Sager NP9261 Quad Core Notebook Review

by Reads (69,559)

by Sinan Karaca

The Clevo D901C is the world’s first quad core laptop. It is based on a desktop chipset in a laptop form factor and features processing power, storage capacity, and cutting-edge graphics not available before. It is an update of the earlier D900C model which is very similar and based on the same chipset, but lacked the power plant to supply enough juice for the quad core processor.


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The test unit specifications are as follows:

  • Windows Server 2003 Enterprise (self-installed)
  • Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 (2.66GHz, 8MBL2, 1066MHz FSB)
  • 17-inch WUXGA display
  • Dual nVIDIA GeForce 8700M-GT in SLI mode (512MB each)
  • Triple 200GB 7200RPM Hitachi hard drives in RAID 0 performance mode
  • 4GB DDR2-800MHz
  • Intel Wireless 4965AGN
  • 8X DVD Dual Layer Burner
  • 12-cell integrated UPS


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Reasons for Buying

I have always enjoyed working with Sager because of the personalized service and the rapid turnaround. I also find that Sager offers better prices compared to other similarly configured systems. I was very much undecided between getting the Sager or the new Dell XPS M1730 with SSDs, but when Dell called me and told me that they couldn’t ship my order until 3rd of February 2008, the keeper was clear.

It did take a while for Sager to ship me this unit as well – which is atypical given their historical performance – but they attributed this to some last minute testing on the graphics rig. Apparently there were some driver issues with the nVIDIA cards running under 64-bit Vista, which were resolved in about a week and then I finally received my unit.

Build & Design

While Sager units may never win beauty contests, and this unit is not an exception, I have to admit that their design has come a long way. The laptop would not be an eye-catcher but it does have a nice black design, instead of Sager’s previous "industry gray" colors.


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The machine is quite heavy and large, it weighs in at 11.55 pounds and is more than two inches thick. The build quality does leave a little bit to be desired – this is basically plastic and iron, don’t expect to see any advanced composite materials here. The case does have a little bit of flex and the display latches are a little on the brittle side. Over time I have learned that the most vulnerable part of a Sager notebook are its latches – which can snap easily if one is not careful. I always close and open the lid with both hands to make sure nothing breaks.

Display

The 17-inch glossy 1920×1200 pixel display is wonderful, in fact I have always thought that Sager has the best screens. There is no light leakage, color reproduction is perfect, and view angles are superb. You can look from any direction you like and the picture is crystal clear.

There were unfortunately two dead pixels on the screen, which is unusual for Sager systems. I guess I was bound to get unlucky at some point – this is the first time for me a Sager laptop has had any dead pixels in it at all. Sager does offer a zero dead-pixel guarantee, so if you want to make sure your unit is free of dead pixels, be sure to take advantage of it!

Speakers

The unit has four speakers for surround sound effect – two on each side of the keyboard and two in the front of the laptop. There is no subwoofer available – I guess most manufacturers have stopped putting them in these days, as the net effect they have on sound quality is negligible. The four speakers do a great job of reproducing sound across all levels of the spectrum; high and low notes are accurately reproduced. Having four speakers does help boost music power and adds a nice surround touch.

There are four sound jacks in front of the unit between the two speakers. I like how these can be custom-configured based on the kind of jack you plug-in. Ever plugged in external speakers to a headphone jack, because your laptop didn’t have a line-out? You probably cringed at the crappy sound coming out of your speakers. Well worry no more. This system detects each insertion and allows you to customize each of the available slots for a particular kind of input/output. This lets you re-use the same jack for multiple purposes, and does wonders for sound quality. You’ll have good music coming out of your speakers now, and still keep headphone support.

Heat & Noise

This Sager is actually unusually quiet, compared to any other Sager I’ve seen (except its cousin, the D900C). Unless the fans have been kicked on full-blast using the Fn+1 key combination, the laptop is always quiet. Even when the CPU is fully utilized, the fans aren’t too loud, and they turn off very promptly as soon as the system cools down. This is a great thing actually, because I have worked with many laptops in the past which remain quiet until the fan kicks in for the first time, and then never goes off, even if the laptop idles for hours afterwords.


