It's ironic that as the PC gaming business lags further and further behind console gaming, we finally have a fantastic array of worthy gaming laptops that can easily stand up to bulky desktop machines. Gateway has had a line of capable gaming desktops, called FX, for a couple of years now, and the company is finally rolling the FX brand out to laptops. The flagship is the $2,999 Gateway P-171XL FX, which manages to not only hit most of our gaming laptop wish list, but also does so in a system whose design doesn't scream "gamer."
Both Dell and Alienware offer 17-inch gaming rigs that can cost more, and offer a few more bells and whistles (especially if you're fond of strobe lights). However, those designs have a distinct dorm room feel to them. With Nividia's new GeForce 8800 graphics and Intel's Core 2 Extreme X7900 CPU, this is close enough to the cutting edge for all but the most hardcore gamers (although Alienware is starting to offer two 8800 cards in SLI mode).
Included for your three grand is also an impressive 3GB of RAM and an HD DVD drive (which, while not an optimal choice, is at least a next-gen drive). A comparable Dell XPS M1730, with only 2GB of RAM and just a basic DVD burner, costs nearly $500 more.
For those with tighter budgets, we're also fond of the Best Buy-only retail version, the Gateway P-6831FX, which knocks down the CPU but keeps the 3GB of RAM and GeForce 8800 card for only $1,350.
|Price as reviewed||$2,999|
|Processor||2.8GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme X7900|
|Memory||3GB, 667MHz DDR2|
|Hard drive||400GB 7,200rpm (200GB x2)|
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce 8800M GTS|
|Operating System||Windows Vista Premium|
|Dimensions (WDH)||15.75 x 12.2 x 1.5 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||17.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||9.3/10.9 pounds|
The Gateway P-171XL FX lacks the glowing alien heads, flashing lights, and other "Hey, look at me!" flare of flashy 17-inch gaming rigs from Alienware or Dell,. It opts instead for a more subdued black finish that won't look out of place in your den or living room. The back of the lid has the system's most obvious branding, with a big FX logo splayed across it, similar to the one across the front of the desktop FX models. While it's a bit smaller and lighter than, say, the Dell XPS M1730, this is still a massive 17-inch desktop replacement, weighing almost 10 pounds, so don't expect to lug it around too often.
The interior is almost all black and gray, with the exception of a copper boarder around the keyboard itself. It's an unusual choice, but one that aesthetically works. The keyboard and separate number pad are generous, with large, flat keys. However, they're made of an especially glossy plastic, which picks up plenty of glare. The upshot: Non touch-typists can sometimes have a hard time seeing what key they're hitting. A standard touch pad with a fingerprint sensor sits below the keyboard, while above is Gateway's now-standard media controls, with buttons cut right into the brushed metal border. These backlit media control and quick-launch buttons look cool, but it's sometimes hard to tell if you've pressed them hard enough. A touch-sensitive volume control next to these buttons seemed like a good idea, but froze up on us a few times, requiring a restart to fix.
The 17.1-inch display has a native resolution of 1,920x1,200, which complements the hi-definition HD DVD drive. The screen was clear and bright, and we liked the finish, which was somewhere between the high-gloss finish found on most consumer notebooks (too much glare) and the matte finish found on business systems (too muted). We would love to see more laptop makers pick up on this.
|Gateway P-171XL FX||Average for category [desktop replacement]|
|Video||VGA, HDMI||VGA-out, S-Video, DVI or HDMI|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||3 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, mulitformat memory card reader, eSATA||4 USB 2.0, mini-FireWire, mulitformat memory card reader|
|Expansion||ExpressCard||PC Card or ExpressCard|
|Networking||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth||modem, Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g Wi-Fi, optional Bluetooth|
|Optical drive||DVD burner/HD-DVD-ROM||HD DVD or Blu-Ray|
All the standard ports and connections are included, even if most 17-inch laptops offer one more USB port than the P-171XL FX. As if to make up for it, you instead get not only an HDMI output (quickly becoming standard equipment in high-end systems) but also an eSATA port, good for hooking up external SATA hard drives.
It's unfortunate, in hindsight, that the only optical drive choice offered is a DVD burner/HD DVD-ROM drive. Blu-ray would have been a better choice (because of recent developments in the format war), and Gateway does offer Blu-ray and combo Blu-ray/HD DVD drives in other systems. While this is a fixed-configuration laptop, Gateway does offer a few other fixed configuration versions that drop the HD DVD. One particularly interesting one is the Gateway P-6831FX, made specifically for Best Buy retail stores, which keeps the GeForce 8800 video card and 3GB of RAM, but drops the CPU all the way down to a T5450, and gets the price down to $1,350--easily the best way to get a GeForce 8800 system on a budget (but bear in mind it only has a 1,440x900 display).
As expected with a Core 2 Extreme processor and 3GB of RAM, this was one of the faster laptops we've seen. It easily kept pace with other high-end laptops, including the HP Pavilion HDX and Dell XPS M1730. Naturally, we would expect laptops with the same components to perform similarly, making price the primary difference between these models. Although, while less expensive, the Gateway doesn't offer the wide-ranging configuration options you get with gaming laptops from companies such as Dell and Alienware. Unsurprisingly, the P-171XL FX felt blazingly fast, and never hiccuped once during our anecdotal multitasking tests.
Thanks to its 512MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 graphics card, the Gateway P-171XL FX could easily keep up with other 8800 laptops, including the Alienware M15X and HP Pavilion HDX, offering impressive frame rates in Quake 4 an F.E.A.R. It's worth noting that the cheaper P-6831FX model does almost as well at lower resolutions, if basic gaming is your main concern. In additional anecdotal gaming tests, we were able to crank the resolution all the way up to 1,920x1,280 in recent games such as Unreal Tournament III and Quake Wars, and still get very playable frame rates.
Our battery testing, using CNET Labs' DVD battery drain test, gave us 1 hour and 34 minutes of battery life, which isn't a lot compared with more portable systems, but pretty impressive for a desktop replacement, which usually will stay tethered to one location. Ironically, the best desktop replacement battery life we've seen recently was from the biggest laptop in recent memory, the massive 20-inch HP HDX, which, thanks to its huge footprint, can fit in an extra-large battery.
The system includes an industry-standard one-year warranty with parts-and-labor coverage and return-to-depot service. For a reasonable $150, you can upgrade to three years of coverage. Gateway offers a 24-7 toll-free technical-support phone line, and the Web site has the usual driver downloads and FAQs, plus options for e-mailing or online chatting with techs.