Gateway P-6831FX User Review

by lewdvig Reads (128,544)

by Perry Longinotti

It seems like only yesterday that consumer notebooks were simply analogs of their corporate cousins. Think grey slabs of plastic with no personality. Those were sad times.

Something happened recently to change this. I don’t know if it was a resurgent Apple showing the big PC makers how to infuse some soul and character into their products or if it was the realization that there is no longer any way to differentiate against a competitor through specs alone. Maybe it was something else entirely. Whatever the reason, PC makers have discovered style.

HP and Dell, as leaders in this industry, have come out with some very impressive designs recently. Where only a short while ago you would have bought a notebook from either of these brands because of low cost, now you might buy one because its cool. Yeah, that’s right I said Dells are sexy (but only some models).

Gateway, the perennial market share follower in the PC industry is attempting to join the fray too. While HP and Dell can draw on the hot rod artists at VoodooPC and Alienware (boutique brands recently acquired) to develop cool computers, how do the Gateway folks manage? Surprisingly well as it turns out.

Today we’ll be taking a look at the Gateway P-Series FX Edition 6831. This is Gateways attempt at a full blown gaming rig that won’t destroy your bank balance.


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Specifications for the Gateway P-6831FX include:

  • Intel Core 2 Duo 5450 CPU 1.67 GHz
  • 3 GB DDR2 RAM
  • 250 GB HDD 5400 rpm
  • Nvidia GeForce 8800M GTS 512 MB GDDR3
  • 17" 1440×900 display
  • Windows Vista Home Premium

First Impressions

During a recent visit to my local Best Buy, I spotted a flashy looking desktop replacement notebook. It’s gloss black faux carbon fiber weave accented by copper paint and gratuitous brushed metal. I did a double take at the specs and the price; $1,350. Was it on sale? No, actually it wasn’t. I was looking for a sub-notebook, but somehow I talked myself into buying this. That sort of irrational leap is pretty common in my computer hobby; I never know which way the wind will blow me. When I see something with this much personality I have a hard time walking away.


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Taking it home and un-boxing it I could not help but notice the care taken to preserve the FX’s finish. It was packed in ample dense foam. In addition to the notebook, battery and charger Gateway saw fit to include a full manual and restore disk. Very few of the notebooks I have reviewed in the past two years have come with restore disks.


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Like the Gateway 8510GZ that I reviewed a couple of year ago, the FX weight feels more reasonable than the numbers would indicate. At about 9 pounds with power adapter, it is about 35% heavier than what most notebook users are accustomed to. A 17" chassis (16 by 12 inch desktop footprint) gives a PC maker a lot more room to work with and spread things out so the FX also feels thin despite being two inches thick. In short, this notebook is plenty portable. It would make a fantastic LAN party solution. Do people still have LAN parties?


The 17-inch Gateway P-6831FX and
7-inch Asus Eee PC. (view large image)

In the past I reviewed large form factor notebooks that tended to creak and groan under their own weight as I moved them around. The FX is solid. There is no noise whatsoever and no hint of chassis flex.

Gateway has produced a beautiful notebook whose materials, finish and construction do not match the reasonable price that they are charging. It might be too flashy for some, but this notebook is meant to be loud and wants to be noticed. Give Gateway points for fully committing to the concept even if it isn’t to everyone’s taste. The FX should appeal to gamers that require a degree of portability without having to sacrifice too much in terms of game play performance.

Hardware and Performance

It is not often that I get to describe a notebook’s Core 2 Duo notebook as a weak link. The T5450 is a Merom-based dual core chip with 2 MB of level two cache fabricated on Intel’s 65 nm process. The 1.67 GHz speed is a concern on a notebook designed for gaming, but it is generally easier to upgrade a CPU than a GPU in the majority of today’s notebooks. The T5450 uses a 667 MHz front side bus speed. This chip lacks Intel’s Virtualization and Trusted Execution features but I don’t know that the typical gamer will miss those features. Here are some quick numbers that should illustrate how the T5450 performs.


