Perhaps Systemax should have chosen a less, well, epic name for the 4.7-pound Epic M31E10 notebook. Like the other laptops with small, wide-screen displays we've reviewed recently, the Epic M31E10 combines elements of both ultraportable and thin-and-light laptops, hitting the sweet spot between portability and usability. As with the Lenovo 3000 V100, the Apple MacBook, the Sony VAIO SZ, and the Dell XPS M1210, the Epic's weight gives you a full complement of features, including a wide-screen display, a comfortable keyboard, a built-in optical drive, and plenty of ports. Unlike those competitive systems, though, the Epic M31E10 is not configurable, nor is it particularly low price: the laptop's suggested retail price is $1,799, but it's currently selling at online retailers for $1,999. And while the Epic M31E10 has a vibrant display and good speakers, its performance, battery life, and design are unremarkable; we think other competing systems offer better value, particularly those from Dell and Lenovo, which allow you to configure a machine to fit your exact needs.
As with many of the Epic M31E10's other features, its size and weight are about average for this breed of pseudo-ultraportables. Measuring 12.5 inches wide, 8.8 inches deep, and 1.35 inches thick, the Epic M31E10 is almost the same size as the VAIO SZ and the MacBook. The Epic weighs 4.7 pounds, putting the notebook between the 4.4-pound Lenovo 3000 V100 and the 5.1-pound MacBook. With its power adapter, the Epic M31E10 weighs 5.6 pounds, which is small enough and light enough for semifrequent travel.
Perhaps the only area that the Epic M31E10 truly excels is multimedia playback. Its very bright, 13-inch wide-screen display, with a native resolution of 1,280x768, performed particularly well when playing high-definition content. We downloaded a few 1080p and 720p clips from Apple's QuickTime HD Gallery and were impressed with the display's clarity and vibrancy. In addition, the screen's reflective coating made for dark blacks and rich colors, and it didn't distract us with reflections when used at a normal viewing angle. Though the screen looked great, it is poorly protected in the laptop's case, which flexes easily and leaves artifacts on the LCD when pressed. The Epic M31E10's speakers, mounted on the front edge of the case, were surprisingly full sounding for a laptop of this size. The Epic also features a dedicated media button that launches your media player of choice. We do wish the headphone and microphone jacks were not also on the front of the case; if you use speakers when at your desk, running a cable up to the front is cumbersome, and some might be annoyed by headphone cables piling up in your lap when using the notebook on the go.
Besides a hardware switch for its integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless, the rest of the laptop's design is unremarkable. We like that the Epic M31E10's touch pad has dedicated vertical and horizontal scrolling areas, but at 1.5 inches tall, it is too small for comfortable use. The touch pad is also very close to the keyboard, making it easy to accidentally move the cursor while typing. The keyboard itself is like any garden-variety laptop: just smaller than full size, with about 0.3 inch of vertical travel for each key.
Like competing models from other manufacturers, the Epic M31E10 includes all the ports, connections, and software needed for typical home and small business use. There are a 4-pin FireWire, S-Video, VGA, and three USB 2.0 ports; in addition to the headphone and microphone jacks, there's also an integrated microphone. The laptop has a PC Card slot and a 3-in-1 memory card reader that recognizes Memory Stick, Secure Digital, and MultiMediaCard formats, though there is no ExpressCard reader. The notebook also has an integrated DVD burner. Networking options include Gigabit Ethernet, Intel 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, and a 56Kbps modem; Bluetooth is conspicuously absent, and it's not available even as an option. The Epic M31E10 lacks hardware needed for serious corporate users, such as a dock, biometric security, and a Trusted Platform Module. The notebook's software package is good; it comes preloaded with Microsoft Windows XP Professional and the Microsoft Office Professional Edition 2003 productivity suite.
Though Systemax told us the suggested retail price of the Epic M31E10 is $1,799, at the time of this writing, most online resellers were offering it for a heftier $1,999. That price buys a 2GHz Intel Core Duo processor, 2GB of midrange 533MHz RAM, integrated Intel GMA 945 graphics, and a 100GB hard drive spinning at 5,400rpm--decent components, but less appealing when you consider that a closely configured Lenovo 3000 V100 is roughly $500 less expensive than the Epic's street price. By contrast, a similarly configured Dell XPS M1210 costs about $500 more.