- ✓Pleasing design
- ✓built-in wireless networking.
- ✕Poor performance and battery life.
The Compaq Evo N400C is an unexceptional ultraportable notebook with many of the standard features of its class but few outstanding points. Although this 700MHz Mobile Pentium III system with 128MB of RAM was the slowest of the five products we tested by some distance, its lack of speed was not balanced by lengthy battery life.
In appearance, the 1.63g Evo N400C looks fine -- Compaq's usual dark charcoal finish offset by a few splashes of silver, chrome and three powder-blue mouse buttons. The keyboard has a short travel and is light to the touch, while navigation is via a trackpoint embedded between the G,H,B and N keys. Four shiny chrome buttons with black icons sit between the keyboard and the case hinge -- these ostensibly provide short cuts to email, search engines, your home page and a help system, but they didn't do anything on our review system. Just as well, as the icons are invisible in office lighting.
Two more, smaller chrome buttons at the front of the unit do volume control duties, while the back of the system is home to single parallel and serial ports, plus a composite video output. There's one PC Card slot, together with audio in/out, on the right hand side, together with sockets for cabling to the internal soft modem and an Intel 10/100Mbit/s network interface. The remaining side of the case has the external monitor socket and the power input. The computer has two USB connectors, one on either side of the case, with a further two on the docking station and an extra one built into the lid for the custom wireless networking module.
Wireless networking is the most striking feature of the N400C. The system unit has a silver bulge along the right-hand side of the top of the lid, into which the 802.11b module fits. It links via the custom USB connection to the rest of the computer, with the antennae arranged so that they're near the lip of the lid, and up at the highest point possible when the laptop is in use. Although the module -- based on Intersil's Prism 2.5 chipset -- worked fine at first, it wouldn't re-enable after we'd disabled it for benchmarking: instead, Windows 2000 reported that the network cable was disconnected. A normal state of affairs for wireless networking, one would think. Despite attempts to contact Compaq's online support and various other conversations, the problem remained unsolved at the time of writing.
The docking module replicates the monitor, parallel and serial ports, adds PS/2 keyboard and mouse sockets, and provides two further docks for storage options. On the module we tested - which costs £333 (ex. VAT) -- these were one 3.5in. floppy and a CD-RW drive. It also replicates the audio sockets and adds a louder internal speaker. It makes a solid mechanical connection to the notebook, and has a convenient big blue button -- with lock -- that emphatically releases the computer when pressed.
A 1,960mAh Li-ion battery powers the unit for just over an hour and a half, which is well behind the competition. You can plug in extra batteries if you need more runtime -- and many users will. One nice point is that the various screws in the base of the notebook are marked to distinguish those which hold the keyboard on and those which hold the case together: however, for some unfathomable reason, the screws themselves have a combination of hex and flat-bladed heads that is unnervingly fussy to remove with either type of screwdriver -- and although they look like Phillips cross-heads, you'll do damage if you use that sort of tool.
It's hard to recommend the Compaq Evo N400C, given its lacklustre benchmark and battery life figures, and the fact that this 700MHz version is to be phased out soon. It's a rather half-hearted notebook, especially at the price of £1,312 (ex VAT). However, if you find it on offer with a substantially smaller price attached, it might make a bargain portable Windows machine.