The company promised to have the silicon ready in two years' time, but when 2008 rolled around, it was clear that all it was prepared to release was a series of roadmap slides. Now, don't get us wrong, those charts and graphs made us pretty giddy about the superior graphics and improved battery life that AMD was promising to bring to affordable ultraportables, but then a year later, when AMD still had only PowerPoint slides to show for itself, we started to think "Fusion" was no more than a drunken fantasy.
And it only got worse -- from 2009 to mid-2010 the company continued to talk up its never-before-seen and highly-delayed chips. (Just a read through the Engadget archives from that period pretty much illustrates that we had lost hope and started to think the chips would never see the light of day.) But then in June of 2010 the unthinkable happened -- AMD finally demoed its first Fusion Bobcat cores, and proved, at least from afar, that the soon-to-arrive ultrathin laptop solution would chew through Aliens vs. Predator, support DirectX 11, and use a lot less power than its previous platforms. It seemed almost too good to be true -- AMD looked ready to stick to its timing and deliver the first Fusion Brazos platform by early 2011.
So, what the heck does Fusion and AMD's history of promises about the platform have to do with HP's new Pavilion dm1z? Almost everything. HP's newest 11.6-inch not-quite-a-netbook (or a notbook as we like to call it) is the first Fusion system to hit the market, and with a dual-core 1.6GHz E350 Zacate processor and AMD Radeon HD 6310 GPU on the same chip it promises... well, everything AMD has promised for so long. According to HP and AMD, the system should last for over nine hours on a charge, play full 1080p content, and perhaps more importantly, not fry our laps as some previous AMD Neo-powered systems have done. For $450, it sounds like a true no-sacrifice system, but is it? Has AMD finally delivered an Intel Atom- / ULV-killer and has HP put it in a no-fuss chassis? We've spent the last week putting this system through the paces -- hit the break to find out if it has been worth the wait!
Look and feel
It's not that we didn't like the look of HP's previous glossy white dm1z, we just happen to like the new version a lot better. As you can see in the images above, HP's toned down the design quite a bit, and while the lid still has a trippy "interlink" imprint, the black, rubbery coating hides it fairly well if it isn't your thing. Even better, the soft-to-the-touch covering extends to the bottom of the system to give the entire thing a cohesive look. Overall, we'd say the black and silver gives the system a rather classic aesthetic, but when you lift up the lid, the silver, swoopy screen hinge exudes a more futuristic or mechanical aura. Something about it seems a tiny bit mismatched to us, but regardless, we really like the way the hinge props up the screen. All that said, the dm1z is a solidly built budget system -- the aforementioned soft plastic makes it feel more durable than glossy laptops, but it naturally isn't as tough as a machine like HP's metal-clad Envy 14.
The dm1z isn't as thin and light as your average 2.8-pound 10-inch netbook or even the 2.3-pound, 11.6-inch MacBook Air, but it's still awfully portable. The chassis has a slight wedge shape – it tapers from 0.8 inches in the front to 1.2 inches in the back – and weighs just about 3.5 pounds. It was actually the perfect size for an airplane tray table; with the system fully open we still had room for our Diet Coke and delicious in-flight pretzels. HP's also put the edge space to good use – surrounding the system are three USB sockets, a combo headphone / microphone jack, VGA and HDMI outputs, and an Ethernet port, which is hidden behind a small, cheap-feeling door. There's also a 2-in-1 card reader on the left edge.
Keyboard, touchpad, and screen
Below that interesting-looking screen hinge is HP's familiar chiclet keyboard. Similar to the one on theHP Mini 210, the matte keys have a rubbery feel to them that makes them feel very comfortable under the fingertips, but also causes them to pick up some unattractive fingerprints. We had no problem typing the brunt of this review on the deck, and the keys themselves have just the right amount of bounce. As far as spacing goes, we have no complaints – HP has managed to squeeze in two full size Shift keys (unlike some others!) and continues to use the function row as a shortcut keys.
