Quanta KN1 Notebook Review (pics, specs)

by Reads (71,480)

by Byron Chin, California USA

Overview

The Quanta KN1-PM is a 15.4-inch widescreen desktop replacement system.  It is a rather understated no-frills notebook, but it offers very solid build quality, relatively low weight, customizability, excellent performance, and good battery life.  Note that there is also a KN1-GM, which is the same system but with integrated graphics.

Quanta KN1-PM Notebook (view larger image)

Quanta KN1 Specs as reviewed:

  • Intel Pentium M 750 (1.86GHz/2MB MB Cache/533MHz FSB)
  • 1GB DDR2-533 PC4200 RAM (1 slot open)
  • Seagate 120GB 5400RPM Hard Drive (Model ST9120821AS)
  • 15.4-inch WXGA widescreen display (matte finish)
  • NVIDIA GeForce Go 6600 128mb MXM PCI-Express
  • CD-RW/DVD-ROM Combination Drive (24x10x8x)
  • Intel PRO 2915 Internal Wireless (802.11 a/b/g, 54Mbps)
  • 8-cell lithium ion battery (66WHr)
  • Arctic Silver 5 thermal paste over CPU, GPU, & chipset Northbridge
  • Windows XP Home Edition
  • Weight: 6.5lbs with battery
  • Dimensions: 14.3″ x 10.5″ x 1.3″
  • 3-year extended warranty from ISTNC
  • Total price: $1,689 with shipping

Reasons for Buying

I hadn’t originally planned on being in the market for a new laptop for another year, but my old Toshiba 5205-s705 exhibited signs of having its LCD die for a second time, and I didn’t feel like shelling out for a new one.  I was also getting tired of hauling its 8 pounds to and from class, and that laptop’s massive depth made it unwieldy to use on a narrow desk.  I’m a law student, so I use my laptop every day in class.  Therefore, reliability, a good keyboard and portability were important criteria.  I’m also an occasional gamer, so I was looking for something with a decent dedicated GPU. 

Other laptops I had been considering were the Acer Travelmate 8104, HP dv4000, Dell Inspiron 9300, Gateway NX550, Asus Z70va, Quanta MW1, and MSI MS-1032.  The Dell had a great graphics card, but was far too large for my tastes, and the Gateway’s Radeon X600 just couldn’t measure up to the others.  It was tough to decide between the rest, as they were all on a par performance-wise.  The Z70va was too pricey for my tastes, and I avoided the MS-1032 because it had a right-side vent, and I didn’t want hot air blowing on my mouse hand.  Ultimately, I saw the KN1 as offering the best balance between battery life and size, and its aesthetics simply appealed to me, but it was a tough call.

Where and how purchased

Quanta is best known as an ODM (Original Design Manufacturer), and conducts most of its business manufacturing laptops for vendors like Dell, HP, and Apple.  The KN1 is one of Quanta’s whitebooks, supplied as a barebones system that can be custom-configured.  The KN1 is sold through various resellers, who configure and assemble it.  I purchased mine through ISTNC, and I was extremely pleased with the experience.  Rick at ISTNC answered all of my pre-purchase inquiries very promptly, and did a great job of keeping me updated with the status of my system as it went through building and testing.  I ordered my system on November 28, 2005.  It was built and shipped within 3 days, and I received it on December 9, 2005.  It was a day later than scheduled only because FedEx missed me while I was in class.

My KN1 was fully customizable at ISTNC; in fact, they’ll let you order it with just about any configuration, even without no RAM, hard drive, or OS if you want to add your own later.

The KN1 is relatively hard to find.  Other places that sell the KN1 are:

  • Powernotebooks.com: as the PowerPro G 3:8.  They were my other primary choice for vendors, and were extremely knowledgeable and helpful in response to my inquiries.  The only reason I didn’t go with them was that I wanted the 120GB Seagate drive, which they didn’t have at the time.
  • PC Club: as the Enpower 611; their stores have display models if you want to see a KN1 hands-on, but for some reason these have a glossy display.
  • AGearNotebooks.com: no experience with them.

