NEC – Versa UltraLite review

Transmeta-powered long-life notebook
Photo of NEC – Versa UltraLite
£1,399 + VAT

The sub-notebook category of PCs represents something of a contradiction. When faced with the latest slimline, ultraportable notebook, the gasps of admiration and desire from onlookers are audible. When it comes to actually buying a new notebook, however, most people opt for more sensible machines, with larger screens, more features and better keyboards. Partly this is to do with price, but partly it’s to do with the fact that smaller machines are inevitably compromised in some way or other.

Despite all this, NEC has gamely joined the market with this latest Versa. While not quite as compact as some of the models in Sony’s Vaio line-up, this is certainly a small, slim machine, and will doubtless draw plenty of envious looks on the train or ‘plane.

On first inspection, the inevitable compromises aren’t too obvious. The keyboard is, of course, squeezed into a smaller than normal space, but it’s still usable and has a light, responsive action. Some of the keys are really too small – the tab key and the left Control key, for example – but nothing too damning. The trackpad is of a reasonable size, too.

However, there are other omissions. There are no built in drives at all, apart from the modest 10GB hard drive. Both the floppy drive and the CD-ROM drive are supplied as plug-in extras, using USB connectors. Fortunately the Versa UltraLite has two USB ports, so you can have both drives, which are themselves rather slim and stylish, connected at the same time. The notebook also has a built-in V.90 modem, an Intel Pro/100 network adapter, a single PC Card slot and the usual audio ports. If you want to connect an external monitor, you can, thanks to the supplied adapter cable, but forget about any serial or parallel devices – this machine has no ‘legacy’ ports at all, so you’re limited to printing via infra-red if your printer doesn’t have a USB port.

The screen is, inevitably, not huge. It’s a 10.4-inch TFT panel with a backlight that performs well enough in office lighting, but really isn’t powerful enough to cope with even modestly bright daylight, so you’re left squinting, especially as the screen’s native resolution is 1024 x 768. This panel is driven by an ATI Rage Mobility-M graphics chip, which shares some of its memory with the main processor, so usually you’ll have about 112MB of the 128MB available for your work; more than sufficient for office work, really.

One feature that really does set this machine apart from the crowd is its processor; a 600MHz Transmeta Crusoe TM5600. Although initial reports of the battery life available from Transmeta’s low power Crusoe chip were perhaps exaggerated, this new competitor to Intel and AMD does have something to offer.

Transmeta’s technology, which is aimed at devices where low power consumption is important, has found its way into a couple of laptop PCs like this one. The Crusoe chip, designed to be x86 compatible with a reduced instruction set – performing many tasks in software that other chips would handle in hardware – won’t win any out and out performance prizes. But that was never its goal. Instead, the whole point of this chip is to draw the minimum amount of power while still providing sufficient processing capability for the most common office tasks, such as word-processing, spreadsheet manipulation, e-mailing, Web browsing and so on.

On the basis of this machine, it seems to work pretty well. The notebook runs very cool, seems powerful enough for most office tasks – but dog-slow in benchmarks – and the battery life is certainly impressive. We managed a shade over four hours in our tests, and given that many notebooks struggle to reach the two and a half hour mark, that’s pretty good going. It’s even more impressive considering the size of the Lithium Ion battery, which fits neatly into the hinge space between the keyboard and screen. It certainly wouldn’t be a strain to carry around an extra battery or two, giving plenty of work time.

The mains power supply unit is, like the other components, quite slim and compact, and the whole ensemble would fit into quite a small carry case, if one were provided. It’s not, but perhaps NEC believes this machine is small enough to fit into a briefcase along with documents, a mobile phone and the morning paper. In all honesty, it is, but some kind of extra protection would still have been nice.

Company: NEC

Contact: 0870 010 6321

Like any other sub-notebook, the Versa UltraLite has its fair share of design compromises, but the battery life available from this Crusoe-powered machine is impressive, and it should appeal to the mobile professional. Once again, though, miniaturisation comes at a price.