|Introduction, Barebones Laptops for the Masses|
One thing hardware enthusiasts love is customizability. We want our computers to be different, to stand out from the crowd of boring OEM boxes, and to be personal. We love customizing our computers so much that many of us spend days, weeks, months and even years customizing and polishing our own rigs. Hardware manufacturers have not been blind to this phenomenon and they have since turned our desires into big business.
All of this is possible thanks to industry standardization of just about every component found in a Desktop PC. Extensive standardization has made it possible to take the latest and greatest hardware right off the shelf and stick it into a chassis that's nearly a decade old, and everything will still fit. Got a PCI expansion card laying around? You can throw it in just about any computer with a free PCI slot and more often than not, it will work. Getting tired of poor performance from your vintage video card? Just swap it out with a newer, more powerful model. Even the screws that hold our hard drives in place and prevent the side panels from falling off are interchangeable between different cases.
Desktop PC owners have enjoyed this level of flexibility for years and a migration to a Notebook platform quickly reminds us how we have taken this all for granted. Consumers are starting to demand the same level of flexibility that they enjoy with Desktop PCs on their Laptops. The large value-added resellers like Dell, HP and Sony have heard our cries and have begun offering more options on their products, but it's still not enough for many people. Bare-bones laptops, coined "Whitebooks", appeared on the scene promising to offer the same level of upgradeability and customization enjoyed by desktop barebones PCs.
A Whitebook is a bare-bones Laptop. Like Desktop bare-bones machines, Whitebooks are partially assembled computers that consist of a case, power supply, and a pre-installed motherboard. Sometimes a cooling system is also included in the package. The other components that make up a functioning PC, like the CPU, RAM, and hard drives are left to the end user to obtain and install. Whitebooks also offer features that are not normally included in a Desktop bare-bones package, but are expected of Laptops. These include an integrated keyboard, touchpad, LCD panel, and speakers.
While bare-bones computers are a far cry from the personalization offered by a custom system assembled completely from parts chosen by the builder, it's a huge step forward from the limited options most value added resellers provide. The flexibility offered by Whitebooks is also constantly getting better. One of the latest improvements is the introduction of a graphics interconnect standard for notebooks by NVIDIA called MXM. This slow but constant improvement could eventually lead to the same level of flexibility and customization Desktop owners currently enjoy.
Have Whitebooks really come far enough to stand up to pre-configured models from the big names? Do the additional upgrade routes come at the cost of quality and performance? That's what we hope to find out. We have enlisted the ASUS Z96JS to help us illustrate the process of configuring a modern Whitebook computer and to act as a guinea pig for our benchmarks. The Z96JS is an Intel based notebook utilizing the Centrino Duo platform. Since the Centrino Duo platform's successor, codenamed Santa Rosa, hasn't been released yet the Centrino Duo represents Intel's current flagship notebook technology. It should give us a good picture of the current state of the Whitebook and what's in store for potential upgrade paths to the new Merom mobile dual core CPU architecture.
|Centrino Duo Explained|
Before we get ahead of ourselves throwing hardware around, let's review exactly what the "Centrino Duo" is and what it brings to the proverbial table.
The name "Centrino" does not describe a physical thing like the name "Pentium" does. Rather, Centrino is a "platform", which is a set of interrelated technologies. The Centrino platform consists of three parts; a processor, chipset and wireless networking solution. A device can only be referred to as a Centrino solution when it contains all three of these components. However, Intel specifically defines what these three parts are so don't go slapping Centrino stickers on your laptops just yet.
The third generation of Centrino platforms, code named Napa during development, was introduced in January of this year. This generation includes the Centrino Duo. The platform consists of:
When these three technologies come together in a laptop, the result is a third generation Intel Centrino platform. If the Core Duo processor is used instead of the Core Solo, you've got yourself a Centrino Duo. However, when the Core Solo processor is used, it is not referred to as a Centrino Solo. It's simply called a Centrino. If either the chipset, wireless adapter or both are missing, than it's labeled "Core Duo Inside" or "Core Solo Inside" depending on the processor.
