Gateway M520S Review

Battery life on the M520S was pretty good for a system using a desktop class processor.
Battery life on the M520S was pretty good for a system using a desktop class processor.
Battery life on the M520S was pretty good for a system using a desktop class processor.

Highs

  • Very affordable
  • comes with 512MB of RAM

Lows

  • Poor multimedia performance
  • spotty DVD Combo drive

DT Editors' Rating

Summary

The M520S really is a disappointing system. Gateway is trying to brand the system as a multimedia powerhouse, but other than the processor, there really is nothing “multimedia” about it. The 15″ screen is small, there is no FireWire capabilities built into the system and there are no media card slots. We also do not understand why Gateway chose to stick with the Intel integrated graphics chip which only has 32MB of memory on it. Add to that a scroll touch pad is basically useless and you have a very unpleasant system on your hands.  There were not any software products that came with the M520S that enhanced the system to brand it a “multimedia” laptop either.

The truth is that you will be very hard pressed to find a real desktop replacement notebook with 512MB of RAM and a desktop class processor for under $1000. We checked out desktop replacements from Sony, Toshiba, HP and Dell and could not find a system that matched or beat the Gateway M520S in price. Our recommendations: finance or save $500 dollars more and get the Sony A320 notebook which is a killer multimedia system and only costs $1799 – money well spent. If you just cannot see yourself spending that much on a system consider going with a Centrino based system such as the Gateway M320, or Gigabyte N512.

Introduction

The Gateway M320 and M520 product lines are currently being sold through retail stores and directly through Gateway’s website. The M320 line is being marketed as the thin and light laptop while the M520 is being branded as more of a desktop replacement notebook with multimedia capabilities. We reviewed the Gateway M320XL last week and while we loved its looks, there were some design flaws which we were disappointed in. This week we look at the big brother to the M320, the M520S desktop replacement.

There are three notebook computers in the M520 product line. For the budget conscious, the M520CS features an Intel Celeron CPU at 2.5GHz, 256MB of RAM and no built-in wireless capabilities while offering an affordable starting price of only $799. Stepping up to the M520S will get you an Intel Pentium 4 2.8GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM and integrated 802.11b/g networking for only $200 dollars more. And lastly the top-of-the-line M520X features Windows XP Professional as the operating system and a larger 60GB hard drive for an extra $279 starting at $1278.99. Gateway offers a “Step Up” program which will add more memory, more hard drive space and a 6-in-1 media card reader for a little extra money. Overall, all three systems are very competitively priced.

Gateway M520S
Image courtesy of Gateway

Features and Design

After having a chance to review the M320 series laptops, we of course had high expectations for the M520S system. All three systems in the M520 series have a very low starting price, so we knew corners had to be cut somewhere. Let’s begin with the specifications.

The M520S comes with a desktop class Intel Pentium 4 processor running at 2.8GHz and 512MB of RAM. We recommend that you skip the $799 dollar M320CS system and spend a little extra to get more memory and a more powerful CPU. The M520S also comes with a 15″ XGA display, 40GB hard drive and built in 802.11B/G networking via a Broadcom WiFi adapter. What is very disappointing, to say the least, is that Gateway chose to use the integrated Intel graphics chip with only 32MB of memory instead of a more powerful option from the likes of NVIDIA or ATI. We also found that there are no FireWire capabilities built into the system – a necessity for multimedia buffs.

The color scheme chosen by Gateway is a pleasant one. Just like the M320 line, the M520 features the same silver cover casing and the black colored base. The sides of the system have a shiny black sheen to it that is protected by a plastic wrap that you can decide to peel off. On the inside of the system, the M520S features the leather looking rubber coating for the palm rests just like the M320 line, as well as the same touch pad for the mouse cursor and scrolling; the mouse buttons do not seem to be as recessed as the M320 line though. Once the system is turned on you are greeted by several blue LED’s indicating the power, hard drive and WiFi are powered up.