Design and build quality

The KN1, being a 15.4-inch widescreen is a fairly large laptop, but it’s not unwieldy.  The KN1 has a rather plain design, resembling a large plank of silver plastic.  I had wanted something that would be rather uncommon and distinctive, but not something so flashy it would immediately stick out like a sore thumb amongst my classmates (which was why I never considered the Acer Ferrari 4005).  The KN1 satisfies my aesthetic needs, being good-looking in an understated way, and quite unique amidst the sea of Dell 700ms and 6000s in class. 

The KN1 has a silver lid made of high-quality hard plastic.  The lid has durable hinges, and there is virtually no screen flex or wobbling.  There is a little dimpling if you press really hard on the back of the display, but I think with a screen this large that tends to be the norm.  What’s kind of strange is that my system has no brand identification markings, just a nameplate on the lid that says “KN series,” so I end up having to explain what my laptop is to my classmates.  To add to the amusement, since you can order the system without an OS, there’s no “Designed for Windows” sticker by the keyboard.  I can assure you that having that little metallic sticker makes no difference whatsoever.

Quanta KN1 on the left, Toshiba 5205-s705 on the right (view larger image)

Since the KN1 is almost completely rectangular, it does sometimes look thick in pictures, but it’s actually a rather thin laptop.  You can really see the difference when my old 2-inch-thick Toshiba is placed atop it:

Toshiba 5205 atop Quanta KN1 (view larger image)

The interior of the laptop is black, with a black keyboard and a silver border around it.  The interior is also made from a high-grade hard plastic, which has a matte finish that should ward off all fingerprints and stains.  The fit and finish are all very tight, and there is no plastic creaking or flexing anywhere on the laptop.

What is unique about the KN1 and other non-mainstream notebooks is the ease of access to components like the processor and graphics card.  The underside of the laptop has one large access panel that lifts off to expose the RAM, processor, graphics card, and cooling system.  Although I have no plans on upgrading the components for the moment, it’s good to know it’d be relatively easy to do.  For now, I just take off the access panel when I want to more thoroughly clean the cooling fan with compressed air.

KN1 underside (view larger image)

Access panel removed (view larger image)

As a final note, the Nvidia Geforce Go 6600 video card is an MXM card in the KN1; that is, it’s not soldered to the motherboard, but rather mounted on a little detachable MXM card, basically a miniature PCI Express card.  In theory, this means that the video card is upgradeable in the future, but whether or not Nvidia and associated vendors will actually make upgrades available is doubtful, and I don’t have my hopes up for video card upgradeability.

Display

KN1 display (view larger image)

The display is surprisingly good.  My previous system had had a UXGA (1600×1200) 15-inch glossy display, which did a spectacular job of displaying colors vividly, especially with games.  However, the resolution was way too high for my tastes, rendering microscopic text even after increasing the display to 120dpi, and the screen had (and still has) this nasty habit of going dead out of warranty.  I also found the glossy display to be sub-ideal for text-based applications (i.e. all of law school), as the reflections and the general nature of the display caused a lot of eyestrain.

The KN1’s matte display turned out to be better than I expected it to be.  The WXGA resolution did seem a little on the low side, and I would’ve preferred 1440×900, but it’s quite acceptable in my opinion.  For anyone with a 19-inch LCD flat panel, the 15.4-inch WXGA has the same width and pixel density.  The display features 15 levels of brightness, and the maximum level is extremely bright; unfortunately, I can only provide a subjective measure of this, but it’s definitely a lot brighter than my old Toshiba 5205, a Dell 19-inch UltraSharp flat panel, and a 12-inch iBook.  The brightness is very consistent and there were no dead pixels.  When I first started using the system, the display did seem a little washed-out, but after adjusting the gamma and increasing the contrast a little bit in the NVIDIA control panel, the colors are sufficiently vibrant, although not quite as vivid as on a glossy screen.  Horizontal and vertical viewing angles are excellent.

The only downsides to the display that I can see are that images still don’t look quite as good as a glossy display, and that when displaying black and other very dark colors, there’s a substantial amount of light leakage.  Still, overall I think this is one of the best matte-finish displays that I’ve seen.

Speakers

The speakers are mounted at the front, firing forward.  Like most laptops without a subwoofer, the KN1 lacks good bass response.  Nevertheless, these speakers are relatively good for tiny laptop speakers, rendering good midrange and high notes, and after tinkering with the included Realtek HD Audio controls you can actually make them sound rather substantial.  Most of the time, I just hook the system up to a set of Logitech Z-3i speakers, but the built-in speakers will do if I’m traveling.