Windows Experience Index Score (view large image)

A SuperPi time of 1 minute 16 seconds won’t break any speed records.

Likewise a wPrime time of 50 seconds is pretty weak.

Not bad. This is not the fastest CPU out there, not even close, but it is an acceptable sacrifice that enables Gateway to fit better components elsewhere while still being affordable.

PCMark05

Out of the box

System Test Suite

4,598 PCMarks

HDD – XP Startup

8.08 MB/s

Physics and 3D

138.72 FPS

Transparent Windows

2122.83 Windows/s

3D – Pixel Shader

340.8 FPS

Web Page Rendering

1.47 Pages/s

File Decryption

45.07 MB/s

Graphics Memory – 64 Lines

1084.42 FPS

HDD – General Usage

4.69 MB/s

Multithreaded Test 1 / Audio Compression

1657.5 KB/s

Multithreaded Test 1 / Video Encoding

290.27 KB/s

Multithreaded Test 2 / Text Edit

92.06 Pages/s

Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Decompression

22.91 MPixels/s

Multithreaded Test 3 / File Compression

3.83 MB/s

Multithreaded Test 3 / File Encryption

20.63 MB/s

Multithreaded Test 3 / HDD – Virus Scan

21.79 MB/s

Multithreaded Test 3 / Memory Latency – Random 16 MB

7.78 MAccesses/s

The FX offers a Socket P CPU insuring an upgrade path for the future (if required). You will be able to install an Intel T7000, T8000 and T9000 series CPU to give the FX more muscle. The T8000 and T9000 are based on Intel’s Penryn core. Its advantages over Merom are increased level two cache (up to 6 MB), a smaller fabrication process (improved efficiency and less heat) and Intel’s new SSE4 multimedia instructions (better multimedia performance). This last feature will probably be the one of most interest to gamers and media buffs who might consider the FX for purchase. The new chips should offer a 10-20% improvement in everyday tasks and significant gains in SSE4 optimized programs.

It might be unrealistic to expect Intel’s Quad Core mobile processors to work in the FX but we will know for sure later this year (before May). The first generation of Quad Core mobile processors will be based on Penryn but there is uncertainty over whether or not they will be pin compatible with other Socket P CPUs so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

Memory is an unorthodox 3 GB configuration; a 2 GB and 1 GB SODIMM in tandem. This caused some concern on my part that the memory might not be running in dual channel mode. Not doing so would reduce overall performance. A quick check in CPUID allayed my fears – the FX is running dual channel at 667 MHz.


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At the heart of Intel’s Centrino family is the core logic chipset. In this case the 965 series (Crestdale – part of the Santa Rosa platform). A chipset is typical comprised of a North bridge (CPU, Memory, Video) and South bridge (I/O, Audio) and ties together all of a computer’s components. Intel realized early in the game that having most of the internal components come from one source, and designing them to work together, would give a company a big advantage. In each successive generation of Centrino Intel has managed to raise the bar. Competitive offerings have never really managed much of a threat to Intel’s mobile platform. From a technical standpoint, the 965 introduces support for shutting down a CPU core when it is not needed, a 800 MHz front side bus (vs. 400 and 533 previously) and brings a better integrated graphics processor (which is omitted in this case for the vastly superior Nvidia 8800M GTS).


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By far the most interesting component inside the FX is the Nvidia 8800M GTS and its accompanying 512 MB of GDDR3 RAM. More than any other component, it is the video sub system that will tell us just how future proof this notebook is. Often when a new technology like the mobile 8800 is released and you find an implementation of it at a price that seems too good to be true, it is because a cost cutting measure has been hidden in the spec. This is most often manifested by cheaper and slower video RAM. Would the FX, like so many notebooks before it, couple a great GPU with a lowly 64 bit memory path?

