by Dustin Sklavos
The Systemax Epic 13″ widescreen notebook
The Systemax Epic is a widescreen, thin-and-light notebook. The system as reviewed is priced at $1,799, and is configured as follows:
- PROCESSOR: Intel Core Duo T2500 (2.0GHz)
- CHIPSET: Intel 945GM
- MEMORY: 2GB DDR2-533 PC4200 (two DIMMs, no slots free)
- HARD DISK: 100GB 5400rpm SATA
- OPTICAL DRIVE: DVD+/-RW
- SCREEN: 13″ WXGA (1280×768) Glossy
- VIDEO: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950
- AUDIO: RealTek Hi-Definition Audio
- WIRELESS: Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG
- WIRED: 56K V.92 Modem, Gigabit Ethernet
- PORTS: 3x USB 2.0, 1x FireWire (4-pin), Audio Out, Microphone Jack, VGA, S-Video, Type I/II PCMCIA, Media Reader (supports Secure Digital card, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO, Multi-Media Card), RJ-11 Modem Jack, RJ-45 Ethernet Jack
- OPERATING SYSTEM: Microsoft Windows XP Professional
- MISC.: Built-in Microphone, Microsoft Office 2003 Professional
- DIMENSIONS: 12.4″ Wide, 1.4″ High, 8.8″ Deep, 4.75 lbs.
- WARRANTY: Warranted to Systemax, 12 months parts and labor
While you may not have heard of Systemax, they’ve actually been around for some time, serving primarily the business sector. As a result, availability of their products isn’t wholly widespread, but they do have a reputation. I work in tech support for the county, and one of my fellow technicians had a lot of good things to say about the brand.
Systemax offers a variety of hardware suited to different professional tasks and tastes, and they pride themselves on being a die hard American company. Their notebooks are assembled here, and their tech support is handled by American workers. Not having to worry about trying to decipher a foreign accent when you call for help is a major convenience.
This particular notebook is designed for the mobile professional and NOT for the gamer. As a result, this review will focus primarily on its suitability for those tasks against the competition.
BUILD AND DESIGN
The build quality of the Epic is fairly solid. While the shell is plastic, it’s a hard, smooth plastic. I’m not sure it’s all that great for repeatedly slamming against a wall and I don’t think it would make a very good shoe, it certainly feels very durable.
Inauspicious to be sure (view large image)
It’s clear from the outset, however, that it wasn’t designed for looks. It’s not much of a head turner, with the rote black and silver styling that’s become all the rage of virtually every notebook on the market. Additionally, while the unit features smooth curves, it’s honestly not very appealing looking, and the keyboard in particular has a very plain print on the keys.
Not in the slightest bit stylized. (view large image)
The touchpad is also integrated in the shell, which is an unusual design that I have mixed feelings about. I’ll discuss it and the keyboard in greater depth later on.
One thing that does strike me as a poor design choice, however, is having the fan intake on the bottom.
Ill-advised for a notebook that would most likely be used on your lap. (view large image)
This just strikes me as a bad decision. This notebook is the perfect size to be a travel companion; not being able to use it on your lap for fear of blocking the vent seems to run very contrary to its intended purpose.
Power, Battery, Wireless, Silent, Disk Access, Num Lock, Caps Lock (view large image)
The indicators at the bottom of the unit serve their various roles. The power, wireless, num lock, and caps lock lights glow blue, while the “Silent” glows green, and the battery and disk access glow orange.
Two shortcut keys and a power button. (view large image)
At the top of the notebook The “S” button switches the notebook to “Silent” mode, a nice idea were it not for the fact that the notebook already runs fairly quiet, making this mode somewhat redundant. The media shortcut is what it says. And if you don’t know what the power button does, you may not be ready for notebook shopping yet. 😉
Quality glossy screen. (view large image)
The screen on the Systemax Epic is a glossy running at 1280×768. It’s very bright and attractive, and easily rivals the XBRITE screens on Sony notebooks. Even at its lowest brightness setting, it’s still remarkably visible and easy to read. I’ve watched movies and played older 3D games on it, and I’ve also done some article writing on it, and I’ve found it to be very pleasing to look at.
Lighting could be a bit better and there’s some spill at the bottom visible on a dark screen, but during regular use it’s perfectly fine.
Unfortunately, the viewing angles for the screen are very poor, and were remarked on by several of my coworkers. If you’re facing it head on, it’s a gorgeous screen, but from any other angle it gets worse and worse. At a distance, if the screen is tilted even five degrees back, the bottom washes out. I tried to get a good photograph of the problem, but my camera just wasn’t up to the task.