Sound quality through the headphone jacks is generally excellent.  To my dismay, the headphone jack does transmit a good deal of hissing (probably from poor electromagnetic shielding) when it’s supposed to be silent, but that easily gets drowned out by any kind of audio playback. 

Processor and Performance

I chose the 1.86 GHz Pentium M because it’s generally the best balance between price and performance at this point in time.  As far as I can tell, it satisfies all of my computing needs.  Although I don’t really do anything very processor-intensive, I do tend to multitask extensively, with about 3-6 different applications open at any given time, and the system handles these with no difficulty.  Nothing I’ve done so far has really taxed this computer, even when the processor is clocked down to 800MHz while running on batteries.  It probably also helps that ISTNC did a very clean and simple Windows XP install, so there’s absolutely no bloatware, and no plague of system tray icons that seems to be an inevitable experience of buying a Dell or other major vendor these days.  So far, I haven’t experienced any serious application errors or system hangs.

I suspect a large part of my system’s excellent performance is the 5400rpm Seagate hard drive.  I was looking for this specific drive when I was shopping for a computer, and I’m glad I got it.  Load times are far superior to 4200rpm drive I have in my old system, and the drive is virtually silent while operating.  I have to put my ear right by the touchpad to be able to hear it.  The massive (for a laptop) 120GB capacity is also nice to have, although I haven’t come close to filling it to capacity.

Gaming Performance

This notebook is more than sufficient for most modern games at moderate settings.  Unfortunately, I haven’t had the time to buy or play any of the latest games like Doom 3, so I can’t provide firsthand evidence of this.  However, based on the overall performance of the GeForce Go 6600 in other notebooks, this is a solid midrange graphics card, and its 3DMark scores simply clobber my Toshiba’s Geforce FX 5600.  It also runs the games that I do currently play (Warcraft III, Homeworld 2, Unreal Tournament 2004) without any problems with all the settings maxed out and a little anisotropic filtering and antialiasing thrown in for good measure.

One thing to note about widescreen notebooks in general is that many older games can’t support widescreen resolutions.  They run just fine at 1024×768, but this will either look stretched out on a widescreen, or have two vertical black bars on the edges because of the aspect ratio.

Benchmarks

We use the program Super Pi to calculate the number Pi to 2-million digits of accuracy, this is a good way of simply forcing the processor to do work to calculate a number and deriving performance from the time it takes to achieve the end goal.  Below is a table showing how the Quanta KN1 with the 1.86GHz processor stacks up against other notebooks.

Notebook Time
 Quanta KN1 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 47s
 Dell Inspiron 9300 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 39s
 Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 53s
 IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 45s
 Asus Z70A (1.6GHz Pentium M)  1m 53s
 Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)  1m 48s
 Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  1m 52s
 Dell Inspiron 600M (1.6 GHz Pentium M)  2m 10s
 HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 39s
 HP DV4170us (Pentium M 1.73 GHz)  1m 53s
 Sony VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)  1m 45s

Below are benchmark results gained from running PCMark04 and 3DMark05, the results of the Quanta KN1 are compared to the HP dv4000 15.4″ screen notebook with a dedicated ATI Radeon X700 graphics card.  Notice the very similar performance between these two laptops, both have 1.86GHz Pentium M processors and a 128MB dedicated video graphics card for better gaming and graphics performance.

Futuremark PCMark04 Scores
  Quanta KN1 (1.86GHz Penitum M, NVIDIA GeForce Go 6600 128mb) HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)
 Multithreaded Test 1 / File Compression 3.423 MB/s 3.36 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 1 / File Encryption 27.438 MB/s 27.7 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / File Decompression 23.78 MB/s 24.3 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Processing 10.91 MPixels/s 11.04 MPixels/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / Virus Scanning 1638.633 MB/s 1986.89 MB/s
 Multithreaded Test 3 / Grammar Check 2.84 KB/s 2.95 KB/s
 File Decryption 54.758 MB/s 55.58 MB/s
 Audio Conversion 2517.54 KB/s 2555.25 KB/s
 Web Page Rendering 5.42 Pages/s 5.44 Pages/s
 DivX Video Compression 53.432 FPS 52.4 FPS
 Physics Calculation and 3D 187.92 FPS 186.5 FPS
 Graphics Memory – 64 Lines 1111.85 FPS 1830.06 FPS
Futuremark 3DMark05 Scores
3DMark Score 2,486 3DMarks 2,536 3D Marks
CPU Score 4106 CPUMarks 3557 CPUMarks
Gaming Tests
GT1 – Return To Proxycon 10.6 FPS 10.3 FPS
GT2 – Firefly Forest 7.3 FPS 8.0 FPS
GT3 – Canyon Flight 12.7 FPS 12.6 FPS
CPU Tests
CPU Test 1 2.4 FPS 1.3 FPS
CPU Test 2 3.2 FPS 3.1 FPS