3DMark06

Out of the box

3DMark Score

6,882 3DMarks

SM 2.0 Score

3,201 Marks

SM 3.0 Score

3,402 Marks

CPU Score

1,418 Marks

1 – Return to Proxycon

26.344 FPS

2 – Firefly Forest

26.999 FPS

CPU1 – Red Valley

0.446 FPS

CPU2 – Red Valley

0.722 FPS

1 – Canyon Flight (SM 3.0)

33.02 FPS

2 – Deep Freeze (SM 3.0)

35.014 FPS

3DMark Score

7,000 3DMarks

SM 2.0 Score

3,243 Marks

SM 3.0 Score

3,434 Marks

CPU Score

1,463 Marks

1 – Return to Proxycon

26.776 FPS

2 – Firefly Forest

27.268 FPS

CPU1 – Red Valley

0.462 FPS

CPU2 – Red Valley

0.741 FPS

1 – Canyon Flight (SM 3.0)

33.288 FPS

2 – Deep Freeze (SM 3.0)

35.393 FPS

A quick 3DMark06 run using the FX’s less than optimal out of the box configuration returned a result of 6,882 points – installing the 169.28 ForceWare drivers I was able to squeeze a few more points out (7000). This initial score is respectable and corresponds to what I would expect from a 256 bit memory path. This score is nearly 50% faster than 8600M scores I have seen. At the moment Nvidia only offers one mobile GPU better than this one, it is the 8800M GTX with the only difference being the increased number of stream processors; 64 on the GTS and 96 on the GTX. In real world testing, you could expect to see the GTX perform about 20-25% faster.

Here is a quick chart showing the performance before and after optimizations (see the software section for details of what I mean by optimization). I used two of the more demanding and popular games (demo versions) and played through demos using FRAPS to record the performance.

Crysis Demo

 

Out of the box

 

Max

Avg

63

27.905

Optimized

 

Max

Avg

63

28.424

Crysis runs well at 1440×900 with no anti-aliasing (AA) and medium settings across the board. There is the occasional dip into the danger zone (lower than 24 FPS) but that did not bother me too much. Character models were amazing, but the environments were bland. Boosting some of the texture, model, shader and effect settings to high made a huge difference and I quickly realized what the fuss was about. But the FX really struggled to play the game at those settings (as most computers would).

Call of Duty 4

 

 

Out of the box

 

 

Min

Max

Avg

23

114

48.153

Optimized

 

 

Min

Max

Avg

17

15

46.396

Call of Duty 4 looked amazing. Settings were maxed out at 1440×900 and 4x AA. I actually found the overall visual experience in CoD4 superior to Crysis. Character models were almost as good and the environments looked better.


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In short, you should have little difficulty running any of the latest games on this notebook. Games from a year ago will run with everything maxed out. And games such as Half Life 2 or Oblivion that have user community created realism modifications where the original textures and geometry are enhanced, might be worth revisiting.

Video output is available via HDMI and VGA. HDMI output of 1080p video to an HDTV should allow you to enjoy World of Warcraft and Half Life 2 – both games that the Nvidia 8800M GTS should handle easily. HDCP is supported on the HDMI port for playback of protected content. With the current specification, high definition content is more likely to come in the form of downloads as there is no high definition optical media option on the FX and the drive is not easily replaced.

Screen

The 17" screen runs a 1440×900 pixel resolution. This is about the minimum tolerable resolution for a screen this big and probably does not offer enough room for productive video or photo editing. The benefit of the lower dots per inch is that the screen is easily read even by old eyes like mine. Brightness is excellent and contrast when reading text is great. On a pure black background and in a dark room, there is noticeable light bleed. Black never seems black enough. In a dark LAN Party environment this might be a distraction.


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Viewing angle is poor. The above scenes from Empire Strike Back exemplify the problem. You need to be relatively square to the FX in order to enjoy the screen.

Mounted in the LCD bezel is a 1.3 megapixel webcam. I tested it with the Gateway software utility (kind of useless) and Skype 3.6. It worked fine in both cases. Low light conditions produced a grainy image which is common for lower end webcams.

Storage

Storage is another area that sets the FX apart. The multi-DVD writer is nothing new, even with its LightScribe-like laser label etching feature. Where the FX is different is in the empty SATA drive bay that sits next to the 250 GB Western Digital 5400 rpm HDD. The installed WD 250 GB drive is partitioned with a 10 GB recovery area and about 220 GB free for the OS to use.

