2 type I/II
2 type I/II
Memory card slots
Secure Digital and MMC (through integrated portable MP3 player)
SD / MMC / Compact Flash / Sony Memory Stick / Smart Media
12 lbs. 6 oz
9 lbs. 4 oz
Price as tested
These systems take slightly different approaches to the problem of delivering CPU horsepower. The Voodoo unit is sleek and elegant-looking, but it’s pretty much a traditional notebook PC — albeit a somewhat heavy one. (Voodoo specs the unit at 8 lbs, but our test unit weighted in at 9 lbs, 4 oz.).
The PC Notebook unit is more like a small form factor desktop PC combined with a monitor. A few compromises had to be made — including 2.5″ hard drives — but the ability to add up to three separate drives mitigate that somewhat. Our test unit weighed in at 12 lbs, 6 oz. It’s also bulkier than the m:855, fully 2.2 inches thick versus the Voodoo’s 1.7″ thickness. It feels massive and it’s certainly not something you’d kick back on the couch with. If nothing else, the large rubber feet on the bottom dig painfully into your thighs, reminding you that this is really a desktop unit in notebook clothing. But it is portable and runs off battery power.
We’ll take a look at some of the features in more detail later, but let’s talk about performance first.
We used the latest version of our standard benchmark suite. Some of the more recent additions include:
XMpeg 5.02 and the DivX 5.1 codec to our suite of media encoding tests.
Splinter Cell: This title uses a modified version of the Unreal engine and actually implements some DirectX 8.1-class shaders. We run the test at low resolution to minimize the impact of the graphics card.
Flight Simulator 2004: FS 2004 scales with both CPU and graphics hardware, and is a good overall systems test.
Halo: Halo for the PC uses pixel shaders adhering to the DirectX 9.0b Pixel Shader 2.0 standard.
AquaMark3: a synthetic 3D benchmark based on Massive’s Aquanox 2 game engine.
Cinebench: This particular test is based on Maxon’s Cinema4D modeling and rendering application. The Readme file goes into substantial detail on the design of the benchmark. We only use the CPU rendering result here. We’ve dropped POV-RAY 3.5 in lieu of the Cinebench test.
An upgrade to 3D Studio Max 5.1 (SP1) for our 3D Studio rendering tests.
Networking was enabled on all systems. The desktop resolution was set to the notebook’s native resolution. Game tests were conducted at either 640×480 (512×384 for Serious Sam SE) or 1024x768x32. We determined early on that games were essentially unplayable with antialiasing enabled, so most of the game tests were conducted with AA turned off. The Winstone tests were run at the native resolution of the notebook’s LCD flat panel.
Benchmark: Business Winstone 2002 and Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2003
Multimedia CC Winstone 2003 has updated most of the test applications to their latest versions: Photoshop 7.0, Premiere 6.0, SoundForge 6.0 and so on. The new Multimedia CC Winstone also adds a Lightwave 7.5 rendering test. You can get a copy of the new Multimedia CC Winstone CD for a nominal shipping charge a href=http://www.etestinglabs.com/benchmarks/ccwinstone/ccwinstone.asp?visitor=X>here.
Test Resolution: 1280x1024x32 (PC Notebook), 1400×1050 (Voodoo Envy)
Graphics Driver Setting: Defaults
Hard drive defragged before test runs
Benchmark: 3D Software Rendering Tests
We’re now using 3D Studio Max 5.0 for our 3D Studio tests. Render resolutions were 1024×768 for Lightwave, but varied for 3D Studio. Our 3D Studio rendering tests have increased in number, using the benchmark scenes provided on the supplemental disc shipped with 3D Studio 5.1. The hard drive was defragged before the 3DStudio Rendering Test. We also used Maxon’s Cinebench 2003 benchmark, based on the company’s Cinema4D engine.
Benchmark: Media Encoding
Adobe After Effects: Various resolutions and encoders on multiple data items
Windows Media Encoder 9: Quality set to “DVD video, CD audio”. (640×480 video, 16-bit, 44KHz audio).
Windows Media Encoder 9, to convert a 248MB WAV file to 64kbps WMA audio.
QuickTime 6.3 Pro, Windows version. MPEG-4 encoding set to “Low-speed DSL”.