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Keyboard & Touchpad


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The palmrest is comfortable at all times – without excessive heating or other problems (although the touch pad can get a little warm from time to time). There is a full numeric keypad on the keyboard which is a must-have for 17" systems in my opinion, and the keys have no flex. There are a few extra programmable keys – called "gaming buttons" – these can essentially be used to launch custom applications inside Windows.

 

Input & Output Ports

The system offers an ample offering of ports. DVI and power ports are both available at the back, 4 USB ports are on the right side, 4 audio jacks are in the front, and CRT, LAN, modem and Express Card slots are on the left side.

Left side view


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Right side view

 


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Back side view


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Wireless & Bluetooth

To its credit, even though the unit probably won’t be moved around too much, the wireless and Bluetooth work very well, and their range is excellent. Having the latest "N" wireless technology helps, as I can connect to stations with the Sager that I don’t even get to see with the other laptops that are sitting on the same desk!

Battery Life & Power Adapter

What? Battery? That’s just a 30 minute UPS, silly! The power adapter is also massive, and probably weighs more than some ultra-portables out there.

Performance Analysis

4: The most exciting thing about this laptop is its quad core processor. It’s the only laptop to feature a quad core processor. Intel doesn’t currently ship a mobile quad core processor (this will be available in 2008), but Sager nonetheless crammed in a full desktop chipset into this beast and brings us the first truly portable – if not light and durable – quad core laptop.

3: Also equally exciting, and again a feature available only with Sager laptops for now, is the three hard drive capacity of the laptop. While dual hard drive laptops have been available for quite some time, and some even offer RAID, Sager is the first to market with three hard drives. Together with the options of RAID0 (performance), RAID1 (security), and RAID5 (a blend of performance and security), this does wonders for hard disk performance.

2: Last but not least, dual video cards complement the offering. The total memory available in this SLI system is 1GB, being powered by two nVIDIA DirectX 10 mobile graphics parts each with 512MB discrete graphics memory. This enables very high frame rates in games which are able to benefit from SLI technology – while not all, most games actually work very well with nVIDIA’s scalable link interface.

I call this laptop a 4-3-2 pleaser because of its unique combination of multiple cores, hard drives, and graphics cards!

Windows Experience Index

The system originally arrived pre-installed with Windows Vista, and on all counts the system scored 5.9, which is the maximum available score; with the exception of memory, which scored 5.5. Vista likes this machine!

However, I must say that one of the first things I did was to remove Vista. I have often thought of starting a blog called "vistagripeoftheday.com" because at least twice every week, like clockwork, my Vista Tablet PC gives me a headache. My preferred operating system is still Server 2003 – which is Windows NT 5.2 (XP is Windows NT 5.1, so 2003 is as new as it gets without going Vista, which is Windows NT 6.0). Server 2003 also has other advantages, such as:

  • An advanced disk cache which is not available with Windows XP
  • A newer kernel and more streamlined performance
  • Full workstation capabilities once the server features are turned off
  • Ability to support a full 4GB of memory with a 32bit operating system


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Yes, you read that last one right – on Server 2003, 32-bit edition, you get to see and use all of your 4GB memory. I know, I know…the web is full of literature saying why a 32bit O/S cannot use all of its 4GB memory. Well go figure…I really have 4GB of memory on this thing in 32bit mode, as evidenced by the Task Manager, and it really works just great! I don’t need to worry about application/driver compatibility or anything else like that.

So mainly for performance and reliability reasons, I always stick to Server 2003 – and it makes one mean gaming machine, as you will see from the benchmarks below.

PCMark05

The system scored very well in PCMark05 results. Results could have been better however – we can only conclude that PCMark05 does not fully exercise multi-processor capabilities. That makes sense since back in 2005 the multi-core revolution hadn’t started yet – those were the painful and hot Pentium 4 days with hyperthreading – a fake kind of multi-processing which often lowered performance!

