WinBook X4 Notebook PC Review

In TV commercials, Mr. T is always telling collect callers to save a buck or two. WinBook says the same thing to notebook PC shoppers: The company, which built its reputation as a value laptop brand but has lately moved upscale with high-powered desktop replacement systems like the desktop-processor-powered J4, now shows it hasn’t forgotten budget buyers with the X4, a portable that’s both slim in shape and skinny in price.

How skinny? The WinBook X4 we tested costs $1,299, with a 1.7GHz mobile Pentium 4 CPU, 256MB of PC2100 DDR memory, a 30GB hard disk, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, and a modest-by-today’s-standards-but-perfectly-fine 14.1-inch, active-matrix display with 1,024 by 768 (XGA) resolution. Avoiding the lure of a 15-inch LCD keeps the X4 the right size to slip easily into a briefcase — a svelte 10 by 12.7 by 1.25 inches — and keeps it to an easy-to-carry 6.25 pounds.

There’s no floppy drive — a USB-based external floppy is a $99 option — and no wireless networking to accompany the onboard modem, Ethernet, USB 2.0, and FireWire ports — a WiFi PC Card is $79. Nor is there a software suite installed, other than Windows XP Home Edition, Symantec’s Norton AntiVirus, and InterVideo’s WinDVD 4.

If you crave more screen and speed, an X4 model with 2.0GHz mobile Pentium 4 and a 15.0-inch XGA display is $1,499. Take that model to 512MB of memory and a 40GB hard disk, and it’s $1,729. A super-deluxe system with a 1,400 by 1,050-pixel screen and 2.2GHz processor, as well as Windows XP Professional and wireless networking, is $2,177 — but by then, we think, you’ve moved out of the value range. That makes Mr. T mad.

“Charcoal Blue”? Isn’t Charcoal Black?
Something else WinBook is doing, besides refreshing its affordable lineup, is stepping up to challenge the big brands on style. While some of its earlier models were a bit short on fit and finish, the slimline X4 looks fashionable in what WinBook calls “charcoal blue on silver” (blue body, silver top). The bar above the keyboard with power and browser/e-mail launch buttons and status LEDs, bracketed by stereo speakers, is positively handsome.

The keyboard itself’s not bad, either, with dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys as well as inverted-T cursor arrows and a firm, quiet typing feel. A smooth-gliding Synaptics touchpad offers scroll control as well as mouse buttons.

The QSI SBW-242 DVD-ROM/CD-RW drive is on the system’s right side, with a single PC Card slot, microphone and audio line-in jacks, and modem, Ethernet, and IEEE 1394 ports at the left. Both VGA and S-Video ports are at the rear, along with parallel, infrared, and two USB 2.0 ports.

The QSI drive is rated at 24/10/24X speed for CD-RW use; we were dismayed that it made scrabbling-squirrel noises and chewed up a couple of older 4X-max CD-RW discs we had lying around, but it worked quickly and quietly with both our CD-Rs and DVDs.

The 14.1-inch display proved pleasantly bright and sharp for both movie-watching and office work, though the function-key brightness controls didn’t make much difference (at least not compared to the function-key volume controls, which offered a wide range from mute to mighty roars). Frankly, after squinting at the tiny icons and menu text on some ultra-high-resolution laptop LCDs lately, coming back to comfortably sized 1,024 by 768 mode felt right and easy on the eyes.

No complaints, either, about the WinBook’s performance — which, as we expected from a 1.7GHz Pentium 4-M machine, landed in the lower middle of the current crop of laptops, more than adequate for everyday applications if not for all-day image or video editing.

BAPCo‘s SysMark 2002 returned an overall score of 134, with 203 in Internet Content Creation balanced by 89 in Office Productivity, and the Futuremark Corp. (formerly PCMark 2002 numbers were 4,113 for CPU, 3,409 for memory, and 326 for hard disk — the last distinctly on the low side, as with other IBM Travelstar-equipped notebooks we’ve benchmarked.

Another argument against image or video editing, and perhaps the biggest sacrifice the X4 makes for affordability, is its use of the trusty, rusty SiS 651 graphics chipset instead of a faster ATI or Nvidia graphics controller. This means it’s possible to play games on the system — the classic Quake III Arena benchmark ran at 31 frames per second in High Quality 1,024 by 768 mode, or 48 fps in High Quality 800 by 600 — but you’re likely to lose any online deathmatches. The WinBook’s 3DMark 2001 SE Pro benchmark score was 1,397, roughly on par with current economy desktops using Intel’s anything-but-“Extreme Graphics” 845 chipsets.

Much Nicer Than Those Carrot Top Commercials
Also in the middle of the pack is the X4’s battery life: With plenty of software-installing and DVD-watching to make things tough on the battery, we repeatedly averaged just under two hours’ operation before the WinBook began some frantically annoying alarm beeps. A spare lithium-ion pack is $199.

Though the software bundle, as mentioned, is on the skimpy side, WinBook makes up for it with a nicely-laid-out printed manual and a helpful though undocumented disaster-recovery or system-restore facility (if you press F10 during boot, a hidden drive partition offers to rebuild the hard-disk image, as on HP Pavilion consumer desktops).

With today’s rock-bottom PC prices, $1,299 for a laptop doesn’t sound like much of a bargain — there are plenty of $999 and $1,099 portables on the market. But those systems tend to be noticeably thicker and heavier than the X4, and to have humble CD-ROM or DVD drives instead of a desirable DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo. The WinBook combines value with a bit of style; it’s an economy notebook but not a generic one.

Adapted from Hardware Central.

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