Sound Forge 6.0: Four filters are chained together and run on a 248MB .WAV file using Sound Forge’s standalone batch converter.
MusicMatch 8.0, used to convert a 248MB .WAV file to a 96kbps MP3Pro file.
Benchmark: PCMark 2002, 3DMark 2003 and AquaMark3
PCMark 2002: Default run at 1280x960x32 desktop resolution
3DMark 2001SE run at 1280x960x32 and 640x480x16 (software T&L on the 640x480x16 test)
All graphics driver options set to default
3DMark 2003SE was run at 1280x960x32, in standard mode.
Benchmark: 3D Gaming
All games were run at 640x480x16 and 1280x960x32 (or 1280x1024x32 if the game didn’t support the 1280×960 mode). All the Unreal Tournament tests were run in 32-bit color. The reason for running the low-resolution tests is to minimize the overall impact of the graphics hardware. However, we also report the 1024x768x32 tests so you can gauge how a similarly equipped system might handle games at playable resolutions. Audio was enabled, except for the Unreal Tournament 2003 test. We ran the Flight Simulator 2004 tests in a low-resolution, low-eye candy mode to minimize the impact of the graphics hardware and stress the underlying processor and memory subsystem harder.
Test Results: Business Winstone and Multimedia Content Creation Winstone
Our standard suite of applications-based benchmarks test the overall performance when running office applications (Business Winstone) or multimedia content creation (CC Winstone).
The Panther system actually pulled ahead in the Business Winstone 2002 test. In the past, we’ve seen the Athlon 64 outpace the Pentium 4 in this particular benchmark. However, the RAID 0 array on the Panther system gives it a major edge here. The Voodoo system was also running at a slightly higher resolution, but a check run at 1280×1024 revealed no differences in this particular test.
What was of more concern was the Envy m:855’s inability to complete the Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2003 test. It consistently hung during an Adobe Premiere run and, for some reason, Netscape couldn’t unload from memory. This may be an issue with graphics drivers or perhaps a BIOS memory-timing problem in our early release unit.
Media encoding for home and professional use is becoming more popular, as more users edit home movies and rip audio to their hard drives. We use a number of encoding apps here to stress the system.
The QuickTime scores are pretty close, though the Voodoo system has a slight edge. The Panther system owns the After Effects benchmark and the WME9 test. The Panther also acquitted itself quite well on the XMPEG/DiVX 5.1 encode test.
These applications are floating point intensive, and have been somewhat optimized for SSE2.
As we expected, the PC Notebook system easily outpaced the Voodoo in software 3D rendering. To be fair, the Envy m:855 isn’t targeted towards this type of application, whereas the Panther’s desktop heritage plays well here.
Now we begin to move into an arena where the Athlon 64 may compete on a more even footing. The integrated memory controller and 1MB of L2 cache brings substantial memory efficiency and bandwidth to bear on real-time 3D benchmarks and gaming.
The PCMark 2002 CPU scores generally live in 512KB of L2 cache. The P4 does well here, supported by the substantial memory bandwidth of its dual-channel DDR400 memory subsystem.
In theory, the PCMark 2002 memory scores are often a leading indicator for game performance. High performance 3D games often benefit substantially from added memory bandwidth and efficiency, which the Pentium 4’s dual channel memory controller can deliver in spades. Here, the dual-channel P4 memory subsystem outshines the single-channel DDR400 supported by the VIA chipset on the Voodoo PC notebook. But will that translate to games?
Note that in the 3DMark CPU test, the Athlon 64 comports itself quite well, relative to the P4-equipped Panther. On the other hand, the Panther posts a noticeably higher score in the AquaMark3 CPU test. So what about actual games?
We ran our array of Direct3D game benchmarks, which now include Ubi Soft’s Splinter Cell and Microsoft’s Flight Simulator 2004.
The results in our Direct3D gaming tests were either a near-dead heat (Comanche 4, Halo) or a clear win for the Voodoo PC laptop. Since Voodoo is targeting the system squarely at the hearts and minds of gamers, its decisive performance in our gaming tests bodes well. Games that have substantial CPU requirements, such as Unreal Tournament 2003 and Flight Simulator 2004, were notable wins for the Voodoo.
