Portable One SR2 Notebook Review (pics, specs)

by Reads (9,100)

by Joshua Hoover

About every 3 to 4 years I set out to replace my rapidly aging laptop or desktop machine.  Generally I try to always get the most for my money.  This means countless hours researching every possible choice that will meet my requirements.  I can be pretty rough on laptops, so the models considered this time were all in the “tough” category.  The three major contenders for this category are IBM, Panasonic, and Portable One.  The Portable One SR2 had the features I was after and the company had the reviews that made it appealing so I decided to go with them.  This review will cover my thoughts on the Portable One SR2 as related to its competition in this category.

Portable One Company Overview

Most of you may be thinking one of two things the first time you see this review.  The first may be “Portable One makes their own laptops?” and the second will probably be “who’s Portable One?”.  Portable One (Portable One Website) is a major laptop retailer for some of the highest rated laptops around.  They carry laptops from such brands as Apple, Fujitsu, and Panasonic.  If you haven’t looked at them already, chances are you will be in the future.  In addition to being a major retailer they also sell their own brand of laptops.  With help from their large customer base these Portable One units were created in an attempt to fill the additional requirements missing from some of the laptops they carry from other manufactures.  I did not choose a “no name” laptop brand lightly.  Portable One’s impeccable customer service and the SR2’s feature list made the laptop impossible to ignore.

Portable One’s customer support is some of the best I have ever experienced.  They are quick to answer emails, their phones are almost always open with a real person on the other end, and their staff is easy to communicate with.  When I first received the laptop I experienced some problems with the bios keyboard driver.  This gave me a chance to test out their support team right away.  I type around 90 WPM and this was causing the laptop to introduce extra characters while typing.  In all fairness, no one else around me was able to produce the particular errors while typing and I have experienced similar problems on other brands, such as IBM, when I really start moving.  Portable One worked with the manufacture of the motherboard and had a bios update out to me within a week.  I do not know one single laptop company that would ever have done this for me.  They went all out to fix this problem quickly even though the problem was considered particularly rare.  The laptop keyboard now works flawlessly at any typing speed that I’m capable of producing.

Laptop Overview

The laptop configuration and specifications are:

  • Intel Pentium M Dothan 735 1.7GHz
  • 2MB L2 Cache 400MHz
  • 1GB (1X1GB) DDR SODIMM (2GB Max)
  • 15.1″ SXGA+ TFT (1400×1050) Resolution
  • Dedicated ATI 128MB Graphics Card
  • 80GB (5400RPM) Shock Mounted Hard Drive
  • Super Multi DVD RW
  • High Capacity 9-Cell Battery
  • IEEE 1394 FireWire & S-Video Ports
  • 3 USB 2.0 Ports
  • 56K V.90 Global Modem
  • 10/100mbps LAN
  • Integrated Intel Centrino BG2200 802.11b/g Wireless LAN
  • Tough Magnesium Alloy Encasing
  • Spill resistant keyboard
  • 3 Year Warranty
  • Additional details can be found in the manufactures brochure.

The laptop includes a very high quality Dicota laptop bag, phone cord, a couple of free screen cleaners, a copy of Window XP Pro on CD, VCOM System Suite, User’s Manual on CDROM, PowerDVD, and Nero OEM Suite. 

Portable One SR2 Laptop and Accessories (view larger image)

Laptop Externals

 

Portable One SR2 Front-View (view larger image)

Toughness

Most everyone looking at this laptop might be wondering if it lives up to the durability quoted by the manufacture.  Competitively priced with the Panasonic Toughbook Y2 and IBM notebooks this laptop is definitely a major contender in that series.  Portable One’s website states that: “The Portable One SR Series is engineered, built and tested in compliance to Military Environmental Standards 810 E for Drop Shock, Vibration and Water Resistance, as well as, ATSM (American Testing Standards of Materials) and Trucking and Transportation recommendations. All of this in a slim line form factor.”  I did not run the laptop through the 810 E specification, but I can tell you that the laptop appears to be very durable.  I have gone through two IBM notebooks already where the cases have fallen to pieces.  This laptop would take a serious beating before anything broke on it.  The lid has a very nice feeling to it and the hinges appear to be of high quality.  The entire case is made of the special alloy mentioned in the specification and feels rock solid.  The hard drive is encased in extra foam padding for shock resistance.  The only toughness factor questionable on the laptop would be the lack of protection on the numerous ports.  The PCMCIA interface, Ethernet, modem, USB, fire wire, keyboard, and svideo ports are all open to the elements.  Most laptops include plastic plugs or internal swivel doors.  This wasn’t a major drawback for me personally because those pieces usually end up lost in my travels, but is worth mentioning.  The durability of the laptop can only be tested with time.  However, the laptop features do appear to indicate a lasting durability.