Notebook PCMark05 Score
Sager NP9261 (Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 2.66GHz, Dual Nvidia 8700M-GT 512MB) 7,369 PCMarks
Dell XPS M1730 (Core 2 Extreme X7900 2.8GHz, Dual Nvidia 8700M-GT 512MB) 7,148 PCMarks
Sager NP9260 (2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E6700, 2x Nvidia GeForce Go 7950GTX video cards with 512MB DDR3) 6,871 PCMarks
Alienware m5790 (1.83 GHz Core 2 Duo, ATI X1800 256MB) 4,411 PCMarks
Fujtisu Siemens Amilo Xi1554 Review (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo, ATI X1900, Windows XP) 5,066 PCMarks
Fujitsu LifeBook N6420 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo, ATI X1600) 4,621 PCMarks
Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400) 3,637 PCMarks
Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400) 3,646 PCMarks
Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX) 5,597 PCMarks

Processor Performance (the "4")

For accurate sampling, I used both wPrime and SuperPI in the tests.

SuperPI utilizes a single processor core, just like the majority of software applications out there today, which have not yet been re-written to distribute workload across all the cores available on a system. As you can see, the quad-core D901C’s SuperPI score is actually lower than its higher-clocked dual-core D900C cousin. This is because when only a single core is used, 2.93GHz is better than 2.66GHz, even though 10.64GHz would be faster than 5.86GHz if all core speeds were individually added up. Of course, the SuperPI score, though not record-setting, is still extremely impressive.

SuperPi Comparison Results

Notebook Time
Sager NP9261 (2.66GHz Core 2 Quad Q6700) 46s
Sager NP9260 (2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E6700) 46s
MSI M677 (1.8 GHz Turion X2) 1m 53s
Fujitsu LifeBook N6420 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo) 1m 02s
LG S1 (2.16 GHz Core Duo) 1m 11s
Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 16s
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Toshiba Satellite M100 (2.00GHz Core Duo) 1m 18s
Samsung X60 (1.66GHz Core Duo) 1m 29s
Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M) 1m 53s

Looking at wPrime, however, we see the D901C smokes away all the competition. Yes, this is a record-setting result, at least for the laptop world. wPrime does use all available processor cores at once, and so there is no laptop that can challenge Sager’s wPrime scores today, simply because of its quad core processor.

Notebook / CPU wPrime 32M time
Sager NP9261 (Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 2.66GHz) 19.453 sec
Dell XPS M1730 (Core 2 Extreme X7900 2.8GHz) 29.477s
Sony VAIO NR (Core 2 Duo T5250 @ 1.5GHz) 58.233s
Toshiba Tecra A9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 38.343s
Toshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.299s
HP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 40.965s
Sony VAIO TZ (Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz) 76.240s
Zepto 6024W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz) 42.385s
Lenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz) 37.705s
Alienware M5750 (Core 2 Duo T7600 @ 2.33GHz) 38.327s
Samsung Q70 (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz) 42.218s
Acer Travelmate 8204WLMi (Core Duo T2500 @ 2.0GHz) 42.947s
Samsung R20 (Core Duo T2250 @ 1.73GHz) 47.563s
Dell Inspiron 2650 (Pentium 4 Mobile 1.6GHz) 231.714s

What this means for "real world" usage is that the Sager unit is unbeatably fast for new applications and still very fast for old applications. When using older applications, just to make sure you’re maxing out your CPU, start 3 or 4 of them on lengthy operations at once. This way you’ll be keeping each core busy and getting things done 4 times as fast without any system degradation!

Rendering Performance


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The Cinebench results clearly indicate the gains experienced from using the quad core processor. Again, you could find a laptop with faster single core results, due to sheer GHz speed; but the quad core performance is outstanding and record-setting. Cinebench itself measures multi-core performance gains and reports the quad core speed increase to be 3.43x better than a single-core (and nearly twice better than a dual core).

Hard Drive Performance (the "3")

I originally ordered the system with 3 160GB 7200rpm SATA300 hard drives. Sager recommends these over the 200GB 7200rpm SATA150 drives, because of the increased bandwidth (SATA300 vs. SATA150) and how it actually has a meaningful impact on systems with RAID configuration. Unfortunately, one of the hard drives failed right after I received the system, which Sager promptly replaced to their credit. Alas, about a week later while I was preparing the benchmarks for this review, it looked like another hard drive was about to break down.