Gateway M520S
Both systems feature a 15-inch screen, but the Gateway case is larger

Keyboard and system controls are well laid out. Located on top of the keyboard are the Music, E-mail and Search hot keys as well as the power button. The DVD combo drive is located on the right hand side of the system while the PC card slot and two USB ports are on the left hand side of the system.  Turning the system around will reveal two more USB ports, a VGA out port, modem and Ethernet ports, and audio inputs. There is not a rear cover to protect the exposed ports on the back of the system. What is really odd about this system is how wide it is considering it only has a 15″ LCD display. The chassis looks like it was designed for a larger display leaving 1-inch of plastic on both sides of the display and keyboard.

Gateway M520S
The Gateway M520S and Gigabyte N512 compared

Both the M520CS and M520X offer Gateway’s “Step Up” program which allow you to upgrade the systems RAM, hard drive, and DVD drive; including a 6-in-1 media card reader. We have mixed feelings on this. While we think the media card reader should have been a standard feature on the M520 since the laptop is supposed to be a multimedia focused system, we understand that Gateway is just trying to keep prices down. But if they leave everything as an option, the base system really doesn’t fit the description Gateway is trying to give it.

Setup and Use

Setting up the M520S is very easy. Simply power it up and answer the questions which Microsoft asks you for first time use in the Windows operating system environment. Once you are into the system you will want to activate the built in WiFi by pressing the Fn + F2 keys. Gateway wisely ships their systems with the built-in WiFi turned off, most likely to prevent others from accessing your system without your permission.

We found the keyboard to have a more solid feeling than the M320 we reviewed earlier in the month. The M320 has a very mushy feeling keyboard that tends to sink a little in the middle while being used. This was not the case with the M520S system. The hot keys located above the keyboard are a nice touch, but we could not figure out how to reprogram them. The e-mail key will simply activate the default e-mail client while pressing the information key goes to a Gateway/CompuServe website. More customizability would have been nice to have.

During the testing phase of this system we ran into several problems. First, once we installed Mobile Mark and started to run its tests, the program would fail halfway through. We tried running Mobile Mark no less than 6 times and each time we encountered the same error. So we thought maybe our test disc was corrupted.  We decided to run Sysmark so we could at least get some benchmarks completed. We were unable to get the M520S’s DVD drive to read our disc and the installation process would fail ¾ of the way through. With one more trick up our sleeve, we moved our SiSoftware Sandra software over the network and installed it on the M520S directly from its hard drive. The CPU Arithmetic test worked ok showing average scores for the systems processor. They were a tad bit higher than the M320XL system we reviewed featuring a 1.7GHz Pentium M processor. The M520S was not able to run the CPU multimedia tests which caused the system to crash each time. Our 3dMark 2001 tests showed the M520S on par with other laptops using the Intel integrated graphics – which yields below average results. During normal operating use, the M520S behaved fine showing no signs of failing. It was extremely frustrating to not be able to run the standard benchmarking tools on the system.   By the time our testing was done, we were very happy to be done with it.

Battery life on the M520S was pretty good for a system using a desktop class processor. The 4.4mAh Lithium-ion battery did a fairly good job yielding an operating time of just a little under 3 hours of use before needing to be recharged. Its worth noting that we are pleased Gateway decided to use a Lithium-ion based battery in this system. Dell announced a few months back that they would be ditching the Lithium-ion batteries in their low-end systems in favor of a cheaper battery type.

Conclusion

The M520S really is a disappointing system. Gateway is trying to brand the system as a multimedia powerhouse, but other than the processor, there really is nothing “multimedia” about it. The 15″ screen is small, there is no FireWire capabilities built into the system and there are no media card slots. We also do not understand why Gateway chose to stick with the Intel integrated graphics chip which only has 32MB of memory on it. Add to that a scroll touch pad is basically useless and you have a very unpleasant system on your hands.  There were not any software products that came with the M520S that enhanced the system to brand it a “multimedia” laptop either.

The truth is that you will be very hard pressed to find a real desktop replacement notebook with 512MB of RAM and a desktop class processor for under $1000. We checked out desktop replacements from Sony, Toshiba, HP and Dell and could not find a system that matched or beat the Gateway M520S in price. Our recommendations: finance or save $500 dollars more and get the Sony A320 notebook which is a killer multimedia system and only costs $1799 – money well spent. If you just cannot see yourself spending that much on a system consider going with a Centrino based system such as the Gateway M320, or Gigabyte N512.

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