For those interested in the hard drive performance of this notebook the HDTune benchmark screen capture after being run is below:

For fun, I ran 3DMark 2001 SE and 3DMark 2003 as well.
3DMark 2001 SE: 14,784
3DMark 2003: 5,870

Keyboard and Touchpad

KN1 keyboard and touchpad with integrated scroller (view larger image)

The keyboard has an excellent feel to it, with a relatively orthodox arrangement of keys.  Relative to other notebooks, the spacebar is pretty large.  Note that the left Ctrl key is inboard of the Fn key.  I found myself hitting the Fn key instead of Ctrl a lot during the first week of using the computer, but one month in, I’ve gotten used to the layout and no longer make that error. The travel depth is a little shallow, but there’s no significant keyboard flex.  The keyboard is a little on the noisy side, but not loud enough to be offensive.  Overall, after typing well over 25 pages of exam essays this past month, I’d say I’m quite pleased with this keyboard.  But keyboard feeling is quite subjective, so others might not like it as much as I do.

The touchpad is quite large, and has a dedicated scrolling region to its right.  The touchpad and scroller have excellent sensitivity and precision.  There are no custom controls for the touchpad outside of the Windows mouse control panel, but because this is a Synaptics touchpad you could probably download an updated driver from Synaptics.

Aside from the keyboard and touchpad, the only additional buttons are two quick-launch buttons for your web browser and email, and a wireless on/off button.  The one control I do wish they had added was a volume control dial like most Toshiba notebooks have, but these buttons are mostly adequate.  Most importantly, the quick-launch buttons won’t automatically wake the system from standby like the ones on my old notebook did.  This sounds like a small detail, but there’s nothing worse than pulling a hot computer out of a backpack because the screen accidentally pressed against a button and tried to launch Firefox fifteen times while you were walking to lunch.

Input and Output Ports


KN1 frontal view (view larger image)

 
KN1 left side (view larger image)


KN1 rear view (view larger image)


KN1 right side (view larger image)

The KN1 has the following ports:

  • 4 USB 2.0 ports (1 left, 3 rear)
  • 1 IEEE 1394 mini Firewire port (left)
  • VGA port (rear)
  • Microphone & headphone jacks (left)
  • S-video TV output (rear)
  • Kensington lock slot (right)
  • RJ-11 Modem (rear)
  • RJ-45 Ethernet (rear)
  • Media reader (SD, MMC, SmartMedia, MemoryStick, xD, left)
  • CardBus PCMCIA slot (left)
  • IrDA transmitter/receiver (left)
  • Port replicator dock (rear)

The arrangement of the ports is adequate.  It would be nice to have more USB ports on the sides rather than in the back, and the optical drive does get in the way of a mouse if you open it, but these are easy to work around. 

Wireless

Having an Intel PRO/Wireless 2915 802.11 a/b/g wireless card along with the other components qualifies my KN1 for a shiny little Centrino sticker.  The 2915 gets decent signal reception in most environments, and I have had little trouble connecting to the encrypted network in my house or to the school-wide network on campus.  The Intel wireless connection management program is actually rather useful, and offers a few more features than the standard Windows wireless connection interface.

The KN1 has a tiny slot on the underside next to its battery that is supposedly for a Bluetooth transmitter.  At the time of writing, I haven’t seen any KN1s offered with internal Bluetooth, but perhaps that will change in the future.

