Gateway P-7811FX: A budget-friendly gamer

That strange sensation you may be feeling while reading this review is deja vu. That’s because several months back, I looked at Gateway’s bargain laptop gaming solution, the P-172XFX. The P-7811FX is its equally value-centric successor as a gaming PC, and it offers many of the same great features — and, sadly, some of the same annoying flaws — as its predecessor. The main differences lie under the hood, so let’s get to those first.

Running this show is a 2.26-GHz Core 2 Duo P8400 CPU and 4GB of DDR3-800 RAM. That’s a pretty good jumping-off point from the last budget-friendly gamer box to come off Gateway’s assembly line. In fact, this US$1399 machine did a good job of handling WorldBench 6. In tests it scored a 90 — not quite as fast as the 96 that the P-172XFX earned, but then again, that machine cost more and ran a little hotter than this rig. (The P-172XFX packed a 2.4-GHz Core 2 Duo T8300 and a US$1999 price tag, similar to other power laptops.) The older model also had a nasty habit of chewing through batteries in a hurry. Where the 172XFX lasted barely 2 hours, 42 minutes, the P-7811FX survives for 3 hours, 15 minutes. In a pinch, every extra second counts.

The large, 17-inch screen doesn’t cause much in the way of color bleeding when you push the brightness up all the way. Even at that setting, though, it’s a little on the dim side (not necessarily a bad thing — just something to know if you often find yourself cranking up the gamma). The colors pop well enough (but not obnoxiously so) in still images and, considering this is a gaming machine, look natural enough when you’re trying to pick apart the opposing team in Team Fortress 2. Problem is that the P-7811FX’s glossy coating will more often than not distract you from what’s happening on screen. The spacious 1920-by-1200-pixel resolution panel bounces back reflections so that if, say, you sit near a window, you’ll be able to stare back at your reflection. That, of course, is an issue with just about every glossy screen–it makes notebooks look great on store shelves, but the second that you take it outside, it’s a little tougher to draw a bead on. Then again, gamers like me prefer sticking to cave-like conditions.

As I indicated earlier, this machine looks in most respects identical to the Gateway P-172X FX. Yep, the same styling and copper trim. But it’s more than that. Both share many of the same features. Like the P-172X FX, our review unit sprouts eSATA and HDMI ports, three USB 2.0 ports, FireWire, a flash card reader, and a PC Express card slot. I’m not surprised not to find a BD-ROM drive on board, considering the price, but you do get a DVD-RW drive (however, the side-loading slot of the P-172X FX is gone in favor of a plain ol’ disc tray).

The keyboard and mouse introduced with the P-172XFX return here. The keys themselves provide solid feedback, though the keys themselves feel a little slick to the touch. No doubt, it’s a coating to keep Cheetos and chip grit from smudging away the letters. Also, in a nod to the gaming crowd, this machine provides a more “gamey” font for the keys themselves and tops it all off with a full bank of backlit multimedia buttons running along the top of the keyboard. One thing I found odd — and to a degree, still can’t completely get behind — is stacking the mouse toward the left side of wrist rest. Not only is it obnoxious for southpaws, it makes it harder for gamers to play since the mouse now sits below the W, A, S, and D keys that are pretty much standard command keys.

The only thing I’m really bummed to see return is the same sad-sack audio that held back the P-172XFX — you’re forced to listen to stuff piping through two tinny, top-mounted speakers. It’s hardly a flaw unique to Gateway, as other notebooks–even supposedly multimedia machines–have similarly stumbled. Short version: Buy headphones.

Also expect to find some bloat (Wild Tangent games) and some PDF documents that serve as your manual. You also get the basic Microsoft Works suite (I know, I know — OpenOffice does more, and does it better), plus a couple of Cyberlink apps that pull their weight (disc-burning and label-making programs). You also get a recovery app that lets you create a factory restore disc and a driver/application backup disc. While I’m a little cheesed that I need to burn my own factory restore discs, at least you get the option to back up your own apps and drivers as well. And Gateway, here’s an idea that you — or any other vendors reading this review — are welcome to take: Make a couple of useful gamer-centric applets and add them to this gaming machine.

You know how business notebooks have security suites and all those extra productivity apps? How about some game-optimization features? Or maybe create some proprietary apps that let users turn off drivers or features that slow down the system during games. Hey, I’m not saying that this machine was a total slouch — quite the contrary — but if you’re billing something as an affordable game machine, an easy way for it to get more oomph is to provide ways for users to easily tweak it.

That tangential issue aside, the P-7811FX offers a healthy balance of good gaming and low cost for those on a tight budget. Gateway’s got a good gaming notebook line on its hands. Next time, though, I’d really like to see better onboard audio.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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