by Perry Longinotti
Portable One is an interesting company. They are Fujitsu’s largest integration facility in North America and sell several lines of high-end notebooks. Their exposure to the best machines on the market combined with feedback from their customers inspired them to begin selling their own line of compact, ultra slim and ruggedized laptops. This review will be looking at the Portable One MX a highly portable workhorse that is very flexible due to a modular expansion bay system.
It is quite likely that despite that assortment of laptops that Portable One offers, some of their customers needed machines with a specific combination of features not available from its main suppliers. I can sympathize with this, as my own quest for the perfect laptop is entering its second year.
According to Portable One’s Ivan Gospitch, customers have been requesting compact notebooks with an SXGA display and modular hard drive bay. But few manufacturers make such a machine so Portable One developed one themselves. This allowed Portable One to get the exact platform they wanted plus the ability select their own screens and other types of modifications.
Portable One counts many government agencies among its clients so they must abide by FCC requirements to have at least 51% of their laptops made in ‘approved’ countries. Portable One advertises that their laptops are assembled in the USA, but they can actually state that they are made in the USA as they meet the necessary requirements for that label.
The MX is based on an Asus reference laptop. These units can be bought as do it yourself kits for the adventurous and often serve as the basis for laptops from smaller companies that lack the necessary resources to create their own design/manufacturing facilities or the volumes required to get a design built for them by ODM manufacturers like Compal or Quanta.
In choosing an Asus chassis Portable One has partnered with a proven company that is known in the PC industry for its quality products.
For Portable One Presentation is important, that’s true even for the packaging!
The Portable One succeeds in making a good first impression. Construction is quite solid. The MX seems to be made of quality metals, carbon fiber and plastics. You can certainly tell this unit apart from a creaky average consumer laptop. The MX exudes quality – based on my experience Dell and Toshiba should buy some of these units and give them to their engineers. I would rate the build quality as being equal to Apple and IBM – in other words it is among the best. Unlike some laptops that I have owned, the MX feels like it can easily last a few years of heavy use. For people that cannot actually touch and feel an MX before buying, I can tell you that this is a well-constructed laptop. It feels as good as it looks.
Portable One includes easy to follow instructions for setting up and upgrading your notebook
Cosmetically, the MX is a winner. The black and silver finish gives the unit a classy appeal. You won’t be embarrassed to be seen using this – it is at once conservative and elegant. The neon blue power button may be a bit bright and distracting located as it is immediately above the keyboard. I could see this being a problem on night flights or watching DVDs in low light. An option to turn of the blue-glow would be a good idea. Overall the MX has a clean industrial look that I quite like, and it lacks the gimmicks that plague many laptops (i.e. quick-launch buttons for every application you can think of).
Portable One MX (click to view larger image)
The MX’s size is almost perfect – 12.16in (wide) x 10in (depth) x 1.14in (height). It is big enough to include a 14″ 1400*1050 (SXGA+) LCD and small enough to be easy to keep with you. With a travel weight of about six pounds (under 5 lbs. without power adapter) it is light enough for the frequent business traveler. Many laptop makers do not understand that this is the real sweet-spot for work machines. I travel a lot and see airports full of people with expressions of agony on their faces as they struggle to carry giant shoulder bags stuffed with 8lb behemoths. A few pounds really does make a difference on a long trip — just ask your chiropractor. The 1.7 GHz Pentium M CPU and fast drive in the MX means that it is faster than most DTR laptops, and it’s screen is vastly superior to the average big and heavy laptop. Suffer no longer people!
The MX can be built to order and that gives you some choice as to how you want your computer configured. You can specify the speed of the processor, ram, hard drive and optical drive preferences. I looked at the pricing for upgrades and Portable One gets this deal hunter’s stamp of approval — prices for upgrades are reasonable.
The MX review unit that Portable One sent us uses the new Intel 735 processor — that’s a 1.7 GHz Pentium-M Dothan’ processor. The Dothan CPU is manufactured using a smaller process. This should translate into better heat and power characteristics, and because of the smaller size there is room to double the amount of level 2 cache versus the older Banias’ Pentium-M. Also included was a full one-gigabyte of PC3200 ram and a 60-gigabyte hard drive spinning at 7200 RPM. The review unit is pretty close to the basic configuration that they advertise on their site for $1899 (the extra Ram will add $115 to this price). The MX uses the Pentium M, 855GME core logic chipset, and Intel BG2200 802.11b/g wireless card and therefore qualifies as a Centrino notebook. The only drawback I can think of is the lack of Linux drivers for the wireless card. Portable One has nothing to hide – they have picked an excellent spec.
Portable One includes a generous selection of software with the MX Series Laptop
Windows XP Professional is the operating system of choice. This is supplemented with an unusual compliment of utilities — Portable One have really given this some thought. VCOM’s SystemSuite is included. This provides virus protection, spam filter, online privacy control, and some nice utilities. You get automatic virus definition updates just like Norton or McAfee products but without the annoying registration nonsense and memory consumption. The MX also has Mozilla installed and that is nice to see.
Linux fans will be pleased to know that Knoppix LiveCD 3.6 ran fine, except for the lack of Linux support for the Intel wireless card — Intel is really dragging their feet on this as Orinocco drivers have been around for ages. I installed the Mandrake 10 Community distro and had some video card detection problems with the Intel Extreme Graphics — it is probably just a Mandrake issue as Knoppix worked fine. Power management under Linux is pretty good now, and the battery life indicator was quite accurate.
Portable One also includes Inspice Trace & Recovery. This is another really cool feature — something that you would usually have to source on your own after buying a system. This service offers a reward to anyone who returns your laptop in the event that it is lost or stolen. It also gives you the ability to track a laptop in real-time through a service that runs in the background. A little bit of added protection is good, and I get the impression that Portable One would not add a feature like this unless they know that it works.
