Although netbooks certainly aren’t for everyone, there’s no denying that this new breed of budget ultraportables has taken the market by storm. According to market research firm iSuppli, netbook sales jumped a stunning 2000% last year and are expected to grow a further 68.5% in 2009. Clearly, there’s a market for affordable, portable, and Windows-compatible networked computing.
What’s so striking to me about the netbook phenomenon is how quickly the genre has risen above its humble roots. With an underclocked Celeron, a 7″ 800×480 display, only a few hours of battery life, a cramped and barely usable keyboard, and just a few gigabytes of storage, the first Eee PCs look horribly anemic next to even today’s most basic netbooks. Meanwhile, the best netbooks have gained proper mobile hard drives that start at 160GB and batteries that deliver nearly a full working day’s worth of run time.
Today’s netbooks are starting to look a whole lot like proper notebooks. Their now-ubiquitous Atom processors still don’t offer the same level of performance as notebook CPUs, but for those who never venture beyond the confines of basic 2D desktop applications, it doesn’t matter. All folks see is a tiny system with everything they need running a familiar Windows operating systemat a much lower price than expected. Sold!
The combination of portability with adequate performance at bargain prices may have allowed netbooks to encroach on territory typically reserved for traditional notebooks, but notebooks aren’t taking this upstart threat lying down. As netbooks have moved upmarket, thin and light notebooks have begun to move down. Take HP’s new Pavilion dv2, for example. This svelte 12″ system has a roomy keyboard, a 1280×800 display, Athlon 64 processing power, discrete Radeon graphics, 4GB of memory with Vista x64, and even an external DVD burner. That sounds like an honest-to-goodness notebook, but at $750, the dv2 doesn’t cost much more than premium thin-and-light netbooks.
The dv2 looks to be an example of trickle down at its finest, and we’ve taken one for a spin to see what it’s all about. Let’s see if this first entry into the grey area between netbooks and notebooks is good enough to be your next portable PC.
One of the big differences between the dv2 and your average netbook is the underlying hardware. Thanks to exclusive access to AMD’s new Yukon platform, HP is able to pack a heckuva lot of horsepower into this latest Pavilion. The heart of the Yukon platform is an Athlon Neo MV-40 processor. This single-core CPU, which CPU-Z identifies as an Athlon 64 4050e with a Lima core, has 512KB of L2 cache and a 1.6GHz clock speed. The fact the Neo runs at the same clock speed as Intel’s popular Atom N270 is probably no coincidence. Keep in mind, however, that the Neo should be considerably faster clock for clock.
Of course, the Neo is also hungrier for power than the Atom. The Atom N270 has a TDP of just 2.5W, while this latest Athlon carries a 15W TDP. Aside from any differences between how AMD and Intel rate power consumption, additional processing power requires more, well, power. The Atom is also fabbed on a more efficient 45nm process, while the Neo is built using older 65nm technology.
Although it’s one of the most interesting elements of the Yukon platform, the Athlon Neo also has company. On the chipset front, Yukon includes an RS690E north bridge chip backed by an SB600 south bridge component. That combo is a generation behind current desktop parts, although AMD does have an RS780M-based Congo platform in the works. (Congo is due out later this year, and it’s scheduled to arrive alongside dual-core Conesus processors built on a 45nm process.)
|Processor||AMD Athlon Neo MV-40 1.6GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR2-667 (1 DIMM)|
|Graphics||ATI Radeon HD 3410 with 512MB dedicated memory|
12.1″ TFT with WXGA (1280×800) resolution and
Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB 2.5″
5,400 RPM hard drive
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via IDT codec|
3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
via Realtek RTL8102E
1 analog headphone output
802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi via Broadcom 4322AG
Keyboard (92% of full size)
horizontal and vertical scrolling zones
|Camera||1.3 megapixel webcam|
11.5″ x 9.45″ x 0.93-1.29″ (292
mm x 240 mm x 24-33 mm)
|Weight||3.95 lbs (1.8 kg)|
|Battery||6-cell Li-Ion 55Wh|
The Yukon platform’s RS690E north bridge chip has an integrated Radeon X1250 graphics core, but with support for DirectX 9 and Shader Model 2.0b, it’s a little behind the times. Fortunately, the dv2 employs a discrete Mobility Radeon HD 3410 graphics chip with 512MB of dedicated video memory. The 3410 is a 55nm chip with full support for DirectX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1, so it’s very much a modern GPU. The chip even features a video decode block capable of accelerating Blu-ray playback.