Battery

The KN1 has an 8-cell, 71WHr battery pack.  This is an ordinary-sized battery, and doesn’t stick out of the computer like an extended-life battery.  Under ordinary word processing and Internet browsing use with the wireless on, I got around 3 hours and 10 minutes of battery life.  After undervolting the processor, I have been getting around 3 hours and 25 minutes of battery life.  With the screen on full brightness, this drops down to 2 hours and 40 minutes.  This is hardly the 4.5 hours it is allegedly capable of, but this is quite decent for a typical 15.4-inch system with a discrete graphics card with an ordinary-sized battery.  If you have no interest in playing intensive games, and want more battery life, the KN1-GM model with integrated graphics will probably get substantially better battery life since the GeForce Go 6600 consumes a fair amount of power.

The battery charges very rapidly, going from 3 percent to around 80 percent in under an hour while plugged in.  The charge rate then tapers off, taking about 2 hours total to top off the battery.

Heat and Noise

The KN1 is cooled by a single fan in the upper left corner of the notebook.  The CPU and chipset are connected to this by a copper heat pipe, and the GPU is connected by a second heat pipe.  I ordered my system with Arctic Silver 5 thermal paste applied to all thermal junctions, which further increases the efficiency of the cooling system.  Hot air vents out the back and out the left side, which usually doesn’t get in the way of anything.

The fan is quiet at its lowest speed, and is hardly noticeable except in a completely quiet room.  At its higher speeds, it does get a good bit louder, but the only time I’ve seen the fan spin at anything other than its lowest speed is when Windows starts up.  At all other times, the fan is either off or spinning only at low speed.  Even when I’m playing games, the fan only spins at its lowest speed.  I’m not sure if this is the handiwork of the Arctic Silver 5, or the cooling system itself, but even the lowest speed is capable of keeping temperatures within the normal range.  Under normal use on AC power, the fan usually comes on for half a minute every 3-5 minutes, whenever the processor hits 53 C.  On battery power, the fan comes on about every 10 minutes. 

Temperature-wise, the processor is usually between 48 C and 55 C.  The graphics card is anywhere from 42 C and 62 C.  These values are far below the danger thresholds, and the stability of the temperatures is a testament to the power of this cooling system.  The chassis of the laptop does get a little warm on the bottom, but not unbearably so.  The top is only a little warm beneath the left Ctrl and Alt keys.  Indeed, it’s usually cool enough to use in my lap if I want to.

Operating System and Software

I ordered my system with Windows XP Home, which was sufficient for my needs.  The KN1 came with only the basics installed: the OS, keyboard and wireless utilities, WinDVD, and the Nero OEM suite.  This was exactly what I wanted, as I already had antivirus and office software before I bought the KN1.  There was a refreshing lack of useless trial software and other bloatware.  The system came with an original Windows CD, as well as discs for the drivers, WinDVD, and Nero.

If you’re someone who needs to purchase a lot of utilities (e.g. antivirus, Office software) you might have to buy these separately.  Indeed, if you’re a beginner, you might want to look elsewhere if you want a system that comes preconfigured with everything you will possibly need.  On the other hand, it’s doubtful that anyone who goes to the trouble of finding and buying a KN1 doesn’t know what they’re getting into.

Customer Support

All of my correspondence with ISTNC so far has been excellent.  They’ve responded to all my inquiries in a prompt, professional manner.  Furthermore, they go out of their way to make themselves available for contact, being accessible via email, live chat, or even AIM.

I purchased an extended warranty with this system for $135; no more out-of-warranty dead LCDs for me!  ISTNC will be the primary point of service under this warranty, and I believe the same goes for most other resellers.

Cons

  • Nothing on the computer chassis indicates what it is or who makes it
  • Finicky volume controls
  • There’s no one thing that sets this notebook apart from its competitors
  • No-frills design
  • USB ports located in back

Pros

  • Good all-around performance
  • Powerful midrange graphics card
  • Solid construction and good durability
  • Excellent touchpad and keyboard
  • Stable, with efficient cooling system
  • Easy access to system components
  • No-frills design
  • Good battery life
  • Relatively light weight
  • Quiet
  • Excellent display
  • Extensively customizable
  • No bloatware
  • Good support from ISTNC
  • Decent price

Conclusion

The KN1 is a versatile well-rounded machine that gives an overall impression far more favorable than the sum of its parts.  It may not be the flashiest notebook, but it has plenty of power to run most games, but it is also quite portable and practical to use as a mobile computer for productivity work.  It’s also a decent value for the price.  My KN1 has served me well through a month of exams, and it will serve me well for a week of sloth and game-playing.


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