Performance is exceptional. The Intel 735 is comparable to a 2.6-3.0 GHz Pentium 4. Needless to say, it is very fast. Because of the above-average specifications system performance is excellent. Unless you build your own desktop systems with the best components, it is quite likely that the MX will be faster than your desktop. The only bottleneck is the video system — and this bottleneck only rears its head when trying to play games. Gaming is not what this machine is aimed but you will be fine if you stick to graphically simple titles like the Sims or Age of Mythology.
Portable One MX top view (click to view larger image)
With its fast CPU, hard drive, excellent high resolution screen and Firewire port the MX would make an absolutely killer portable video editing machine — just add your Avid or Adobe software of choice and perhaps an extra hard drive in the modular expansion bay. With 100GB laptop drives just hitting the market, the prospect of a 5lb 200GB portable editing station is very tantalizing. It is quite easy to imagine the MX excelling at any task that demand powerful hardware.
Port placement is pretty good. Headphone, microphone and power jack placement is on the right side. Infrared, PCMCIA, Firewire and lock are located on the left. The front of the MX is clean. On the back, the VGA, Parallel, 2*USB 2.0 and the Port Replicator port are covered by a thin spring-loaded aluminum panel. The Ethernet, Modem and 2 additional USB 2.0 ports are conveniently located to the side of the panel for easy access.
On the bottom, the MX makes access to the good bits very easy if you ever need to change anything. This is a really nice feature in my opinion.
Let’s talk about the display a bit. Once you have worked on an SXGA+ screen you will find it hard to go back. This particular LCD was very bright and saturated. It does not suffer from the washed out contrast and milky tones common to some display. It is reminiscent of the screen used on the ToshibaPort g R100 I reviewed a while back. In other words it is one of the better screens that I have seen. Frankly, working on a laptop with a standard XGA resolution after using the MX feels like playing with a kid’s toy. The only potential knock is how this will affect battery life.
In this particular example, battery life is not sacrificed for the sake of having a killer screen. Battery life with the included battery pack is great. An eight-cell battery is standard a nice touch in an era of six cell batteries. A two-hour DVD is no problem at all. In fact I was able to get through a two-hour DVD, all the extras (consisting of a few documentaries and interviews) and then surf for about half an hour. I gave out before the MX did. In typical use — email, word processing, and wireless surfing the MX was close to the claimed five hours. Swap the DVD module for the extended battery and you will enjoy almost ten hours of battery life. Travelers with business in Asia are going to love this notebook.
The keyboard is not flexy but keys do have a dampened feel to them. Each laptop manufacturer seems to have a unique policy on key placement. I am not sure that I have ever owned two laptops where keys like ‘function,’ ‘delete’ and ‘home’ were in the same location. So chances are good that if you are coming from anything other than an Asus laptop you will have some adjusting to do. I had a hard time getting used to the Function’ key which was located exactly where I expected to find the “Control Key.’ Keyboard preference is subjective – I would rate quality of the MX keyboard as being equal to or slightly below the quality of an IBM T-Series ThinkPad – which is pretty much the gold standard.
The touchpad is a little more nervous than other Synaptics pads I have used, but I have never used a Synaptics pad that worked well with the default Control Panel settings. Thankfully Synaptics provides lots of settings for you to adjust so that you can get the feel just right. After fiddling with the sensitivity settings I was able to get the Touchpad to behave exactly the way I like. It would be nice to have dual pointer controls on a laptop in this class — something that IBM and Dell provide.
It is hard not to like the MX. It offers boutique parts – hand picked by folks who obviously know their market – selected for the best performance. There are no compromises here. No unpleasant surprises revealed when you look closely at the specs. How does it compare to similar sized machines that target the business traveler? It is significantly more rigid and solid feeling than the M series Tecras from Toshiba. The current crop of Latitudes lacks anything that would match the MX in size, power and construction. The new IBM ThinkPad T42 would be the only laptop that I can think of that rivals MX. Factor in cost and the MX leaves the others in its dust. Quite frankly, the MX is several hundred dollars cheaper than similar machines from tier-one vendors if you try to match the spec. In some cases the rival laptops are more expensive even with an inferior spec.
At some point in the future, you are going to want to try and stretch your investment by making some upgrades. Because of the nature of the MX you will be able to swap the CPU, RAM and HD with ease. Ram upgrades are common, and decent laptops will usually give you access to hard drives, but CPU upgradeability using easily obtainable parts is rare. So the MX gets unusually high marks for future proofing.
Are there any areas for improvement? I still have not found a perfect laptop, so the answer is yes. In this case, I feel the MX could benefit from a graphics controller with discrete memory. A RADEON 9700 would make even the latest games playable on this laptop. A dedicated graphics controller that conforms to either of ATI or Nvidia’s newly announced standards for mobile upgradeable graphics cards would make this a perfect laptop.
Overall, the MX has been the best machine I have worked on. The default configuration represents a great value when you consider the sum of the raw parts. It is composed of some great boutique parts — and they can even make it faster for you if you demand the absolute best. Portable One adds some nice extras like the uncommon software suite and theft recovery feature. It is extremely flexible thanks to the modular bay. Long-term it is well built and offers plenty of upgrade potential in the future. If you are in the market for a professional machine that is up to any task a busy traveler can throw at it, then you owe it to yourself top take a close look at the MX.
If you manage your company’s IT property or if you, like me, go through a lot of laptops in your search for the perfect tool — bookmark the Portable One website.
Pricing and Availability
Visit www.PortableOne.com to find the latest pricing and configurations available for the MX Series thin and light notebook.