by Perry Longinotti, Alberta Canada
Two years ago, the desktop replacement laptop was unleashed on an unsuspecting populace. Backs were broken, many small people were crushed underneath these massive machines, aircraft were grounded, and fire departments all over the world struggled to keep pace with the aftermath of these raging hot machines. Batteries lasted barely long enough to post the BIOS of these behemoth laptops. Like the roar of their mighty cooling fans, a concerned citizenry cried out for change. Faced with this crisis, PC manufacturers were slow to introduce portable computers that did not suffer from weight, battery, heat and noise issues.
But then there came a shining white knight from an Eastern land who at once pared down the weight of these unwieldy behemoths, calmed their raging breasts and silenced them for ever: his name was David Perlmutter. He and his merry band brought us the Pentium-M and related technologies and offshoots.
Centrino has been a raging success in all areas of the laptop spectrum, from small and light to big and powerful. We are now into the second generation of the Pentium-M (three if you count the recent bus speed increase to 533 MHz) and the second generation of the supporting chipset.
Fujitsu's Lifebook N3510 is the first laptop I have tested that features the freshly updated Centrino technologies. These technologies were formerly referred to by their internal codename; Sonoma.' Improvements include a faster system bus speed (533 MHz), dual-channel DDR2 (at 400 or 533 MHz), Serial ATA Hard Drives, PCI Express for discrete video or updated integrated graphics and a bit more. The upgrades are substantial and left a lot of us scratching our heads as to why Intel did not bundle them under the Centrino2 name.
Fujitsu offers three versions of the N3510; good, better and best. All three versions can be configured to some degree if ordered directly from Fujitsu. Our test model is the good' configuration.
Fujitsu Lifebook N3510 Review unit specs
This is a sharp-looking laptop. Fujitsu consistently produces machines that while conservative are never bland-looking. It has a nice dark grey finish and is made from some very solid feeling plastics. I usually like my laptops made from metal, but I could certainly live with the N3510. As good as the case looks; it is what is inside it that will really blow you away...
When I first lifted open the screen I was immediately struck by its brilliance and sheer quality. I see a lot of LCD screens but this one stands out as being particularly bright, color saturated and high contrast. At 1280*800 it is not the highest resolution, but it is comfortable for home use. Fujitsu refers to the N3510's screen technology as Color-Enhanced Crystal View Display. It promises the quality of a high quality CRT but with all the advantages of an LCD. Frankly, I think it looks better than any CRT I have ever seen (and I use a Sony G410 everyday -- one of the best CRTs). Perhaps the favorable first impression is enhanced by the excellent desktop image Fujitsu uses. It is a rich deep red and orange design that showcases what an exemplary screen this is. Give Fujitsu credit for figuring this out, as many laptop makers have not. It is kind of pointless to spec a great screen and then simply use the standard bland low resolution Windows XP desktop image.
One concern that I had was regarding the high gloss finish used to coat the screen. I think this coating helps accentuate the characteristics of the screen, but I was concerned that it might also interfere with work. I think the coating is fine for home use, where lights are generally not as intense. Under artificial light conditions like some offices, you might experience glare. Glare can cause headaches so keep this in mind. Given the intended use of this laptop, I think the pluses outweigh the minuses. This is a home computer after all.
The screen also has a very good viewing angle, so you do not have to be square to the screen in order to view it.
Process and General Performance
How do the new Centrino features impact the performance? In general, the increased bus speed, memory frequency and dual channel support should provide noticeable gains in memory intensive tasks -- video encoding or trans-coding, games and theoretical benchmarks.
Intel's updated Centrino platform is a key feature of this laptop and with all of the enhancements I was expecting a tangible performance difference. I was initially disappointed. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic. In general office tasks I did not notice an appreciable difference in performance between the N3510 and previous review laptops. If anything, I notice a performance drop between my personal machine with 1024 MB and the 512 MB equipped N3510. But the theoretical benchmarks indicated that the N3510 was faster and stressful applications like games and media put an exclamation mark on this point. There is no denying that the latest Centrino enhancements bring laptops even closer to the performance of the fastest desktop computers.
The Pentium-M continues to be the classiest processor available -- at least in the opinion of this reviewer. Why? Quite simply it beats all competitors through efficiency. The Pentium-M runs cool, consumes little power, and generally outperforms all but the very fastest of desktop processors despite an enormous clock speed disadvantage. The N3510 uses the latest wave of Pentium-M at 1.73 GHz with 533 MHz bus, tied to dual channel DDR2 RAM operating at the same effective speed. This means that there is no bottleneck between the CPU and RAM.