Previous Centrino generations followed the same basic guidelines; consisting of a specific model of processor, chipset and wireless solution.
A tad bit confusing? Yes. We thought so too, and it's about to get worse. On July 27th, Intel released the successor to the Core Duo processor, code-named Merom. Merom is based on Intel's Core 2 architecture and the first version of Merom will be compatible with the current Core Duo platform. You'll be able to drop a Merom into your Core Duo compatible motherboard and it will work, requiring at most a BIOS update. Intel is expected to allow the Centrino Duo platform to include systems with Merom in the processor socket instead of the Core Duo. So how will we be able to tell a Centrino Duo system running a Core Duo processor from one with the Merom (short of peeking under the hood) since they will both be using the 'Centrino Duo' moniker? We're sure Intel will figure something out.
Luckily, this confusion will not be aggravated by the second version of Merom, which will be part of the fourth generation of Centrino platforms, code named Santa Rosa, which is expected to launch in April 2007.
At the heart of the Centrino Duo platform, and part of its namesake, is the Core Duo processor. As the name suggests, the Core Duo is a dual core processor and it's based on the Banias/Dothan Pentium M microarchitecture. It has 2 MB of L2 cache that is shared by both cores. The Core Duo is part of Intel's first generation of processors built on their new 65 nanometer process. The new process allows the Core Duo to be more energy efficient and it only draws around 25W of juice, despite having two cores. Unfortunately the Core Duo/Solo do not have EM64T support although Merom will.
The second half of the Core processor family is the Core Solo. Core Solo is actually a Core Duo with one of the cores disabled. Physically, it still has two cores but only one is operational. This allows Intel to save costs because they do not need to produce a single core design and it also allows Intel to utilize processors that fail quality control because one of the cores is defective. These defective processors can be modified and re-branded as Core Solos.
|ASUS Z96JS Centrino Duo Whitebook|
ASUS has been playing the Whitebook game for a long time and they've been making Laptops for even longer. They offer a wide variety of models with both AMD and Intel platforms in a variety of sizes, from ultra-compacts to DTRs. As we touched on earlier, we'll be working with their Z96JS model. The Z96JS is an Intel based whitebook utilizing the Centrino Duo mobile platform. It has a 15.4" WXGA widescreen LCD with an integrated ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 feeding its pixels. We would have liked the X1600 to be a MXM solution instead of being integrated but it does have 256mb of dedicated memory, which is a nice touch.
We have selected the Core Duo T2600 as our processor and we've decided to only use one 1GB stick of DDR2 667 memory.
The first thing you'll notice about the Z96JS is the complete lack of branding, with the exception of the Intel and ATI stickers. Even the ASUS logo does not appear anywhere on the laptop. As a result, the Z96JS is rather dull looking, lacking any eye-catching labeling. This was done to enable small businesses that build and sell these laptops to easily brand them as their own. The top of the laptop lid has a subtle ridge which forms a frame that system builders can use to place logo or graphics in to help distinguish their products.
The second thing that you are likely to notice is that this laptop has a low profile and is one of the thinner ones on the market. The careful use of thin silver strips on black creates an optical illusion that makes the laptop appear thinner than it really is. A 4-in-1 card reader is hidden on the front of the laptop, to the right of a headphone and microphone jack. The usual cluster of I/O ports at the rear of the laptop are missing. Only the power connector and two USB ports are present.
The right side of the Z96JS is full of ports. For some reason, ASUS has put the D-sub and S-Video port on the side instead of their usual position at the back. This may be inconvenient for some users. Right handed users who prefer to use a mouse with their laptop will be especially bothered by this placement, since these port placements will mean that all sorts of cables will be competing for prime mousing real-estate.
The bottom of the laptop is covered in the usual assortment of serial code labels. A tiny, deeply recessed button is located just under the vents on the bottom of the laptop. A quick flip through the manual reveals that this is a CMOS reset button. An external CMOS reset button comes in handy since reaching the CMOS jumpers on the motherboard requires some tools and a bit of work.
|Assembly: DVD+/-RW & Hard Drive|
Now that we know what we're dealing with, let's find out what the guts of the Z96JS look like. The Z96JS was relatively easy to work on. Everything that is user-serviceable is accessible by removing the appropriate panel. It's no more difficult than working on a desktop PC really, but it does take a little bit more time since everything is held on with screws, lots of them, in a variety of sizes and lengths. Enough screws that I would advise carefully placing every screw you remove into a zip-lock bag labeled with where the screw came from. Unlike ATX cases, where the screws are interchangeable from case to case, these screws may be difficult to replace. If you lose one of these, you're toast.
