Sharp Actius RD10 Review

By Eric Grevstad | Posted May 23, 2003
The last time we reviewed a desktop-replacement portable, we noted that it fit between "the 8-pound 'Oof! This is heavy' notebook limit" and "the 9-pound 'Argh! This is impossible' status of some" high-powered laptops. On that scale, Sharp Systems of America's new Actius RD10 is off the scale: It weighs 10.3 pounds.

Granted that Intel's desktop Pentium 4 processor has inspired an avalanche of ponderous portables, the Sharp still stuns onlookers with its colossal bulk (11.7 by 13.9 by 2 inches). Even its AC adapter has twice the heft of most laptops' (1.9 pounds). When a coworker shows off her new Centrino slimline notebook, you can whip out the RD10 and reenact the "That's not a knife" scene from Crocodile Dundee ("That's not a laptop; that's a laptop"), if you have a friend nearby to help you whip it out.

Clearly, the briefcase-busting Actius is a portable PC only in the occasional sense — easier to move from one office to another, say, than a desktop system. That's because it's designed to compete with a desktop system — and not just in terms of its 2.8GHz Pentium 4 CPU, but in terms of its 15-inch screen.

The flat panel is the same one found in Sharp's 15-inch desktop LCD monitors, with wider viewing angles and visibly higher brightness than conventional notebook displays. Sharp calls it "extremely bright," and provides a showy blue "Bright" button — or shortcut to the highest of the screen's eight brightness settings — next to the power button.

We call it almost too bright for comfort in evening-at-home environments, and arguably brighter than our desktop CRT under office fluorescent lighting. For regular work sessions, we found ourselves using the fifth or sixth of the eight levels, saving the turbo-bright button for movies and games. If you've been wishing your laptop offered a better view of image-editing details or shadowy DVD scenes, the RD10 is a $1,999 eye-opener.

Desktop Performance, Too
Given its Pentium 4/2.8 processor with 533MHz front-side bus, we expected the Sharp to be one of the fastest laptops we've tested. And it is: Based on SiS' 645DX chipset, the system racked up a BAPco SysMark 2002 score of 212 (balancing an Internet Content Creation mark of 318 with an Office Productivity tally of 142).

Its FutureMark PCMark 2002 scores were 6,728 (CPU), 4,659 (memory), and 600 (hard disk) — the middle one showing the result of Sharp's skimping with DDR266 instead of faster memory, but still a highly respectable score. We're more bothered that the standard 512MB of memory can only be expanded to 768MB instead of 1GB or more.

The RD10 backs up its bright screen with Nvidia's GeForce4 420 Go graphics accelerator with 32MB of display memory; the AGP 4X chip helped push the system to a solid 3DMark 2001 SE Pro score of 4,156, but is no match for higher-end mobile solutions such as ATI's Mobility Radeon 9000 — it stops at the DirectX 7 level instead of supporting DirectX 8 or 9 for the latest, fanciest 3D games. While the Sharp blasted through the old Quake III Arena benchmark (102 frames per second in High-Quality 1,024 by 768 mode), it showed jaggy and incomplete screens en route to an Unreal Tournament 2003 demo flyby score of 44.1.

Still, the RD10 not only has ample graphics performance but comes with software to show it off — three current Electronic Arts games (007 Nightfire, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2003), plus a version of InterVideo's WinDVD 4 tweaked with what Sharp calls SharpFX LCD optimization or contrast adjustment for maximum clarity.

The nighttime scenes in Spider-Man looked awfully dark to our eyes, but on the whole the Actius scores as a wide-viewing-angle, fast-screen-response DVD player (or PowerPoint conference-table centerpiece, for that matter). As long as it's plugged into an AC outlet, we mean; more on that in a second.

How Far Apart Are Your Wall Sockets?
The Actius RD10 is well-equipped for desktop-replacement duty, with a 60GB Hitachi hard disk and 24/10/24X CD-RW/8X DVD-ROM combo drive. A 3.5-inch floppy drive and single Type II PC Card slot are at the left, next to headphone and microphone jacks, one IEEE 1394 FireWire port, and two USB 2.0 ports.

Two more USB 2.0 ports, along with 10/100Mbps Ethernet, 56Kbps modem, TV-out, and VGA ports are at the rear. WiFi (802.11b) wireless networking is built in; Sharp provides a handy utility for saving and switching among network settings (your home versus office WiFi, for example), along with the 90-day trial version of Symantec's Norton AntiVirus 2003. No productivity software is included, however.

Digital-camera buffs will be happy to find Memory Stick, Secure Digital/SmartMedia card, and CompactFlash slots built into the laptop's front edge, though audiophiles will be puzzled that such a deskbound, entertainment-oriented system lacks the multimedia play/pause/track/eject buttons found on a growing number of notebook and desktop keyboards.

Something else Sharp skips that many competitors provide is an equivalent to a mouse scroll wheel between the touchpad's left and right mouse buttons, though the touchpad is one of the smoother and more accurate we've tried. The keyboard is comfortable, with a soft, silent touch and the dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys we prefer; the front 3.5 inches of the system serve as an ample palm or wrist rest.

Rated XGA
While its weight is an undeniable drawback, we have two other issues with the Actius that are more in the category of tradeoffs or points to consider rather than clear-cut negatives. One is the super-bright screen's resolution — like 15-inch desktop flat panels, it's 1,024 by 768 pixels, the familiar size commonly abbreviated XGA.

Coupled with the display's exceptional brightness, this makes even small text and icons easy to read and a pleasure to work with. But we've grown accustomed to 1,280 by 1,024 (usually welcome) or 1,400 by 1,050 (a nice maximum), or even 1,600 by 1,200 (too tiny) resolution on 15- through 16-inch laptop displays; every so often, using the Sharp felt a little like reading the large-type edition of a library book. It's certainly no hardship, but serious image editors, for example, might be torn between the RD10's extra brightness and another desktop-replacement notebook's higher resolution.

The other factor to prepare for is the lousiest battery life we've seen in years: Unplugged, the Actius RD10 lasted for just an hour and 10 or an hour and 20 minutes in real-world work sessions, even when we eschewed the highest brightness setting. (Admittedly, as with all our notebook reviews, we performed plenty of disk- or battery-intensive program-loading and -swapping rather than low-octane word processing.)

It's been some time since even a desktop-replacement system failed to meet our unofficial 90-minute minimum; this just underscores that the Sharp is designed for stationary duty rather than any kind of regular travel. We think its $1,999 price is a good value, and its performance and extra-bright screen live up to expectations. But, even more than most entries in the crowded desktop-Pentium-4 class, the RD10 should be viewed as a mobile/desktop hybrid rather than a real notebook.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.com.

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