Hi-Grade Ultinote M6400

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Very good performance
  • good battery life
  • reasonably priced.

Cons

  • Bulky and heavy for a two-spindle notebook
  • no built-in wireless networking
  • only one PC Card slot.

At first glance, Hi-Grade's Ultinote M6400 looks like a straightforward two-spindle notebook -- bulky and heavy perhaps, but handsome enough in its silver-and-blue livery. However, it harbours a dark secret. For the Ultinote M6400 is powered by a Pentium 4 processor -- not the forthcoming mobile version, but a 1.8GHz Northwood part designed primarily for use in desktop PCs rather than notebooks.

Intel has shown some anxiety about this practice (in which Hi-Grade is not alone), warning that it doesn't validate desktop Pentium 4 chips in notebooks, that power-saving technologies like SpeedStep are not available, and that the lower junction temperatures of desktop chips require more cooling and therefore have a higher chance of overheating, causing 'clock throttling' and reduced performance.

All this raises the possibility that notebooks powered by desktop Pentium 4 chips -- even relatively low-voltage 0.13-micron ones like the Northwood part -- will be bulkier and noisier, deliver less battery life and potentially less performance than the rated clock speed would suggest. Notebook vendors, keen to display 'Pentium 4' stickers on their products as soon as possible (as well as take advantage of the lower price of desktop versus mobile chips), have nevertheless taken up the challenge of designing notebooks under these additional constraints. So how well has Hi-Grade succeeded with the Ultinote M6400?

Apart from the 1.8GHz Northwood Pentium 4 processor, the Ultinote M6400's headline specification includes Intel's 845 chipset, 512MB of SDRAM (the maximum available), a 40GB Hitachi hard disk drive, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive and a 14.1in. XGA TFT display driven by ATI's Mobility M6-M graphics chip with 16Mb of DDR memory.

As far as its appearance is concerned, the Ultinote M6400 is bulky and heavy for a two-spindle notebook, measuring 31.3cm wide by 26.3cm deep by 3.8cm high and weighing 3.35kg with the battery installed (with the AC adapter and mains cable, the weight rises to 3.95kg). The chassis is clad in silver and blue plastic that looks smart and seems reasonably resistant to knocks. As befits a system that requires a good deal of cooling, there are plenty of ventilation openings -- grilles are located on the left-hand side, the back, the underside, and between the screen and keyboard. There are also two fans, at the back and on the underside.

Also on the left-hand side is a single Type II PC Card slot and an RJ-45 port for the built-in 10/100Mbit/s Ethernet connection. The right-hand side houses the DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive and a Fast infrared port, while the back carries two USB ports, a parallel port, a VGA port, an RJ-11 modem port and an S-Video connector. The front panel houses a pair of stereo speakers, a quartet of status LEDs, a mini-IEEE 1394 port, microphone and audio-out jacks and a thumbwheel volume control. There's no built-in wireless networking, and if you need it, you'll have to use up the PC Card slot as there's no built-in antenna.

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The XGA TFT screen delivers a bright, clear picture, and the ATI Mobility M6-M chipset that drives it provides plenty of driver options. The 87-key keyboard has a sensible layout and good-sized 19mm keys, but we found the feel somewhat bouncy on our review sample. The pointing device is a four-button touchpad, with right and left mouse buttons along with up and down scroll buttons.

So much for the features, which are straightforward enough: what about the performance? Given that Intel's fastest mobile chip is currently the 1.2GHz Mobile Pentium III Processor-M (like the Northwood Pentium 4, a 0.13-micron part with 512KB of Level 2 cache), we expected pretty good speed from the 1.8GHz chip in the Ultinote M6400. We weren't disappointed: its Business Winstone 2001 score of 42.7 is the third fastest we've seen, while its Content Creation Winstone 2002 score of 26.8 is the fastest recorded so far -- beating the workstation-class Dell Precision M40, which scored 26.1.

Given that it operates at 1.5V compared to a Mobile Pentium III-M's 1.1-1.4V, we might expect battery life to suffer. However, the Ultinote M6400's battery life of two hours and 25 minutes under BatteryMark 4.01 is very creditable. Note that BatteryMark runs the system down with all power management features turned off, and is therefore a 'worst-case' estimate of battery life. However, the battery required to deliver this amount of life with a desktop rather than a mobile chip is something of a give-away: the Ultinote M6400's 9-cell Li-ion battery has a rating of 6,000mAh, whereas similarly-specified notebooks with mobile chips typically have 3,000-4,000mAh batteries. This system's bigger battery is the main reason why it is heavier than the average two-spindle system.

So if performance is very good and battery life can be taken care of, surely Intel's warnings about overheating and clock-throttling, leading to performance degradation over time, must be taken seriously? To test this, we ran several benchmarks continuously for 30 runs to see whether the scores showed any sign of tailing off. As our charts show, they didn't -- and the Business Winstone 2001, Content Creation Winstone 2002 and CPUmark 99 tests each took several hours to complete. At the end of all this testing, the system wasn't overly warm, and we didn't notice any excessive fan noise.

We tried hard to fault this desktop Pentium 4-powered notebook, but failed. It performs very well, currently leading the field on the high-end application-based Content Creation Winstone 2002 test, and delivers around 2.5 hours' battery life, should you want to take it on the road. It doesn't appear to become overheated after heavy use, and isn't unduly noisy. Yes, it's bulky and heavy for a two-spindle system, and the desktop chip lacks the power-saving tweaks that Intel builds into its mobile chips. But at £1,339 (ex. VAT) compared to £2,000 or more for a similar-performing system, the Ultinote M6400 has to be judged a good deal if you're going to use it mainly as a desktop replacement system.

It's worth pointing out that the drawbacks of desktop Pentium 4-based notebooks that Intel highlights may well be manifest in other, less well-designed, systems than Hi-Grade's. Also, a review with a limited time-span such as this is not going to expose any potential long-term reliability problems.

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