ASUS has made it pretty hard to remove the casing in order to get at the entire motherboard. This is done to discourage tampering, since the motherboard is not supposed to be an upgradeable item and comes pre-installed. The picture of the bottom of the laptop, shown above, has been labeled with the locations of the many screws we will need to remove to get the panels off. The first order of business is to install the drives. In this case, a 2.5" 80GB Seagate and a low-profile DVD+/-RW.
The Z96JS accepts a standard low-profile laptop optical drive. The drive is held on with two screws. Installation was simple. We found that a solid push was necessary for the drive to 'pop' into place. Once it's in place, it is very secure, even without the screws holding it in place. Installing the hard drive required a few extra steps.
The Z96JS provides direct exterior access to the hard drive. A removable hard drive tray was included with the Z96JS to protect the drive itself. It consists of a metal tray with a textured black plastic end that blends in nicely with the rest of the laptop. The hard drive is placed in the tray and then four screws are used to hold the contraption together. The hard drive tray is then slid into its bay and two screws are used to hold it in place.
Like the DVD+/-RW, the hard drive also popped into place and was quite secure, even when no screws were holding it in. This leads us to wonder if the screws are even necessary. ASUS could have easily made drive installation a tool-less affair by simply leaving it up to friction to hold the drives in place, which seems to work quite well.
|Assembly: CPU, Cooling & RAM|
The CPU, RAM, mini-PCIe slot and GPU are all hidden under the main panel. The panel is held on by three screws (refer to the diagram on the previous page). After the screws have been taken off, the panel is removed by sliding it down towards the front of the laptop, then it's lifted up and clear.
Now that the main panel is out of the way, we turn our attention to the empty 479-pin FCPGA6 socket. The process of installing the Core Duo is no different than the process used to install any other processor using a zero insertion force (ZIF) socket, with one small exception. The arm used to lock the processor into the socket is missing. To save space, the FCPGA6 uses a screw-like retainer at the top of the socket body to lock the processor in place. We'd describe it as screw-like because it only turns 180 degrees and can never be removed. While this works just as well, it's just another normally tool-less step that now requires your trusty screwdriver's intervention.
There are two SO-DIMM slots under the CPU socket. RAM installation involves placing the SO-DIMM module into the slot at a 45 degree angle. Then the RAM module is pressed down until it 'clicks' into the two retaining clips at either end of the slot.
Taking a step back to observe our work, we see that the mini-PCIe slot is located under the CPU socket and to the left of the RAM slots. The Z96JS comes with the Intel Pro 3945ABG wireless adapter already installed in the mini-PCIe slot. To the left of the mini-PCIe slot is the integrated X1600 and its four dedicated RAM chips. A thin black sheet of plastic covers the X1600 and protects the motherboard from direct contact with the aluminum heatsink. A circular cut in the motherboard's PCB can be seen. This makes room for the heatsink's slot-style blower.
Now that the CPU is installed we can install the heatsink and fan assembly. The heatsink is slid into its place and then seven screws are used to hold it down. The aluminum heatsink assembly uses two independent heat pipes, one for the CPU and one for the GPU, to bring heat directly to the blower. The heatsink makes direct contact with the CPU, GPU, and the four integrated GPU RAM modules. The fan is relatively quiet and the assembly does a decent job at keeping the system cool. We observed temperatures hovering around the high 40s under full load which is respectable for laptop cooling.
This concludes the assembly process of the Whitebook. That's right, that's all it takes. Not much more involved than your standard desktop system install. In fact there's less to do over all when you think about it. However, you will need your tools since everything requires tools to install except the DRAM modules.
