Next-generation optical drives are slowly making their way into more and more households, and the somewhat surprising Trojan horse behind this move is the multimedia laptop. Sony's PlayStation 3, with its built-in Blu-ray drive, will be in short supply for some time to come, and we've seen only a handful of desktop PCs with next-gen optical drives. More and more big-screen laptops, however, are offering these drives as an option. Most of these systems come from Toshiba, one of the creators of the HD-DVD format, but we've also seen HD-DVD drives in recent laptops from HP and . The $2,499 Fujitsu LifeBook N6420 joins the next-gen party with an HD-DVD drive and high-end specs that make for a powerful desktop replacement. It's cheaper than other HD-DVD laptops, such as the and offers some proprietary features not found on a similarly priced HP Pavilion dv9000t. The trade-off is slightly slower performance and weak battery life that won't get you through an average movie.
Compared to a flashier system such as the Toshiba Qosmio, the LifeBook N6420 feels somewhat underdesigned. The exterior and interior are basic gray with black accents. The N6420's physical measurements are imposing at 16.3 inches wide by 12.0 inches deep by 1.9 inches thick. It's not the absolute heaviest 17-inch laptop we've ever seen, but it's a close contender. At 9.7 pounds (11.6 with the massive A/C adapter), it's awkward to even carry across the room, but it's still about a pound less than the Qosmio. The 17-inch Gateway NX860XL, at a mere 8.5 pounds, seems positively svelte by comparison.
The system has a standard set of connections, including four USB 2.0 jacks, a mini FireWire jack, PC Card and ExpressCard slots, a media card reader, and a VGA output. For a high-end system such as this, we would have liked to see at least a DVI output for outputting HD-DVD signals to your home theater setup. Networking connections include a 56Kbps modem, 10/100/1000 Gigabit Ethernet, and integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless.
The included 200GB hard drive is sufficiently roomy, but it's a shame it's only a 4,200rpm drive. Even budget laptops usually have 5,400rpm drives and about half of the desktop replacements we've looked at recently have had desktop-speed 7,200rpm drives. The 1GB of RAM is upgradable to 2GB for a fairly reasonable $180 extra.
Like other HD-DVD desktop replacements, such as theand the HP Pavilion dv9000t, the table-hogging footprint allows for a full-size keyboard and a separate number pad. The touch pad is offset to the left side of the chassis, with a fingerprint reader nestled between the two mouse buttons. A set of media control buttons sit above the keyboard, including a volume rocker switch, an on-off switch for the wireless card, and a four-way circular switch--similar to an iPod wheel--that can launch four programs of your choice, such as a Web browser or an e-mail client.
Another button above the keyboard is labeled Visual Optimizer. That's a pretty intriguing name for a button, and it almost makes you wonder why you'd want a switch to turn it on and off: optimized visuals sound like the kind of thing you'd want on all the time. Fujitsu describes the Visual Optimizer as a "special image processing subsystem [that] enhances images from any source so that they are optimized for the LCD." Rather than just bumping up the brightness and the contrast of an image, the visual optimizer adds edge enhancement and attempts to expand the luminance range of the image. In practice, it adds a pleasing color saturation and brightness to many images, along with richer blacks. It can be a matter of taste, as some images appear blown out when the Visual Optimizer is engaged, and attempting to use it while watching an HD-DVD movie, we found that we lost too much detail in the darker parts of the frame to make it worthwhile.
Even without the Visual Optimizer, the 17-inch wide-screen display looks good, although it has a native resolution of 1,440x900--many high-end 17-inch laptops have a resolution of 1,920x1,200. The included Windows Media Center remote and receiver add even more flexibility, as you can set up the laptop across the room and kick back for a small-scale cinematic experience.
Running Intel's Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU, the Fujitsu LifeBook N6420 has more than enough computing power for robust multimedia apps, but saddled with only 1GB of RAM and a slower hard drive, it fell behind the T7200-powered Toshiba Qosmio G35-AV660 in CNET Labs' Multitasking and Photoshop CS2 tests, and it was significantly slower than desktop replacement models with faster processors, such as the Gateway NX860XL. With an ATI Mobility Radeon x1600 GPU, the N6420 can handle mid-level gaming chores, turning in an acceptable if not impressive 37.8 frames per second in Quake 4 at 1,024x768.
The Achilles' heel of many desktop replacement systems is battery life, and the N6420 is no exception. Scraping the very bottom of our battery ratings, the system couldn't even complete our standard MobileMark battery life test, but we were able to anecdotally clock an average of 81 minutes of battery life--not even enough for a full-length feature film. This is definitely a laptop that you'll want to run on AC power.
Fujitsu covers the system with a one-year warranty. Support is available through a 24/7 toll-free phone line, and technicians can connect to your computer over the Internet to diagnose problems. Standard FAQs and driver downloads are also available. Adding an extra year of service costs $99, and upgrading to next-business-day onsite service is an additional $50 per year.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)