To some people, tablet PCs are a novelty--good for occasional touch-screen doodling and not much more. For others, especially note-taking students and conference room PowerPoint jockeys, tablets have become indispensable, even if they're often saddled with out-of-date components. Gateway's M285-E is a convertible tablet, combining features of a traditional laptop and a tablet PC. A single hinge in the center--not two as you get on most laptops--connects the screen and also allows it to spin 360 degrees and fold back over the keyboard, converting it into a tablet PC. With the latest updates to the M285-E, the system graduates to Intel's Core 2 Duo line of CPUs, meaning it can hold its own performance-wise against today's nontablet systems. The base price of the M285-E is $1,449, but our review unit came with extra RAM, a bigger hard drive, and a faster processor, bringing the price to $1,933. If you want tablet functionality without sacrificing performance, this system offers a good mix of components at a reasonable price, though your dollars will stretch a bit further with the Toshiba Satellite R25.
At first glance, the Gateway M285-E looks like an everyday mainstream laptop, matching the current black-and-silver color scheme of Gateway's product line. Measuring 13.5 inches wide by 10.3 inches deep by 2.0 inches high (measured using the larger 12-cell battery that came with our review system), it's a bit bigger than other tablets, which traditionally have 12-inch screens, such as the Fujitsu LifeBook T4020.Weighing 7 pounds, or 8.2 pounds with the A/C adapter, it's hard to see carrying this around all day in your arm, jotting notes on the touch screen.
The key feature of the Gateway M285-E is its screen, connected to the rest of the chassis by a rotating center hinge. When in its default position, the screen looks and acts like a normal laptop display. The 14-inch wide-screen LCD has a native resolution of 1,280x768, roughly in line with a 12.1-inch laptop. Most nontablet PCs of this size have 15.4-inch screens, which bump the resolution up to 1,680x1,050. The larger type and icons you get with 1,280x768 help when using the tablet functions, which are generally viewed from an arm's length away.
Rotating the screen on its center hinge counterclockwise, you can turn it a full 360 degrees before folding it down over the keyboard, leaving you with a tablet-like form factor which you can hold on your lap, cradle in your arm, or place on a flat surface. A button right below the LCD panel will flip the image and automatically resize your windows. Pressing it multiple times allows you to cycle through all four possible orientations: two horizontal, two vertical.
The display was not the brightest we've ever seen, but tablets generally work better with matte screens, not the glossier finishes seen on many multimedia laptops with extrabright displays. That's because tablets are used in a wide variety of environments, and the harsh glare of reflected lights can make the touch screen hard to see and use.
Controlling the touch screen requires the included stylus, which slides into a socket built into the front panel of the case. Tapping the screen with the stylus is a left mouse click, while holding down a thumb button on the stylus while tapping is the equivalent of a right click. The stylus was generally responsive and accurate, but when calibrated for horizontal use, we had to recalibrate it when the screen was oriented vertically. The stylus also has a "hover mode" that registers movement on the screen when the stylus is held just above the screen without touching it, but we can't think of too many instances where that would be useful. When not using the system in tablet mode, the full-size keyboard and the touch pad worked well, and the touch pad includes a dedicated vertical scroll bar, which we always appreciate.
Whether using the Gateway M285-E as a tablet or a normal laptop, you'll find all the standard ports and connections. Headphone and mic jacks and a media card reader are on the front panel; a DVD burner and a modem jack on the right side; and three USB 2.0 jacks, one mini FireWire jack, a VGA output, a PC Card slot, and a Gigabit Ethernet jack on the left side. Inside, the 1GB of RAM and 80GB hard drive are fairly standard equipment for a mainstream laptop and should suffice for most users. Intel's Pro/Wireless 3945A/B/G Wireless card provides standard wireless connectivity options.
The Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 CPU lets the system hold its own against the current crop of laptops. In CNET Labs' Multitasking test, performance was comparable to that of other nontablet Core 2 Duo T7200 systems, such as the Velocity Micro NoteMagix L80x Ultra. Like the HP Compaq nc8430, the Gateway M285-E has only 1GB of RAM, and both systems lagged on our Photoshop test, compared to other systems with the same CPU but 2GB of RAM. Adding a second gigabyte of RAM for an extra $140 is an option.
Battery life was excellent, better than that of any other Core 2 Duo T7200 system we've looked at. The 4 hours, 36 minutes of battery life was impressive, but bear in mind that was with the larger 12-cell battery, which sticks out somewhat from the back and the bottom of the system. A smaller 8-cell battery is also available and knocks $44 off the price.
The default Notebook Value Service Plan includes the bare minimum we'd consider an acceptable warranty: one year of parts and labor coverage. For a very reasonable $100, you can upgrade to four years of coverage that also includes next-business-day onsite support. Gateway offers 24/7 toll-free technical support during the warranty period, and the company's support Web site includes the expected driver downloads and FAQs, as well as the opportunity to send e-mail or chat live with a technician.
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)