Expecting a gaming powerhouse in an ultraportable would be unreasonable, but the Radeon HD 3410 does pack some respectable pixel-pushing power. The chip has 40 stream processors and four render back-ends, and it can lay down four textures per clock. Throw in a 550MHz core clock speed and memory running at an effective 1GHz, and the Pavilion dv2 should have ample GPU oomph to handle real games. The same can’t be said for most netbooks, which tend to be saddled with underpowered Intel integrated graphics chipsets that struggle with game compatibility, let alone performance.
Unlike Intel’s Centrino mobile platform, Yukon doesn’t include a networking component. The dv2 is plenty stacked in that department, though. The system supports not only a, b, g, and n flavors of 802.11 Wi-Fi, but Bluetooth, as well. The dv2 also features a built-in 3G WWAN cardjust plug in your SIM card and go. Despite this generous array of wireless networking options, the dv2 is short a Gigabit Ethernet adapter. Instead, you’re stuck with basic 10/100 wired networking. I suppose that’ll be adequate for most folks, but it is a notable difference between the dv2 and more expensive ultraportables.
Before diving deeper into the dv2, I should probably take a moment to clarify some differences between our review unit and the $750 “1030-US” model currently available for sale on HP’s website (and detailed in the chart above). The unit we’re testing today comes with an external Blu-ray drive, 2GB of memory, and an auxiliary four-cell battery, but it’s otherwise identical to the 1030-US. Official pricing for this Blu-ray variant has yet to be released, but it looks like this config will sell for around $900 when it becomes available this summer.
Still an ultraportable
At 11.5″ x 9.45″ x 0.93-1.29″ (292 x 240 x 24-33 mm), the dv2 is larger than the average netbook. Not by much, though. Here’s how the 12″ dv2 looks next to my 10″ Eee PC 1000HA:
The dv2 is a little wider and couple of inches deeper than the Eee PC, but it’s notably thinner, with less junk in the trunk thanks to a subtler battery bulge. At just 3.95 lbs, it’s only about a pound heavier than the Eee.
I’ve been carrying around my 1000HA for months now, and I find the dv2 to be every bit as portable in the real world. Perhaps that’s because I’m not nearly trendy enough to carry around a man purse that’s large enough for the Eee yet too small for the dv2, or maybe it’s because I don’t really notice the extra pound. As a workout addict, I’m probably in better shape than the stereotypical computer geek, but even the most pale and atrophied of parents’-basement-dwellers should be able to handle the dv2’s extra heft.
Glossing over the design
When I first read that the dv2 had a magnesium alloy chassis, I got all excited. Visions of elegant brushed metal danced in my head. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. The magnesium is limited to the internal frame and the dv2’s top cover; plastic fills out the rest of the body panels. HP covers both surfaces with a glossy black finish that seems to have become the new beige, at least among mobile devices.
To be fair, glossy black finishes do look stylish when they’re all buffed and shiny. HP also adds faux chrome trim to the mix, along with a pseudo-crop-circle design emblazoned on the dv2’s palm rest. But those little elements of flair don’t distract from the fact that the dv2’s glossy black surfaces are magnets for fingerprints, smudges, and other cosmetic blemishes. This problem is common for glossy finishes, and HP tacitly acknowledges the issue by including a buffing cloth with the dv2.
In my view, the dv2 would be far better off draped in a matte or brushed finish that isn’t so easily marred by a little handling. Ultraportables like the dv2 are designed to be carried around, and there’s no sense in styling them for the shelf at the expense of how they’ll look in the real world. HP has done better before, in fact. The company’s first budget ultraportable, the Mini-Note 2133, has an industrial-chic brushed metal finish that stands up much better to oily fingers and frequent handling.