This time I decided to go for capacity instead and placed a new order for 3 200GB 7200 rpm SATA150 hard drives, just in case I did experience a breakdown. The breakdown regretfully did happen two days later, but not before my NewEgg.com disks arrived in perfect timing! While the SATA150 interface does become a little bit of a handicap in a RAID setup, due to the reduced bandwidth; the difference is not extreme – only about 10mb/sec, which I can live with. And while it’s unfortunate that I got a brand new system with two lemon disks in it, Sager was at least prompt about replacing one (and I still need to talk to them about the other). This has never happened before with them and I can only assume I just had bad luck this time round, with the bad pixels and everything.

With the working disks in place, the hard drive results are absolutely mind-blowing. Just take a look at the HDTune results and see for yourself. Keep in mind that this review unit is not equipped with solid state drives (link to SSD performance analysis article)! These amazing results are due to the fact that Sager has fitted 3 hard drives – and not just 2 – inside the casing; whereas most other RAID laptops fit only 2 hard drives. A RAID0 array with 2 hard drives is good, nearly doubling the performance compared to a single hard drive; a RAID0 array with 3 hard drives is better, nearly tripling performance!

The first HDTune chart gives us something we’ve never seen before (and probably never will see) with mechanical hard disks, the performance graph is actually going UP – yes up, not down – instead of deteriorating over time, unlike what mechanical hard disks normally do. This is completely owing to the RAID0 with the 3 hard disks, a similar RAID0 array with 2 hard disks still deteriorates over time. This HDTune chart also beats most solid state disks – due to the sheer power of the RAID stripe being distributed across 3 disks. Sager’s RAID0 array coupled with 3 ordinary disks brings you solid state disk performance without the cost.


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The Intel driver for the RAID array also offers a built-in write cache option. With the write cache enabled, the performance simply sky-rocketed out of this world. While the graph now assumed typical mechanical disk characteristics (i.e. deteriorates over time as expected), even the lowest speed is still extremely fast, and above both solid state disk performance and the performance of the RAID0 array without the cache. This makes enabling the cache the natural choice; since this laptop has a "UPS" losing power is not an issue and the cache is safe to use.

I cannot imagine what this RAID0 array would do if I could connect three solid state disks to it, instead of mechanical drives. As soon as the Mtron 64GB solid states are available, I’ll try it out and be sure to let you know! Until then, I’ll enjoy my 600GB of legroom.

I should note that I did not test either of the RAID5 or RAID1 modes, because these would not provide performance gains on par with the RAID0 mode. RAID0 can of course be risky, because if one drive fails, all our data is lost. RAID1 is the other extreme where all data is mirrored on all drives, so you could suffer two drive failures and still retain your data. However, that doesn’t make as much sense when you can connect three drives – you’re really wasting some space there. RAID5 actually offers a good tradeoff between performance and reliability, the failure of one drive does not destroy the whole array, and there is still some performance benefit. It’s worth it to mention that the Sager is the only notebook offering a RAID5 option, which as its pre-requisite has three drives anyways, so you can see why no other notebook can offer it at this time.

Gaming Performance (the "2")

Another record setter is found in this category. The Sager exceeds 10,000 in the 3D Mark 06 scores! I ran benchmarks using the latest nVIDIA drivers – version 169.04 from laptopvideo2go.com. The ones that shipped with the system were junk, and never crossed 7k in 3D Mark 06 scores, for some reason (like I said, I haven’t been lucky with this system out of the box). I also installed nVIDIA’s overclocking tool (insert link) and found that a 1GHz memory clock and 750MHz core clock were stable in gaming. With these results, the Sager broke the 10k barrier in 3D Mark 06 scores, yet another record which I don’t believe any other portable system can match today.

I ran a series of four tests in total – in combinations with/without SLI and with/without overclocking. As you can see, the results in each case are remarkable, and the net effect of overclocking is really pronounced, equally with or without SLI. The Sager has a very nice "fan" switch on the keyboard – Fn+1 (not F1, just the numeral 1) – and with the fans blasting at full speed, you can overclock in confidence.