Stealthily hidden under the lip of the notebook. (view large image)
I have to be honest and wonder why we keep including this category in our reviews here. Laptop speakers are only ever varying degrees of “mediocre.” And you don’t – you can’t – fault the manufacturer because frankly, unless Bose starts putting speakers in laptops, these are all going to be serviceable at best.
So that said, the speakers are serviceable. 😉 They put out enough volume and sound alright, but realistically, you’re going to want to use headphones or external speakers and unfortunately, the headphone jack is on the front. I understand that for some people this is convenient, but I personally prefer the jack on the side, near the front, as it can be inconvenient when you have beastly large headphones like mine that use a huge connector.
Volume is adjusted in software as it typically is for notebooks (how I miss the halcyon days of the analog volume dial), and is changed using keyboard shortcuts.
The Realtek Hi-Definition audio is definitely welcome over Intel’s old and anemic SoundMAX audio, which I always found at least somewhat problematic and generally disappointing.
PROCESSOR AND PERFORMANCE
Being equipped with an Intel Core Duo T2500 (2GHz), the Systemax Epic performs exactly as you’d expect it to: FAST!
Because the GMA 950 precludes using this notebook as a gaming system (which isn’t the market it’s meant for anyhow), I elected against running 3DMark05 on it. I will say the GMA 950 is fine for mild gaming on older games (Quake 3 and prior), but is unfit for anything beyond that. Unreal Tournament 2004 is barely playable. But again, this is not a gaming notebook; more, it’s to elucidate people who might be curious about the GMA 950.
That said, what the Epic IS good for is what you’d expect: everything else. The performance is outstanding, very smooth and fluid, and in this respect, the unit was very enjoyable to use.
The first benchmark I ran was a custom video rendering benchmark in After Effects 6.0. In it, twenty seconds of heavily composited, effects-laden video are rendered, and After Effects is kind enough to record the time for you.
AFTER EFFECTS 6.0
- Systemax Epic (Intel Core Duo T2500 2GHz, 2GB PC4200 DDR2) 1h:32m
- Unnamed Notebook (Intel Pentium M 760 2GHz, 1GB PC4200 DDR2) 2h:04m
- Gateway 7510GX (AMD Mobile Athlon 64 3700+ 2.4GHz, 1GB PC2700 DDR) 1h:22m
While yes, After Effects is multithreaded, it’s worth noting that the processor didn’t sweat too much while the program was running and indeed, other tasks were easy to accomplish while it was being pushed. I’m impressed that a notebook in a thin and light form factor has performance that approaches the second fastest single core notebook chip on the market. Multimedia junkies should take note: the Systemax Epic will be plenty for your tasks, and if it can handle video, it can handle anything else you throw at it.
The next benchmark I ran was HD Tune, below are the results, it gave decent performance thanks to Serial ATA, but the temperatures for the HD were high.
|Access Time||19.4 ms|
|Burst Rate||80.1 MB/sec|
While I found the unit to be fairly snappy, it suffers for the Fujitsu drive included. The drive itself is just about dead silent, but performance takes a hit. For most users this won’t be a problem, but the die hard power user will want to upgrade the drive to a 7200rpm Hitachi or Seagate.
The last benchmark I ran was Super Pi, which traditionally favors Intel architecture.
Systemax Epic (2.0GHz Core Duo)
Compaq Presario V3000z (1.6GHz Turion64 X2)
Gateway M255 (2.0GHz Core Duo)
Lenovo Z61m (2.0GHz Core Duo)
IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
IBM ThinkPad Z60m (2.0 GHz Pentium M)
Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Pentium M)
Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Pentium M)
Dell Inspiron 600M (1.6 GHz Pentium M)
HP Pavilion dv4000 (1.86 GHz Pentium M)
Asus V6Va (Pentium M 1.86 GHz)
Lenovo ThinkPad T60 (2.0GHz Core Duo)
This result is par for the course, and even a little bit faster than some other notebooks in its class.
KEYBOARD AND TOUCHPAD
The keyboard and the touchpad, which appears to physically be the same piece as the shell. (view large image)
The keys seem to be a bit undersized, which would come with the territory in a notebook this size. If you have bad wrists then this might be problematic. Systemax put document navigation keys on the right side, but I think I’d have preferred omitting them entirely and assigning them to functions on the arrow keys (as Sony does on their ultraportables) so that the rest of the keys might have a larger size.
