by Chris Chua, Malaysia
This is a review on the HP Compaq nc6400, a 14.1" screen thin and light business-optimized notebook that sports an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and ATI X1300 graphics.
Reasons for Purchase
I was looking for a thin and light notebook that I'd be able to carry to university, work and everywhere else I travel. It also needed to have enough power for programming tasks, playing basic games and be Linux-friendly. The other options I considered were the Sony VAIO SZ48 and Dell Latitude D620.
The Sony SZ is the most expensive of the three, but is also the lightest and has the best screen. However, I discovered that Sony does not provide an option for extended international warranty beyond the standard 12 months and for a notebook costing this much, I'd prefer it to have warranty coverage for at least 3 years since Sony notebooks are known to be extremely expensive to repair after the warranty expires. The HP comes with a 3-year onsite parts and labour international warranty, which presents a better investment in the longer term. In addition, the SZ didn't look as durable when I tried it, mostly due to the thin LED-backlit display which causes it to creak upon opening.
The D620 is also a viable alternative to the nc6400, but I didn't really favour its design, aesthetics are a major factor in my purchase. Besides, I have also heard horror stories about its dimly lit WXGA+ resolution screen.
The notebook was purchased directly from HP in Malaysia. HP's online store here offers the nc6400 as a configure to order model, albeit for only 2 versions -- the Intel integrated graphics model (EH522AV) and the 64MB dedicated graphics model (EH520AV). Instead, I wanted the model with 128MB discrete graphics (EH522AV) because it only cost $80 more, so I had to place my order through the phone.
The first rep I called said the model has been discontinued. Knowing this as a standard reply for when they can't find it on their system, I tried calling the next day and got a different rep who was really knowledgeable, hence was able to place the order for me. The CTO models are basically what HP calls Base Units, which are “barebones” notebooks where customers have to select a processor, RAM, Hard Drive, display, BT and WIFI to build a complete product. This particular model is an RCTO, which stands for Regional Configure to Order. This can imply several things, i.e. the notebook may be assembled in a regional plant closest to the location of purchase, customised to a region-specific configuration and may carry a regional warranty.
The notebook took 6-working days from order confirmation to delivery at my doorstep. This proved extremely quick but I'm not surprised as it is made in Singapore, where HP has a production facility.
HP Compaq nc6400 RCTO 128M Base Unit
I paid approximately $1600 for this configuration.
Build and Design
Top cover of the nc6400 (view large image)
Bottom – note the docking station connector and extended battery slot (view large image)
This notebook feels very solid and sturdy. There are no noticeable creaks when pressure is applied to the assembly and it appears very well-constructed, unlike my previous Toshiba which has tremendous keyboard flex and creaks when you pick it up. The metal hinges which are enclosed by plastic also felt very strong.
The lid is dark gray and the rest of the notebook is black, hence giving it a very professional look which doesn't draw too much attention. The notebook weighs approximately 2.4kg (5.29lbs) including the battery and Multibay DVD drive. I believe it is one of the lightest 14” widescreens on the market and is very portable.
There are 3 USB ports, one on the right and 2 on the left. It also has a built-in microphone on the top right corner of the switch cover, headphone and microphone jacks. To maximise security, there is a built-in Smart card reader and fingerprint reader in addition to the TPM module. There are VGA and S-Video ports located at the rear of the notebook. The DVD drive is a spring-loaded MultiBay device, meaning it can be removed easily and swapped with another hard drive or a weight saver, which is a piece of plastic filler that reduces the weight by approximately 500g for greater mobility. It has no Firewire or Express Card slot. I'm also surprised by the inclusion of an SD/MMC card reader instead of a more universal 5 in 1 card reader, which can be found on the lower end HP nx6230 non-widescreen models.
Left side view of HP nc6400 (view large image)
Right side view of HP nc6400 (view large image)
Front side view of HP nc6400 (view large image)
Back view of HP nc6400 (view large image)
A nice touch is the clear markings of the various ports (except USB) and status lights along the edges of the top assembly. The only gripe I have here is that HP stuck an ancient “Designed for Windows XP” sticker on mine rather than the newer “Vista” stickers found on current laptops. However, the Vista upgrade leaflet is included in the package and I did get my Vista upgrade disc.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The full-size keyboard is one of the main reasons I opted for this model, having typed on an nx8420/nc8430. It is very nice to type on and exhibits no flex and is quiet, unlike those keyboards found on the Presario and Pavillion notebooks. The keyboard features dual pointing devices, meaning it has a pointing stick with corresponding buttons as well as a normal touchpad and mouse buttons. The touchpad has a hardware controlled dedicated vertical scroll area, which is a nice touch.
(view large image)
As this is a business notebook, there are no so-called “multimedia keys” except volume control buttons. However, there are dedicated presentation, wireless and help keys which can be found on other business notebooks too. In addition, there are function keys to adjust brightness and to control the ambient light sensor. The CTRL and FN keys are in the normal position, but these can be switched in the BIOS according to user preference.
Straight on view of nc6400 screen (view large image)
The WXGA+ display is made by the manufacturer AUO. It is certainly not the best display on the market due to a slight shimmering effect of the anti-glare coating which is apparent only at a very close distance. Vertical viewing angles are pretty narrow, but horizontal viewing angles are fine. The higher resolution is definitely a plus for me as I require the screen real estate and this is the highest resolution I can get for a notebook of this size.
Angled view of nc6400 screen (view large image)
Screen brightness is excellent, but this is a personal preference. There is some light leakage on the bottom of the screen, but this is only visible on very dark backgrounds.
