Are two cores better than one?

Dual-core notebooks hit the ground running

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It’s Friday afternoon, you’re trying to finish your work for the week, but your computer is behaving as though someone poured molasses into it. Then you realize why: Your virus scanner is running for the fourth time that day, as required by your agency’s security policies. But now there’s hope. The advent of dual-core processors could render that type of slowdown as obsolete as brick-size cell phones.

One of the biggest advantages of dual-core technology is the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously without affecting performance speed. In other words, go ahead and run that virus scan while surfing the Web and streaming a live audio newsfeed or while using data-intensive applications such as computer-aided design or 3-D modeling.

Dual-core processors also save energy thanks to their ability to transfer power only to the areas that need it. That also translates to longer battery life for notebook PCs and thinner designs for desktop PCs.

What is dual-core?
A dual-core processor is a chip that contains two identical processors. Each processor has its own cache and its own path to the system bus, which is the set of wires that connects the processor to the main memory. Those separate paths allow an operating system or application to perform multiple tasks in parallel.

To take advantage of a dual-core processor, software developers must write programs so that their different parts can run simultaneously, a feature called multithread technology.

Many applications in use today do not support multithread technology, but some do. Microsoft Windows XP is one of them, which is why you can run that virus scan while listening to streaming audio without a performance deficit.

Other applications that support multithreading include programs for creating and editing music files, videos and graphics. As dual-core technology becomes more common, more applications will follow suit.

What we found
We gathered dual-core notebook PCs from Dell, Fujitsu, Gateway, Hewlett-Packard, Lenovo and Toshiba America to see how they compared in terms of features, pricing and benchmark scores. Each notebook had a 1.83 GHz Intel Core Duo T2400 processor with Centrino technology, an 80G hard drive, 512M of memory and a 15.4-inch widescreen display.

We were more interested in the performance differences between single-core and dual-core processing than the differences among the notebooks because all of today’s systems are plenty fast for most users.

We ran PassMark Software’s benchmark test twice on each notebook — once with one core disabled to simulate a single-core processor and once with both cores enabled. The PassMark rating combines performance tests of the CPU, graphics, memory, hard drive and CD drive.

The ratings increased by more than 30 percent on four of the notebooks when we enabled the second core. The Toshiba product’s score jumped by 46 percent, while Gateway’s notebook soared 68 percent.

The difference was even more dramatic when we looked at only the CPU rating. Those scores nearly doubled when we enabled the second core. All the notebooks’ scores jumped almost 90 percent, with the exception of Gateway’s PC, whose rating increased a whopping 145 percent.

Dell Latitude D820
The standout feature on Dell’s Latitude D820 was the Verizon Wireless broadband service. By not requiring you to stay tethered to an access point or hot spot to connect to the Internet, it brings productivity and convenience to a new level.

If you prefer Cingular Wireless, you can order the notebook with that broadband service instead. You can grow into future wireless technology with this system because it’s preconfigured for 802.11n, an upcoming protocol that will offer greater throughput and longer range than current wireless technology.

Another feature we’ve never seen before on a notebook is Dell’s Wi-Fi Catcher, which finds wireless connections even when the unit is not turned on. When you slide the wireless switch forward, a light indicates whether the notebook is picking up a strong or weak signal, or none at all.

Many new business notebooks are incorporating ruggedized features to protect them from the bumps and spills that happen during travel, and the Latitude D820 is no exception. It has a full magnesium-alloy case, a hard-drive shock absorber and a spill-resistant keyboard.

Additionally, it was one of three notebooks in our roundup to include both a touchpad and a trackpoint for navigation. (The others are Fujitsu’s LifeBook and Lenovo’s ThinkPad.)

One thing the Latitude D820 doesn’t have, however, is a media card reader. (The HP Compaq nx7400 was the only other system in this roundup not to have one.) The Latitude is also the only notebook in our roundup that doesn’t have a double-layer DVD writer.