Portability

First off, this is not an ultra portable laptop.  It does not fail the portability requirement but this is a heavy machine.  At 6.8 lbs it isn’t the lightest laptop but I do not consider it in the 10 lbs plus portable desktop group either.  The full metal casing body definitely makes this laptop a bit on the heavy side, but it still manages to be only 1.4″ high x 13.1″ wide x 10.8″ deep.  For reference, the popular metro Ogio bag will fit this laptop in its 15″ max laptop compartment, but it’s tight.  Regardless of the size and weight, for a durable laptop with a 15″ SXGA LCD the Portable One SR2 is still very manageable.

Design and Feel

The port design on the SR2 is top notch with a no-nonsense design.  It includes the essential fire wire, USB, VGA, svideo, modem, Ethernet, PCMCIA, and audio ports.  However, it does not include the legacy serial, parallel or ps2 interfaces.  It also includes wireless and laptop power buttons.  The ports are well laid out with all the interfaces on the front or sides of the laptop.  This laptop does not have a single port in the rear of the unit.  This was a good design choice because having the power or other cables come directly out of the back may good for desktops; I have often found it awkward on most laptops.  Portable One has included USB ports on both sides of the laptop for easy accessibility. 

The keyboard and touchpad on the SR2 are well designed.  The keyboard takes advantage of the space under the 15″ screen and has large full keys.  I can achieve my standard 90 WPM speed on this laptop without trouble.  Below the keyboard is a relatively standard synaptics touchpad.  It has the optional scroll buttons along with the standard left and right mouse buttons.  The pad seems to function very well compared to some, but I have never been a fan of touch pads.  You can do quite a lot with this little square, including scrolling, double click detection with multiple finger tapping, and forward/backward browser control.  Most of these options are frivolous on a pad so small, but it’s amazing how much you can do with this one.

The exterior features of the laptop are clean and well laid out.  The SR2 has the standard LEDs for AC power, battery power, battery charging, CD activity, hard drive activity, caps lock, num lock, and scroll lock.  However, it is missing Ethernet and wireless connectivity/activity indication lights.  There is a nice large green button for turning the wireless card on or off, but it does not blink or indicate the state of the card in any form.  The laptop lid has an interesting latching system.  It does not have a manually operated latch.  It simply clicks into position and releases when you apply enough force to open it.  I wasn’t sure of the durability of this solution in the beginning but it seems to function extremely well.  The power plug has a very nice tight fit and appears that it will outlive many of the other laptops I have tested that seem to almost fall out because they are so loose.  Besides the missing Ethernet and wireless LEDs the only other complaint on the exterior design I have is the Super Multi DVD RW drive.  This drive has a button that provides no tactile feeling to it when pressed and it generally takes quite a bit of force before the bay will open.  Once you get use to it you’ll find the right way to press it without too much force, but I found myself pressing it rather hard sometimes before it would pop out.  The drive does have a nice locking feature that will prevent the bay from ejecting if the button is accidentally pressed.  Based on the amount of force needed to open the drive I seriously doubt that will ever happen, but it is still a nice feature.  This is an optional drive I chose over the CDRW standard drive so I’m not sure if this issue is unique only to the drive I chose.

Portable One SR2 Right-side view (view larger image)

Portable One SR2 Front-side view (view larger image)

Portable One SR2 Left-side view (view larger image)

Portable One SR2 Back-side view (view larger image)

Portable One SR2 Above keyboard view (view larger image)

LCD Screen

The 15″ LCD screen is very bright and clear.  Capturing the quality with a digital camera is difficult, but I left some shots in for reference anyway.  The screen manufacturer is unknown, but I would rate it at the top of the class with quality.  With a max resolution of 1400x1050x32bit and the 128mb ATI mobile Radeon card the screen is a top performer.  The keyboard has the standard backlighting controls to adjust the brightness of the screen.  Currently, there is no on screen indication of the level of brightness, but the changes are obvious enough to make it unnecessary.

Portable One SR2 Screen (view larger image)

Portable One SR2 Screen (view larger image)

Noise and Temperature

The SR2 has two fans on the bottom of the unit; one CPU fan and one GPU fan.  According to Portable One these are necessary to meet the environmental parts of the 810 E military specification.  The two fans put the laptop in the middle of the road for fan noise level.  It’s louder than my IBM T20 but much less so than my Dell Inspiron.  The laptop will heat up if left with the fans blocked in a state that requires processor activity.  This is easy to do because both of the fans face down on the unit.  The laptop will stay cool on a hard surface due to rubber spacers on the bottom of the unit but something like a couch or carpeted floor will likely causes the laptop to heat up.  It isn’t enough to cause damage to the unit, but it is not comfortable to hold onto the unit right after this state.  Normal lap use is not uncomfortable as long as there is proper airflow getting to the unit.  The first magnesium alloy Apple Powerbooks also exhibited heat problems that I attribute to the metal casings.  This laptop seems to suffer from similar problems.

