While we wait for the official launch of Microsoft's Media Center (or will it be Media Centre in this market?) a number of PC vendors have offered alternate options that cover the fields of TV and DVD watching along with multimedia audio options.
Covering DVD and audio is relatively trivial for any modern PC, but TV is tricky. Getting all that into a notebook that you could carry around? Well, not only would that be tricky, it'd also be quite a neat trick. Asus' W1N notebook is the first notebook we're aware of that integrates a TV tuner -- along with an all-in package that runs the whole shebang in a relatively simple interface.
Like most notebooks with a 15.4" screen, Asus' W1N is a big and chunky notebook -- certainly something that you could move around if you had to, but not something you'd want dragging your shoulder down for any extensive number of hours. Its design is relatively clean and somewhat striking, with a plain metallic finish offset with a stark black keyboard. The keyboard has a reasonable amount of travel, although in the current wintry writing conditions we found the metallic body of the W1N a little chilly to get to grips with when you first decide to start typing. A display on the front of the notebook shows the current multimedia input source (CD, DVD, TV and so on)-- a feature that some will love and others will find a touch cheap looking.
That impression of cheapness is arguably the W1N's real downfall; the more we used the notebook the more we found small items that either felt cheap or flimsy. While the actual rate that a notebook deteriorates will of course depend on how well (or poorly) you treat it, it's a little disconcerting to be noticing these kinds of manufacturing flaws on a supposedly new notebook. As an example, the unit's expansion ports lie behind a very long panel on the left hand side of the notebook, and more than one person just looking over the notebook in our labs commented that it felt a though it was going to fall off very quickly.
Asus offers the W1N in a couple of configurations -- the unit we tested came with a Pentium M 1.7GHz, 1GB of RAM running on Intel's 855PM chipset with an ATI Mobility Radeon 9600 64MB providing the graphical grunt. You couldn't accuse the W1N of lacking expansion options -- it boasts 3 USB 2.0 Hi-Speed ports, a single FireWire port, Network, Modem and external VGA connectivity, along with a single PC card slot that acts as the repository for the unit's remote control. The majority of the W1N's outputs lie on the left hand side of the notebook, including a multi-format memory card reader (MMC/SD/MediaStick). It sports a Centrino badge, so it's also wireless-capable out of the box.
The big hook for the W1N isn't the everything but the kitchen sink approach that Asus has taken with basic PC parts, though. The hook is undoubtedly the multimedia capabilities offered through the Asus Mobile Theater package. This is a standalone application that runs TV, DVD/VCD, audio and picture browsing, and is controllable either with the mouse or the supplied PCMCIA remote. Well, in theory it controls with the remote; we had no luck whatsoever getting the remote to work on our test system. For a start, the IR transmitter on the remote sits at the bottom of the remote, right where it will (by default) point right into your hand.
Moreover, the remote buttons on the unit we tested tended to have unpredictable results within the Mobile Theater package itself. If you can live without remote control -- and even with a 15" widescreen display, we can't see too many people watching the W1N from all that far away -- then the Mobile Theater package is pleasant and simple to use; within the TV application you can do the usual TV channel surfing and volume control, as well as recording signals coming in. The DVD, CD and picture elements of the package are simple but effective numbers that replicate the TV interface. For what it's worth, they all do revolve around key components, so if you only wanted the TV application, for example, you could just launch that by itself.
While the W1N comes with an integrated TV tuner, it lacks any kind of antenna, and thus must be plugged into either a broadcast or cable antenna. Aside from acting as a tether for the unit, it also necessitates a rather ugly plug that sits on the left hand side of the notebook. We did experiment using a variety of more mobile "rabbit ears" type antennae with the W1N, with predictably awful results. Ultimately, if the TV features of the W1N appeal to you, you'll need to be using the unit as a pure desktop replacement within easy reach of real signal source.
We tested the TV reception and playback of the W1N with a free to air signal in Sydney, and for the most part playback was smooth and good to watch. It's worth noting, however, that the W1N relies on a small lug to attach either a standard TV antenna or cable connection, and that means you've got to carry around a couple of small plugs with you when you move the notebook -- either that, or leave your connector of choice plugged in and protruding from the side of the notebook.
The W1N's audio reproduction is extremely good, thanks in most part to the integrated subwoofer on the bottom of the notebook. It's great when you're playing back a noisy film track or music disc at home -- but markedly less so on a busy train. Thankfully the socket for headphones sits on the front of the notebook, so it's a hassle-free affair to silently watch and listen while in transit.
Asus makes particular note of the W1N's graphical prowess and with an integrated 64MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9600, you should be able to run most graphically intensive applications and games without too much hassle. We wanted to give the W1N a real workout, so we installed the visually intensive Doom 3 to really give the W1N a challenge. Doom 3 worked about as well as you'd expect, but only for a short period -- after about ten minutes of play we found that it would lock up the notebook every time. Suspecting driver problems, we checked ASUS' site (ATI doesn't offer drivers for mobile platforms itself, owing to the variety of factors that can change with different display panels) only to discover that ASUS hasn't updated the driver since March!
Like many high-end desktop replacements, the W1N comes with a integrated DVD burner. We tested with variety of media, and while we have no coasters to report, we did worry every time we put a disc in, simply because the drive itself was quite noisy and clunky. That could be purely an aesthetic thing, but we're of the school that would rather see the end result of disc burning, than hear it while it's happening.
We tested the W1N with Bapco's MobileMark 2002, where the unit recorded scores of 195 in the productivity test, lasting two hours thirty-seven minutes. In the less intensive reader test, the W1N conked out after three hours and nineteen minutes -- an impressive feat for a notebook with a screen of this size, although a tad shorter than the claimed 4.5 hours. Realistically, we doubt that many users will want to lug around any unit this large for three hours anyway.
Alex Kidman is editor of CNET.com.au. To check out more of CNET.com.au's digital lifestyle coverage, click here.
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