Test Drive: WinBook J4

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 24, 2002
By Eric Grevstad

Some things are just wrong. You don't eat dessert first. You don't go out and party with friends on a weeknight. And you don't put a 2.2GHz desktop processor in a notebook PC, recklessly sacrificing any semblance of battery life for self-indulgent speed.

Tell it to WinBook Computer Corp. The Ohio-based laptop specialist is one of several vendors to find that Intel's 0.13-micron P4 "Northwood" runs cool enough to make a pretty good notebook CPU, while being priced considerably below what Intel's Department of Silly Names insists on calling the Pentium 4 Processor-M. Oh, and battery life? The WinBook J4 is not only the fastest laptop we've seen so far, but actually ran longer than the Toshiba Satellite 5105 we tested recently, which uses a mobile Pentium 4 that's 500MHz slower.

Now, the first thing to admit is that the J4's battery life is still inadequate for frequent fliers - an hour and 45 minutes. The second is that it's heavier than the Toshiba or most other notebooks: a portly 8.3 pounds, part of which is a relatively huge 87-watt-hour lithium-ion battery. Despite anything Intel's (or AMD's or Transmeta's) engineers might do, battery and screen size far outrank CPU technology when it comes to determining cordless life, and everything about the WinBook shouts, "Bigger is better" - including its 15-inch, 1,400 by 1,050-pixel, active-matrix display.

Three Grand To Go Something else that's pretty big is our test model's price: $3,093 with the 2.2GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of memory, a 40GB hard disk, DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, ATI's 64MB Mobility Radeon 7500 graphics accelerator, and onboard 802.11b wireless as well as wired Ethernet, 56Kbps modem, USB, and FireWire ports. (An external USB floppy drive is a $99 option; a spare battery is $229.)

We realize the J4 is a damn-the-torpedoes desktop replacement, but $3,000 has become a formidable psychological barrier in this age of likable $1,400 laptops; realistically, we'd step down to a 30GB hard disk and Windows XP Home instead of Professional to get the sticker under $2,900, and consider settling for a 2.0GHz CPU to get under $2,600. (On the other hand, power maniacs can crank it up to a 2.4GHz Pentium 4 and 1GB of memory for $3,842.)

But in return for half your bank account and most of your briefcase space (10.8 by 13.1 by 1.8 inches; the AC adapter hikes travel weight to a painful 9.5 pounds), you get a laptop suitable for any software, including demanding desktop publishing or computer-aided design.

Speed freaks will groan that the J4's Pentium 4 and i845 chipset not only settle for a 400MHz instead of the latest models' 533MHz front-side bus, but are yoked to narrowband PC133 SDRAM instead of quicker DDR or RDRAM memory; that means the 2.2GHz WinBook delivered benchmark results merely matching those of a 2.0GHz Northwood DDR desktop we tested in April. A BAPco SysMark 2002 score of 184, with 131 in Office Productivity and a screaming 259 in Internet Content Creation? We'll take it, thanks.

Despite the SDRAM, the WinBook posted a competitive MadOnion.com PCMark 2002 memory score of 3,396 and sizzling CPU score of 5,198. But its 40GB IBM Travelstar 40GN hard disk (5,400-rpm model IC25N040ATCS04) proved to be a slowpoke, with a PCMark rating of 284 - we've seen economy-model desktops double that number.

The ATI Mobility Radeon 7500 isn't quite a match for Nvidia's latest GeForce4 Go notebook 3D accelerator, but it'll still blow away many desktops without breaking a sweat, rushing through the classic Quake III Arena benchmark at 79 frames per second in High-Quality 1,024 by 768 mode (149 fps in Normal 640 by 480). It couldn't complete all the DirectX torture tests of 3DMark 2001 SE Pro (as ATI's desktop Radeon 8500 can), but its score of 3,947 is way ahead of most integrated desktops', let alone laptops'.

The Mobility Radeon is a good match for the 15-inch, active-matrix LCD, whose 1,400 by 1,050 resolution is a good compromise between dull old XGA and some screens' 1,600 by 1,200 (which we think makes text and icons too tiny unless you adjust Windows settings that throw off application appearance in other ways). If you do prefer a lower resolution, we found the J4 to be better than most notebooks, though no LCD is really great, at smoothing out a scaled-to-full-screen 1,024 by 768 or 1,280 by 1,024 display. And if you're trying to eke out that 100-odd minutes of battery life, the screen stays perfectly readable if you use a function-key combination to turn brightness down by two or three of the available six or seven notches.

Smooth Connections, A Few Rough Edges
We can't complain about the WinBook's compatibility with all kinds of storage and digital imaging peripherals: In addition to classic parallel and VGA ports, line-out and microphone jacks, and an S-Video port, the unit has one IEEE 1394 (FireWire) and four USB 1.1 ports (if you crave USB 2.0, you must buy an adapter for the single PC Card slot), as well as the abovementioned modem, Ethernet, and WiFi connections.

External mouse or keyboard buffs will have to use USB versions of those devices, since there are no PS/2 ports, but most should be happy with the standard input devices. The keyboard avoids the two worst sins of notebook typing, with dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys (instead of double-duty cursor arrows) and the Delete key at the top right where your fingers expect to find it (although the Insert key is to the left of the spacebar). It has a rather flat and rattly but adequate feel.

WinBook provides both a touchpad and a keyboard-embedded pointing stick for cursor control; the former is comfortably smooth, with an up-and-down scrolling button mounted between good-sized left and right mouse buttons, but the pointing stick is sunk too low between the G and H keys to be much use and you'll end up ignoring it. Chrome buttons flanking the power switch launch Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, while multimedia buttons on the front edge control audio volume and CD play.

The J4's stereo speakers are predictably tinny but tolerable for routine sound effects. We thought they'd be drowned out by the cooling fan, but the latter - though louder than many desktops', noticeable far across the room - proved not to be a constant complaint. The AC adapter, however, grew awfully hot for our tastes, and two blocky feet on the WinBook's bottom made it a bit uncomfortable for lap work.

We also wished for a bit more bundled software than Windows XP Professional and InterVideo WinDVD 3.1. Such a powerful PC deserves a productivity package, and the Toshiba SD-R2102 combo drive (rated for 48X CD and 8X DVD playback and 8X for both CD writing and rewriting) deserves a better CD burning utility than Win XP's minimal built-in wizard.

Overall, the J4 is a slick if specialized notebook - it flaunts more than enough power to earn the "desktop replacement" label, with enough battery life for at least brief presentations or shuttle flights instead of just being transportable from office to home or hotel. We can't help frowning at any laptop that weighs over 8 pounds in this age of full-featured 4- to 6-pounders, or that costs over $3,000 in this age of capable notebooks for half that. But 2.2GHz counts for a lot on our sinful scale.

Pros: A 2.2GHz Pentium 4?! Spreadsheets will never know what hit them; handsome 15-inch display, plenty of ports, and built-in 802.11b.

Cons: Colossal size, weight, and cost; battery life gets barely a passing grade.

Reprinted from HardwareCentral.com.

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