We used Bapco’s MobileMark 2002 to test the battery life of the two units. MobileMark runs a scripted set of typical applications at normal speeds, adding in pauses for “think time.” We configured both systems to run in full-on mode, since battery testing in power-saving mode can be problematic.
Although neither of these systems can be called stellar performers when it comes to battery life, the 2 1/2 hour result of the Voodoo PC is still pretty respectable. Of course, if you’re going to use it as a portable 3D gaming system, expect a substantially shorter battery life. As for the Panther 4HR, we were amazed that it even exceeded two hours on battery – but the one included is a beefy 12-cell, 88.8 watt-hour Li-Ion battery, so that’s all to the good.
We noted earlier our impression that the m:855 was a bulked-up notebook PC, while the 4HR was a slimmed-down desktop. We used both systems on a daily basis and our impressions were reinforced. Picking up the Voodoo and using it in differing locations in the office and home was pretty easy. The integrated 802.11g made connecting to the Internet easy wherever we were. The Panther is better suited for a table or desktop — you wouldn’t want to kick back in a recliner with it, for example.
On the other hand, the m:855’s inviting appearance was somewhat deceptive. If you sat on the couch with it in your lap, you’d discover that it gets pretty warm pretty quickly. And both systems had cooling subsystems that could get quite noisy during full-throttle usage.
Voodoo PC Envy m:855
Voodoo’s mobile computer is based around VIA’s K8T800 chipset. As such, it only offers support for single channel DDR400 — but that’s well tuned to the 64-bit-wide memory controller in the Athlon 64 3200+. The Envy also implements a 60GB/7200RPM hard drive. This sounds like a substantial improvement at first blush, but it’s really an incremental upgrade. Since the platter diameter is only 2.5″, the added rotational speed doesn’t affect performance as much as you’d think – the actual linear velocity under the head on the outer tracks isn’t quite as high as with a 3.5″ drive. Still, every bit of added performance helps.
“Envy” is probably an appropriate name for this notebook. The system is available in a range of colors. You can also add a print graphic to the exterior, something Voodoo PC calls a “graphic tattoo”. Our unit arrived in pearlescent “Laguna Seca Blue” with a trademark “Voodoo Tattoo.”
Like most modern laptops, the Envy has a single latch on the front. The front of the unit is also graced by CD transport controls and the memory card reader slots.
The keyboard layout is pretty standard laptop fare. The arrow keys, however, are clustered together in an inverted “T,” which some gamers like. The numeric keypad is of the embedded variety. The small speakers that grace the top left and right corners of the base work, but the sound quality is pretty anemic, even compared to some other laptop speakers.
Most of the I/O ports are on the side and the back, though the memory card slots and audio I/O are on the front.
We discussed how noisy this system can get. It can also get quite warm to the touch, particularly just above and below the CPU. The fan exhaust on the rear would get quite loud and exhaust airflow was fairly substantial. What was the source of all that air? Flipping the m:855 over revealed something interesting.
So, the system’s main air intake is on the bottom. This does dictate certain limitations – you wouldn’t want to place it on a soft, cushy surface (i.e., your lap), where the air intake could be easily blocked.
The m:855 uses a copper heatpipe solution to remove heat from the Athlon 64 CPU. You can just make out the edge of the CPU socket underneath the aluminum shroud.
We used the Envy for several days, including some extended gameplay sessions. The system felt responsive in most gaming, though we did notice some frame-rate stutter that could be attributed to the 64MB of frame buffer on the mobility Radeon 9600 becoming saturated or limitations in the audio subsystem. For the most part, it wasn’t noticeable.
The display itself was generally bright and readable — though not quite as bright at full burn as some others we’ve seen. We also had some issues with the PC version of Halo (including missing detail textures), but these were resolved by tweaking up texture detail in the driver control panel.
While we had concerns about the inability of the system to complete the Multimedia Content Creation Winstone test, we didn’t notice any serious issues during normal system use. The wireless networking worked well and a blue LED would glow on the front of the unit when you were using the 802.11g link.
