Lightweight, Light Price Desktop Replacement

By Eric Grevstad | Posted September 30, 2005

While desktop PCs are wonderfully affordable these days; desktop-replacement portables are somewhat less so. A jumbo 17-inch-diagonal widescreen laptop with respectable specs — 512MB of memory, an 80GB hard disk, a DVD burner and Wi-Fi — is likely to cost you something between $1,500 and $1,900 from the likes of Dell, Toshiba, or Fujitsu, with deluxe models climbing past $2,500.

WinBook aims to be the exception that proves the rule: Equipped as above, the company's model A710 sells for $1,100. What's more, the A710, though bulky and heavy, is less ponderous than some of its nine- or 10-pound competitors. The AMD Mobile Athlon 64-powered system measures 11- by 15.5- by 1.5 inches and tipped our postage scale at 7.8 pounds, with the AC adapter adding another 1.3 pounds.

Like other desktop replacements, the A710 is both too big and too modest in battery life for a frequent flier's briefcase — its lithium-ion battery averaged one hour and 40 minutes in our admittedly power-intensive software-installing and DVD-watching sessions. But if you're looking for an inexpensive, luggable laptop with a panoramic screen and a full-sized keyboard complete with numeric keypad, the WinBook is worth a look.

From Corner To Corner
The A710's 17-inch display offers 1,440 by 900 resolution. Moving the decimal point tells us that's 14.4:9 instead of the wide-aspect-ratio ideal of 16:9, but movies looked fine on the system's InterVideo WinDVD 4 player.

The screen is admirably sharp and reasonably bright, but the range of keyboard-controlled brightness levels seemed narrower than usual. It provides adequate viewing — even near the bottom of the scale — but not the dazzling brightness some notebooks offer at their peak. We found one stuck or black pixel among our test unit's 1,296,000, but didn't notice it in everyday applications unless we went hunting for it.

Microphone and headphone jacks sit conveniently on the laptop's front edge, next to a FireWire port. The V.90 modem jack is on the right, alongside the DVD±RW drive.

The system's left side holds no fewer than six USB 2.0 ports, plus Gigabit Ethernet, audio S/PDIF, line-out ports and a Type II PC Card slot. At the rear, you'll find not only the usual analog VGA but digital DVI and S-Video outputs as well. Along with WinDVD and Windows XP Home Edition SP2, WinBook preinstalls the Nero CD/DVD creation suite and the trial version of Norton AntiVirus 2005.

The left side also grows noticeably but not painfully warm if you're running CPU- or graphics-intensive software, with a hot breeze coming from the internal cooling fan. The fan's noise is noticeable, but not loud enough to drown out music or conversation.

We have mixed feelings about the A710's keyboard, which does indeed offer a desktop-sized span and comfortable typing feel (once you adjust to having your hands a little to the left rather than centered on the palm rest, to allow for the numeric keypad at the right).

Like most notebooks, the WinBook pairs a Fn or special shift key with the top-row function keys for settings such as screen brightness. At first, we found ourselves grumbling that — despite its ample size — the A710 also copies smaller laptops in teaming the Fn key with the cursor arrows instead of having dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys.

To compensate, just like on older desktop PCs, the keypad provides those cursor-control keys — the 7, 1, 9, and 3 keys, respectively — as long as you haven't pressed the Num Lock key to put the keypad into numeric data-entry mode.

We're less content with the touchpad. It looks elegant, completely flush with the palm rest instead of surrounded by a square rim or bezel — much like the smooth-stovetop burners of upscale electric ranges.

In practice, however, we missed having a tactile rim to help position our fingers, regularly hitting the rightmost scrolling area when we wanted the main mouse-moving surface. What's more, the mouse buttons below the touchpad took a little practice, often cutting out in the middle of a drag-and-drop operation until we learned to consciously press the outer rather than inner part of each button.

Along with a dial to raise or lower audio volume, the A710 has multimedia controls — mute, previous, next, play/pause and stop buttons — on its front edge. Unfortunately, except for the volume dial, they didn't work with either Windows Media Player or WinDVD. That, together with a toggle switch marked "B" for Bluetooth — which the WinBook lacks — made us suspect that WinBook doesn't have an exclusive on this particular OEM case design. (The toggle for turning the 802.11b/g wireless radio on and off worked fine.)

Perfectly Adequate Power
Some desktop-replacement heavyweights use actual desktop CPUs, trading battery life for speedy performance. The WinBook's Mobile Athlon 3000+ (1.8GHz) processor delivers a good everyday experience, but it's no speed demon: The CPU falls short of both higher-clocked desktop processors and, roughly speaking, the upper half of Intel's Pentium M mobile line.

. Boosting the system's 512MB of DDR333 memory to 1GB would help, but would also hit the ceiling — the WinBook can't accommodate 2GB. To be fair, we never felt that programs were loading or responding slowly, despite the 80GB hard disk's 4,200 rather than 7,200-rpm speed.

Overall, we think the WinBook A710 is a pretty good deal for anyone seeking a 17-inch-screened, keypad-equipped, DVD-friendly transportable at a low price. In performance, it doesn't beat more mobile notebooks as many desktop replacements do, but it weighs and costs less than most of the latter.

Pros:

  • A bargain price for a 17-inch-screened desktop PC alternative
  • Lighter than many desktop-replacement bruisers

Cons:

  • Performance and battery life are OK, but no more than that
  • We weren't crazy about the touchpad

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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