Speakers

The standard tiny speakers are included on this laptop.  The sound they produce is tinny and the speakers cannot support much volume without distortion.  In comparison the speakers on my IBM T20 were of higher quality.  I would consider the speakers on the SR2 better than most ultra portables that come with only one speaker, but below laptops that focus a bit more on sound like many of the Compaq models.

Laptop Internals

Upgradeable components 

The laptop has a number of removable doors on the bottom of the unit.  This allows an upgrade of the memory, hard drive, or CPU.  The memory and hard drive are very simple to upgrade if desired, but care should be given when attempting a processor upgrade.  Portable One recommends that anyone interested in this should contact support before attempting it.  You can see from the pictures that the massive heat sink and complexity could make it a larger undertaking than the memory or the hard drive.  The memory is expandable to 2 Gig via two slots pictured below.  This puts the laptop ahead of most of its competitors that support much less RAM.  Most laptops are not very upgradeable or require non standard components.  This laptop appears to be a bit more upgradeable than most.

Portable One SR2 Under-side(view larger image)

Portable One SR2 heat-synch close up (view larger image)

Performance

The laptop is much faster than its Panasonic Y2 competition and includes a graphics card only found in higher end desktop laptops.  PCMark04 scored the laptop at 3274 PCMarks and 3DMark03 scored the graphics system at 2645.  The CPU performance is very good, rating in the top tier of laptops of similar design.  The graphics system score was a bit lower on the list.  These numbers can be compared on futuremark.com to others by the reader for proper comparison.  The subjective review of the laptop is that it is very fast and seems to scream through whatever is thrown at it.  Gaming was not a high priority on this machine, but with the supplied graphics card it would be hard to ignore the potential.  Warcraft 3 plays brilliantly, but you won’t be playing Doom 3 without reducing the video settings quite a bit. 

Battery life is about average for a Centrino laptop.  With normal use the battery lasts approximately 3.5 to 4 hours.  Watching a DVD really taxes the power system.  It’s more than enough to get through one DVD, but I doubt you could watch two full length movies with only one battery.  Battery life is rated at 5.5 hours by the manufactures specification sheet, but I do not see how this is possible.  Even with extremely conservative settings I cannot see getting more than 4 hours of constant use out of this laptop.  While the battery life isn’t superb, it is good considering the performance orientated components that are in the system.

Software Compatibility

I have particularly high requirements of software compatibility generally because of my personal hobbies and profession.  The SR2 hardware is completely supported under Linux.  Debian installed perfectly with minimal tuning necessary to get the wireless chipset to work.  When reinstalling windows nearly everything was supported in the base XP install cd.  A few standard drivers needed to be loaded in order to bring it up to its full potential.  These drivers are easily accessible on the Portable One website.  There are zero issues to report here, the SR2 uses standard components that are compatible across platforms.

Conclusion

The SR2 is a fast machine with an outstanding design, screen, graphics card, and case.  The price point puts it up with the Panasonic Y2 and IBM T series, but has significantly greater value.  The large 1400×1050 max resolution screen, processor speed, and graphics card are of higher quality than both the competitors’ laptops.  While this laptop may not be for the ultra portable user, it will satisfy those looking for a laptop that can take a beating, perform at close to desktop speeds, and still be portable enough to travel with.  In addition, this laptop will also appeal to the ultra geeky out there with Linux supported hardware and an ATI 3D graphics chipset that will handle quite a bit.  However, if noise and size are your top priorities then it may be best to look closer at the competitor’s models in this price range.

The Good

  • Excellent design and construction
  • Large 15″ sxga LCD screen
  • Full Metal Alloy Case and 810 E mil spec
  • ATI 128mb Mobile Radeon Graphics card
  • Standard Hardware Components that are upgradeable and supported across software platforms.
  • High value compared to it’s competition

The Bad

  • DVD RW drive button and eject operation
  • Lack of Ethernet/wireless status LEDs
  • Dual fans may be too noisy for some

Pricing and Availability

The SR2 is sold exclusively via www.PortableOne.com, prices start at around $2,100 for the SR2 but visit their site for updated pricing and availability as both are subject to change over time.


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