The Latitude’s beefy security should put government users at ease. Our review unit included a fingerprint reader, smart card reader, a Trusted Platform Module and embedded support for Absolute Software’s Computrace recovery and asset-tracking software.

The Trusted Platform Module is an embedded security chipset that stores encryption keys, passwords and credentials to ensure that only authorized users can access data.

The Latitude’s $1,692 price tag is comparable to that of the Gateway M465-G, but Dell’s system is a better value because it offers many more features.

Fujitsu LifeBook E8210
Even though we aren’t emphasizing benchmark results among the notebooks we tested, Fujitsu’s score of 466 is worth mentioning because it was the highest in our roundup.

LifeBook’s price was also the highest at $1,964, but you get a high-quality notebook for the money.

The LifeBook’s standout feature is the Fujitsu Security Panel, the likes of which we haven’t seen on any other notebook PC. It differs from most password-based security applications in that it’s hardware-based and prevents unauthorized users from even booting up the machine.

To enter your password, you use four numbered buttons plus an enter key located above the keyboard. Passwords can consist of one to five button strokes, and a button stroke can be the press of a single key or a combination of two, three or four keys at the same time. That’s a total of 800,000 possible combinations.

Other noteworthy security features include a smart card reader, a Trusted Platform Module, a fingerprint reader and embedded support for Computrace.

The LifeBook E8210 comes with ruggedized features that include a magnesium-alloy case, a spill-resistant keyboard, a shockmounted hard drive and stainless steel hinges.

Gateway M465-G
The M465-G is a comparatively basic system, but its $1,654 price tag — only about $40 less than the Latitude D820 — does not reflect that fact.

Unlike Dell’s machine, Gateway’s notebook does not have an integrated fingerprint reader, smart card reader or ExpressCard slot.

Although the HP Compaq nx7400 also lacks those feature, its lower price and positioning as a budget system make those omissions easier to accept.

Gateway’s unit is the least ruggedized of any of the notebooks in this review; its magnesium subframe offers only a little extra protection against bumps and drops.

On the plus side, the M465-G was the only notebook in our roundup to ship with Computrace already installed, and the media card reader can accept six types of cards — more than any other notebook in this review.

The system also comes with a Trusted Platform Module, a Super-Video port, and 802.11a/b/g and Bluetooth wireless.

HP Compaq nx7400
This notebook is marketed as a budget system, and it was the lowest-priced model in our review at $1,229.

Not surprisingly, the nx7400 lacks many of the features offered by most of the other notebooks in this roundup. It does not have a media card slot, fingerprint reader, smart card reader, Trusted Platform Module or S-Video port.

But it does come with HP’s ProtectTools package of security features that manages system passwords, enables single sign-on, manages settings for log-on credentials, allows you to disable various ports and more.

You’ll also get HP’s Fast Charge Technology, which charges the primary battery as much as 90 percent in 90 minutes.

For physical protection, the nx7400 offers a magnesium-reinforced frame, metal-alloy hinges with hardened steel pin axles, a spill-resistant keyboard and a hard drive that is mounted directly to the notebook frame so that shock and vibration are transmitted away from the hard drive. Our review unit also included Bluetooth and 802.11a/b/g wireless connectivity.

Lenovo ThinkPad Z61m
Lenovo’s notebook offers a good value for the money. At $1,709, the price isn’t cheap, but ThinkPads are quality notebooks with many security features and protections important to government customers.

The Z61m comes with Lenovo’s ThinkVantage Technologies, a suite of software and hardware features that enhance security and help protect the machine from physical damage.

ThinkVantage includes rescue and recovery software, a network connection manager, and client security software that manages passwords and helps protect data. It also includes Lenovo’s Active Protection System, which senses sudden acceleration — caused by a fall or turbulence, for example — and parks the hard-drive head.

Many notebook PCs have power management features, but ThinkPad’s go further than most we’ve seen by showing you how each setting will affect performance, temperature, fan noise level and battery life.

