HP Pavilion dm1z

We’ve been hearing about AMD‘s (NYSE: AMD) new Fusion line of processors for what seems like ages, so it’s with great interest that I dove into the testing of the first Fusion-powered laptop to cross my doorstep, the HP (NYSE: HPQ) Pavilion dm1z (frequently called the “dm1”). It’s based on the highest-performing member of the new Brazos platform from AMD, the E-350 CPU. At a very reasonable starting price of $450, this 11.6-inch laptop straddles the line between a budget ultraportable laptop and a netbook, and offers a lot of value.

HP clearly defines the Pavilion dm1 as an ultraportable laptop, and has re-iterated to me several times that it is not to be considered part of its netbook lineup, which carry the brand HP Mini. This is a shame, because it blows the doors off all the other netbooks we’ve reviewed, and is priced similarly – even lower – than many premium netbooks. Judged in the ultraportable category, as it is, more expensive laptops based on Intel’s ultra-low voltage CPUs run circles around the AMD E-350. As a result, the final performance score (a weighted combination of all our benchmarks and the system’s battery life) is a measly 59. Unfortunately, this score impacts the system’s overall score, knocking it down to three stars. If we were to evaluate the system as a netbook, its favorable performance against other netbooks would boost its performance score to 84 and its overall score to four stars. Still, if HP insists that this is not a netbook, then we won’t judge it as one.

Specifically, the dm1z scored 55 in our WorldBench 6 tests. Most Atom-based netbooks (even the dual-core models) can’t do better than around 35-40. AMD’s past processors have had real issues with battery life, but I’m happy to report that the Pavilion dm1z ran for 6 hours 40 minutes in our battery run-down test. This isn’t just idle time: our test alternates between playing full-screen video and simulated typing to drain a laptop’s battery. The integrated Radeon HD 6310M graphics performs quite well, offering full DirectX 11 compatibility and outperforming the integrated graphics on Intel‘s (NASDAQ: INTC) Atom CPUs by a factor of 3 or more. A game like Torchlight can be played with all the settings cranked up, and Left 4 Dead 2 runs amazingly well, but more intensive titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 will require you to reduce the settings to keep things smooth. Still, it’s fairly impressive that this small $450 laptop plays those games at all. The fan gets a bit loud during gaming sessions, but never really spun up at all when we used the Pavilion dm1z for other tasks. 1080p Web video plays smoothly and looks great. I even tried out the $130 external USB Blu-ray drive option, and hi-def Blu-ray movies are smooth, sharp … flawless. The system itself includes no optical drive.

So what do you get for your $450 entry price with HP’s 11.6-inch not-a-netbook? Quite a lot, actually. The system’s design is similar to other Pavilion dm-series laptops, with a fairly sleek profile when closed, a black lid with subtle design, and a cover over the bottom that gives it a nice clean, smooth look. It’s fairly easy to carry around, measuring 1.4 inches thick at the bulkiest part, tapering down to about an inch thick, and weighing only 3.4 pounds. The construction feels reasonably solid for such an inexpensive laptop. The entry price gets you 3 GB of RAM, Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit), and a 320GB 7200 RPM hard drive. The built-in Altec Lansing speakers sound a lot better than what you’d expect from a system of this size, or with this modest price tag.

The 11.6-inch size is big enough to fit HP’s “island chiclet” style keyboard with full-size keys that have a nice gap between them, and no wasted bezel space around the keyboard on the deck. It’s quite easy to type on. We can’t speak as highly of the multitouch trackpad, which is a little on the small side and offers middle-of-the-road tracking performance. There are three USB 2.0 ports, VGA and HDMI video outputs, an SD/MMC memory card reader, and a single combination headphone/mic jack. The gigabit Ethernet jack is hidden behind a little door on the right side that seems unnecessary and, when opened up to plug in a network cable, feels like it could fall off at any moment. The display is quite good for a laptop of this class and price. The 1366 by 768 resolution is just right for the 11.6-inch size, and though off-axis viewing is predictably limited, colors are bright, vibrant, and accurate. The integrated webcam is limited to video capture at 640 by 480, but works well in a variety of lighting conditions.

Our first impression of AMD’s new Fusion processors is really quite positive. Its performance doesn’t stand up to larger ultra-low voltage CPUs you’ll find in more expensive ultraportable laptops, but it blows the doors off Atom-based netbooks. It’s small, cool, and power-efficient enough to allow a $450 system to offer a surprising amount of value: the Pavilion dm1z, in its base configuration, is lightweight, attractive, easy to work on, and offers better CPU, graphics, and video performance than similarly-priced Atom-based netbooks. If you simply look at the three-star rating of the Pavilion dm1z, you would think it’s simply “average.” It’s not. This score is an artifact of HP’s insistence that this is an ultraportable laptop and not a premium netbook. It’s performance score, and therefore its overall score, is weighed against more capable and expensive systems. Consider the price and size of this system, and you’ll see that what HP has built is not an inexpensive, mediocre ultraportable laptop, but a killer netbook that chips away at the compromises netbook owners have put up with for too long.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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