(view large image)
The screen has a light sensor that automatically adjusts the LCD backlight brightness according to the room's lights. I find it quite useful indoors. This is also one of the first HP models to feature a privacy filter option, allowing you to prevent others from observing what's on your screen from non-perpendicular angles. Unfortunately, I do not have one to test.
Overall, the screen is very usable under office lighting conditions, but it is not recommended if you're doing serious graphics work.
The latest BIOS upgrade fixes an issue with the display where certain colours may appear blocky.
The speakers are located on the front of the notebook. They are hidden behind a mesh surrounding the SD card reader. However, upon closer inspection, the actual speakers are not symmetrically placed, with both on the right side of the card reader. There's nothing special about them as these are regular notebook speakers with virtually no bass. Again, this is often overlooked in a business machine.
Processor and Benchmarks
This notebook is configured with an Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 processor. We put this to test by making it calculate several benchmarks:
The benchmarks are nothing to shout about as the nc6400 is not a performance notebook. The results are consistent with other notebooks with similar configurations (processor, hard disk and graphics card).
PCMark05 gives an average score of 3817 under Windows Vista.
Comparison table for PCMark05
|HP nc6400 (2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200, ATI Mobility Radeon X1300)||3,817 PCMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)||4,084 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950)||2,981 PCMarks|
|HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270)||2,420 PCMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||4,234 PCMarks|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX)||5,597 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
|Toshiba Tecra M6 (1.66GHz Intel T2300E, Intel GMA 950)||2,732 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400)||3,646 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo)||3,427 PCMarks|
3DMark05 produces slightly different results under Windows XP and Vista. This score is obtained with the ATI PowerPlay settings set to Maximum Performance with clock speeds of 392/297MHz (Core/Memory).
3DMark05 Comparison Results
|Notebook||3D Mark 05 Results|
|HP nc6400 (2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200, ATI Mobility Radeon X1300, Windows XP)||1,766 3DMarks|
|HP nc6400 (2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200, ATI Mobility Radeon X1300, Windows Vista)||1,748 3DMarks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)||911 3DMarks|
|Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (Intel 1.73GHz T5300 + GMA 950)||559 3DMarks|
|HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270)||871 3DMarks|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)||2,013 3D Marks|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400)||1,791 3D Marks|
|Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)||4,236 3DMarks|
|Alienware Aurora M-7700 (AMD Dual Core FX-60, ATI X1600 256MB)||7,078 3D Marks|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,092 3D Marks|
|Dell XPS M1210 (2.16 GHz Core Duo, nVidia Go 7400 256MB)||2,090 3D Marks|
The T7200 processor calculates Pi to 2M digits on the average time of 1 minute and 5 seconds, which is pretty much on par with all equivalent notebooks.
Super Pi Comparison Results
|HP nc6400 (2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7200)||1m 05s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T61 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T7300)||59s|
|Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.00GHz Core 2 Duo T7200)||1m 03s|
|Toshiba Satellite P205-S6287 (1.73 GHz Core 2 Duo Intel T5300)||1m 24s|
|Toshiba Satellite A205 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 34s|
|HP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52)||2m 05s|
|HP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T2400)||59s|
|Dell Inspiron e1705 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 02s|
|Toshiba A100 (2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
The 80GB 5400rpm hard disk gives expected performance.
(view large image)
The HP nc6400 comes pre-loaded with minimal bloat ware. In fact, it only comes with device drivers and HP's Backup and Recovery Program installed on top of the standard Windows XP Professional/Windows Vista operating system (depending on when you purchased it). However, all other software and drivers are located in the SWSETUP folder, which can be backed up. As with all other new HP notebooks, no recovery disc is provided except for a recovery partition and the option to burn the discs yourself.
I installed Ubuntu Linux on the nc6400 and I'm happy to report that this is a rather Linux-friendly notebook. It is certified with Novell’s SLED 10. When native SATA mode is disabled in the BIOS, both resume and hibernate works. Graphics acceleration is provided by the ATI drivers and all hotkeys (including brightness controls, power options, sleep key, wireless switch, presentation, volume and help button) work out of the box. However, some custom configuration is needed to get the card reader and dial up modem to work. Fingerprint reader is recognised, but no proper utilities are provided. At this point, I did not test any other embedded security features under Linux because chances are, no drivers are available (nor do I use them).
I managed to get a little over 3 hours out of the standard 6-cell battery in Windows with light to moderate tasks such as browsing, e-mailing, word processing, running a Java IDE and instant messaging. On Linux, performing similar tasks and using optimal power saving configuration, I am able to get approximately 2.5 hours of battery life.
A look at the extended life 8-cell battery installed (view large image)
The 8-cell common travel battery adds an extra 3.5 hours of battery time on average, but it’s bulky.
This notebook comes with an Intel 3945 abg wireless card. It has pretty good range and has no problems maintaining a stable connection within reasonable distance of the router.
A minor annoyance here is that the WIFI and the Bluetooth module are mapped to the same wireless switch, so activating the WIFI via the switch also activates the Bluetooth. This can be overwritten using the HP’s Wireless Assistant utility.
Heat and Noise
The notebook is silent under moderate use. However, when the processor and fans are in full speed, a slight whirring sound can be heard, but this is perfectly normal and expected. Warm air can be felt coming out the vents on the left side of the notebook, while other parts remain cool even after hours of usage, unlike my old Toshiba's palm rest, which felt uncomfortably warm after a short time with minimal usage.
This notebook is recommended for those who seek a lightweight 14-inch widescreen notebook for business or academic purposes. Its durability and performance are more than adequate for intensive processing tasks and software development work, but may not suit those working on intensive graphics applications. Despite some minor cons, it is still a very well-rounded business machine.
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