One issue that was attributed to a bug in the power management revolved around CPU speed. Some of our benchmarks seemed inexplicably slow, even when the system was plugged into wall power. Running WCPUID revealed that the system was running at 800 or 1600MHz — not the full 2.0GHz. When we would completely disable Windows power management, the m:855 would run at the full clock speed. Final shipping systems should resolve this minor but annoying issue.
The memory card readers on the Envy’s front seemed to work as advertised. We had no problems reading either Compact Flash or Secure Digital memory cards. Although the touchpad worked with no serious issues, we would strongly recommend a real mouse for gaming. But the keyboard seemed to be up to the task of intense gameplay, even if it felt a bit fragile at first.
The bottom line is that the Voodoo Envy m:855 is a gamer’s dream machine. All that goodness costs a hefty $3,500 (and weighs more than nine pounds) but at least you’ll never be embarrassed to be seen with it in public.
Voodoo PC Envy m:855 Athlon64 Notebook PC
Slick appearance; good gaming performance; a 64-bit future
Heavy for a notebook; can get loud and very warm; 64 MB frame buffer can be limiting
The Voodoo is very much a gamer’s laptop, despite only having 64MB of frame buffer. For a laptop, its performance on 3D games is stellar, but we wish it would go on a diet.
If the Voodoo PC can be thought of as a hand-and-a-half sword, then the Panther 4HR is a two-handed battleaxe. It’s large and heavy but can perform almost as well as a much larger desktop unit. On the other hand, it’s not something you’d casually toss into a backpack for some light seaside computing. It’s also something of a Swiss Army Knife, with a built-in TV Tuner with remote control and removable flash memory based MP3 player.
The Panther uses Intel’s 865PE chipset, which fully supports two channels of DDR400 memory. The 3.2GHz Pentium 4 is a desktop chip with support for Hyper-Threading and an 800MHz effective frontside bus. The most unusual feature, though, is the implementation of a RAID 0 array using a pair of 7200 RPM, 2.5-inch notebook hard drives. However, this array is implemented using a Promise PCI IDE RAID controller. The reason is that Serial ATA hasn’t migrated to notebook PC hard drives quite yet.
Another interesting feature is the removable MP3 player. It fits snugly into a slot on the side of the laptop. The MP3 player uses either SD (secure digital) or MMC (multimedia card) memory cards for storing music. When inserted into the Panther, the player gets a drive letter, and you can use it to transfer ordinary files as well as store music. Also, the memory cards can be ejected without removing the player, so you can just move around data on these tiny flash memory devices. The MP3 player’s functionality is somewhat limited, but all the basic functionality for music playback is there. However, it only supports MP3 playback (up to 320kbps), not WMA (Windows Media Audio) or Ogg Vorbis.
While the 16.1″ display on the Panther is bright and usable, its native resolution is only 1280×1024 (compared to the Voodoo’s 1400×1050). This is a usable resolution, however. When combined with the large screen size, fonts and icons are quite readable. We did see slight ghosting during fast 3D game playback, but it wasn’t overly annoying. The Mobility Radeon 9600 is equipped with a full 128MB of frame buffer.
The Panther’s keyboard has a shorter throw than most desktop keyboards, but does offer a separate, ten-key numeric keypad. The touchpad is pretty typical of such devices – functional when you need it, but an outboard mouse is preferable, especially for gaming.
The PC Notebook desktop replacement unit also offers a wealth of I/O options. One of the most interesting features is the DVI-I port, which allows you to connect the system via DVI to a digital flat panel or, via the supplied adapter dongle, to a VGA display. A full-size, six-pin FireWire 400 port complements the four USB 2.0 ports. The Panther uses the audio that’s integrated into the Intel chipset. Three “smart” audio connectors can be configured as full 5.1 analog outputs or as a stereo out/mic in/line in trio. The microphone input can also be configured as an S/PDIF digital audio output port.
The Panther gets pretty loud, though no noisier than the Envy. The twin cooling fans underneath the chassis suck air from under the system and exhaust it over a finned copper heatsink. No heat pipe system is used.
You can see the finned heatsink to the left of the unit. The Pentium 4 processor lies directly underneath the center of the heat sink. In the center is the AVerMedia TV tuner card. One of the hard drives lives in a bay underneath the massive battery.