At least the dv2 scores a few aesthetic points for its use of white LEDs. With the exception of the Wi-Fi indicators, which alternate between orange and blue, all of the dv2’s status and activity lights shine white. Their glow is a little piercing dead on, but that’s an angle rarely experienced given the position of the LEDs along the edges of the system. In normal usage, all you’ll see is a gentle, white glow.
The system’s fit and finish isn’t perfect. The edge doesn’t line up perfectly in the corner pictured aboveor in the front-left corner of the system.
That appears to be the extent of the dv2’s build quality quirks, however. The system is surprisingly solid otherwise, with virtually no flex in the chassis when it’s held from the front corner. This is particularly impressive given the dv2’s thin profile, and likely a credit to its magnesium subframe. The screen’s hinge feels quite sturdy, as well. There’s no play or wobble to report, although the display only tilts back about 45 degrees past vertical.
One of the dv2’s biggest advantages over most netbooks on the market is its generous 12″ display, which offers 1280×800 pixels of resolution. 1280×800 isn’t all that impressive next to a 24″ desktop monitor at 1920×1200, but it offers 67% more pixels than the 1024×600 display resolutions common on 9″ and 10″ netbooks. The extra pixels allow the dv2 to display 720p video in all its glory, and the additional desktop real estate makes it much easier to run an IM application alongside a web browser or other programs.
Don’t pay too much attention to the blue tint to the screen in the picture above; the dv2 display’s color reproduction is actually quite good when you’re viewing the display dead on. The screen’s viewing angles are decent, but not exceptional, much like its overall brightness. An LED backlight illuminates the display, yielding just enough luminance without going overboard. For reference, a 30% brightness setting on my Eee PC is easily readable under normal lighting and roughly equivalent to 40% on the dv2. The Eee PC’s screen is much brighter at its maximum than is dv2, though.
Even with the dv2 cranked to full brightness, you can still see reflections in the screen’s glossy coating. Lots of them. The fact that the border around the dv2’s screen is thick and also glossy only serves to accentuate the effect. Reflectivity isn’t a problem when you’re using the dv2 in low-light conditions, but it’s an annoyance otherwise and encourages running the screen at a higher (and power-hungrier) brightness level than might otherwise have been necessary with a matte display. [Ed: Yes, but matte displays require more illumination generally, because they let less light pass through.]
As if the dv2 didn’t already have enough reflective surfaces, the system’s touchpad has a mirror-like finish. The surface is nice and smooth, but it quickly becomes a mess of fingerprints and smudges. At least the touchpad is a decent size. However, it doesn’t offer multitouch functionality. Instead of convenient two-finger scrolling, you’ll have to make do with dedicated vertical and horizontal scrolling zones. There isn’t much room for the latter, although the thickness of each scrolling zone can be adjusted individually in the touchpad control panel.
HP has done a much better job with the dv2’s keyboard. I prefer to quantify keyboard size in terms of the horizontal span between the outer edges of the A and L keys and the vertical span between the T and V keysthat’s the area where I spend most of my time typing. Across these letter keys, the dv2’s keyboard offers 92% of the horizontal and 91% of the vertical span of the “full size” keyboard on my old 14″ Dell notebook. For reference, the keyboard on my 1000HA is 91% of full size on the horizontal, but only 86% on the vertical.
The dv2’s total keyboard area measures 10″ x 4″ (254 x 101 mm), leaving nearly three quarters of an inch of unused space on either side of the chassis. HP hasn’t compromised the keyboard’s layout, though. Full-size shift keys are in the right place on both sides of the keyboard, and the backspace key is nice and large. The function keys are half-height affairs, as are the keys that make up the directional pad, but I didn’t find either to be problematic.
A closer examination of the dv2’s keyboard reveals that the keys themselves differ a little from the norm. The edges don’t have much bevel to them at all, and when combined with the slightly concave key surfaces, they provide extra contact area. There’s a nice, positive feel to each key’s travel, and even under aggressive typing, the keyboard doesn’t flex at all.