Intel’s Matrix storage driver can tie these drives together in a variety of RAID configurations but the FX uses an Intel ICH8M SATA controller. If I am reading the Specs right, we need the ICH8ME for RAID support. If I have time, I may attempt a clean install with a second drive present and see if I can configure RAID. Doing so might be a bit of a headache without a plain Vista install disk and setup utility. But there is no denying how fast I/O on this notebook would be using two fast drives in a RAID 0 configuration.

HD Tune result:

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Intel Matrix Storage Console:

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Heat

All this power comes at a cost, besides being larger and heavier the FX gets hotter and correspondingly louder. You will notice this most when playing games that tax the hardware. Heat is concentrated on the left side near the vent. Exhaust from this area can get pretty hot, and that might trouble a left handed gamer who likes to mouse southpaw style. Other than this one hot spot, the FX cooling system does a good job of keeping remaining area a comfortable temperature.

Battery

Gateway sells the FX with a feeble battery. Amusingly, when installed it protrudes from the back of the FX as if it were an extended battery. This battery lasted 1:21 running Battery Eater Pro before the 10% battery warning. I also managed to get 59 minutes (almost to the second) playing Crysis.


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Wireless

I was happy to see Intel’s 4965AGN wireless chip. That gives you lots of choice for connectivity. An GigE port is ready and waiting too if you should need it. Heck, there is even a modem port. Next to the WiFi mini-PCIe card is a vacant mini-PCIe slot for future use (WiMax perhaps). Although I can’t think of what I would install in there, it is good to have the option.


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Bluetooth 2.0 with enhanced data rate (EDR) is present for short distance wireless connections. This was smart thinking on Gateway’s part. Sure, you will be able to sync your PDA and phone to this laptop, but you will also be able to use BT keyboards, mice and game controllers. That should come in handy for anyone planning to connect this to an HDTV and use it as a Mediacenter or Game Console extraordinaire. Widcomm’s Bluetooth software stack provides great control over the hardware – it does a better job than the Windows driver.

Audio

Audio is Intel’s HD soft audio coupled with an IDT DAC capable of 16 bit audio at 96 kHz. Audio input and output are handled by a couple of side mounted jacks (3.5 mm). Speaker volume was good, and the quality was certainly acceptable for gaming. Digital (two channel) audio will be carried over HDMI. Lack of 5.1 output might penalize the FX in the eyes of media center fans.


Left side view. (view large image)

Right side view. (view large image)

 

Input/output ports on the FX are a bit sparse. In particular there are only three USB 2.0 ports. These are supplemented by a Firewire, PC Card slot and a Flash Memory reader (SD/MMC/MS and xD).

Keyboard

The keyboard was great. It feels like a good full sized PC keyboard which should be great news for touch typists. It has a few unusually shaped keys on the right hand side. The FX size also allows Gateway to include a full sized numeric keypad – great for gamers. Above the keyboard are a series of media buttons and touch sensitive volume adjustment. The Touchpad worked great too after turning off the cha-chas (scroll, tap zones, etc.).


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Software

Like most consumer notebooks the Gateway is plugged up with trial ware and ad ware. I still don’t know why companies continue to do this. Contrary to common sense people must be responding to it otherwise PC makers would not bother. Whoever you are, stop it.

There is no room on a gaming notebook for Net Zero and AOL trial offers – maybe an offer for low ping service from AT&T or Verizon would make sense. Everything else about this notebook hits the target, but these sorts of generic offers targeted at susceptible luddites are way off base. A preload of Valve’s Steam (HL2 and Portal), some tech demos or benchmarks and maybe a few exclusive demos would be OK if Gateway really feels the need to include software. This would make it easier to demo in store. A clean install of Vista with the latest drivers would be even better.

With 3 GB of RAM you would not expect to encounter any problems with memory. On starting the FX up I ran the task manager and watched the memory usage as the notebook sat idle. Over the course of 27 minutes its memory footprint went from an already high 970 MB to 1.23 GB.