3DMark06 Results and Comparison:

Notebook 3D Mark 06 Results
Sager NP9261 (Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 2.66GHz, Single Nvidia 8700M-GT) 5,586
Sager NP9261 (Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 2.66GHz, Single Nvidia 8700M-GT Overclocked) 6,660
Sager NP9261 (Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 2.66GHz, Dual Nvidia 8700M-GT) 9,145
Sager NP9261 (Intel Core 2 Quad Q6700 2.66GHz, Dual Nvidia 8700M-GT Overclocked) 10,397
Dell XPS M1730 (Core 2 Extreme X7900 2.8GHz, Dual Nvidia GeForce 8700M-GT 512MB) 8,536
Dell XPS M1730 (Core 2 Extreme X7900 overclocked to 3.2GHz, Dual Nvidia GeForce 8700M-GT 512MB) 8,572
Sager NP5791 (Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.20GHz, Nvidia GeForce 8700M-GT 512MB) 4,941
Alienware M9750 (Intel Core 2 Duo T7600 2.33GHz, Nvidia go 7950 GTX video cards with 512MB) 7,308
Sager NP9260 (2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E6700, 2x Nvidia GeForce Go 7950GTX video cards with 512MB DDR3) 9,097
Alienware m5790 (1.83 GHz Core 2 Duo, ATI X1800 256MB) 2,625
WidowPC Sting D517D (Core 2 Duo 2.33GHz, Nvidia 7900GTX 512MB) 4,833
Apple MacBook Pro (2.00GHz Core Duo, ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 128MB) 1,528
Alienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB) 2,183
ASUS A8Ja (1.66GHz Core Duo, ATI Mobility Radeon X1600 512MB) 1,973

SLI itself is of course a major benefit. Most real-world games experience a dramatic performance gain from SLI technology. Frame rates in World in Conflict, for instance, more than doubled when SLI was enabled. The only odd-ball in this category was Flight Simulator X, which even after its second service pack, leaves a lot to be desired. Enabling SLI on this game absolutely killed performance! I won’t blame this on SLI or nVIDIA drivers but simply Microsoft, who really need to get around to fixing their Flight Simulator line soon! Other games I tried were Bioshock (great SLI benefits), and Crysis – Crysis was a little skippy, but at full details, running under 1920×1200 resolution, I was OK with a few skips here and there, given that Crysis has still not been officially released.

One unfortunate caveat of using Server 2003 with SLI is that, nVIDIA, for some time now, has been artificially preventing using SLI on Server 2003 systems without premium Quadro cards. I know it used to work before – when I reviewed the 20" Sager earlier this year, SLI worked just fine under Server 2003, with its pedestrian GeForce cards. Only the latest of their drivers artificially prevent turning this option on under Server 2003, which is very frustrating because it’s a completely artificial limitation. After some searching around on forums, I found a tool called TweakNT which switches the "mode" of your Windows installation from Server to Workstation, and vice-versa. I ran the tool on my Server 2003 installation, rebooted, and Windows thought it was XP now (even though the kernel version was still 5.2, the boot screens and other elements were all branded for XP). Lo and behold, even without re-installing the driver, SLI was working now! So anybody who suggests this SLI issue is a technological limitation is…not being technically accurate!

Of course, now that I was in "XP" mode, it was interesting to see my total memory drop down to 2.75GB from 4GB. This leads me to conclude that Microsoft’s memory limitation on 32 bit operating systems itself is also a completely artificial limitation…but that’s another story. Using TweakNT, I am able to easily move in and out of the Server/Workstation modes on the system; so when I need SLI, I turn on the XP switch; when I need 4GB memory, I go back to Server 2003. Of course, I wish nVIDIA would simply make SLI available on the Server 2003 platform for all their graphics cards, even the pedestrian GeForce ones, which would make all this custom tweaking unnecessary.

Conclusion

This system actually delivers great performance and offers great value – not only for gaming, but for heavy-duty business use as well. The 4-3-2 formula works very well. This is the kind of system where you can burn a DVD in the background, leave all your applications and mail client running all the time, and still go play an amazing 3D game without so much as a hiccup in your FPS or a coaster in the process. The price is also right – unlike most other gaming systems which have very inflated pricing – this boutique brand has got it just perfect.

Pros:

  • Best processing power with quad core
  • Best hard disk performance with triple drive RAID
  • Best graphics with the latest DX10 solution
  • Good service

Cons:

  • Questionable quality assurance
  • Poor out-of-the-box drivers
  • Poor build quality


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