The dv2 keyboard’s ample area, large keys, and solid construction make typing quite comfortable for my large hands and short, stubby fingers. However, getting up to full speed, which for me is around 100 words per minute, is a little challenging. The problem here isn’t the keyboard itself, but the glossy finish that covers it. This finish makes the keys a little slicker than I’d like, and I found my fingers slipping on more than a few occasions when banging away at speed.
Slickness aside, keeping the glossy keyboard free of fingerprints and smudges is virtually impossible. One can’t easily buff the keys while the system is powered on, either.
Plenty of connectivity
The dv2 offers plenty of connectivity options, including an all-important integrated memory card reader.
Also on the right side of the system are one of three USB ports, power and Wi-Fi buttons, and a pair of analog headphone and microphone jacks. If you’re not a headphone fan, the dv2 has speakers from Altec Lansing that sound surprisingly good for an ultraportable.
The dv2’s left edge houses the remaining two USB ports, an Ethernet jack, and a VGA output. An HDMI port allows the dv2 to run audio and video to an HDTV with a single cable.
HP even throws in an external USB optical drive. The 1030-US model currently for sale features an 8X dual-layer DVD burner with Lightscribe support, while the model we received for testing is equipped with a Blu-ray drive. Having an optical drive in the box makes the dv2 a more complete system, and since the drive is external, you don’t have to lug it around all the time.
Expansion capacity and power
Flipping the dv2 reveals the only part of the system that hasn’t been glossed up. It also provides a view of three access panels, whose covers can easily be removed with a Philips-head screwdriver. Surprisingly, these screws aren’t covered by stickers threatening to void the dv2’s one-year warranty.
The bottom panel provides access to the dv2’s 2.5″ Serial ATA hard drivea Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB whose platters spin at 5,400 RPM. We’re big fans of the Scorpio Blue and even gave the drive a TR Recommended award in our last mobile hard drive round-up, where it was beaten only by the 7,200-RPM Scorpio Black. The Blue’s 320GB capacity should be more than enough for most folks, and it’s twice what you get in most budget ultraportables.
Over to the right, a second access panel shields the dv2’s Wi-Fi card. On the left, the third panel provides access to the system’s single SO-DIMM slot and its 3G WWAN card.
The broadband wireless card’s SIM slot sits just behind the dv2’s battery. In North America, the dv2’s WWAN connectivity is compatible with networks from AT&T and Verizon.
Speaking of the battery, the dv2 1030-US model ships with a 6-cell unit rated for 55Wh. The more expensive model we received for testing includes an additional 4-cell battery that’s the same size as the 6-cell unit but is rated for only 41Wh. Both models come with a 65W AC adapter that has a three-prong plug.
Our testing methods
The dv2 is clearly an answer to the raft of netbooks that have flooded the market, so we pitted it against one of our favorites: Asus’ Eee PC 1000H.
All tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.
HP Pavilion dv2
Asus Eee PC 1000H
AMD Athlon Neo MV-40
|Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz|
|System bus||HyperTransport 800MHz||
|North bridge||AMD RS690E||Intel 945GSE|
|South bridge||AMD SB600||Intel ICH7M|
|Memory size||2GB (1 DIMM)||1GB (1 DIMM)|
|Memory type||DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz|
RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
|Audio codec||IDC codec with 6.10.6138.62 drivers||
with 220.127.116.1183 drivers
ATI Mobility Radeon HD
3410 with 8.563.3.1000 drivers
Intel GMA950 with
Western Digital Scorpio
Blue 320GB 5,400RPM
|Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB 5,400RPM|
Microsoft Vista Home Premium x64 with Service Pack 1
Microsoft Windows XP Home
with Service Pack 3
We used the following versions of our test applications:
All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.
The Pavilion easily dominates the Peacekeeper test. It’s comfortably ahead in GUIMark, too. Note how the Eee PC’s performance dips when the system is running off the battery. The dv2 doesn’t skip a beat when it’s running unplugged.
Next up we have 7-Zip’s built-in benchmark, which tests file compression and decompression performance. We used the 32-bit client and let the test run up to 10 iterations.