We used the system daily for a couple of weeks, including one extensive networked gaming session. As a standard PC, the Panther works quite well. The keyboard is easy to get used to but you can always plug in your favorite ergonomic keyboard if you prefer. The addition of the separate numeric keypad is a big plus, especially with games that use a richer set of keyboard controls.
The one glitch we did encounter, though, was some noticeable stuttering during gameplay. This was similar to what we observed in the Voodoo and can only be attributed to the host-driven audio subsystem. While the stuttering was somewhat distracting, it didn’t adversely affect gameplay. The Mobility Radeon 9600 worked quite well, though, as with the Voodoo, we played with antialiasing turned off due to the lack of memory bandwidth.
As we noted, the audio subsystem is based around Intel’s integrated audio and is connected to the outside world by a Realtek AC97 codec. We wonder if some of the stuttering issues could be attributed to the Realtek driver. We’ve used the AD1985 series codecs on Intel-manufactured motherboards, and the stuttering was less noticeable in those cases.
The MP3 player is a nice touch, but we found it more useful for the direct SD card support. We would have like to have seen support for WMA, given that WMA at 64kbps sounds as good as or better than 128kbps MP3. PC Notebook supplies a basic Roxio music player utility to rip music in MP3 format.
We hooked up the system to a basic cable TV feed and got the AVerMedia software up and running. The AVerMedia is based on a TV encoder chip from Conexant. We were able to perform all the basic stuff you’d want from a PC-based TV tuner, including time-shifted recording. The 16-pane preview feature is also pretty nifty, though par for the course in similar products.
Visual quality of TV viewing on the Panther display was pretty good, but the audio sometimes sounded muffled, with lots of static to boot. We weren’t able to pin down the source of the problem.
In the end, the Panther 4HR is a mobile desktop replacement system that tries to be all things to all people. Unfortunately, it doesn’t integrate all of its features well. This might have been a great mobile Windows Media Center Edition unit with WMCE tying together all the disparate parts. But that would also mean you’d want the detachable MP3 player to support WMA audio.
We do have concerns about the RAID 0 array. The use of notebook hard drives suggests that the RAID array will be more reliable – or at least more shock resistant – than a desktop IDE RAID system. However, RAID 0 does double the odds of failure — if one drive goes south, you’ll lose all the data on both. However, this is a boon if you’re looking for a mobile media-editing workstation. The presence of a full six-pin Firewire port makes video capture from DV camcorders easy, but you’ll have to add your own video editing app, as none is supplied with the Panther (outside of the mediocre Windows Movie Maker app that ships with Windows XP).
As a standard desktop PC, the Panther 4HR worked very well and performed well with most applications. As a gaming system, it lags behind the Voodoo system in a number of current titles, but it’s still no slouch. As a media-centric PC, it’s a mixed bag: The TV tuner works fairly well, but the audio issues give us pause. The removable MP3 player is a neat idea but has its limitations. In the final analysis, if you want a high-performance, mobile desktop PC that can double as a gaming system, the Panther 4HR is definitely worth considering. Its multimedia goodies, though, are limited by the problems we’ve mentioned and a lack of real integration.
PC Notebook Panther 4HR 3.2GHz Pentium 4 Mobile System
Excellent performance on general applications; RAID array for good disk performance; solid keyboard
Very heavy; gets a little loud; audio subsystem needs some work.
The Panther 4HR would make a terrific portable video editing workstation and a pretty good gaming platform. The added media applications (the TV tuner and MP3 player) need a bit more functionality.
Although these two systems offer alternatives to desktop systems, we find them both wanting in some key areas. The m:855 is just too heavy to tote around all the time, yet doesn’t have enough functionality to truly substitute for a high-performance desktop PC. The Panther has the performance, but it’s only marginally mobile – “transportable” is probably more accurate. Both are noisy in full-speed operation, fairly heavy and tend to get pretty warm, too.
We’d like to see a system with the game performance of the Voodoo system and the general applications performance of the Panther, but that comes in at around five pounds. Until then, if you have a need for a high-performance system that can live in multiple locations, check out both of these systems. Depending on your application needs, one of them may fit the bill.
Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in ExtremeTech.