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Sager 4250 notebook - the original review and the long-time problems

Here is the "long-term" part of the review - please also see below the original review...

After about 8 months from the original purchase a small problem started to be visible on the video part, there were some transitory vertical lines that were also visible on an external monitor but the problem was (initially) only visual and was very often going away by itself so I have not paid much attention to it..

After 2 more months the problem was pretty much permanent, so I decided that since the notebook was still under the original warranty it might be a good idea to contact Sager - I did that and they said to send the notebook to be fixed. We did just that and after some time it returned apparently OK - pretty much the normal thing to expect from a notebook with problems but still in warranty ...

However, after 8-10 more months the SAME problem was AGAIN visible


Sager 4250 notebook - the original review

This is a short review of the Sager 4250 notebook – Sager is not exactly a widespread brand and while searching on the web for real-world impressions before actually buying (which is always a good idea) I was a little disappointed by the lack of available information – the only interesting independent review was for a rather old model – and while the overall impression was good the information was really dated (for such a fast market as the one for notebooks). Anyway I decided to take the risks and I have ordered my notebook from http://www.powernotebooks.com/ (they have very good reviews as notebook sellers) - after a few emails changed with Donald Stratton (which was very helpful) I decided for a Sager 4250 configuration with a PIII 1.2 GHz, 1 GB PC133 SDRAM, 40 GB HDD, 8-8-8-24 DVD/CDRW combo, 64MB video (ATI M6P) and 15’’ SXGA+ (1400x1050) screen – at that moment around 2210 US$ with shipping but without any operating system (at that time a similar Compaq Presario 2700 would have required around 2800 US$ if I was getting the RAM from http://www.crucial.com/ and well over 3000 US$ if the RAM was from Compaq). After a few days the configuration was actually shipped (100% conforming the original schedule given by Donald) and soon after that the notebook arrived in Connecticut at my US associate - where it was only used for a few days and then sent to me at our "software lab". We are only now writing the review since a serious amount of time is needed in order to test a new computer and even now the review is not closed, an important feature of a good notebook being how it can resist over years of use!

The first impression when you see the 4250 is not always fair to the "real configuration inside" – the notebook was originally designed for a 14’’ screen and (similar to other models even from big companies like DELL) the 15’’ screen was introduced later and as a result the top/screen part is a little bigger than the bottom/keyboard part; also the semitransparent keyboard together with the unusual colors for the "palm rest" might not be very appealing to corporate users but overall the notebook is not looking bad at all! (you might also see some pictures at http://www.sagernotebooks.com/ ). The build quality is good and the notebook could have actually been considered very solid if it wasn’t for the extra-large top. The notebook might look a little heavy when compared with the medium-type 14’’ notebook (like the Compaq Presario 1700 or the Dell Inspiron 4xxx) but it’s actually lighter than the average 15’’ notebooks (like the Presario 2700 or the Inspiron 8xxx) and any extra weight is "repaid" by what is simply an AMAZING battery life – it can easily last over 4:00 – 4:30 hours in "normal use" and over 3:30 hours in DVD playback (where the DVD drive and the software decoding will require a constant high power consumption). The recharging time of about 3-4 hours is quite normal (and is obviously longer when the notebook itself is on).

All the inside components are quite good – the optical unit is a Toshiba SD-R2102 (which can be made "region free" with the right firmware patch :) and the HDD is a Toshiba MK4018GAP, the chipset is the latest PIII Intel mobile version and the CPU is a mobile Intel PIII-M 1.2 GHz. The keyboard is good for a notebook (I have seen better, but that was in much more expensive notebooks), the Synaptics touchpad is now quite standard on most notebooks (this one has 2 normal mouse buttons and 2-way scroll buttons) and the 15’’ 1400x1050 screen is also good – one of my main fears was that at 1400x1050 the standard font size would be too small but it is actually usable and the huge desktop space can be quite handy in programs like Visual Studio .NET ! The ATI M6P video card is not a major 3D speed daemon (and I would have been really happy with one of the newer ATI 7500 or the GForce4Go) but with 64 MB DDRAM is very good for 2D work (including the ability to use at the same time 3 displays) and is usable for most of the current 3D games.

There are lots of "connection points" – a quite silent FDD, 4 USB (USB 1.1, but no USB 2.0), FireWare, external monitor and TV, one PS/2 connector, one parallel connector, modem (SmartLink 56k), 10/100 Ethernet (Realtek RTL8139A), headphones and microphone from the integrated SoundMax card that even has a S/PDIF optical connector! The integrated speakers are also good (maybe not as good as those in the Presario 2700 but close). There are 2 PCMCIA slots and also (surprise-surprise) one Sony Memory Stick slot and one SD card slot – but I personally favor Compact-Flash so for 10 extra US$ I have bought a small CF-to-PCMCIA adapter.

The only thing missing is a standard serial port – this was clearly written on the web pages from http://www.powernotebooks.com/ so it was no surprise, and for the moment it was replaced OK by the built-in IR port - I can use it with my Nokia 6210 for Internet access from really remote places – it’s slow (not because of the IR port – this can be quite fast - but because of the GSM dial-up mode from my provider) but it works for emergency situations :) (under Win2k you might also need the IrCOMM2k driver! )

The notebook came with a decent manual and a few CDs with drivers and a "free software pack" (not bad but nothing really stunning) – I think it also had a modem cable but no Ethernet cable (not a big problem since you can probably get a very good one of the precise length and type that you want for less than 10-20 US$, but some people might be a little disappointed).