7-Zip supports multiple threads, and it makes good use of the Atom N270’s Hyper-Threading capabilities. However, the Eee PC is really only close to the dv2’s performance in the decompression test, and then only when it’s plugged in.
We’ll get into some more recent games in a moment, but since the GMA 950 found in most netbooks is so woefully inadequate on this front, we settled on Quake Live for benchmarking. We used FRAPS to record frame rates across five 60-second intervals in the game’s beginner sorting level.
The Eee PC nearly averages 30 frames per second, but that’s not even good enough to catch the dv2’s median low frame rate. We ran the game in fullscreen mode, so the Pavilion is running at a higher resolution, as well.
This is the first time we’ve seen the dv2’s performance suffer when running on battery power. It looks like the Mobility Radeon HD 3410 cuts clock speeds when it’s separated from a wall outlet.
Each system’s battery was run down completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a ~30% screen brightness setting on the Eee PC, which is easily readable under normal indoor lighting. That brightness level is roughly equivalent to the 40% brightness setting we used on the dv2.
For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled as well. Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi and Bluetooth for this test.
Even with a six-cell battery, the dv2’s run time doesn’t come close to that of the Eee PC. Interestingly, the Pavilion is more competitive with web surfing than it is with video playback. The Eee PC actually ekes out longer battery life when playing back movies than it does while surfing, which is the opposite of what happens with the dv2. Keep in mind that the dv2’s 1030-US configuration comes with a six-cell battery. The four-cell unit will be available as a second battery in a future configuration.
The dv2 in the real world
I’m a big fan of Windows XPeven the Home edition on netbooksbut the dv2 scores big points for coming with Vista Home Premium x64. A 32-bit OS simply won’t do for a system equipped with 4GB of memory in its base configuration. Now if only HP had stopped there. Instead, it loaded down the dv2 with a monumental mass of software. Perhaps the most annoying of these applications are HP’s own Total Care Advisor and a trial version of Norton Internet Security, both of which load up with Vista, lengthening the system’s boot time.
HP has also installed Microsoft Works, a CyberLink DVD authoring suite, and a Lightscribe appall of which are at least potentially useful. But there’s more, including trial versions of Microsoft Office, muvee Reveal, and the Spore Creature Creator. Throw in a Slingbox app and installers for Juno and NetZero, and I start to lose count. None of these apps really eat up much of the Pavilion’s 320GB hard drive, but the fact that there’s this much bloat at all makes me cringe. What’s worse, HP doesn’t include physical media for the operating system. HP does provide instructions for burning your own (legally, of course), but that seems unnecessarily chincy for a system of this caliber.
Once you get past the bloat, the dv2 is quite responsive. It’s noticably faster than my Eee PC when loading applications and web pages, and it does a much better job of handling multitasking, particularly when video playback or Flash-laden websites are involved.
The real difference between the dv2 and your average netbook isn’t so much what the HP system does faster, but what it can do that an Atom-based ultraportable cannot. Take video playback, for example. With an Atom-based system saddled with Intel’s 945GSE chipset, you’re stuck with standard-definition playback that, while smooth, nearly maxes out the processor. The dv2’s CPU utilization during SD video playback is only about 30-40%, which leaves plenty of room to explore more demanding content.
Curious to see whether the dv2 could handle H.264 video, I fired up QuickTime and played back 480p and 720p versions of the new Star Trek trailer. The former was buttery smooth, with CPU utilization in the mid 50s. 720p proved a little more challenging, pegging the dv2’s CPU in the high 80s with the occasional 100% spike and accompanying stutter. I also saw high CPU utilization with HD YouTube video, and again, playback wasn’t perfectly smooth.
Neither QuickTime nor YouTube take advantage of the Radeon’s video decode block, so I decided to see if the dv2 could handle Blu-ray playback using HP’s MediaSmart app, which does support Avivo. Playback was smooth across our collection of high-bitrate titles, which includes 28 Days Later (H.264), Nature’s Journey (VC-1), and Click (MPEG2). The dv2’s CPU utilization hovered between 60 and 80% for the first two movies and between 80 and 100% for Click.