The notebook features a fingerprint reader, an ExpressCard slot, a touchpad and a trackpoint. In addition to the spill-resistant keyboard, a roll cage — a one-piece magnesium frame inside the case — protects the entire system and its components, including the hard drive and optical drive, from damage.

Toshiba Tecra A7
The Tecra A7 is a heck of a good deal. It offers a robust set of features for a surprisingly low price of $1,299.

A shortcut button above the keyboard offers easy access to the controls for Toshiba’s EasyGuard Technology, a suite of hardware and software security and protection features similar to Lenovo’s ThinkVantage package.

EasyGuard’s security features include a fingerprint reader and a Trusted Platform Module. Its physical protections include a spill-resistant keyboard and Toshiba’s Hard Disk Drive Protection System, which protects the hard drive from damage resulting from drops, turbulence, impact or vibration by parking the drive head when the notebook experiences sudden acceleration. The Tecra A7 includes an ExpressCard slot but no smart card reader.

Toshiba’s notebook was one of only two in this roundup — the Fujitsu LifeBook was the other —- to offer a parallel port.

Users who will benefit most from dual-core technology are those who regularly run multiple applications at once, especially if one or more of those programs are data-intensive. That includes users who must run virus scans or other security processes in the background while they work.

If you travel often, look for a notebook that offers some ruggedized features, such as shock and vibration protection for the hard drive, a magnesium-alloy case and a spill-resistant keyboard. Government users might also want the extra security of a fingerprint reader and/or smart card reader.

Decide if you’ll need features such as an ExpressCard slot, media card reader and Bluetooth connectivity, then check to see if the notebook you want offers them. Finally, be sure to comparison shop because a less-expensive notebook may actually offer more of the features you want than one with a higher price tag.

Review: Dual-core notebook PCsDell Latitude D820
(800) 727-1100

Price: The Latitude D820 costs $1,692 for the base configuration.
Pros: It comes with broadband wireless communications and is preconfigured for the upcoming 802.11n protocol. It has both a touchpad and a trackpoint, a fingerprint reader, smart card reader, and support for Absolute Software’s Computrace.
Cons: It does not have a media card reader or a double-layer DVD writer.

Fujitsu LifeBook E8210
(800) 831-3183

Price: The LifeBook E8210 costs $1,964.
Pros: It includes the Fujitsu Security Panel, which offers hardware-based password protection; a smart card reader; a fingerprint reader; support for Absolute Software’s Computrace; a touchpad; and a trackpoint.
Cons: It is expensive.

Gateway M465-G
(800) 216-2940

Price: The M465-G costs $1,654.
Pros: Absolute Software’s Computrace is pre-installed, and the notebook PC’s media card reader accepts six types of cards.
Cons: The only ruggedization is a magnesium subframe. The notebook’s features are basic, and the price is high for what you get.

Hewlett-Packard nx7400
(800) 727-5472

Price: The nx7400 costs $1,229.
Pros: It has HP’s ProtectTools package of security features, a technology for quickly charging the battery and a low price.
Cons: It doesn’t have a Trusted Platform Module or media card reader.

Lenovo ThinkPad Z61m
(866) 968-4465

Price: The ThinkPad Z61m costs $1,709.
Pros: It contains the ThinkVantage suite of security and physical protection technologies, a fingerprint reader, and both a touchpad and a trackpoint. The hard drive parks when sudden acceleration is detected, and the roll cage adds physical and thermal protection.
Cons: It was the lowest scorer on our CPU-only benchmark test.

Toshiba America Tecra A7
(888) 978-2542

Price: The Tecra A7 costs $1,299.
Pros: It has the EasyGuard Technology suite of hardware and software security and protection and a fingerprint reader. The hard drive parks when sudden acceleration is detected. The notebook is a good value for the price.
Cons: It finished fourth in the overall benchmark test.