Memory / RAM
Fujitsu has configured the N3510 with 512 MB of RAM. As mentioned earlier, this laptop benefits from a dual channel memory controller. This means that there is as much as double the memory bandwidth. In order for dual channel memory mode to work, both slots need to be filled with matched RAM modules. In this case we have a pair of 256 MB modules of DDR2 operating at 400 MHz. This is a step up from the previous version of Centrino whose ram operated at 333 MHz, but not quite the maximum supported speed of 533 MHz. I am not sure how closely matched memory modules will need to be in order to function reliably. I have not seen dual channel memory kits available for laptops yet, but I am sure that it is just a matter of time. I can say that the 1 GB DDR 533 So-Dimms that I have seen are reasonably priced ($182 CDN).
Hard Drive and Storage
Serial ATA in laptops will not provide a drive performance boost, but it will conserve a bit more energy (according to the SATA specifications) and the interface will take up less space. In order to really use the 150 MB of bandwidth that SATA offers, laptop hard drives will have to get a lot faster -- the thought of 12,000-RPM laptop drives is pretty cool. SATA in a current laptop means you should be able to upgrade in a few years when IDE is just a memory.
One of the ways that Fujitsu differentiates the N3510 series is by the storage volume. In our test unit storage duties are handled by a 60 GB hard drive with a 4200-rpm rotation speed. A 5400-rpm model is also available. The middle and top models come with 80 or 100 GB Hard Drives respectively, but they also feature the slower 4200-rpm rotational speed. I actually prefer a smaller faster drive; external storage is very inexpensive right now.
Our review unit did not include a DVD-R drive, and that is unfortunate. Even though this is the base configuration I would have liked to see a DVD burner, which is increasingly perceived as a baseline feature on mid-range laptops. The included Combo drive worked fine, but it isn't something that I can get excited about. For $100, the Dual Layer Multi-Format DVD Writer represents a good Build to Order option.
I was not brave enough to open the machine up and determine whether the Combo drive is SATA -- probably not as SATA optical drives have only recently started shipping for desktops.
PCI Express as a high bandwidth video interface is interesting when looking at the new generation of inexpensive laptop video chips that use both dedicated memory and system memory ATI calls this Hypermemory and NVIDIA calls it Turbo Cache (the extra bandwidth may help as the video subsystem shuttles textures around).
Thankfully Fujitsu outfitted the N3510 with proper dedicated video RAM, none of that nasty shared stuff here. For the RADEON x300, with its 64 MB of dedicated memory, PCI Express will not have a beneficial performance impact. I was a little concerned when I saw an X300 listed in the N3510 specs as I felt that a laptop of this type calls for a beefy video subsystem. After all, with a screen like this it is hard to imagine people not wanting to play games and the X300 is at the bottom of the updated ATI mobility lineup.
We should see the X300 turning up in laptops that would have probably shipped with the RADEON 9200 before the PCI Express era. The X300 is a competent chip from a marketing perspective; it has all the bullet points one looks for in a video chip. It offers Microsoft DirectX 9.0 support, Pixel and Vertex Shaders, 4 rendering & 2 vertex engines, full precision floating point, and low power operation. Basically this all means that the X300 will render new games the way the developers intended -- with all the effects intact.
So, while a faster video chip would have been preferable, I can understand selecting a slower part to make a price point. Having 64 megabytes of dedicated video RAM was a nice touch. I did some research and seems that the X300 uses 64 bit DDR RAM (as opposed to 128 or even 256 bit memory on high performance video cards).
So is the N3510 any good at playing games? Performance was quite good considering the X300's place in ATI's lineup. The N3510 certainly does not feel like an entry-level machine when playing Half Life 2 (HL2). HL2 is a great game to use as a reference as it has better graphics, audio, artificial intelligence and physics than any other game, but scales wonderfully on a wide range of hardware. This is a highly optimized game and sets that bar for what you should expect from developers. There is no excuse for an inferior game to run poorly on a machine that can run HL2 well.