All that said, there’s just a hair of flex, but the keys themselves are pretty springy and responsive. The flex is wholly unremarkable and would take some effort to actually find and notice. So an overall good keyboard feel.
The touchpad is another story. It’s finicky about the amount of moisture your fingertip has; if your finger is dry, the touchpad is very comfortable and easy to use. The scroll areas on the touchpad were somewhat problematic. While easy to use, I fat-fingered them constantly. The pad is just too small to have the horizontal scroll area and you may find yourself cramping a little bit. Thankfully, these scroll areas can be shrunk or even disabled in software.
The mouse buttons seemed a bit awkward at first, but once I got used to them they were just fine. If you’re used to clicking the outer corners of the buttons (I know it’s weird, leave me alone, I hit them with my thumbs), you’re going to have to change your habits for these. The inside corners and the middle of the buttons click fine and fairly quietly.
INPUT AND OUTPUT PORTS
The Systemax Epic offers a healthy if unexceptional number of ports, but typical and respectable for a thin and light.
Wireless switch, headphone jack, microphone jack, and speakers. (view large image)
PCMCIA slot, USB 2.0 port, FireWire port, S-Video Out port, RJ-45 Ethernet jack, exhaust vent.(view large image)
VGA port, AC adaptor port, battery, Kensington lock (view large image)
RJ-11 Modem jack, USB 2.0 port, DVD+/-RW Drive, USB 2.0 port, flash slot. (view large image)
The flash slot accepts Secure Digital cards, Memory Sticks, Memory Stick PROs, and Multi-Media cards.
It’s at this point that I’d like to note an idiosyncracy of the Systemax Epic. I pushed this unit pretty heavily in my testing, and that included completely wiping out the hard drive (recovery partition and all) and doing a recovery from the included media (discussed later in the Software section.)
This resulted in an unusual problem: the USB ports stopped functioning at 2.0, and the system refused to enter Standby (the option wasn’t even available in Windows!) These problems persisted between Windows XP Professional and Windows Vista Beta 2.
A call to customer service (which I’ll discuss later) didn’t help; after I revealed these issues to our contact at Systemax, he put me in touch with one of their lead technicians who told me how to fix the issue. This comes up once in a blue moon on these notebooks, but because it’s very easily fixed, I wouldn’t count it against the Epic. Every computer has some kind of idiosyncracy; the Serial ATA was bunk on my old desktop, and I tested a Compaq last year that has a failing power system.
The fix for these two issues is simple: on booting the unit, press F2 to go into BIOS. Go to the last page, select “Load Optimum Defaults,” then exit and save changes. When you boot into Windows XP, it will reinstall the hardware and will function properly thereafter.
The Systemax Epic (isn’t it nice that it doesn’t have a confusing model number? Right, Toshiba?) comes with Intel’s top of the line wireless card, the 3945ABG, which supports 802.11a, 802.11b, and 802.11g wireless specifications. What’s nice is you don’t HAVE to use Intel’s software like some other adaptors require you to. I didn’t like it much when I first used it, but after a coworker showed me a little more, I found it to be very useful and preferable to Windows XP SP2’s interface.
Connectivity was good, and easy to configure. The wireless is enabled and disabled via a sliding switch on the front – very convenient, and certainly better than an Fn key shortcut.
BATTERY AND HEAT
Battery life for the Epic is very solid. While watching DVDs, I got about two hours of life out of it – plenty to finish a movie (or two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation if you’re a complete nerd like me.)
In regular use, with wireless running, it pushes three hours pretty easily.
Heat, however, is a real issue with this machine and has to be the Achilles’ heel. After benchmarking, the hard disk peaked at a high 57C, and it typically idles between 51C and 53C. I fault the intake vent on the bottom of the unit mostly for the problem.
Additionally, while the hard drive is ventilated, it’s also just…ventilated. There’s a vent on the bottom of the notebook and you can clearly see the hard disk under it.
The Fujitsu hard drive in all its glory. (view large image)
The vent on the right also has a tendency to push hot air on your mousing hand (if you’re right-handed) if you’re really pushing the unit.
Mercifully, the keyboard and palm rest areas get warm but never outright hot.
OPERATING SYSTEM AND SOFTWARE
Some people like getting a bunch of software with their new PC. Those people…are communists. Systemax understands what people do and don’t want, and as a result, what they include is nicely limited and utilitarian.