Since it will be my heavy-duty "mobile mini-workstation" (and since a MSDN Universal subscription also has some advantages :) I have installed Win98 SE, Windows 2000 Server and WinXP Pro (on separate partitions) – everything worked pretty much OK - a problem was visible under Win98SE apparently with the video driver (which was not able to start and as a result the video mode was always a standard VGA) – but this was actually a bug in Win98 with 1 GB RAM and while the Sager technical support was able to correctly (and rather fast) suggest that as a possible cause, their suggested fix (to remove one of the two 512 MB SODIMMs) wasn’t exactly perfect – after a short web search I could find this page and after adding the following lines to system.ini under the [vcache] section:
everything worked just fine!!!

The only non-solved problem that I had so far (and it’s already been more than 3 weeks of use) is the Intel SpeedStep under Windows XP – for some strange reason the CPU speed in XP is fixed to either 1200 MHz (on AC power) or 800 Mhz (on battery) – this seems to be related to Intel SpeedStep driver "bundled" inside XP (since under both Win98SE and Win2k the stand-alone SpeedStep driver from Intel works "normally" and the CPU speed can go as low as 400 Mhz) – but it might also be a BIOS problem, we are still investigating that! One special note about all mobile Intel CPUs and SpeedStep – (as surprising as it might be) the Intel SpeedStep seems inferior to AMD PowerNow yet while AMD has a decent documentation about their technology, Intel is having a clear case of "over-secrecy" – and as a result their SpeedStep driver is quite poor and very far from being really "adaptative" – with the result of extra power consumption and extra heat generation – this is not very big but I suspect that with the right driver it might be even further reduced (for instance it is quite stupid that when on AC the CPU speed is never lowered to 400 MHz when I am simply typing text for a long time – at some point I hope to get the time to "hack" that Intel program and come with a better version :)
However installing the SpeedStep drivers is essential – without them the CPU speed is always high and the extra heat generated will sometimes start the internal fans in the "max. speed mode" which might seem for some people a little loud (even if in my opinion it was pretty much the same as in a Compaq Presario 2700). Also please note that (strangely) in the Intel SpeedStep driver the "Max Battery" setting is not actually the most energy-efficient setting - in most of our tests the "Automatic" mode was slightly better!

The speed of the notebook is quite very good – similar to other 1.2 GHz mobile PIII notebooks and probably similar in 99% of the tests to the speed of a mobile P4 at 1.7 Ghz - we are still doing tests on that part but if any of our readers would like to see some of the numbers in advance please contact us!

The bottom line for the moment is quite good – the Sager 4250 seems a good compromise of performance and price with a decent build quality - but that will probably be better tested over a long period of time - the difference from a decent to a very good build quality is usually visible only after more than one year of heavy use! It also remains the only notebook that I know of with a 15’’ screen and well over 4 hours from it’s standard battery – and while Intel is pushing the new generation of mobile P4 very strong that P4 CPU will never reach the same performance / power consumption ratio as the PIIIM – if battery life + a fast x86 CPU + a 15’’ screen is what you need I think that you can still arrange with Donald Stratton for a special order! If 3D speed is very, very important for you (or if you do a lot of DivX encoding) you can get either a Sager 5650 (mobile P4) or 5620 (desktop P4, but seriously cheaper) - both are a little heavier than the 4250 and the battery life is around 2 hours but you can also get a second battery (which will add extra weight again) and reach 4 hours of battery life! There is also a Sager 8880 but this one is more like a desktop in one piece - it has an almost full keyboard, TV Tuner and MP3 player module, but it's almost twice heavier than the 4250 and almost 3 times heavier than a light 14'' notebook :)


After an initial short search on the web (with no serious results) and after loosing a LOT of time with 2-3 new "clean XP installations" I decided to do a more extensive research - and the problem described above seems to be one of the too many small problems in WinXP - it seems to be actually related to this bug but unfortunately the Microsoft download from that page isn't actually working - and after loosing some extra time (thank you again Microsoft :) I decided to do a search on Google for "5.1.2600.28" (this seems to be the latest version of the P3.SYS driver with the problem) - I have found a download on a German page and I have replaced the existing driver for the PIII CPU with this new one and as a result now things are a little better - if I boot XP on batteries the SpeedStep part seems to work very well (with CPU speeds as low as 200 MHz but which can "adapt" up to 800 MHz) but still not perfect - when I boot XP on AC power the speed is still fixed at 1200 MHz on AC power and 800 MHz on battery! So for the moment we can only hope that SP1 for WinXP will FINALLY fix some of those bugs :)

During those new tests we have also seen a small problem with certain PCMCIA cards getting quite hot, but that's not taking place with all PCMCIA cards (for instance the CompactFlash adapter only gets marginally warm) - so we'll probably soon add another update about that - and maybe some other interesting things!

SMALL UPDATE - XP, SPEEDSTEP & other things (end of August 2002)

Even if a lot of time has passed, WinXP SP1 is still not ready :(
However, I was able to improve some of the things related to power-management in both Win2k and WinXP by installing Intel Speedstep driver v2.3 - which I have to admit that is not available from the Sager 4250 page but instead I took it from the Dell site :)
Installing Intel Speedstep driver under WinXP is also "unusual" (since the program was not designed for that) but you can make the setup believe it is runing on Win2k and it will install just fine!!!
Now on both Win2k (with SP3) and WinXP the speed is controlled by two settings - one from the operating system (the power-management icon in the tray or in Control Panel) AND the Intel Speedstep driver - and using both it is possible to achieve CPU speeds from around 100-400 MHz up to 1200 MHz when running on batteries and from 800 MHz to 1200 MHz when running on AC power - that actually remains (for me) the ONLY remaining thing missing - I would LOVE if I could set the CPU speed to 400 MHz even when running on AC power since at 400 MHz the heat generated by the CPU is practically inexistent!!!

The other problem still unsolved 100% is that some PCMCIA cards are getting very hot - but I am still investigating that!

Copyright (c) 2002 XDESKSOFTWARE