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Twinhead Durabook N14RA

Economic, well executed durable notebook
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)

Twinhead Durabook N14RA Economic, well executed durable notebook Over the years we have reviewed, and used, a good number of computers made by Twinhead. Most of them didn't actually carry a "Twinhead" badge as for the better part of its 20 year existence, the Taiwanese company's products were sold by others under their own brandname. Twinhead also had very productive relationships with leading vertical market leaders such as Itronix, and thus has gained substantial expertise in the design and manufacturing of durable, ruggedized, and fully rugged mobile computing equipment. And even though Twinhead isn't a household word in the US (yet), the company's efio! Notebooks are very popular in Taiwan and China. So much so, is our guess, that a couple of years ago Twinhead decided it was time to forge a marketing strategy designed to bring their products directly to corporate, industrial and also individual end users. The initial slogan was "Slim, mobile, ruggedized, and affordable," and who could argue with that.

Panasonic long ago realized that US customers were getting tired of fragile plastic-bodied laptops that could not survive even a small drop, and sometimes suffer costly damage from even the most minor accidents. As a result, Panasonic now has a full lineup of durable and ruggedized notebooks ranging from the inexpensive to the full-featured, and from ultra-lights all the way to heavily armored brutes of notebooks. Twinhead, for now, limits itself to a partial lineup that covers some, but not all of, the bases. Go to Twinhead's website for their domestic Taiwan market and you'll see not only the Durabooks offered on the US market, but also light and very elegant "Stylebook" models with 10.6 and 12.1-inch screens as well as the wide-screen 17P Series with their 1440 x 900 pixels 17.1 inch displays. The semi-rugged "Durabook" models are there, too, and that is what Twinhead decided to bring to the US market.

Design philosophy

The name "Durabook," fits right in with the competition's "Toughbook," "GoBook," "PowerBook" platform names, and conjures up something that lasts, something that's, well, durable. The website stresses "drop resistant, shock resistant, spill resistant" and backs the marketing rethoric up with tangible information. The machines are given a degree of drop and shock resistance with the use of magnesium alloy cases, an ingeniously simple optical drive lock design, and plenty of shock absorbing material around the LCD and hard disk. Spill resistance concentrates warding off damage from such common culprits as coffee, soda and other liquids as well as a bit of rain. That's accomplished via a spill-resistant "C-Face," i.e. the area around the keyboard,touchpad, speakers, switched and other sensitive electronics. Do not mistake those measures as full-fledged ruggedization; we're talking durable here, some extra protection to ward off damage.

A look at the Durabook N14RA, released in September of 2005, clearly shows what Twinhead had in mind. This is a sleek, elegant machine. It has a footprint of 12.25 x 10 inches - just enough to comfortably fit a 14.1-inch screen - and it's all of 1.3 inches thick. That's no more than the Toshiba Portege 3500 Tablet PC convertible that I still use as my daily driver, and the Toshiba has just a 12.1-inch display and no optical drive. The Durabook weighs less than six pounds. Combined, the slim profile and the fairly light weight make for a very likable computing companion. This is a computer that looks and feels tough enough to come along on a trip, yet slim and light enough not to be a burden.

Impressive execution

Twinhead also did a masterful job selecting materials and textures. The designers chose a dark blueish-black finish for the top and the bottom, both magnesium. Open it up, though, and all you see is matte-silver magnesium with a grainy surface finish that makes the material look and feel very tough. We've seen many magnesium-bodied notebooks with surfaces so slick and polished that they'd get very easily scratched or dented. This will not happen to the Durabook. In fact, the entire notebook feels very sturdy and very solid, and there is no creaking at all (something that always unnerves me). Even though the LCD case is barely more than 3/8th of an inch thick, it feels surprisingly solid, and there is very little flexing. As a result, the drop spec is quite impressive for an inexpensive durable notebook: 26 drops from three feet onto plywood over concrete.

