2009 Netbook and Notebook Buyer's Guide

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Desktop Replacements/Gaming Notebooks

Ah, the "desktop replacement." The iconic "gaming rig." The "LAN party station." Whatever you call it, this is apt to be the PC enthusiast's favorite machine, if only because it's pretty much the only notebook that has the potential to really rival the performance of a desktop. Now, we will say that there are a few 17" machines out there that aren't powerhouses. In fact, they're spec'ed much like a midrange notebook, but the sheer fact that they have large 17" screens and 7+ pound weights puts them into this most unusual category.

Asus W90Vp - trust us, it's significantly larger in person; click image for review

With any 17"+ notebook, you'll be gaining certain things while sacrificing others, and the pros/cons here are probably more drastic than with any other machine. For starters, you'll be toting around a lot more machine with a desktop replacement. It'll be thicker, heavier and bulkier. You'll also be forced to deal with lackluster battery life. Most 17" (or larger) machines can barely squeeze out two hours of useful life (if that), making a secondary battery or a nearby power outlet a practical necessity. You'll also give up some level of usability, considering that these things are almost too large to open on a coach airplane seat and within a cramped rear seat of a car. They'll only function comfortably in wide open spaces, and when you're computing on-the-go, those very spaces are tough to come by.

That said, you'll also gain quite a few things by opting for this form factor. Not only are you guaranteed a full size keyboard, you may end up with a larger-than-average trackpad, a row of hotkeys or even a full size number pad as well (as in
HP's HDX 18t). You'll also get a screen with the potential to reach extremely high resolutions (1920 x 1200 isn't uncommon to see), and the amount of input/output ports is typically impressive. These machines can also hold two hard drives (some of them, anyway), and two GPUs--no other machine segment can claim that. Heck, you can even get a 17" rig with another slide-out display in the Lenovo W700ds. Talk about impressing your cubical mates.

Lenovo's dual-screened W700ds; click image for review

Within this segment there are two distinct categories, and we'll start with the average desktop replacement. These are machines such as Dell's Inspiron 17, which boast a large frame and plenty of options, but don't usually pack cutting-edge hardware and stratospheric price tags. Indeed, you can find some 17" machines for around $1000--those are the ones that are thought of as portable desktops, not ultra-high-end gaming rigs. Their main purpose is to provide ample screen real estate (as with a desktop) wherever you set up shop, which is great for those with a somewhat mobile office. Though the word "desktop" in "desktop replacement" shouldn't be taken lightly; these are about as heavy as a small form factor PC and you'll definitely want to have it plugged into a wall socket at a desk versus on your lap draining the built-in battery somewhere. These machines have all the capabilities of a standard midrange notebook (Office tasks, HD multimedia playback and web usage are a given), but they can't typically play newer games that require bleeding-edge GPUs and higher-end processors.

As for the "gaming rig" section, these are easy to spot. Most are relatively large, with many boasting 18.4" screens and depths of well over 2". They usually also have elaborate design schemes: Alienware's
M17x has oodles of exterior lights, Toshiba's Qosimo X305-Q725 has a radical flame job and Asus' W90Vp has enough keyboard lighting to serve as an emergency flair during power outages. What these beasts also bring to the table is above-average gaming performance thanks to desktop-level CPUs and GPUs that can operate within a notebook form factor, due to the copious cooling within the chassis. These machines also handle Blu-ray Discs and 1080p movie content without a hitch, and they typically make enough noise to startle your neighbors. Though, to be fair, lugging one of these to a LAN party is still infinitely easier than slinging along a desktop plus accessories. Still, a true gaming rig is righteously expensive, often costing well over $2000. Unless you seriously plan on gaming on-the-go, it's tough to justify the purchase price. Almost everything aside from gaming (1080p movie playback, everyday tasks, movie editing, etc.) can be handled with a slightly powerful 17" desktop replacement (like the Inspiron 17, MSI GT725 or 17" MacBook Pro).

MSI's GT627 gaming notebook - available for under $1200; click image for review

More so than any other machine, we caution readers to seriously think before buying a 17" machine, particularly a dedicated portable gaming rig. Do you really need that much horsepower on the go? Are you really okay with giving up so much battery life? Do you really understand what life is like when lugging around a ten pound+ notebook? If you've considered carefully and still think you need one, then here are a few things to look for / avoid when shopping:

Here are a few specific things we'd look for on a desktop replacement/gaming rig:
  • Intel Core 2 Duo CPU minimum, Core 2 Extreme on a gaming rig (it's a powerhouse/gaming rig, you should probably get a CPU designed to handle serious workloads)
  • More ports than you think you'll ever need (if you're paying for the size, you might as well get a desktop's worth of ports while you're at it)
  • At least 1-1.5 hours of "real-world" battery life (even the monster notebook has to leave the comfort of the desk at some point, so make sure it'll stay on long enough to boot up and check your email)
  • Blu-ray Optical Drive (unless you're strapped for cash, you might as well future-proof your machine somewhat with today's most advanced optical standard)
  • Multi-touch trackpad (again, a real productivity booster)
  • GPU capable of high-def video playback, 2x GPUs for gamers (large machines can now handle SLI and CrossFire--might as well indulge!)
  • A good warranty (lots of high-tech hardware to fail here, you don't want to foot that bill)
  • At least a 1680 x 1050 resolution; 1440 x 900 could work on a lower-end desktop replacement (if you've got a 16" or 17" display, you might as well get a Full HD screen or something close to it since it's one of the few ways to get a panel capable of 1080p on a notebook)
  • Get the thinnest and lightest machine that fits your needs (big, bulky machines grow annoying to lug around with time, and you don't want to end up with a notebook that you repurpose as a desktop)
Here are a few specific things we'd prefer to avoid on a desktop replacement/gaming rig:
  • An Intel Celeron CPU (under no circumstances should you get a 17"+ machine with this slow of a CPU; either get a smaller machine with a Celeron or get a more powerful CPU in your gaming rig)
  • A lackluster GPU (again, if you're lugging this large machine around, make sure it's very capable of handling high-def multimedia and possibly even gaming)
  • Price tag of over $5000 (unless you're soaking in money, you can get a highly potent machine for far less than this; check out Maingear's options for a taste)
  • Sub-15" display (the occasional 16" gaming rig can work, but a true desktop replacement needs a high-res 17" display to justify the lame battery life, thick chassis and lofty weight figures)
  • Over 1.5" thick (there are plenty of high-power machines larger than 1.5", but unless you know you're okay with carrying around a brick, we'd opt for slimmer alternatives--trust us, it gets old carrying around such a beast)
  • Less than 2GB of RAM (no desktop these days should have less than 2GB if it's your main work machine, thus no desktop replacement should either; also, most recent games need 2GB of RAM to run smoothly, if not more)

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