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-- by James Alan Miller
Nimantics isn't about to jump headlong onto the MMX bandwagon. Instead, the company addresses the processor-speed issue with its new 200MHz Pentium notebook, the value-packed Orion 8X200. Compared with MMX-based notebooks' 150MHz and 166MHz speeds (see this month's cover story), the Orion 8X200's 200MHz chip should enable you to run today's applications faster.
Like the company's 6X150, this portable incorporates a regular desktop chip rather than a low-voltage notebook processor. It thus produces a lot of heat while sucking a lot of power.
Heat dissipation and battery life are two of the most important issues surrounding high-performance notebook advances. The Orion gives off a lot of heat, but thanks to a heat sink and fan, it's not as hot as you would expect. However, fans are heavy power users, and the Orion's battery life is dismal. It lasted about 40 minutes under an intensive rundown test of continuous disk access.
The notebook's nickel metal hydride battery doesn't help matters; a longer-lasting lithium ion would have made a better showing. (The company says it will soon have a lithium ion battery available.) But you can exchange the floppy disk drive for a second battery, effectively doubling the time the Orion system will last away from an outlet.
The Orion performed quite well under our Wintune raw benchmark suite and Excel and Word application macros. Not surprisingly, it earned the best CPU mark I've seen for a notebook, 353MIPS.
The 64-bit PCI video subsystem with 2MB of VRAM also delivered superior scores. The removable, 1.3GB hard disk achieved uncached throughput of 2.37MB per second, a good mark for a notebook. You get speedy scores on the macros, 18.67 seconds for Word and 16 seconds for Excel-in line with portables with less powerful CPUs. For instance, the 133MHz NEC Versa 6030H on our Recommended List received an 18-second Excel mark. The 8X200 also doesn't improve much on the 19.33-second Word and 17-second Excel scores of the150MHz Dell Latitude XPi CD P150ST, on our Recommended List. You might expect more from the Orion with its 32MB of EDO RAM (expandable to 72MB), vs. the Dell's 16MB.
The Orion also costs $800 more than the Dell, and although that extra cost gets you an impressively configured notebook, it's a high price to swallow. It comes with a decent 12.1-inch active-matrix screen, an 8X CD-ROM drive and 256KB of pipeline-burst cache. The screen delivers 800x600 resolution at 65,000 colors.
Some manufacturers' 12.1-inch notebook active-matrix displays support resolutions as high as 1024x768 at 65,000 colors. In addition, fantastic 13.3-inch displays are right around the corner. Once you view one of these new 13.3-inch screens, you'll want nothing less from a high-end system. The Toshiba Tecra 740CDT MMX machine reviewed in the cover story has this type of display, for example. Amazingly, it is equivalent in viewing area to many 15-inch monitors. When you're paying in the neighborhood of $5,000 for a high-end notebook, a display of this magnitude can be pretty persuasive. Even better, when you attach it to an external monitor, the Orion supports resolutions up to 1280x1024.
Other video features include built-in hardware MPEG and an NTSC/PAL RCA video-out jack. The system has either three Type II or one Type III and one Type II PC Card slots, along with Zoomed Video Card support for an optional ZV card. The sound system includes slightly tinny-sounding speakers at opposite ends near the bottom of the display, 1MB wavetable sound with 16-bit FM synthesizer stereo and a MIDI port. You also get a touchpad and a full complement of ports, including an EPP/ECP parallel, a serial, an infrared and a PS/2 serial port.
The 87-key Windows 95 keyboard supplies decent feedback, but I thought the keys were a little small. On occasion the system didn't recognize the second battery or the floppy disk drive after swapping, but a quick adjustment to the BIOS solved this problem. Finally, the manual is on CD-ROM only, which could be a problem should the CD-ROM drive or the entire unit be nonfunctional. It's also an irritation for those who like to learn with a manual in one hand and a mouse in the other. At a relatively heavy 7.5 pounds, lugging the Orion around may be a problem for some.
The Orion 8X200 supplies a lot of top-drawer features for $4,999. However, they aren't enough to put it on the Recommended List. Its battery life is simply not good enough.
If Nimantics does switch over to lithium ion batteries as promised, the Orion 8X200 will become a much better choice. Second, although you get good benchmark application scores, you can get equivalent marks from cheaper systems with less powerful processors (e.g., the Dell Latitude XPi CD P150ST). It's a good product, though, which makes Nimantics a company to watch.