The Epic includes:
- Microsoft Windows XP Professional w/ Service Pack 2
- Microsoft Office 2003 Professional
- Systemax Tech-in-a-Box
- CyberLink PowerDVD and Disc Creator
- Norton Antivirus 90 Day Trial
- Six Month AOL Trial
- Phoenix Recovery Tools
And uh…that’s pretty much it. But when was the last time your bought a computer that actually included the latest Microsoft Office? And the even juicier part is it comes with the following CDs:
- Microsoft Office 2003 Professional
- Microsoft Windows XP Professional w/ Service Pack 2
- Driver / Software CD
I don’t know about you, but I get really tired of seeing laptops that manufacturers expect you to shell out a bucketload of cash for and then tell you to burn the recovery media yourself. While the XP Professional CD isn’t directly labeled as such, it basically is. You boot your computer to it, and you go through XP’s typical installation routine…
…except for the CD key part, which is conveniently done for you. No CD key, and no activation when the operating system is installed.
Then, you insert the Driver / Software CD, and click the “Install Drivers” button. And while many CDs would just bring you to a menu and have you go through a checklist, I was surprised to see their software pretty much just installed all the drivers and asked you to reboot.
It wasn’t perfect, though. It missed the sound driver, modem driver, and network driver. As far as I’m concerned, though, it’s a great idea that, by fixing those small misses, would be perfect. Of course, if you want to install the drivers individually, you have that option as well.
CUSTOMER SERVICE AND SUPPORT
As a result of my USB and standby problems, I had an opportunity to test Systemax’s customer support line; as a result of the missing drivers, I had an opportunity to test Systemax’s support site.
Their customer support line, with a little effort, does indeed get you to a human, natively English speaking technician. I don’t want to reduce the efforts made by foreign call centers, and spending two semesters learning Japanese made me realize just how horrendously difficult English (an almost entirely colloquial language) must be to learn, but my honest opinion – and I’m sure you’ll agree with me – is that when your computer is being hosed, the last thing you want to figure out is how the heck to decipher the technician’s questions and instructions.
When I described my problems, the guy I spoke to was helpful but admittedly kind of confused. I don’t blame him. I’d never run into these problems before either, and I work in tech support. (That said, working in tech support makes you run into all kinds of odd, stupid problems with all kinds of computers.) He suggested sending the notebook back, and I politely declined.
I want to remind you that after I spoke with one of the higher up technicians there through our contact, I was given a fix that solves both of these problems. While I obviously received preferential treatment here as a reviewer, I feel compelled to point out that this fix is probably the only one you’re ever going to need with this notebook, and it IS an easy one, and included here.
Their support site is actually pretty well designed. A little stark and bare, but well done. Basically, you enter the serial number of your notebook (a nine digit number in large, bold lettering on the bottom of the machine), and it pops up with a list of all the drivers you need, and what they are. And it’s not even confusing, like “GMA950” would be for some people. It’s just “Video Driver” and “Chipset Driver.”
I’ve had to deal with my fair share of support sites in my day, and I’ve had to pull drivers from Gateway’s site, Toshiba’s site, Dell’s site, and *cringe* Sony’s site. Systemax’s is by far the easiest to use and the clearest and most complete.
Ultimately I found myself pretty pleased with the Systemax Epic. While it isn’t perfect for my own needs (though I’m in the market for a new, smaller laptop, I’m also a gamer), for the mobile professional it really is a great option.
Some people might balk at the $1,799 price tag, but I think that for what you get, it’s very reasonable. That includes a copy of Microsoft Office 2003 Professional, which is a killer on your wallet ($499 to buy retail), by the way. Note, too, that the custom configurable Epic starts at a low $999, putting you squarely in Averatec territory for a notebook that isn’t prone to anywhere near as many problems, and with much better build quality. And when it starts at the $999, the lowest the processor goes is an Intel Core Duo T2300. It’s really not hard to configure it into your price range.
All things considered, despite the heat problem, I can safely recommend this notebook, and if you configure yourself a less expensive one, it becomes a real value proposition.
- Strong performance.
- Good battery life.
- Pretty quiet.
- Included software is great! Office Professional is included ($499 retail individually)
- Good, American based support.
- Very portable, just the right size for its market.
- Runs hot.
- Incomplete install on the “Install Drivers” button.
- Bad viewing angles.
- Touchy touchpad.
- Slightly cramped keyboard.
- Plain, somewhat generic styling.
Pricing and Availability