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WinLab Reviews
Head to Head: 166MHz Notebooks
Portable Power at 166MHz

-- by Jonathan Blackwood,John M. Cummings and Jim Forbes

It seems like every major vendor is refreshing its notebook line with Intel's latest offering, the P55C Pentium processor with MMX. This month, we look at units from three of the major players in the notebook market: Digital, NEC and WinBook.

Digital HiNote VP 575

The Digital HiNote VP 575 (166MHz Pentium with MMX) offers a familiar basic configuration that has proved to be very successful. It has a modular bay on the right, twin PCMCIA slots on the left, a 12.1-inch active-matrix SVGA (800x600 resolution) display and the usual ports, including IrDA and port replicator. The modular bay can hold either the combination 12X CD-ROM/floppy disk drive (a nice touch that means you no longer have to choose between the two or carry two separate components) or a second lithium ion battery. The HiNote also provides a terrific, 85-key keyboard with Win95-specific keys (though the Ctrl key is not at the bottom left where we prefer it) and an improved trackpad (the left button is at the bottom, where your thumb finds it more easily; the right button is at the top)

The HiNote VP 575 provides 16MB of RAM, a 2.16GB (nominal) hard disk, 256KB of level 2 cache and 128-bit PCI graphics powered by the NeoMagic 128v controller and 1MB of RAM. The unit measures 1.9 by 11.8 by 8.9 inches and has a 7.5-pound travel weight. It comes with a one-year limited warranty. The 16-bit stereo sound is delivered through two small integrated speakers-sufficient for presentations to very small groups, but not much else. The HiNote does not come with a modem, which allows you the flexibility to purchase the modem of your choice and keep current with the latest technology.

On our Wintune 97 benchmarks, the HiNote achieved 316MIPS, 25MB-per-second cached disk throughput and 22Mpixel-per-second video throughput. It executed our new Word macro in an average of 87 seconds, our new Excel macro in an average of 198 seconds and our Photoshop/DeBabelizer/MMX script in 23.57 minutes. The HiNote achieved slightly better scores on our new application macros than did the Dell Latitude LM M166ST (see WinLab Reviews, May). However, the NEC Versa 6060, reviewed below, scored better than the HiNote in every area of performance and is a good deal cheaper as well.

On our rigorous battery run-down test with all power management disabled, the HiNote's lithium ion battery managed over 2 hours, 4 minutes of life, a good score. The HiNote comes with a choice of Windows 95 or NT Workstation 4.0, as well as a number of utilities, but no application software.

NEC Versa 6060

The NEC Versa 6060, which we beta tested, is built like a tank, has a wicked fast CD-ROM drive and video subsystem, and excels at everyday mobile-computing tasks. Based on a 166MHz MMX processor and loaded with 32MB of system memory, this notebook has a 2.1GB (nominal) hard drive and 256KB of level 2 cache. It offers a 12.1-inch active-matrix color screen. The NEC's native display mode is 800x600. However, it can drive external displays at 1024x768 resolution. It uses a modular bay that can accept a 20X variable speed CD-ROM drive, a 3.5-inch floppy disk drive or an extra battery. The 6060 serves up a full complement of external ports, including an infrared and two Type II PCMCIA slots. Though the Versa 6060 ships with Windows 95, you can also order it with NT.

The NEC Versa's Windows 95 keyboard has relatively good tactile feedback. The keys have just under 3 millimeters of travel and are comfortable to use for extended periods, though they can become misaligned if you have a consistently heavy-handed touch. The touchpad is located in the center of the 6060's integrated palm rest.

Like other notebooks, the Versa uses an expansion bay for its 20X CD-ROM as well as its floppy disk drive or an optional second lithium ion battery. A 120MB LS120 high-capacity 3.5-inch drive is also available. This version of the 6060 also comes standard with a 56Kb-per-second PCMCIA modem. The 6060 is slightly larger than other portables, measuring 2.1 by 11.7 by 9.5 inches, and has a travel weight of 8 pounds (which includes the second disk drive, power supply and cables)

The notebook's display is bright and easy to read, and features XGA (1024x768) resolution. The audio subsystem on the 6060 is 16-bit Sound Blaster-compatible, and the two integrated speakers deliver audio that's suited to close presentations.

The Versa 6060's lithium ion battery delivered 1.9 hours of power on our battery run-down tests with all power-management software turned off. With advanced power management turned on, it delivered 2.3 hours of battery life. The power-management scheme on this portable features three settings, including one labeled Airplane Productivity, for long battery life.

