New Notebook Fixed on Standards

Standardization of parts has been a founding principal of product design since Samuel Colt’s company introduced the concept more than 150 years ago. But if you’ve ever cracked the screen on your laptop or had its keyboard die, you’ve discovered that standardization means for one product family from one manufacturer. Typically, if a portable PC needs service, it has to go back to the manufacturer (or to an authorized service center).

Intel is trying to change that with the Intel Interchangeability Initiative. Simply put, compliant notebooks use standardized parts for the components most likely to need replacing from normal (and abnormal) wear and tear: screen, keyboard, optical drive, hard drive, battery pack and AC adapter. These standardized parts have no proprietary connectors or unique requirements that force you to return the unit to the maker for repair.

What’s in it for Intel? Well, the chip giant sees interchangeability as a way to accelerate mobile PC adoption by helping more manufacturers get in on the build-to-order model pioneered by Dell. That, in turn, should mean more sales of Intel processors and chip sets.

But the initiative is also a win for business notebook buyers. By choosing a compliant notebook, you’ll be able to have any qualified computer repair shop fix a damaged machine or update components should the need arise, since the proper parts are readily available. So instead of boxing up the PC and sending it off to the maker — for who knows how long — you can bring it to a local shop, which should give you at least a modicum of control.

A Prime Example
A host of generally smaller manufacturers will begin rolling out laptops that comply with the Intel initiative, one of the first being Micro Express. We tested the company’s HEL8016, a no-compromises portable PC with a host of features that proves that a compliant notebook doesn’t mean an inferior—or generic—one.

The HEL8016 is built on Intel’s latest mobile platform, with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 802.11a/b/g wireless capability. That CPU, plus the system’s Nvidia Geforce Go 7600 graphics engine, means plenty of processing power even for demanding multimedia tasks.

The base HEL8016 starts at $1,199 and includes a 15.4-inch widescreen display, a built-in Webcam, a 1.66-GHz processor and a multi-format DVD burner. Our test unit included a 100GB hard drive (up from the standard 60GB unit), 1GB of RAM (up from 512MB), and other goodies, which pushed the price to a still-reasonable $1,464.

The Micro Express HEL8016
The Micro Express HEL8016 fits with Intel’s Interchangeability Initiative.

Clearly, the main attraction is that big screen. It is bright and crisp, and shows vivid, rich colors during DVD playback. Sound quality from the integrated stereo speakers is good, though the top volume level is a little lower than we prefer from a machine with a screen big enough to share around a conference table.

On the plus side, it offers excellent battery life: We played a 102-minute DVD movie and still had a 33 percent charge remaining.

Though it fits with Intel’s Interchangeability Initiative, Micro Express did not produce a cookie-cutter machine. The sharp-looking black-and silver chassis features a brushed aluminum insert on the lid (yes, that’s another interchangeable part). Lift the lid, and you’ll find a black full-sized keyboard edged with copper and surrounded by more brushed silver trim.

The big screen makes for a big machine — 14.25- by 10.25- by 1.5-inches and six-plus pounds — so it’s not the right choice for a road warrior who slogs his or her machine through airports weekly. But if you want a portable with all the comforts of a desktop, the HEL8016 is a good choice.

And of course, should the screen, keyboard, or other standard part need replacing, the decision as to where to take it is in your hands.

Jamie Bsales is an award-winning technology writer and editor with nearly 14 years of experience covering the latest hardware, software and Internet products and services.

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