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That is insane. Ten-minute file copies for text files (seriously), constant UAC interruptions and constant mysterious pauses are not appropriate on notebooks like the FX. It just serves to remind what a giant pile of disappointment Vista is. Microsoft, in honor of that reviled OS of yesteryear, should have named Vista XP ME instead. This OS is worthy of your contempt. I think Gateway needs to have custom install images created for this line with lots of the basic optimizations already done.

With the right mount of sweat equity you can get Vista to actually perform as you direct it. Following the Blackvipers Vista tweak guide (http://www.blackviper.com/WinVista/supertweaks.htm) I was able to achieve much better Windows performance and a reduced memory footprint of 700 MB right after reboot. I also installed the Nvidia Forceware 169.28 series driver. There was a barely perceptible improvement in Crysis and a decrease in Call of Duty 4 performance. Overclocking and some driver trial and error should squeeze another 10-15% out if you really want to push things.

Vista Home Premium’s inclusion of Media Center might come in handy for FX owners given the notebook’s HDMI port and HD ready video system. Install another HDD and you could lug quite a media library around with you … or stream it from another PC over 802.11n.

The remainder of the software, whether it’s the Norton trial or webcam utility, is uninspiring and will likely be uninstalled by the FX owner at the earliest convenience. A good 30 minutes of uninstalling awaits you.

Conclusion

Seeing this kind of performance from an attractive and upgradable $1,400 notebook should make the boutique notebook makers more than a little nervous. Especially considering that it can run cicles around many of last year’s SLI notebooks even with its lowly processor.

If this notebook was completely closed, with major components soldered on, at this price it would still be a good deal. But Gateway is offering so much more. The CPU is upgradable. Extra mini-PCIe and Hard Drive bays sit empty, waiting for you to fill them with some future goodness. And peering deep into the FX’s innards, I could faintly see another socket exactly where I expect the GPU to be – so there might be some pleasant surprises for the more adventurous hardware tweaker. In short, this is a notebook that should see even an avid gamer get two years of use from. Consider the rapid pace of game development and you will appreciate the compliment.

To underline the FX’s value proposition, a store bought custom PC with similar specs comes out to $100-150 less than this notebook.

At about $325, the new Intel T9300 Penryn CPU would bring the FX in line with much more expensive gaming notebooks from specialty manufacturers and makes the most sense as an upgrade. Why spend $200 on a small improvement when $300 will deliver a meaningful one? A T9300 should really allow the GPU to spread its wings. The FX is a good performer with plenty of untapped potential.

With the inclusion of a CPU upgrade, total price is about $1,700 (irrespective of sales, rebates and resale value of the T5450). Only an 8800 SLI configuration will offer a noticeably better gaming experience. Faster RAM (800 MHz) would also be a good idea. With RAM prices dropping it is better to postpone the RAM upgrade.

Everything else being equal, I will take a fast GPU over a fast CPU. This is especially true if the CPU is socketed. In this case both processors may be upgradable – although GPU upgrades tend to be iffy due to lack of available upgrade parts. Still, the FX offers a lot of room to grow and for that Gateway deserves credit.

Gateway’s standard one year warranty will likely be voided by many FX owners as they have fun modding their purchase. As long as they educate themselves a bit before they do so, these folks will be fine. Communities like www.notebookreview.com can help (there is already lots of discussion on this particular notebook).

Gateway’s FX is a really great value. If you are in the market for a portable gaming rig, you owe it to yourself to have a close look at the Gateway 6831FX. Notebook gaming at this high a level has never been so affordable. In knocking this home run out of the park, Gateway has completely stripped the skin off the ball.

Pros

  • Excellent specifications (great performance per dollar)
  • Very upgradable – access to components without a complete tear-down
  • Attractive and well-made
  • Highly targeted at the PC gamer (gets it mostly right)

Cons

  • Put aside some money for an eventual CPU upgrade
  • Poorly thought out disk image (too much bloatware)




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