The NEC Versa 6060's 166MHz Pentium MMX processor produced an average of 317MIPS. Its hard disk subsystem had cached throughput of 29MBps, and its video subsystem cranked out 26Mpixels per second. The 6060 took 86 seconds to run our new Word benchmark and 189 seconds to complete our new Excel macro, better than the Dell Latitude LM M166ST's 92 seconds and 214 seconds, respectively. The Versa took 22.41 minutes to complete our multimedia benchmarks, which is on a par with other 166MHz notebooks.

The new NEC Versa 6060 is the first notebook to outperform the Dell Latitude LM M166ST, which has been on our WinList for many months. In addition, the NEC's higher maximum resolution (the Latitude offers just 800x600), in combination with its faster CD-ROM drive, allows it to knock the Latitude off our WinList.

WinBook FX 166MHz MMX

We wanted the WinBook FX 166MHz MMX to impress us as much as its sibling, the XP5 Pro, did when it set a new standard for features and performance in a sub-$2,000 system. But, as is often the case with bigger and better follow-ups, the FX, at $3,599, may be faster, but it does not impress in the competitive family of high-end notebooks. That is not to say that this FX is not a great notebook-it is. The problem is that its faster configuration and additional features are not enough to recommend it over the similarly priced Dell Latitude LM M166ST or the NEC Versa 6060, reviewed above. Both are not only faster, but more comfortable and pleasing to use. However, if you have been satisfied with other members of the WinBook dynasty, you will appreciate this latest model.

The FX has the WinBook signature big, bright, dual 12.1-inch active-matrix screen, which minimizes the possibility of eyestrain. The FX weighs in, with battery and floppy disk, at 7.15 pounds. Like the XP5 Pro, it measures 2.5 by 11.25 by 8.98 inches, which makes it only slightly larger and heavier than the Latitude LM M166ST, and still easy to carry. The WinBook FX has 32MB of EDO RAM, 256KB of level 2 cache, a 2.1GB (nominal) hard drive, a 10X CD-ROM drive and an internal 33.6Kbps fax modem. It also comes standard with a 59-watt lithium ion battery. Battery life under our strenuous run-down test was excellent: 2 hours, 37 minutes. Expect 3 hours or more in normal use with power management features enabled.

There are plenty of ports in this compact unit: serial, parallel, video, game, infrared and two PCMCIA slots. There are also PS/2, microphone and speaker/headphone-out ports. The 84-key keyboard has the Win95-specific keys. The Ctrl key is located at the extreme bottom left of the keyboard, where we prefer it, because it enables you to easily access Word and Excel keyboard shortcuts. The FX, which offers only Windows 95 preinstalled, comes standard with an integrated dual-button tracking stick. An optional dual-button touchpad is available, but we wish it came standard since navigation with the tracking stick requires a steady hand.

On our Wintune 97 benchmarks, the WinBook FX averaged 321MIPS, 27MBps cached disk throughput and 13Mpixels per second video throughput. Times to execute our new Word and Excel application macros averaged 87 and 210 seconds, respectively; it took 22.65 minutes to complete our multimedia benchmarks. These are good scores, but the NEC's are slightly better (and the Versa 660's video is twice as fast). The WinBook FX is a special addition to the WinBook dynastic line, but it's just not special enough.

The verdict

Any of these three systems would be a pleasure to use over the long haul. The NEC Versa 6060, however, is by far the best performer and is competitively priced as well. Its performance even bested the Dell Latitude LM M166ST, whose place it takes on our WinList.

Digital HiNote VP 575
Bottom Line: Good performer; well-designed and offers excellent ergonomics
Platforms: 95, NT
Price: $4,499
Pros: Combination floppy disk drive/12X CD-ROM drive; good battery life
Cons: Relatively expensive for feature set
Strongest Rival: Dell Latitude LM M166ST

Digital Equipment Corp., 800-DIGITAL, 508-493-5111. Winfo #859

NEC Versa 6060
Bottom Line: Excellent feature set, including 20X removable CD-ROM drive, could make this notebook a must for corporate mobile professionals
Platforms: 95, NT
Price: $3,849
Pros: Excellent performance; 32MB RAM; powerful video subsystem
Cons: Keyboard keys can become misaligned through heavy-handed typing
Strongest Rival: Dell Latitude LM M166ST

NEC Computer Systems Div., 800-632-4636, 508-264-8000. Winfo #700

WinBook FX 166MHz MMX
Bottom Line: Nice addition to the WinBook notebook series, but no outstanding features
Price: $3,599
Platforms: 95
Pros: Good battery life; bright, active-matrix screen; plenty of ports
Cons: Tracking stick requires steady hand for accurate navigation Strongest Rival: Dell Latitude LM M166ST

WinBook Corp., 800-965-9391. Winfo #860

Windows Magazine, September 1997, page 128.

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