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AMD components have always made an ideal basis for powerful laptops, but the company has lagged behind Intel in this respect, particularly following the release of the Centrino Duo platform. The Turion 64 X2 processor is AMD's answer to its rival's excellent mobile platform, and the Asus A7Tc is the first product we've seen that makes full use of it.
The A7Tc is an ugly laptop, there's no two ways about it. When looked at alongside the incredibly sexy Asus Lamborghini VX1 and the leather-clad Asus S6F it actually makes you wonder whether Asus' designers are schizophrenic.
The lid of the laptop is finished in a dull grey colour and there's a contrasting black keyboard section that does little to liven things up. This colour scheme may seem like a welcome diversion from the plethora of black and silver consumer electronics devices, but this is definitely a laptop you won't be showing off to your friends.
As you'd expect for a 17-inch laptop, the Asus A7Tc is pretty large. Its screen is attached to the base section via two clasps at the leftmost side of the hinge rather than clasps at the far left and right sides of the hinge. This gives the laptop an asymmetrical, slightly bodged-together appearance, and the tacky rash of stickers below the keyboard only makes things worse.
The keyboard is somewhat diminutive and seems to have been designed for a smaller laptop. It looks lost in the middle of the A7Tc, and Asus could clearly have used the space more wisely by installing a larger keyboard with a dedicated numerical keypad. Having said that, the standard Qwerty buttons are easy enough to type on, and we were generally happy with the layout -- barring the unnecessarily small Return key.
The A7Tc has a good number of shortcut keys that aid its ease of use. Above the keyboard, and to the left of the blue, backlit power button, there's a row of Asus' Power Gear keys. These work in conjunction with the laptop's Power Gear software and allow you to select from a range of preset power modes including quiet office, presentation, high performance and super performance, each of which increases performance and noise levels, or extends battery life.
There are also buttons for activating an external display; disabling the mouse touchpad when using a USB mouse; and for launching the pre-installed Skype Voice over IP (VoIP) software, which lets you make voice telephone calls via the Internet at a reduced rate. Usefully, you get 30 minutes of free worldwide calls as part of the A7Tc package.
The A7Tc is the first laptop we've seen that uses a Turion 64 X2 Mobile processor -- AMD's answer to Intel's Centrino Duo. In this case, it's the 2GHz TL-60 chip -- currently the fastest in the X2 lineup, but there are slower versions available. It's the first dual-core dedicated laptop processor AMD has produced and is designed to deliver better multitasking performance than the original Turion 64.
Like all dual-core chips, the TL-60 uses two processing cores on a single die, or chip, for faster performance. It's akin to using two horses to pull a cart instead of one. It won't necessarily make ordinary programs faster in the sense of a straight sprint, but it can handle a greater load and is great for running many programs simultaneously.
AMD's approach to dual-core technology is different to Intel's. The Turion 64 X2 can operate in both 32-bit and 64-bit modes, which gives it the ability to take full advantage of 64-bit operating systems such as the forthcoming Windows Vista. Like the Athlon 64 desktop processors and the Turion 64's before it, the X2 uses AMD's HyperTransport system instead of Intel's system bus architecture. This gives it a slight speed advantage when sending data between the processor and memory, but it uses only 512Kb of level 2 cache memory per core, whereas the Intel chips use up to 2MB.
One could draw an analogy of a road traffic management system when comparing the two approaches. It could be said that one employs a system of having faster cars driving on roads with a smaller capacity while the other uses much larger roads but with potentially slower cars. It's difficult to say which approach is better, but it's interesting that both companies go down such drastically different routes -- pardon the pun.
It's been a long time coming, but the Turion 64 X2 heralds AMD's acceptance of DDR2 memory -- a feature Intel chips have enjoyed for several years. DDR2 can process more read/write instructions per clock cycle than standard DDR, can have a faster data rate and run at lower voltages, making it more efficient in theory. Asus has tried to make the most of the X2's DDR2 compatibility by supplying 1GB of DDR2 533MHz memory in the A7Tc.
The A7Tc includes a 120GB hard drive, which provides plenty of room for multimedia content. It's capable of storing well over 100 hours of high quality digital video or over 30,000 music files, plus you get a DVB-T Freeview tuner for receiving digital TV on the move. The aforementioned 17-inch screen is great for watching movies on, thanks to its widescreen 1,680x1,050-pixel resolution. Like most modern laptops it uses a glossy screen coating which can be difficult to use in direct light as it's highly reflective, but it provides excellent contrast and vivid recreation of colours.
Asus has supplied the A7Tc with a Lightscribe-enabled DVD rewriter drive. This can etch greyscale labels directly onto the label of compatible discs using the drive's internal laser. It can take up to 30 minutes to create a high quality disc label, or around five minutes for a CD with a simple track listing, and the results are very polished.
Connectivity is of great importance in a laptop, and the A7TC excels in this area. It has four well-spaced USB ports at the rear for connecting semi-permanent devices, such as a printer and scanner, and another more accessible USB port on the left that's ideal for devices you'd connect on a whim, such as a memory key or MP3 player. You also get full 802.11a, b, g Wi-Fi support.
The A7TC was very nimble in everyday use -- we zipped through everyday tasks with only the occasional stutter under very heavy load. It's fair to say the laptop is faster than the majority of mid-range desktops we've reviewed this year, as indicated by its PCMark score of 4,102. It's not quite as high as the 4,236 achieved by the Acer Travelmate 8204WLMi Centrino Duo laptop, but it's not far off.
3D gaming performance was slightly less impressive, but still satisfactory. It reached a score of 1,750 in the 3DMark 2006 benchmark, which was good for running Doom 3 at 48fps and Far Cry at 61fps at the default image quality settings and 1,024x764-pixel screen resolution.
Perhaps more importantly, the A7Tc lasted just under two hours in our MobileMark 2002 battery test. This is a decent amount of time for such a large and powerful laptop, but quite poor in comparison to the Travelmate 8204WLMi, which lasted nearly 4 hours (231 minutes).
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Kate Macefield