Not everyone needs a machine with computing and graphics capabilities this good, and fewer can afford it—but plenty will wish they could
Consumers are a fickle bunch. It's no less true for computers than it is with cars. Time was, the smaller the notebook, the better. Light and thin was in, and if you couldn't get eight hours of battery life, why bother?
These days, big, bulky, and bright is the name of the game. Thin and light is so 2003. Why settle for a tiny portable laptop, when you can get almost as much from a lighter, cheaper, and more mobile BlackBerry or Treo? So, the thinking goes, ditch the desktop and replace it with a big notebook with a 17-inch screen and a huge hard drive. You won't want to travel with it, but it's easier to move than a desktop and in many respects performs just as well—especially for game lovers.
The shift in buying hasn't been lost on any of the major computer makers, including Dell (DELL) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ). Having really liked VoodooPC's over-the-top $6,000 Omen desktop PC (see BusinessWeek.com, 4/12/06, "VoodooPC's Spellbinding Performer"), I've been eager to see how the small Canadian shop performs in the notebook space. The answer: pretty darn good.
I've spent the last few days working and playing with Voodoo's Envy u:734 notebook, a slick and powerful $3,700 workhorse of a machine. For the most part I've come away impressed.
First, there's the question of design. Few companies in the Windows side of the computing industry pay as close attention to a machine's finer points than Voodoo. The Envy comes with a smooth finish that makes it a pleasure to touch. That smoothness carries over to the 17-inch screen, another of those large glare-resistant screens so popular on notebooks of late.
Other design touches make for an attractive package. There's a brightly lit digital clock on the outer edge of the lower shell, nestled among the DVD control buttons, and a small Web camera embedded into the upper shell above the screen. The computer weighs in at a reasonable 8.1 pounds, and is a little more than an inch-and-a-half thick. That makes it about two pounds lighter than both the Toshiba Qosmio and Fujitsu Lifebook I recently looked at.
ITS GOT GUTS.
Internally is where the Voodoo advantage really becomes apparent. It uses an Intel (INTC) Core Duo T2600 microprocessor, which is rated at 2.16 GHz: faster than the chips running the other Intel-based machines I'm reviewing for this series. The graphics card is an nVidia (NVDA) GO 7900 GTX, contributing to a gaming performance better than I've seen on a notebook in some time. Playing Activision's (ATVI) Doom 3 with the game set on "high quality" I got 67 frames per second and some excellent sessions of play. With Quake 3, I got 152 frames per second with textures set to maximum. Storage consists of a 100-GB Seagate (STX) drive rated at 7,200 RPM. There's also a 4-in-1 flash memory card reader.
Battery life, generally less of an issue in notebooks of this class because they tend to be plugged in most of the time, was about what I've seen in others like it. I played a DVD movie for about 90 minutes before the battery ran out of juice.
The only thing about the Envy that didn't wow me: the speakers. Playing movies and games, I just wasn't terribly impressed with the range of sound—though a good pair of headphones will take of that. Here, the undisputed king of notebook PC audio is Toshiba (TOSBF).
Then there's the price. True, it had the fastest Intel processor of the sample group, but its starting price is $200 higher than Sony's (SNE) Vaio AR Premium, which comes with a Blu-ray player and burner. The Voodoo lacks a Blu-ray or HD-DVD drive. So why the high price?
For one thing, it's been future-proofed. So when Intel releases its new faster chip, code-named Merom, users can opt to have the makers swap in the new chip, says VoodooPC President Rahul Sood. Ditto for the graphics card. You can swap out your Nvidia card in favor of one from ATI (ATYT) if you like, or upgrade the card to one with more memory. Not everyone extends such offers. Not a do-it-yourselfer? Voodoo will handle the upgrade for you. There's also the warranty. If you need to get the machine fixed, Voodoo will pay shipping costs both ways.
Another justification for the premium is the custom-colored shell. Not only is it smooth to the touch, but you can pick your own color from 20 options. For an extra $222 you can also choose from a selection of "tattoos" to grace the top of the case. You won't get that from Dell, not even from its newly acquired Alienware division. The Envy also has been carefully engineered to run quietly and to stay cool. Even while playing Doom 3 I never felt the keyboard get hot. Voodoo goes to a lot of effort to control the thermal environment inside.
But is all that worth it? It is, if playing PC games is as important to you as breathing, and if having a truly flashy notebook PC is the sort of thing that matters in your social set. And believe me, that social set exists. VoodooPC is a premium brand with a dedicated following in the gaming community, which is populated by people who don't give their loyalty easily.
I loved using this machine, as would anyone else whose been frustrated by pokey computers before. But it's a Porsche in a world full of minivans. Few people need it, and fewer are willing to pay for it. But there are plenty who wish they could.