Whenever I see a semi towing someone's double-wide mobile home down the street, I think that calling those things mobile is a stretch. Of course, they do give you lots of room to spread out, and you don't have to sacrifice a single amenity. The same goes for a Windows XP Media Center notebook: You can enjoy all the comforts of a desktop PC--heck, all the comforts of a full-service home entertainment center--but you won't want to take it with you on quick runs to the corner coffee shop.
We tested three luxury liners among Media Center laptops: Dell's Inspiron XPS Gen 2 (now superseded by the Inspiron XPS M170), HP's Pavilion Zd8000, and Toshiba's Qosmio G25-AV513. Each has a 17-inch wide-screen display, is about 2 inches thick, and weighs 11 pounds or more when you factor in traveling accessories such as the power brick (the Qosmio's weighs nearly 1.5 pounds).
But they certainly do pile on the extras. Each one has a fast processor, a high-end graphics card, a DVD burner, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a television tuner, and ports all over the place. The Dell came in at $3736; the HP, $2217; and the Toshiba, $2999. All three are impressive entertainment systems, though they're hardly identical. For details on their specs, see "Barely Portable Powerhouses."
Despite being roughly the same size as the other two, the Qosmio cuts a spiffier figure in its silver and shiny black plastic case; and its big round feet make it resemble a stereo component. The XPS Gen 2, Dell's mobile gaming notebook, looks extremely plain on the inside; but outside, the lid sports a brushed-aluminum treatment, and colored light streams from "XPS" logos on the lid and from the sides and front of the deck. The Zd8000 seems far more businesslike than either, with an attractive but stark case (which has exceptionally clear port labels).
HP crams a full-size keyboard and a number pad onto the Zd8000's deck. Regrettably, a hard piece of plastic just in front of the spacebar on the XPS Gen 2 makes the bar uncomfortable to press. The Qosmio's touchpad is atrocious: It's coated with a tacky material that made my fingers stutter across its surface, and its mouse buttons are recessed in plastic that flexes.
The Qosmio does have 11 nifty touch-sensitive controls just above the keyboard. You can use these to start up the TV tuner, play a DVD, and control disc playback.
The slot-loading DVD drive on the Qosmio seems more suitable for an entertainment device than the notebook-style, tray-fed drives included on the XPS Gen 2 and Zd8000, which require that you press discs onto a spindle.
Bottom Line: Thoughtful design makes playing media on this notebook a pleasure, though it could stand a higher-resolution screen.
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Media Center Savvy
Though all three notebooks have the same-size display and a high-gloss (and high-glare) coating, the screen on the XPS Gen 2 possesses the highest resolution, at 1920 by 1200. The resolution of the Zd8000 is 1680 by 1050, while that of the Qosmio is 1440 by 900. TV signals looked grainy on the Qosmio, noticeably sharper on the Zd8000, and sharper still on the XPS Gen 2. The Qosmio's screen is far brighter than the others', so DVDs pop, but shadows look darker.
Conveniently, the Qosmio has a built-in TV tuner, whereas the Zd8000 and the XPS Gen 2 use external, USB-connected boxes. The HP box is large, about the size of a thick hardcover book; but because it has two TV tuners, you can watch one show while recording another. You must use an external sensor with the Dell and Toshiba remotes.
Though the XPS Gen 2 had easily the loudest audio of the three, the Qosmio sounded far clearer, thanks in part to a Virtual Sound control panel that you can use to fine-tune the audio system's clarity and its surround-sound effect. The Zd8000's speakers seemed flat.
HP Pavilion Zd8000
Bottom Line: Business-style unit has a nice price, but offers mediocre audio and uses noisy fans to cool its desktop CPU.
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The Inspiron XPS Gen 2 we tested, which had a 2.13-GHz Pentium M 770 CPU, outran the competition. Its PC WorldBench 5 score of 93 placed it among the fastest notebooks we have ever examined. The Qosmio, with a 2-GHz Pentium M 760, earned a WorldBench 5 score of 86; and the Zd8000, with a 3.4-GHz Pentium 4 650, finished with an 83. Since the Zd8000 relies on a desktop processor, it has more fans than the others, and it's noticeably louder.
The HP's hungry desktop processor took a bite out of battery life, too. The Zd8000 lasted only a paltry 1 hour, 35 minutes on a single charge. The XPS Gen 2 did best, at 2 hours, 18 minutes on a charge, while the Qosmio ran for 2 hours, 1 minute.
Because Dell touts the gaming capabilities of its XPS Gen 2, we decided to run our graphics testing suite on all three notebooks here. The XPS Gen 2 reached 344 frames per second in Unreal Tournament (at 1024 by 768 and 32-bit color), well above the average frame rate that the desktop systems we've tested recently have attained. The Qosmio is hardly a slouch, at 280 fps; but the Zd8000 trailed far behind at 135 fps. The XPS Gen 2 lets you play at 1600 by 1200; and at that resolution, it achieved a rate of 266 fps--the same figure that the brawny Alienware Aurora 7500 posted in tests we conducted for this month's Top 15 Desktop PCs rankings.
Dell Inspiron XPS Gen
Bottom Line: High-resolution screen helps burly gaming notebook show movies well.
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Made for Media
With its great media controls and integrated TV tuner, the Qosmio feels as if Toshiba designed it to be a Media Center machine from the ground up. And though its display can't match the Dell's or the HP's for screen sharpness, it's a pleasure to watch. The Qosmio is a media darling, which is why it's our Best Buy.