- designed with an eye on the practicalities
- excellent battery life
- Lacks all legacy ports
- uninspiring graphics performance
Notebooks aimed at the business sector can be straightforward verging on dull, but NEC’s new Versa M340 has a neat trick of catching your attention. Here it is: a Pentium M (Banias core, not the newer Dothan) notebook with 802.11b/g wireless from a tier-one manufacturer -- for under a grand, including VAT (£799 ex. VAT, £939 inc. VAT). Worth a closer look, we thought.
The overall approach is conservative, from the rather dark two-tone finish to the simple, uncluttered styling. Construction quality is fair without quite managing to exceed our expectations for something in this price range. The body is moderately solid, the keyboard doesn’t sag and bounce too much as you type, and the lid surface is plastic rather than alloy. This means less defence against damage during transport, but fancy alloys push the price up. The designers have also kept costs down by eliminating legacy hardware. You connect to peripherals via three USB 2.0 ports and FireWire, not via parallel, serial or PS/2, because they aren’t there. If you want floppies, you need to give NEC £64 for an external USB floppy drive. When you do start plugging things in, you will notice that at least some of the ports are at the sides, which makes life a lot easier than having everything hidden away at the back. This is not really a traveller’s notebook. It’s a bit big, with a 32.9cm by 26.8cm footprint; and although 2.8kg is not excessive, it will start to feel heavy pretty fast if you have to carry it over any distance -- particularly as part of a festoon of other luggage. A spot of hot-desking or the odd trip home after work is more the Versa M340’s style. As notebooks go, the Versa M340 is at the more comfortable end of the spectrum. The keyboard is reasonably large and easy enough to get used to, and there are tilt feet underneath the notebook for improving the typing angle. This humble feature can make a real difference to the user experience, especially if you're writing for any length of time. The screen has a 15in. diagonal and a native resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels (XGA). This is a strong combination that produces a large, readable display with everything scaled up to a sensible size. The panel is well lit and can be viewed from off-centre without blanking, so all told, a good showing on the ergonomic front.
Delve within and you find a Centrino-certified system with 54Mbps 802.11b/g wireless networking powered by a 1.5GHz Pentium M processor. This CPU is the older Banias-core part with 1MB of Level 2 (L2) cache; an M340 model featuring the newer 1.7GHz Pentium M 735 Dothan-core processor with 2MB of L2 cache is also available. The CPU is flanked by 256MB of PC2700 (333MHz) DDR SDRAM and a decent-sized 60GB hard disk. RAM upgrades will be easy enough thanks to a single empty SODIMM slot under a panel in the base allowing you to add up to 1GB more. Graphics are dealt with by the integrated 855GME chipset. The GPU element borrows memory rather than having any of its own, but at least it hands it back to the main system when it's no longer required. The 855GME copes with DVD playback and mainstream applications well enough, but it will start to slow down if you ask it to do anything complicated -- especially if you move into 3D. This is not a platform for games, although it's fine for what it's designed for -- general business applications.
Performance & battery life
The Versa M340 isn't especially fast, as its MobileMark 2002 rating of 139 attests (the fastest notebooks we've tested score well over 200). The CPU's 1MB of L2 cache, the moderate abilities of the 855GME graphics subsystem and the 256MB (minus-graphics) of RAM doubtless all contribute. Even so, the M340 delivers enough performance for most business users. MobileMark 2002 also tests battery life, and it became apparent while we waited -- and waited -- for the benchmark to complete, that the Versa M340 was going to deliver the goods in this respect. And it did: running time came in at 5 hours 43 minutes, which is extremely good going. If long spells on DC power are part of your day, this alone could be the deciding factor. However, there are plenty of other reasons to keep this unassuming but rather competent notebook in mind.
Service & support
The Versa M340 comes with a one-year collect and return European warranty, and there are various extended options on offer at NEC's Web site. Telephone support is available between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday; calls are charged at national rates.