Unsurprisingly, our major complaint about the system is related to the touchpad with its integrated mouse buttons. The good news is that the ClickPad has been improved, and HP has added a raised line to distinguish where the buttons start. That line absolutely makes navigating easier, but the 3.2 x 2.0-inch pad is still quite cramped, and because it is so closely located to the keyboard, our wrists repeatedly swiped at it and caused the cursor to jump around the screen. Luckily, you can turn off the touchpad by tapping twice on the small LED in the upper left corner. Disabling the pad and hooking up an external mouse solved those problems for us, but we assume most will be able to get by with the small pad -- it will just take a bit of finger and wrist adjustment. We should also note that multitouch gestures worked fairly well – dragging two fingers down the pad took us down this very webpage quite smoothly.
The 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768-resolution display is standard fare for a budget system. It's decently bright and 720p content looked crisp, but the viewing angles were mediocre. Watching the Green Hornet trailer with a friend was no struggle, but when we sat back from the system with the screen at a 30 degree angle, colors were quite distorted. We've come to expect that sort of screen quality from cheaper systems, but we can't say we expected the full and loud sound that came out of the speaker strip along the front edge of the system. Enhanced with Dolby Audio software, the speakers pumped out our new favorite jam (yes,this remixed version of Rihanna's "What's My Name") quite loudly. The sound is actually shockingly good for this class of laptop.
Performance and graphics
Finally, we arrive at the part of the review we've all been waiting for. The part where we tell you how exactly Fusion performs and if it lives up to all the years of hype. So here goes...
We're not ones for putting too much emphasis on synthetic benchmarks but in this case they speak for themselves. On the performance end, the 1.6GHz E350 processor and 3GB of RAM managed to pull in 2,510 on PCMarkVantage – that's 987 more than a dual-core Atom N550 netbook and 999 more than a previous AMD Neo processor (though, only a few more points than a dual-core Neo processor). Anecdotal performance was in line with that as well – the dm1z felt much faster than any Atom netbook and closer to a ULV laptop like the ThinkPad Edge 11. The Windows 7 Home Premium system saw zero lag while simultaneously running Microsoft Word Starter 2010, TweetDeck, Skype, Trillian, and Firefox with 10 tabs open. Throwing a 1080p video into the mix didn't slow the system either. The only time we really did see the system start gasping for air was when we tried to install Batman: Arkham Asylum while running a few other programs in the background. Swapping out the 320GB 7200RPM hard drive for HP's 128GB SSD option would probably speed things up on the install front, but that will cost you an extra $290.
|HP Pavilion dm1z (AMD Zacate E350) ||2510||2213||5:02|
|HP Mini 5103 (dual-core Intel Atom N550)||1523||143||6:16|
|ASUS Eee PC 1215N (Atom D525 / NVIDIA Ion 2)||1942||181 / 2480||5:42|
|Acer Aspire One 721 (AMD Neo Neo K125)||1814||1235||3:30|
|Dell Inspiron M101z (dual-core AMD Neo K325)||2572||1311||3:35|
|Lenovo ThinkPad X100e (AMD Athlon Neo)||1511||1060||3:27|
|Lenovo ThinkPad Edge 11 (Core i3 ULV)||2964||1105||4:42|
|Lenovo IdeaPad U160 (Intel Core i7 ULV)||3863||1175||3:10|
|Alienware M11x (Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300)||2689||654 / 5593||4:30|
But the appeal of Fusion is that the processing power is matched by some really solid graphics muscle. And as you can see from the chart above, AMD's Radeon HD 6310M graphics absolutely wrecks Intel's GMA 3150 netbook and GMA 4500 ULV graphics solutions. It scored a couple hundred points less than some netbooks with NVIDIA Ion 2, but in everyday use, things ran just as smoothly. The dm1z was able to manage playing local and streaming 1080p video even when output to a 42-inch HDTV. And while the platform isn't intended for heavy gaming, it could still hold its own in Gnomeregan. Oh yes, we fired upWoW: Cataclysm and our gnome was briskly jumping around the screen around 28fps with the resolution set at 1024 x 768. For kicks we also installed Batman: Arkham Asylum, but Batman wasn't exactly happily throwing punches at 19fps.
