Gateway 8550GB review

Price when reviewed

It’s been more than four years since we’ve seen the cow-print boxes of Gateway Computers gracing our Labs. The last was the 3.8kg Solo 9500 XL in April 2001. Offering a Pentium III/750, 16MB ATi Rage Mobility-M4 graphics and two-and-a-half hours of battery life, it cost £2,290. Shortly after that, the company decided ‘to concentrate on the US market’ and withdrew from the UK.

Until now, that is. Market conditions are now deemed to be more conducive, and the company is back, albeit using the Dixons Store Group for distribution rather than selling direct as before (this notebook is only available via Comet). While the bovine branding is still evident, this time it’s in conjunction with the Centrino Mobile Technology badge. At 3.5kg, you’re not going to be slipping the 8550GB under your arm that often, but it’s actually lighter than it looks.

The 1.73GHz Pentium M 740 inside hits a sweet spot between price and performance, gleaning a decent 0.78 in our application benchmarks and proving completely responsive under general use. There’s an ample 1GB of PC4200 DDR2 RAM in evidence and, together with the Sonoma Intel 915 chipset, it’s an excellent start.

Onboard 3D processing hardware is slightly less extravagant, with ATi’s Mobility Radeon X700 onboard. Although it won’t satisfy the avid gamer, this is a surprisingly fast inclusion for such a keenly priced notebook. Far Cry was just playable at the panel’s native resolution of 1,440 x 900 with the quality settings eased off, but it struggled a little once the action started. There’s no support for the latest Shader Model 3 effects, unlike in Evesham’s stunningly powerful C720, but the X700 will be able to cope with the highest quality settings in next year’s Windows Vista: models with integrated graphics will struggle by comparison.

Even with clunky old Windows XP, though, the screen looks fantastic. As with so many current panels, the huge 17.1in widescreen display uses a reflective coating that could get on your nerves equally as much as it pleases, depending on the lighting conditions. Using the machine in an office with overhead fluorescent lighting proved distracting, but switching the lights off and starting a DVD, all was forgiven. This does exacerbate the screen’s most noticeable flaw – a rather uneven backlight – but it’s otherwise bright and crisp.

Given its sheer size, the chassis is surprisingly rigid throughout, with barely any flexing or creaking. You’d need to give it quite a whack to damage the screen too, with the lid feeling reassuringly solid. In fact, there’s a pleasing feeling of quality throughout; it’s undeniably plastic, but there are subtle curves in the construction and a pleasantly tactile feel to everything from the lid hinge to the optical drive and power button.

Thankfully that extends to the keyboard. The extra width of the chassis permits the inclusion of a full numeric keypad, a giant Enter key and dedicated page-navigation controls. Our only criticism is that these latter keys are inconveniently placed over the keypad, and that the Function modifier is where you’d expect Control. Some may find the action a little shallow and stiff, although touch-typists will have few problems negotiating the board. The touchpad is responsive and we found the small mouse buttons falling comfortably under the thumb.

There’s more good design on show with port placement. Four USB 2 ports are evenly split on left and right sides towards the rear, with Gigabit Ethernet, a 56K modem and VGA D-SUB at the back. A mini-FireWire, Type II PC Card and S-Video port join them on the left-hand side, with the headphone and mic sockets conveniently placed at the front. Naturally, there’s 802.11b/g wireless onboard and, while there’s unfortunately no hardware switch for it, there’s a clear indicator above the touchpad.

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