I commute to and from London very frequently and the trains, whilst high tech and reasonably pleasant, can lead to very long journeys (especially in times of maintenance). Because of this frequent travelling I’m practically forced to carry a laptop around with me for the sake of my sanity. I tend to enjoy watching DVDs, playing late 90s and early 2000s PC games, and spiking and prototyping software ideas to pass the time on these train rides (which can stretch up to 4 1/2 hours some Sunday evenings).
Now, my laptop is a Dell Inspiron 5160, picked up in 2004 when the phrase “desktop replacement” in a laptop made my mind think of good things. It has a desktop Pentium 4 processor (with hyper threading, for all the good that did) clocked at 2.8Ghz, 1.25Gb RAM running XP Pro and a 15.4″ screen (to give a sense of scale).
At the time, those were very respectable (desktop replacing!) specs. The downside is that it weighs as much as the desktop it pretends to replace. 9.7lbs to be precise, which if I recall is something like 5Kg give or take. Add to that the power of a chunky laptop power supply and most weekends I feel as though I’m carrying a small child from the north to the south of London. Not fun.
I came to the conclusion (prompted by back ache) that I should probably look into replacing my monolith with something designed to, dare say, be portable. Anyone that watches PC hardware will be aware of the waves that the current range of sub-notebooks have been making in the IT press so I figured I’d take a closer look.
The options seemed to be the much publicised Asus EeePC, the forthcoming HP Mininote and the HTC Shift (and other similar large smart-devices) as far as ultra portables went. These devices are really, really cool. Eight to nine inch displays, 700Mhz to 1.2Ghz VIA processors and chipsets and weighing just over 1Kg. They really are tiny little devices and perfect in the cheep connected device market, but unfortunately the ability to run Visual Studio and to watch DVDs that I’ve just bought (ripping isn’t really relevant as I tend to buy things at train stations) were deal breakers. I toyed with the idea of buying an external DVDRW drive to keep alongside a tiny sub-notebook, but at that point the rice would be approaching about £400-£450 and it was starting to feel like I’d really be ending up at the wrong end of the price-performance curve.
I’d definitely recommend anyone that just needs a really portable Internet / office device to check out reviews of the HP Mininote, it should be out this month and I was very very tempted by it, it’ looks fantastic and seems exceptionally powerful for it’s form factor.
I abandoned the idea of picking up a sub-notebook and decided to take a look into the very small regular notebooks on the market. I’d had a very positive experience with he 11″ T-Series Sony Vaios‘ in the past Their build quality is second to none, specs are brilliant and they weigh just 1.25Kg. Unfortunately you also pay £1500+ for the privilege of a tiny notebook of comparable spec to a £400 15″ notebook. If you’ve got the budget then I’d recommend one in a second, but they’re a far cry from the £200 EeePCs. I figured I could stretch up to 12″ and still manage to pick up a very light, fully featured laptop and to be honest was quite surprised at the lack of products on the market. I suspect this could partly be due to the recently (as in yesterday) announced new reference designs for sub notebooks , or perhaps companies are waiting on the Intel Atom CPU announced late last month, but either way the range of notebooks on the market at that size and weight point is remarkably sparse.
That said, there are some options. Acer have a 12″ offering in the shape of the Aspire 2929. an Intel Core Duo based machine with 1-2Gb RAM, Vista and about 100-200Gb of disk space, depending, it seems, on who you buy it from. It’s part of their clamshell range apparently co-designed with Ferrari. I’m guessing that’s their excuse for the laptop looking like utter shit, but on paper, the specs read ok, for about £500-600, vendor dependant.
I was still unsure, so I’d decided to go to PC World to see if I could just get a feel for the notebooks available, It’s pretty hard to get a handle on the weight and size of something from raw specifications and websites so I figured it’d be time well spent. I walked in the door, and on the second display stand as I entered the store was a tiny 12″ notebook branded “Advent”, which the smart or unlucky amongst us recognise as one of PC Worlds own brand product lines. Looked good though, visually. The build quality is no Vaio, but the price tag isn’t either, at only £450. Core 2 Due 1.83Ghz, 2Gb RAM, 160Gb Hdd. On paper, the specs were actually excellent for the price point. Figured I’d ask for a full spec and pulled out my phone to start googling.
Interestingly there were very few mentions of the machine online. Meaning it’s either very very new, or that the people that buy PC World own brand laptops don’t have too much to say about them online, none the less the spec sheet was quite revealing. It appears that this laptop, almost £200 cheaper than the Acer Aspire 2929, and light years better looking, is practically the same machine underneath. It uses exactly the same Intel chipsets, exactly the same onboard graphics, has exactly the same set of features (3 Usb and a Firewire port, onboard card reader, identical audio chipsets) and is to all intents and purposes just a nicer looking and cheaper version of the 2929. Oh, and it weighs only 1.8Kg
I still don’t trust PC World hardware, so I went home to do a bit of extensive googling and slept on it, returned the next day and picked up one of the notebooks with Vista Premium. That was two days ago. I’ve spent the following few evenings tuning up Vista and installing software, and in all honesty, the machine really seems to fly, and at this point I’d go as far as recommending it.
I guess the moral of the story is that you never know what you might find lying about PC World. But moreover, if you’re looking for a nice portable notebook on a reasonable budget without sacrificing power, PC World appear to have them in stock in the form of the Avent 4401, filling a curious hole in the market that other manufacturers appear to not want to compete in.
As a quick tip, due to PC World being… somewhat strange, if you’re interested in buying one of these machines, purchace it online and select “Collect @ Store” and you’ll save about £50 on the store price of the notebook.
Do with this information what you will.