We will be putting our whitebook up against eleven other systems, from 17" high-end enthusiast screamers to 12.1" business tablets. Our test systems also run the gamut of platforms, including a Dell XPS that packs the same platform and processor as our whitebook.
Our wide variety of test systems should give us a good idea of where our Whitebook stands. With three gaming laptops in the mix, we don't expect our Whitebook to do that well in the gaming tests, but it should be on equal footing with the best of the lot in the Business and Content Creation benchmarks.
|General Usage Performance|
Business Winstone 2004 from Veritest uses scripts to test the performance level of a computer in the following business related applications:
Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 from Veritest uses scripts to test the performance level of a computer in multimedia rich environments such as:
The Core Duo T2600s powering our ASUS Whitebook and the Dell XPS M1710 gave them the advantage, launching them up to the top two spots. It is clear that common Office applications benefit from the extra core. With only a single core, the Turion64 processor found on the Alienware Aurora m9700 put up a good fight, but ultimately is edged out by the Core Duos despite having the highest core frequency of the bunch.
It is interesting to note that the XPS M1710 shares the exact same processor and chipset with our Whitebook but has the benefit of two times the RAM. Yet our Whitebook still manages to come out on top. This can be attributed to our whitebook's 1.5Gb/s SATA hard drive which stomps all over the XPS M1710's ATA100 disk. And to our clean OS installation that was free of the "bloatware" typically associated with most off the shelf notebooks. Plus, Business Winstone's tests do not utilize significant amounts of RAM and as a result the XPS' memory configuration advantage cannot be brought to bear.
Unlike in Business Winstone, where the Core Duos edged out the Turion64 by about a point, the Duos dominate with a lead of three points in Content Creation Windstone. Our Whitebook is the overall winner again. This is unsurprising as the Content Creation Winstone tests also do not occupy a significant amount of RAM and they benefit from the previously stated advantages.
|PC World's WorldBench 5.0|
With WorldBench 5.0, we run a series of pre-configured scripts that we believe give a well rounded view of system performance. The tests we focus on are Office XP SP2, Photoshop 7, Nero and multitasking.
Below we have the results from our WorldBench tests, WorldBench 5's Photoshop 7, Nero, Office XP and multitasking modules. These results are recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.
We've put our Whitebook up against the Sony VAIO VGN-SZ150P/C for our WorldBench tests. The VAIO's Core Duo T2400 was no match for our Whitebook's T2600 and it shows in our benchmark results. Besides the processor, the only other major difference between the two systems is that the VAIO used slightly slower DDR2 533 instead of the 667 used in our Whitebook.
Our Whitebook's advantage was even more evident in the Nero test, beating the VAIO out by just over 200 seconds. This is probably because the Nero test benefited more from our Whitebook's faster processor and faster DRAM configuration.
The MS Office test was a slightly different story. Here, the VAIO was able to sneak ahead of the Z96JS by a little over 10 seconds.
WorldBench v5.0's multitask test simultaneously runs Mozilla 1.4 and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 to simulate a real-world multitasking scenario. While both systems achieved good scores thanks to their dual core processors, our Whitebook handily beats the VAIO once again.
The ASUS Z96JS's Mobility Radeon X1600 barely broke 2,000 points and is no match for the GeForce 7900s, as expected. The X1600 is meant to be a mid-range solution and it can't be expected to compete with the high-end gaming oriented 7900 screamers. The GeForce Go 6600 is a much more suitable target for comparison, since it too is marketed as a mid-range graphics solution. However, the 6600 is at a disadvantage since it has half the RAM of the X1600 and it does not meet 3Dmark06's minimum requirement for 256MB of RAM. The Whitebook's combination of a faster processor and superior graphics allow it to handily best the Area51 m5500, earning it more than twice the 3Dmarks. Intel's integrated graphics solution comes in dead last and was barely able to complete the tests.
At 1024x768 with anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering disabled, Quake 4 was very playable at 42 frames per second on our Whitebook. While the X1600 driving our the Asus Z96JS was able to dominate the GeForce 6600 and the m5500 when it came to 3D Mark, Quake 4 shows us a different story. Here, we see the X1600 just barely beating the 6600 by a little over one FPS. OpenGL games have always favored NVIDIA's offerings and we can see that nothing has changed with Quake 4 in this mobile computing setup.
