Review: Systemax Epic Notebook

We never hesitate to list the bad as well as the good in product reviews, but we feel an odd urge to be polite when describing the Systemax Epic notebook.

The initials S.L.G., S.A.L., J.S., B.M.C. and M.L.D. — found scribbled on a sticker inside the box — belong to the assemblers and inspectors who put together our test unit. Not only does Systemax boast that it’s an all-American company, with all of its PCs assembled, and tech-support calls answered, in Ohio, but its employees personally sign off on their work. We kind of like that.

Unfortunately, you can’t see their work at your local retailer before you buy: Systemax owns, and its desktops and laptops are almost exclusively confined to, the and Global Computer Supplies Web sites. Nor will you mistake the Epic for a show-off, sculptured-case Sony or HP notebook; it’s your basic silver-and-black slab with Systemax labels stuck just a bit crookedly on the lid and below the screen.

But if its price of $1,800 strikes you as a little steep for a generic laptop, check the specs. First, its 13-inch widescreen (1,280 by 768) display keeps the Epic relatively compact and light for the power it packs, measuring 8.8- by 12.4-by 1.4-inches and weighing 4.8 pounds. Second, we can’t help noting that a comparable configuration of another 13-inch-screened slim-line, Sony’s Vaio SZ, costs $2,734.

OK, the Vaio has faster discrete instead of integrated graphics. And if you don’t mind half a pound more weight, the Gateway NX260X and Dell Inspiron E1405 offer slightly larger 14-inch widescreens at prices slightly under and over the Epic’s, respectively.

Still, you can’t deny that the Systemax is well equipped. In addition to Windows XP Professional and the full-fledged Microsoft Office Professional 2003 suite, you’ll find Intel’s Core Duo T2500 2.0GHz processor, 2MB of Level 2 cache, and a 667MHz front-side bus. Two gigabytes of DDR-2/533 memory come standard, as does the 100GBhard disk and DVD±RW drive. An Intel Centrino Duo sticker indicates that Intel’s 945GM chipset and Pro/Wireless 3945ABG Wi-Fi adapter join the Core Duo CPU.

Time On Your Side
The Epic is no marathon runner, but its lithium-ion battery lasts long enough to get a fair amount of work done — our simplest word processing and e-mail sessions lasted 2 hours and 45 minutes, though more strenuous hard-disk and multimedia use cut the unplugged time to around 2 hours and 10 minutes. The AC adapter adds 14 ounces to your baggage allowance.

Left-handed users will appreciate the DVD±RW burner’s placement on the notebook’s left side, along with two USB ports, a modem jack and an SD/MMC/Memory Stick flash-memory card slot. A third USB port joins a PC Card slot, Gigabit Ethernet connector and S-Video and IEEE 1394 ports on the right side, with VGA output at the rear. The Epic’s front edge accommodates microphone and headphone jacks plus an on/off switch for the Wi-Fi radio.

Unless you put systems side-by-side, you might not be able to tell that the Epic has a 13- instead of some rivals’ 14-inch-diagonal displays; both offer a good viewing area and wide aspect ratio. Our test unit’s 1,280 by 768-pixel screen was prone to reflective images, but otherwise sunny and bright, at least at the top two or three of its brightness settings. Colors were clear and no bad pixels were visible. On the minus side, the notebook comes with Intel’s 945GM Express chipset and famously lame Graphics Media Accelerator 950 integrated graphics controller. But unless you’re planning to play 3-D games, you should be fine.

The Epic’s keyboard wins points for a comfortable typing feel and dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys, though its Fn key bumps the Ctrl key from our favorite spot in the bottom left corner. You won’t find any fancy play/pause/next/previous multimedia buttons, but there’s a button above the keyboard depicting a smiley face and a musical note: It launches Windows Media Player 9 (oddly supplied in lieu of the more recent version 10 or 11, just as the preinstalled Adobe Acrobat reader is version 6.0 instead of 7.0).

Systemax Epic Notebook
It may not win any beauty contests, but the Systemax Epic notebook offers plenty of value and dual-core processing power.

Next to the happy face, a button labeled S is billed as a silent-mode switch, toggling a small backlit S amid the front-edge LED indicators and supposedly putting the notebook into a quieter energy-conservation mode. We couldn’t detect much of a difference — the Epic still fired up its cooling fan when we launched a DVD movie, for instance. The fan is loud enough and the case becomes warm enough during operation to be noticeable, but not intolerable.

Once you learn to keep your finger from straying into the vertical and horizontal scrolling areas at the right and bottom edge, respectively, the Synaptics touchpad below the keyboard works smoothly, though our test system’s pad failed to register some touches or seemed to require a harder tap than we’re used to.

A Capable Companion
At first glance, the Epic’s bundled software reaches high with the complete Microsoft Office Professional pack of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, Outlook, and Access, and somewhat low with CA eTrust Antivirus instead of one of the bigger brands’ complete security packages.

To mitigate the latter, however, navigating a few not-for-technophobes dialog boxes during initial setup configures daily-system-snapshot and disk-restoration utilities such as Phoenix Technologies’ Guardian, FirstWare Recover Pro. Systemax also throws in a Max Tech help screen of its own for migrating from your old PC or accessing online help, as well as the CyberLink CD/DVD playback, slide show and video authoring and burning suite.

As we said, the Systemax Epic isn’t a stylish, status-symbol laptop, but it’s a straightforward productivity partner — one that delivers good value, capped by a swift Core Duo processor, in a package slightly lighter than many store-brand slim-to-midsize notebooks.

Adapted from

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