Blu-ray movies are demanding enough prompt the dv2’s cooling fan to ramp up. This fan runs quietly when the system isn’t being taxed. Even at this higher speed, though, the fan isn’t oppressively loud. The pitch is a little higher than that of my Eee PC, though, and consequently, the dv2’s hum is a little more noticeable to my ears. At least the fan seems to do a good job of keeping the dv2 cool. The outer panels do get warm to the touch when the system is under load, but I had no problem keeping the dv2 on my lap for extended periods.
…and with real games
We’ve found that Intel’s Atom processor lacks the horsepower to play modern games, even when paired with a capable graphics chip. The dv2 has a capable graphics chip and a decent processor, so how does it fare with recent titles? We tested a few with the Pavilion plugged into a wall socket to find out.
AudioSurf was fluid and smooth running at the dv2’s native resolution and the second-highest detail level. With frame rates oscillating between 30 and 45 FPS, you shouldn’t have to sacrifice much eye candy to surf on battery power, either.
Nvidia likes to tout Call of Duty 4 as one of the games its Ion platform is capable of running. However, we’ve found that actual gameplay is too jerky for our tastes, even with a dual-core Atom. The dv2, however, is pretty smooth at 1280×800 with low in-game detail levels. We observed frame rates in the high 20s and low 30s, with only the occasional stutter.
Left 4 Dead is the most recent game we tested on the dv2, and it also proved to be the most challenging. When running at the display’s native 1280×800 resolution with medium detail levels, we enjoyed frame rates in the mid-to-high 20s, with dips into the teens as zombies swarmed en masse. Lowering the resolution and detail levels didn’t help performance much.
World of Warcraft is exactly the sort of game I’d expect folks to run on an ultraportable, not just because it’s so popular, but because it’s addictive enough to have players jonesing for a session while they’re on the go. I didn’t get in too deep on the dv2, but I can confirm that aimless exploring on a random server yielded frame rates around 30 FPS at native resolution with the mix of high, medium, and low detail settings automatically selected by the game.
Whether the Pavilion dv2 is classified as a netbook, notebook, or budget ultraportable matters little. The system is certainly small enough, light enough, and thin enough to be considered an ultraportable, in my view. With an optical drive, a proper processor, discrete graphics, and a reasonable display resolution, the dv2 has everything one might expect from a notebookand a lot more than you get with most netbooks. Compared to the average Eee PC, the dv2 packs two thirds more desktop area, double the hard drive capacity, four times the memory, a faster CPU, and dramatically better graphics. This more robust hardware makes the dv2 more enjoyable to use for basic desktop tasks, and it allows the system to do things most netbooks can’t, such as play many recent games and high-definition video, including Blu-ray movies.
All this performance and flexibility comes at a cost, though. HP’s $750 asking price for the Pavilion dv2 1030-US is twice what you’ll pay for the average netbook. At two and a half to three hours, the system’s battery life (on the six-cell) is also a far cry from what you can squeeze from a comparable netbook.
The Pavilion dv2 still involves compromises, as most budget systems do. But it’s a different set of trade-offs than your average netbook, and the formula ultimately delivers compelling value. I can’t think of another system that’s as portable, as flexible, as powerful, and as affordable.
Or as glossy, which is one of the system’s few but inescapable flaws. The dv2 would be far better off with at least a matte display and keyboard, if not brushed or matte finishes throughout. Also, AMD would do well to work on getting its Avivo GPU video playback acceleration working with web-based HD video streaming, since even the Athlon Neo doesn’t seem up to the task.
Overall, though, the dv2’s unique blend of portability, performance, and price elevates the system above its shortcomings and into TR Recommended territory. If you’re looking for an affordable ultraportable system with more horsepower than Atom-based netbooks provide, the dv2 should be at the top of your list. And if you’re not in the market for an ultraportable today, keep an eye on this new class of budget system. With AMD’s Congo platform on the way and Intel pushing “consumer ultra-low-voltage” processors into this space, I expect to see a lot more thin and lights around $700. Look out, netbooks.