There is considerable discussion in the durable/rugged notebook industry as to whether clamshell computers should have positive locks to keep the computer from opening (and more easily sustain damage to the LCD) during impact or whether it should open like a book, without a lock, but with some resistance from the hinge. Those who support the no-lock stress that fieldworkers wearing gloves, or workers who need to open and close a notebook very frequently, prefer the "no-lock" design. Twinhead chose a compromise. The Durabook N14RA does have a positive lock in the form of two metal hooks on the left and the right side of the LCD case. Close the Twinhead, and they snap into place with an noticeable "click." However, you do not need to operate a lever or switch to re-open the computer. That's because the spring-loaded hooks easily unclasp when you pry the computer open. It's the best of both worlds, both providing protection in the case of a drop, but also making it easy to open the computer even with gloves on. Not that easy, though. There is a indent centered in the top of the LCD case, but it's a bit small to pry the case open with just your thumb. No big deal.

A look at the four sides of the Durabook N14RA reveals why, despite its subjective sturdiness, it carries just a modest IP31 ingress protection rating. The "3" means it's protected against solid objects thicker a 10th of an inch (like tools or wires), and the "1" means it is protected against dripping water or condensation. Machines with high IP ratings have sealed ports and openings and generally use rubber plugs. That provides protection, but also makes the computer less convenient to use. The Twinhead's ports and interfaces are all open and easily accessible.

On the left side you find a PC Card slot, a RJ45 LAN jack, a VGA connector, the power jack, a cooling vent, and a Kensington lock slot. On the right side are two USB ports, a modem jack, an integrated optical drive, and a 9-pin serial port. Along the front are color-coded microphone and earphone jacks as well as a volume control wheel. There are also three control lights that show power status (on DC power, charging, battery low). The backside is free of ports. The bottom contains a number of screwed-down covers that provide access to the hard disk, the CPU/memory slot compartment, etc.

Open the Durabook and you see a nicely laid-out, full-scale 85-key keyboard. Keys are lightgray plastic with white marks. Some keys do double or triple duty. Depressing a function key brings up functions printed in blue. The function key also allows access to ten levels of brightness, standby, turning the LCD on and off for slide presentations. Above the keyboard are more status indicator lights (optical and hard drive operation, num/caps/scroll lock), a power button and a wireless LAN button. All indicator light icons are embossed into the silver Surface and thus not very easy to decipher. Two speakers face up on the left in front of the keyboard. Below the keyboard is a touchpad with left and right mouse buttons as well as a scroll rocker.

What's under the hood

What does this Durabook offer in terms of tech specs and performance? Our N14RA came with a 1.8GHz AMD Turion 64 MT-34 processor (the N14RI models come with Intel Celeron or Pentium M chips), a VIA K8N800A graphics processor, an AGB 4X8X 2D3D video accelerator, a full gigabyte of DDR333 SODIMM RAM on a single memory slot, a 100 GB shock-mounted 2.5-inch hard disk, an internal CD-RW/DVD optical drive, 802.11b/g wireless LAN, and a 56k V90 modem in case you need to communicate via landline. The standard Li-Ion battery is a 6-cell 11.1Volt 4.4 Ah Li-Ion affair good for about three hours. An optional 9-cell 6.0 Ah battery pack is also available. The 1024 x 768 pixel 14.1-inch LCD is crisp and bright.

The AMD Turion 64 processor is obviously much less well known than Intel's Pentium and Celeron chips. However, it is an interesting proposition for mobile computers. The Turion 64 is actually using the exact same AMD64 architecture found in AMD's highly touted desktop processors. The difference is that the Turion uses low voltage technology and the whole chip is optimized for low power consumption. SilentPCReview.com found that this 64-bit AMD chip matches the 2.13 MHz Pentium M 770 processors in power consumption and we found the Durabook to be plenty quick enough (it scored a 2683 on FutireMark's PCMark04 PCMark score). During normal operation the system's fan comes on at times, and it's rather loud, but the notebook doesn't heat up much.

On the software side, our N14RA came with Windows XP Pro, Cyberink PowerDVD, PowerDirector and Power2Go for the optical drive, the full Microsoft WorksSuite 2005 that includes Microsoft Word, Money, Streets & Trips 2005, Encarta 2005, Works 8 and Picture It! Premium.

Suprisingly affordable

How much does it all cost? Amazingly, the N14RA starts at US$999, an unbelievable bargain. Our tester came equipped with a 100GB disk and a gig of RAM, and that configuration lists for something like $1,600. Who is the Durabook N14RA for? Given its low price, sleek design and great value, it could be attractive to just about anyone. It's equally easy to see large numbers of this low-priced but very capable machine doing duty in corporate environments or vertical market assignments.

usa.twinhead.com
--Conrad H. Blickenstorfer