Remember the Gateway NV7915u? Back in our Spring 2010 retail roundup of laptops, the budget-priced 17-incher won our Best of Budget category, and also received an Editors’ Choice recommendation. At $599, its combination of Intel Core i3 processor, large hard-drive capacity, generous RAM, and a large screen made it a great all-around machine at an extremely reasonable price.

Gateway’s NV79 series of large-screened laptops has a range that starts at the NV7915u, and goes all the way up to the model we have now–the NV7901u. At $849, it’s hardly the bargain that the NV7915u was. On the other hand, look at what you’re getting: a 2.26 GHz Intel Core i5 processor, as well as dedicated ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 graphics that are much better than average. For an extra $250, the processor and graphical capabilities have received a significant upgrade while retaining the same body design that we found quite comfortable.

The problem is, the closer a laptop comes to $1,000, the easier it is to find a suitable replacement from another manufacturer with equally compelling features. With Blu-ray and a 1080p-resolution display missing from this Gateway’s feature set, we’re left with a product that’s one foot in high-end, one foot in budget. If you’re looking for a better and slightly cheaper jack-of-all-trades, the Samsung NP-R580 has a similar offering of Core i5 processor and Nvidia graphics and also adds a Blu-ray drive, albeit with a lower-res 15.6-inch screen, for $829.

To some extent, the NV7901u is attractive from the outside: clean lines and a red or black honeycomb-patterned glossy lid lend the unit a subtle appeal. It’s the same look as that ofthe previously reviewed NV7915u. Inside, a matte black keyboard deck and a matte and flat keyboard dominate the bottom, while glossy black surrounds the large 17.3-inch display. Two round hinges hold the laptop together, the hinge thick enough to allow the power button to hide in the right side, much like many Sony Vaio laptops we’ve seen. There’s minimal battery bulge, giving the unit a pretty uniform thickness. At 7 pounds, it’s lighter than normal for a big-screen desktop replacement, but it’s also no svelte computer. The slightly plastic look worked better for the NV7915u when it cost $599; at $849 it’s less ideal.

Recent Gateway keyboards stand out from the pack by nature of having flat versus raised Chiclet-style keys, such as the ones seen on everything from MacBooks to Vaios. The wide, flat keys seem jarring by comparison at first, but the typing experience is actually surprisingly good. The key depressions are quiet yet retain a nice click with good travel, and the keys don’t wobble. An adjoining number pad is a nice addition, but it’s a little too close to the main keyboard for comfort. To its credit, however, direction arrows and Shift/Return keys are kept discrete and properly sized. Above the keyboard is a small LED-backlit touch panel for controlling volume, Wi-Fi connectivity, and a few other functions.

The slightly recessed multitouch-enabled pad has a smooth matte surface and is larger than average. It also controls well, with two-finger scrolling and pinch-to-zoom working better than normal for a Windows 7 touchpad. It’s a shame the mouse button-bar beneath remains awkward. Thin, mirrored, and lacking discrete buttons, it’s oddly flush with the rest of the palm-rest surface. Its positioning and design make it hard to click and use.

The Gateway NV7901u has a 17.3-inch LED-backlit screen, with a glossy surface and a 16:9 aspect ratio. It has a 1,600×900 native resolution, which is less than “full HD” 1,900×1,080 displays we’ve seen. The screen is big and bright, and its resolution does make a great space for photo-editing, viewing multiple documents and multitasking in multiple windows, but its viewing angles weren’t as great as other recent screens we’ve seen. Above the screen, the same 0.3-megapixel Webcam included in the lower-end NV7915u offers video conferencing and picture-taking capabilities, but at a max resolution of 640×480. That’s less than on the lower-powered EC5809u, which at least had a 720p Webcam. Pictures tended towards fuzzy and soft, and video was passable.

The integrated speakers, located above the keyboard and under thin grilles, had better-than-average volume and sound quality. They seemed a notch better than the recent EC5809u we tested and are definitely good enough for movie-watching and music-playing among friends.

USB ports aplenty and HDMI-out grace the NV7901u, but Bluetooth does not, despite a function-key emblazoned with the trademark B-symbol. For a laptop this large, the port features are a little barer than most, but it’s enough to get the job done. Both eSATA and ExpressCard were absent from the lower-end NV7915u, and they’re regrettably absent here, too.

A 500GB hard drive and 4GB of high-speed RAM match what were present on the NV7915u, too. In a $599 laptop those are great specs; on an $849 laptop, they’re merely standard.

The Core i5 processor at the heart of the NV7901u is an improvement from the Core i3 in the NV7915u, and its advantages are most obvious in its improved multitasking benchmark scores. In terms of overall specs, this Gateway is a close match to the Samsung NP-R580 we liked quite a bit in the last retail round-up. It performs nearly identically to other Core i5 laptops, including the Lenovo IdeaPad Y460.

One improvement over the Samsung NP-R580, and over most laptops, are this Gateway’s dedicated graphics. The included ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 graphics are considerably better than average: Unreal Tournament III ran at a very nice 63.4fps at the display’s native 1,600×900 resolution and medium graphics settings. This machine is more than capable of playing mainstream games: we also tried Call of Juarez 2 at native resolution and found it smooth when set to lower graphics settings.

There are other NV79 model configurations available that include Blu-ray/DVD combo drives, but none that also have dedicated graphics. Gateway’s forcing of the decision between Blu-ray or graphics seems odd–we’d have preferred an upgrade option on this model. One the things we liked most about the Samsung NP-R580 was its complete feature set in that regard, offering both graphics and Blu-ray. It still has an edge over the NV7901u because of it.

The Gateway NV7901u ran for 2 hours and 27 minutes on our video playback battery drain test, using the included six-cell battery. Our battery drain test is especially grueling, so you can expect longer life from casual Web surfing and office use, but that’s still not a great number. Apple’s recent MacBooks, by comparison, last well over 5 hours. While we don’t imagine most users keeping a 17-inch laptop very far away from a power socket, it runs out of juice very quickly–especially when playing games.

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