Readers of our quarterly PC survey know we have a thing for $1,000 computers (or other products, for that matter; we didn't start reviewing color laser printers until they fell below the $1,000 psychological barrier for homes and small offices). So when Gateway introduced its M305 entry-level laptop a few weeks ago, we asked for a review loan of the $1,000 model M305X a 2.2GHz Celeron notebook with a non-skimpy 15.0-inch screen, 256MB of memory, 40GB hard disk, and DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive for fifty twenties sounded like a fine budget or back-to-school deal.
Now we've finished our review, but Gateway's spoiled our intro the M305X doesn't hit the magic number anymore. It's dropped to $900. You can add the latest high-speed wireless networking with an 802.11g PC Card adapter and still keep it to $960.
To be sure, that won't get you a fancy DVD burner or wide-aspect-ratio display, or for that matter a sleek, svelte design the M305X is about as plain and generic-looking a black slab as you'll ever see, and its 6.1-pound weight isn't burdensome, but isn't in the convenient, slimline class, either. (The AC adapter adds a pound.)
But the Gateway doesn't feel like a low-rent laptop. It posts good performance numbers (apart from the common caveat of office- rather than game-oriented graphics), has a first-class keyboard, and delivered an honest two hours' battery life even in our hard-disk-hammering "reinstall Windows and all the software" test.
There's one thing that knocks one star off the M305X's rating: Our test unit was noticeably noisy, with a cooling fan that seemed to kick in whenever the system wasn't idle audible from across the room, and liable to get glares from seatmates on an airplane. But if you're looking for a low-priced, full-featured portable for home or dorm use, the Gateway is a great value.
The Middle of the Pack
In Gateway tradition, there are other M305 models above and below the M305X. While we usually crave the fastest and fanciest, we'd stick with our test unit instead of the upsell M305XL configuration. The latter charges an extra $300 for a 2.2GHz Pentium 4-M instead of a 2.2GHz mobile Celeron CPU yeah, the Celeron has a humble 400MHz front-side bus and 256K of Level 2 cache, but it's more than powerful enough for everyday productivity applications.
Oddly, the bottom-of-the-line M305CS is the only version available with integrated (Mini PCI) wireless networking instead of a PC Card, but we'd vote against it, too its frugal $800 price includes only 128MB of memory, a 30GB hard disk, and a CD-ROM drive.
Also odd is that Gateway's Web site won't let you configure an M305X with more than the standard 256MB of DDR266, though unscrewing a panel on the bottom reveals that only one of two SODIMM sockets is occupied. The Intel 852GM chipset supports up to 1GB.
A Traveling Workhorse
The combination of the Celeron/2.2 processor and Hitachi Travelstar 40GB hard disk (a 4,200-rpm economy model with 2MB buffer) didn't set any speed records, but the Gateway still offered perky performance in our BAPco SysMark 2002 benchmark at 159, with an Internet Content Creation rating of 225 and Office Productivity ditto of 113, it's in the ballpark with 1.6GHz Pentium M and even 2.0GHz Pentium 4 systems we've sampled. FutureMark's PCMark 2002 scored it at 5,264 for CPU, 3,739 for memory, and 442 for the hard disk.
On the minus side, the 852GM chipset's integrated graphics are nothing to write home about or to play games on, with a leisurely 24 frames per second in good old Quake III Arena in 1,024 by 768 High Quality mode. The M305X managed only one of the four game simulations in FutureMark's 3DMark03 en route to a shamefaced score of 63.
Similarly, Gateway concedes that the laptop's 15.0-inch diagonal, 1,024 by 768-pixel LCD offers only 18-bit rather than 24- or 32-bit color, but since you're not likely to choose the M305X for professional photo retouching, you probably won't mind settling for a palette of some 262,000 rather than 16 million or more colors.
The display is crisp and easy on the eyes (especially compared to the 14.1-inch or smaller screens of most bargain notebooks), though we spotted a single bad pixel that made a white speck in dark backgrounds. Pressing the keyboard's Fn key along with the up and down arrows moves through four screen-brightness settings; we found the top two adequate but the bottom two a bit dim.
The LiteOn 24/10/24X CD-RW and 8X DVD-ROM combination drive is on the right side, with what might be a floppy-disk-drive bay on the left holding instead a pair of slots for digital-camera and PDA memory cards. You'll also find one PC Card slot (able to accommodate either a Type II or thicker Type III card), two USB 2.0 ports, and microphone and headphone jacks on the left side, with 56Kbps modem, 10/100Mbps Ethernet, parallel, and VGA ports at the rear. The notebook overall measures 10.6 by 13.2 by 1.3 inches.
The keyboard offers dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys in the rightmost column, along with launch buttons for Outlook Express, Internet Explorer, a Gateway help screen, and My Computer next to the power button. It has a flat but comfortable typing feel, and the touchpad with a scroll-wheel rocker switch between the left and right mouse buttons works smoothly.
Along with Windows XP Home Edition, the M305X comes with Microsoft Works 7.0, InterVideo's WinDVD 4, and the trial version of Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2003, as well as Gateway's Rhapsody music service. (Gateway announced today that its consumer PCs would come with the new Napster 2.0 software and 150 songs Ed.)
The last two times we reviewed a Gateway notebook, we said the 450XL was a generic-looking slab, then remarked on the stylish design of the 200XL. Clearly, the Puritans have regained control of Gateway's portable division; the M305X couldn't look any plainer if it was white with a big bar code on it.
That said, it's a safe bet that nobody will guess its $900 cost if Bob Barker showed it to us on "The Price Is Right," we'd probably say something like, "Hmmm, maybe $1,500, but vendors are aggressively going after sales nowadays, so let's say $1,200?" We've picked two nits a noisy fan and one bad pixel but otherwise we're stumped for bad things to say about this bargain.
Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.