So, what does it all mean? Basically, AMD's Fusion Zacate platform provides much better overall performance than Intel's Atom and AMD's previous Neo processors. In terms of graphics, the dm1z's comparable to an Ion 2-powered netbook, but the fact that it pairs a solid CPU with a discrete-like GPU makes it a much more well-rounded system than some of those Ion 2 or ULV laptops. In other words, when it comes to power and graphics, the Fusion-powered dm1z provides an almost perfect middle ground for those seeking something in between a netbook and a mainstream system.
Battery life and heat
But AMD's never really had much of an issue providing a good balance of performance and graphics -- its weakness has always been in battery life and thermals. Well, that's where we can say AMD has finally made some serious headway with Fusion. The dm1z's 55Whr, six-cell battery lasted five hours and 40 minutes on our video rundown test, which loops the same standard definition video with WiFi on and brightness set at 65 percent. In regular usage, the dm1z lasted close to six hours and 15 minutes. Yep, it got us through the entire flight from Vegas to NYC and then some. That's just as long as many six-cell netbooks, and two hours longer than most AMD Neo systems we've tested. Of course, that's not as long as HP's predicted nine hours, but to be honest we never really expected it to live up to that claim – HP and most other laptop manufacturers continue to test these laptops with an antiquated test called MobileMark that requires that you turn off WiFi, and who uses a laptop with WiFi off these days? We wish the companies would stop using such misleading claims, but that's a conversation for another time.
Ready for more good news? The dm1z stayed quite cool during our usage. Nope, not once did it feel like it was overheating our reproductive organs like some past AMD-powered Pavilions -- in fact, it stayed at room temperature most of the time. Those pleasant temperatures can be contributed to AMD's platform improvements, but also to HP's CoolSense technology. HP has designed the vents to direct heat away from the body and has bundled the system with its Thermal Assistant software, which lets you control the settings in different scenarios. We did, however, notice that the fan noise got quite loud at times, notably when playing WoW or firing up a Flash video. It's not all that bothersome, but it is absolutely noticeable.
The first time you boot up the dm1z, you'll notice is that HP's taken some creative freedom with the desktop. Not only does it preload a funky wallpaper of birds on a wire, but it's using a utility called Fences to organize shortcuts into different categories. We're not sure we'd be able to maintain the organization aspect, but we do think it's cool that you can double-click to hide all your desktop icons. Obviously, personal preference will decide if this tool stays or gets the uninstall treatment. Other than that, HP pulls its typical software bundling tricks, which means there seems to be an endless number of Norton and software registration reminder popups, as well as extra browser toolbars. The system also comes preloaded with Skype, Blio's e-reader app, Roxio Movie Store, and a handful of HP's own programs, like MediaSmart and Cloud Drive.
Is this really happening? After years of waiting has AMD finally done it? Provided a netbook / ultraportable platform that melds really solid performance and graphics with solid battery life? Something that can kick Intel's Atom to the curb, but doesn't require a recharge every two and a half hours? The Pavilion dm1z certainly has all signs pointing to yes – the 11.6-inch system runs for over five hours on a charge while providing full HD playback and great multitasking prowess. Of course, the rest of the market hasn't sat still for systems like the Fusion-powered dm1z, and there are plenty of other good affordable ultraportables out there -- including the $550 Intel ULV-powered ThinkPad Edge 11 and $500 Ion 2-powered ASUS Eee PC 1215N -- but at $450 the dm1z provides the best balance of performance, graphics, and battery life for the price, and to that end, AMD can finally pat itself on the back... even if it did take five years to get here.