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NEC Versa S900

  • Editors' rating
    7.4 Very good

Pros

  • Powerful
  • fairly compact and portable
  • supports a docking station
  • modular drive bay.

Cons

  • Relatively bulky for a 'sub-notebook'
  • disappointing battery life for a Pentium M/Centrino system.

NEC calls the Versa S900 a sub-notebook with a 'thin, lightweight design', but this isn't the first impression it created with us. The Pentium M/Centrino-based S900's 28.4cm by 24.5cm footprint is certainly compact, but not to the extent you'd expect of a subnote. 'Small notebook' is nearer the mark. As for the thin and lightweight design, the S900 weighs 2.25kg, so it's not excessively heavy -- but again, when you consider that most true subnotebooks (or ultraportables) tip the scales between 1kg and 2kg, this is hardly groundbreaking. Nor is the system exactly thin: at 36mm (lid closed), it's the same girth as many a full-sized pre-Centrino notebook.

This is why we're being a bit picky about size, shape and weight issues. Centrino technology promises several things, among which are significant reductions in size and weight even for conventional notebooks, never mind smaller systems, and it's not at all apparent that the S900 delivers in these respects.

Features
Still, if you set all that aside, what you do get is a nice-looking and evidently well-made small notebook that manages to be both portable and reasonably usable at the same time. It also packs a punch. Various configurations are on offer, with processors ranging from 1.3GHz to 1.7GHz (we reviewed the 1.6GHz model), and between 256MB and 1GB of PC2100 DDR SDRAM. Our review system came with 512MB and a 30GB hard disk, so it clearly isn't meant simply for mainstream office tasks. This is reflected in the fact that it has an expansion bus for an optional port replicator, qualifying it on a practical level as a desktop replacement, albeit a fairly small one. Without the port replicator, you still have enough to get by, which isn't always the case. There are three USB 2.0 ports, plus FireWire, S-Video TV output, audio I/O, twin Type II PC Card slots and the usual integrated V.92 modem and 10/100 Base-TX LAN adapter. Being a Centrino machine, it also sports wireless networking in the form of an Intel PRO/Wireless 2100 802.11b Mini-PCI card. Intel plans to support the much faster 802.11a and g standards in due course, so upgrading the Mini-PCI card will be essential if you want to keep up with current technology. Less esoteric -- but equally important -- details worthy of mention include the lid, which is metal and very handsome thanks to its brushed finish, but too thin to resist pressure without yielding. A good, strong lid is the best guarantee of an unbroken screen, and we'd have been happier with more substance and less style here. The screen itself works on an ergonomic level in that the combination of its 12.1in. diagonal and native XGA resolution is reasonably readable, although it could have done with being slightly brighter. The keyboard has a pleasantly positive feel to it, but we weren't too keen on the way the PgUp, PgDn, Home and End keys had been relegated to secondary function of the cursor group to save space. This sort of thing always adds a layer of awkwardness to controlling applications from the keyboard. The Versa S900 is big enough to accomodate an internal optical drive, although not a floppy drive, which is supplied as an extra that you connect via one of the USB ports. Our review system came with a DVD/CD-RW combo drive, but you can remove the module and replace it with a second battery or hard disk if necessary.

Performance and battery life
The subject of batteries brings us to another of Centrino's purported benefits, namely improved DC running time. This is certainly borne out by some notebooks, which can soldier on for up to five hours, but unfortunately the magic doesn't seem to have worked here. In fact, the 2 hours and 51 minutes delivered by the Versa S900's 4,000mAh Li-ion battery under BatteryMark 4.01 is something of a disappointment for a Centrino system -- we had hoped for well over 3 hours. Centrino notebooks are fast, helped by the massive 1MB of on-die Level 2 cache and 400MHz front-side bus supported by Intel's 855 chipset. Here, with 512MB of 266MHz DDR memory added to the mix, our expectations were again high. The Versa S900's Business Winstone 2001 score of 47.4 could have been better, but the Content Creation Winstone 2002 score of 35.1 is in line with other Pentium M/Centrino systems we've tested. Looking at the component-level benchmarks, we noticed that while the CPU and graphics were performing well, the 30GB Hitachi hard disk was not: a Business Disk WinMark 99 rating of 2,340 is well below what we'd expect (4,000 - 6,000). This was a very early sample, however, so perhaps disk subsystem performance will improve as production ramps up. Graphics presented no real concerns, with the 32MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9000 cranking out a score of 4,445 under 3DMark 2001 (32-bit XGA), meaning that the Versa S900 should handle 3D games without difficulty. The 2D rating was also excellent, but as with desktops we've long since passed the point where 2D acceleration is a problem for mainstream notebook GPUs. Admittedly, it's early days yet with Centrino, but there is already some very stiff competition out there, and although the Versa S900 has its good points, it doesn't really deliver across the board.

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