The game loads quickly -- that is impressive in and of itself -- and the opening screen, once the settings have been adjusted to an appropriate resolution and aspect ratio, is still as stunning as it was when the game first came out. Frame rates were not a problem at default detail settings and the N3510's native 1280*800 resolution. You might see some choppiness in the Route Canal level, but this is simply a function of the game's complexity. I played through HL2 on a Centrino with an NVIDIA GeForce FX 5200 Go and was quite happy (forgoing my much more powerful desktop). The X300 absolutely obliterates the GeForce FX 5200 Go. I had to play HL2 at the low 800*600 resolution on my personal machine and there was still some stuttering on the more intense levels. HL2 on the N3510 is pretty enough to impress anyone.
On a side note, let me just say that it is nice to see consumer level laptops playing games as well as the N3510 does. I am sure game developers like to see this too. We really are beginning to enter the post-desktop era. Who wants a big, power-hungry and noisy tower when you can carry everything around with you?
We use Super Pi to get a benchmark of processor speed. The Super Pi program simply forces the processor to calculate Pi to a selected number of digits of accuracy. Calculating to 2 million digits is our benchmark:
Comparison of notebooks using Super Pi to calculate Pi to 2 million digits (plugged in):
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 45s|
|IBM ThinkPad T41 (1.6GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 23s|
|Compaq R3000T (Celeron 2.8GHz)||3m 3s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|Dell Inspiron 8600 (1.7GHz Banias Pentium M)||2m 28s|
Benchmarks for Fujitsu N3510 compared to the IBM ThinkPad T43 (both have X300 64MB Graphics Card)
|Futuremark PCMark04 Scores|
|IBM T43 (1.86GHz)||Fujitsu N3510 (1.73 GHz)|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression||3.33 MB/s||3.24 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption||27.19 MB/s||25.58 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression||23.4 MB/s||22.72 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing||10.88 MPixels/s||10.03 MPixels/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning||1914.17 MB/s||1752.97 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check||2.82 KB/s||2.8 KB/s|
|File Decryption||54.11 MB/s||51.45 MB/s|
|Audio Conversion||2496.87 KB/s||2346.96 KB/s|
|Web Page Rendering||5.27 Pages/s||5.25 Pages/s|
|DivX Video Compression||51.71 FPS||46.08 FPS|
|Physics Calculation and 3D||159.19 FPS||168.02 FPS|
|Graphics Memory - 64 Lines||868.44 FPS||1486.18 FPS|
|Futuremark 3DMark05 Scores|
|3DMark Score||727 3DMarks||721 3D Marks|
|CPU Score||3414 CPUMarks||3242 CPUMarks|
|GT1 - Return To Proxycon||3.3 FPS||3.7 FPS|
|GT2 - Firefly Forest||2.2 FPS||1.8 FPS|
|GT3 - Canyon Flight||3.4 FPS||3.5 FPS|
|CPU Test 1||1.18 FPS||1.6 FPS|
|CPU Test 2||2.9 FPS||2.9 FPS|
The top of range N3510 includes a TV tuner (it is also available as a $300 build to order option). Believe it or not this is a great feature for widescreen laptops. Although our test unit did not include this feature, I did watch several movies on it. Video playback on the N3510 is a real treat. This may be a result of a feature in the ATI X300 called Fullstream, defined by ATI as, hardware accelerated video de-blocking for enhanced Internet streaming video quality,' and Optimized support for wide-aspect LCD panels and HDTV output.' A lot of the video that I used for testing was DivX encoded HD television shows, and they looked and played great.
Sound and Audio
Centrino now includes Intel's High Definition Audio specification. This replaces AC/97, which was getting very long in the tooth. It is essentially a competent soft audio solution coupled with a good quality multi-channel codec. During testing I did not notice an appreciable difference in audio quality between this any other laptops that I have tested. The specification also promises power saving features that AC/97 lacked, but I wasn't able to verify their effectiveness.
High Definition Audio also includes a 3-D headphone enhancement from Dolby which the N3510 includes. The idea is that you will experience a simulated surround sound experience through regular stereo headphones. In order to experience this feature you need to be playing media through the provided Intervideo WinDVD application. These types of virtualization enhancements have been around for a while from companies like QSound Labs and Sensuara/Creative Labs. It is a nice feature but it only works if you use WinDVD. If the enhancement was universal (i.e. enhancing all audio regardless of player or format) than it would be quite nice.
A media laptop needs a good audio output and in my opinion the N3510's speakers do not disappoint. These are good laptop speakers -- emphasis on the word laptop.' There are no brands or logos associated them, but the speakers are loud and crisp. How is bass? Decent bass from such small speakers is very rare. You can only do so much with the space afforded by a laptop form-factor and as a result bass response usually suffers, the N3510 is no exception. I don't consider this a fault though.