For the battery performance tests, we used the standard benchmark settings from Bapco, along with a few other minor system tweaks. The screensaver was disabled and the volume was set at approximately 20%.
MobileMark 2002 utilizes the following applications:
The ASUS Z96JS performed well under battery power and was able to secure the highest overall score. The Z96JS' power saving features did not negatively effect its performance much, allowing it to zip ahead of the rest of the pack.
The Z96JS' excellent battery performance doesn't come without a cost, in this case it's battery life. Our Whitebook's measly 6-cell lithium ion battery gave a rather poor performance and was only able to keep the system running for two hours. This is rather disappointing considering that the W2V, with its large 17" screen, was able to stay running for almost double that amount of time. To be fair, the W2V has a slightly larger battery, but that doesn't excuse the Z96JS' poor performance. Although its 15.4" screen puts it in the medium size category, the Z96JS' battery life was worse than several enthusiast 17" desktop replacement laptops.
Overall, our Whitebook performed very well in our benchmarks. It did especially well in the general usage benchmarks thanks to its combination of a fast Core Duo T2600 processor, 1GB of DDR2 667 and 80GB SATA/150 hard drive. We were somewhat surprised that it was able to best the Dell XPS M1710 in several tests even though it has the same processor, but double the RAM. We originally thought the additional RAM would allow the M1710 to edge out our Whitebook but it turns out that for business applications and content creation, quick hard drive access prevailed over having loads of memory.
The gaming test results were unsurprising, with our Whitebook scoring in the middle of the pack. It's worthy of note that although the X1600 isn't a hard-core gaming solution, it did perform well in the games we threw at it. Quake 4 was very playable, although we had to turn the quality settings down to maintain a consistently good frame rate during especially stressing areas of the game.
With regards to customizability, Laptops have come a long way, however, we don't think they're quite there yet. While Whitebooks offer a commendable amount of upgradeability, the fact that the motherboard cannot be changed is a severe limiting factor. Chassis, cooling, motherboard and power system designs continue to be very proprietary and still lack interoperability between brands and even models within the same product line. Our particular Whitebook used an integrated graphics solution which further limited the overall upgradeability of the Laptop.
Laptops will not be able to achieve the same level of upgradeability as Desktop PCs until the ODMs decide to sit down and agree on some standards. We've now reached the point where the industry has standards in place for almost every Laptop component but the chassis, cooling solutions, motherboard and power system. The lack of unifying form factors (similar to those for Desktop PCs, like ATX) for the Laptop is the primary roadblock preventing Laptops from reaching the same level of upgradeability and customizability that Desktop PC users have enjoyed for years.
Having said all of that, Whitebooks still have a lot to offer in their current state. Despite the previously mentioned limitations, Whitebooks are still very versatile. Thanks to the introduction of MXM, graphics cards can now be upgraded, although retail MXM units are still very elusive. Despite not being able to change the motherboard, Whitebooks utilizing socket S1 and FCPGA6 will enjoy at least one more generation of upgrade options to come, as well as being able to choose from any processor from the current generation.
Whitebooks using Intel's FCPGA6 will be able to upgrade to a Merom once it hits the streets. Intel has promised that all FCPGA6 motherboards will be Merom compatible, although some will require BIOS updates. AMD based Whitebooks utilizing their mobile socket, socket S1, will enjoy even more flexibility since the platform will have a longer life than FCPGA6. Although compatibility with existing units isn't guaranteed, some time down the road, Turions using a 65nm process will appear, utilizing S1. This potentially gives AMD based Whitebooks a couple more years of life.
So what's the bottom line? Are Whitebooks worth the effort? We think so. Although building a Whitebook with the same components as a pre-built from a value-added reseller won't necessarily net you a significant savings, Whitebooks allow you to fine tune where your money is going through out its useful life span. The ability to tailor a Whitebook to your needs, through out its useful life, is the key difference that sets it apart from just picking out a couple of parts that will be in your next pre-built machine.