In the battle for Netbook market share supremacy, Intel's Atom CPU stands nearly unchallenged, despite a handful of offerings with AMD and Via CPUs. So it's surprising we found so much to like about the 11.6-inch Gateway LT3103u, which uses an AMD Athlon 64 L110 processor to provide a smoother overall experience than most Atom-powered Netbooks, while keeping the price in the typical Netbook ballpark.
The larger screen has a high-definition 1,366x768 resolution, which is becoming increasingly common in higher-end Netbooks. But at only $379, the Gateway is cheaper than other 11-inch Netbooks such as the Asus Eee PC 1101HA, as well as 10-inch models with high-def screens, such as the Sony Vaio W.
The battery life, while not insultingly short, is definitely a weak point (especially for a bulky six-cell battery)--and the Vista operating system is a known performance bottleneck for Netbooks. Still, the AMD CPU gave us one of the best Netbook experiences we've had, while undercutting the 11-inch, high-def screen competition.
|Price as reviewed / Starting price||$379|
|Processor||1.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 L110|
|Memory||2GB, 667MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||250GB 5,400rpm|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon X1270|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Basic|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.3 inches wide by 9 inches deep|
|Screen size (diagonal)||11.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.3/3.9 pounds|
The basic black design of the LT31 won't turn many heads--although Gateway gets consistency points for matching the industrial design of its mainstream MD series laptops, down to the vertical chrome accent bar on the back of the lid. The system also feels like a slightly refined version of sister-brand Acer's 11-inch Acer Aspire One 751h.
The interior is matte black on the keyboard tray, gloss black on the screen bezel, with a subtle indented dot pattern on the wrist rest. We were torn by the keyboard. The large, flat-topped keys looked snazzy with their gently rounded corners, and were big enough for even fat fingers to use comfortably. But, they also felt somewhat insubstantial, flexing too much under our fingers, and had a cheap, plastic, clacking quality.
The touch pad was of adequate size, but the mouse buttons were unfortunately relegated to one of those thin, annoying rocker bars--an implementation we regularly discourage. Like nearly all current Gateway and Acer models, the touch pad supports limited multitouch gestures, such as photo zooming with a two-fingered pinch. The pad is small enough to keep this from being a particularly useful feature, but we liked swiping two fingers horizontally to move forward and back in our Web browser history.
The 11.1-inch display has a native resolution of 1,366x768, which is becoming slightly more common in Netbooks, even if the vast majority still use 1,024x600 screens. Of the 1,366x768 Netbooks we've seen (both 10-inch and 11-inch models), the LT31 is among the least expensive. Both Sony and Dell charge a premium of about $100, while Asus' 11-inch 1101HA is about $40 more. Corporate cousin Acer's Aspire One 751h is also less than $300, but its sluggish performance should take it out of the running.
One thing is clear: higher-resolution displays do, indeed, work on small Netbooks, and once you get used to having a little more screen real estate, it's hard to go back.
|Gateway LT3103u||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||headphone/microphone jacks||headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g Wi-Fi||Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
A standard collection of ports and connections offered no surprises, and as this system is available only as a fixed-configuration retail laptop, there are no options to speak of. If you need high-end features such as 802.11n Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, look elsewhere.
The most interesting thing about the LT31 is its choice of processors. Instead of the Intel Atom, it uses an AMD Athlon 64 L110. With a clock speed of only 1.2GHz, you'd expect this to be a non-starter, but in fact, we found the Gateway ran smoother and quicker than nearly any Atom-powered Netbook we've tried. The comparison is especially interesting because the other 11-inch Netbooks we've seen have all used the Z520 version of the Intel Atom (rather than the more common N270), which led to annoyingly slow overall performance.
The single-core L110 CPU did better than most Netbooks in single-app tests, such as iTunes, but considerably worse in our multitasking test. It's worth noting that our multitasking test is not always an accurate measure of single-core CPUs, and in anecdotal use, we found this to be among the zippiest-feeling Netbooks we've ever used.
AMD's other Atom-like CPU, the Neo, has been seen in only a handful of more expensive step-up systems, such as HP's dv2, so it's a pleasant surprise to get better-than-average performance in the same sub-$400 ballpark as typical Netbooks. Having twice the RAM of most Netbooks, at 2GB, also helps, and explains why the LT31 uses Windows Vista Basic as its operating system. (Although as this product, like most Netbooks, doesn't qualify for a free Windows 7 upgrade, it might make sense to hold off on a purchase until October.)
Jumping away from the typical Atom platform also allows Gateway to include ATI Radeon X1270 graphics, which will help with some very basic casual gaming and video viewing, making it easier to take advantage of the high-res screen for HD video (but we still found full-screen HD video streaming to be occasionally stuttery).