Wireless and Connectivity
Intel's 802.11BG solution works great. Configuration was quick and painless with Windows XP SP2. Microsoft's enhanced wireless configuration software works great and Fujitsu has stayed away from bundling software that clutters or obfuscates wireless setup. I found the range acceptable. There is no Bluetooth, but I am not sure that this is a feature home users really want or need.
A Built-in multinational 56K V.90 modem, and 10/100 Ethernet are provided for you old-fashioned types that still dig wires.
Expansion slots and ports
PCI Express is most frequently thought of as a video feature, but it also enhances other input/output devices such as the aging PC Card, the new version of which is called ExpressCard. There is not much on the market right now that takes advantage of this technology, but it is very promising. In the meantime you can still use all of your PC Cards in the supplied PC Card slot. Because the N3510 supports both 32mm and 54mm ExpressCard formats the slot looks identical to the standard PC Card slot.
Many laptops now include media card readers. Fujitsu offers a 2 in 1 solution: Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro (essentially the same thing) and SD Card. It would have been easy to add support for MMC but sadly that is not listed. Most puzzling is lack of Compact Flash support as there are still a ton of these cards around. Other ports and slots include four USB 2.0 ports, a single 4-pin Firewire port, S-Video out, and VGA (DVI would have been a better choice given the N3510's capabilities).
Ergonomics and Weight
Fujitsu Lifeboook N3510 compared to the Fujitsu Lifebook P7010 ultraportable (notice the brighter and whiter screen on the N3510 too)
I joked earlier in this article about the horrible weight, battery life, heat and noise issues that afflicted early desktop replacement laptops. The N3510 is no lightweight, but at 7.5 pounds, it is pleasantly portable compared to its ancestors. And its power brick is not of the Super Size variety -- it won't add much weight to the total package when lugging the N3510 around.
Battery life is also pretty good for the class of laptop. The advertised 3 hours is close to the mark. Depending on use you should comfortably get 2 --2.5 hours. This laptop is not really designed for extended periods away from a power source so this is acceptable.
Heat output is tolerable. When running on batteries it never gets past warm, but when plugged in it can start to get noticeably hot. Like many current laptops, actually using this on your lap can get uncomfortable. This was surprising, as I have tested laptops that were only marginally slower that were much cooler. I would think that the N3510's cooling system should keep temps down given the ample room for fans and heat pipes.
Keyboard and Input
N3510 keyboard and interior
If you have read my reviews in the past, you know that I am picky when it comes to keyboards. The wide-screen design of this laptop affords it lots of space for a spacious keyboard. Anyone with big hands will love this laptop. The keyboard feels great when typing.
The N3510 also offers four user definable quick launch buttons and a nice simple control panel to configure them with. You can quickly switch between using the buttons to launch applications or control your media player by pressing the Mode' button. Volume controls are also conveniently situated and there is a nice on-screen display of volume adjustments.
In my opinion, the N3510 represents a new breed of desktop replacement laptops where the balance between size and features is nearly perfect. There are compromises here, but they are worth it considering the features that you get. The N3510 is solid, but by no means heavy for its size. It brings the latest Centrino platform enhancements (Sonoma) to the table for excellent performance. Battery life is good for a desktop replacement and heat and noise are about what you would expect. The screen is gorgeous and I can see people wanting to watch a lot of media on the N3510,
The price is right too. I priced out a comparable Dell Inspiron 6000 and it was $100 more expensive than the Fujitsu. I could not find an HP that compared very well to the N3510. If everything else were equal, I would still recommend the N3510 based on its looks. While Dell has made progress in improving the visual appeal of their computers, I still prefer the Fujitsu. But this is down to personal preference.
It isn't perfect. I would suggest that Fujitsu change the N3510's OS to Windows XP Media Center Edition for units with the TV Tuner option. Providing 5400-rpm Hard Drives across the board would be wise, and rather than having a combo drive, why not make a slower single layer DVD-R standard?
Overall, I found the Fujitsu N3510 to be a handsome, solidly constructed Centrino-based laptop that fully exploits Intel's latest mobile technologies and which happens to posses a knockout of a screen. The Fujitsu N3510 is an easy system to recommend if you are in the market for this kind of laptop. It is not so common as to be mundane, yet offers good performance and features at its price.
Pricing and Availability
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