Next-generation Centrino laptops have begun to arrive in earnest, but so far they haven't all lived up to expectations. Most offer excellent performance and connectivity when compared to previous Centrino models, but many use old case designs and look rather plain.
The M555N-E, on the other hand, impresses straight out of the box thanks to its striking silver finish, so does it emerge as the perfect combination of style and substance? It's available direct from AJP from their Web site for £880.
The M555N-E is designed to be highly portable. At 2.5kg, it's 500g too heavy to be considered an ultra-portable, but it's fairly compact at just 333mm wide and 276mm deep. It's also a very good looking device. Silver laptops are increasingly commonplace, but the M555N-E stands out thanks to the incorporation of glossy aluminium highlights around the mouse touchpad, shortcut keys, power button, and in the AJP logo on the lid.
The screen is locked in place when not in use and can be released by pressing a single button at the front. There's an attractive pressed aluminium panel just below the display, and the black screen bezel and matching keyboard provide good contrast to what would otherwise have been an overwhelming sea of silver. We were slightly disappointed by the build quality of the keyboard, though. Its top section wasn't securely fastened to the chassis, but AJP reassures us this won't be the case on final retail models.
The M555N-E has a good number of input/output ports. On the right there's a single USB port next to a modem socket and headphone and mic connections. On the left you'll find two further USB ports, a PC Card port, a four-pin FireWire port, and a 3-in-1 memory card reader that supports MMC, Secure Digital and Sony Memory stick formats. There are also line-in and SPDIF ports for connecting a set of surround-sound speakers, or recording audio from an external source.
While this is a good collection of input/output connectors, we'd prefer if ports of a similar type were grouped on the same side of the laptop. Connecting a set of surround-sound speakers leads to a mish-mash of cables. The same applies to connecting modem and LAN cables, whose respective ports are also on opposite sides.
We also found the positioning of the M555N-E's speakers somewhat strange. Both its stereo speakers are at the bottom of the chassis, and although they don't quite touch whichever surface the laptop is resting on, their position isn't very conducive to clear audio.
The M555N-E uses the latest iteration of Intel's Centrino technology, also known as Napa. Unlike original Centrino laptops, this third-generation model uses the updated Intel 945 Express chipset, which provides a host of features. These include support for high-definition Dolby audio, dual-channel memory, dual-core processors and the latest PCI Express X16 graphics cards.
The top-of-the-range M555N-E uses an Intel Core Duo T2400 processor clocked at 1.83GHz -- the same as that used in the slower of the two Apple MacBook Pro options, a laptop that'll set you back . The M555N-E also uses 1GB of fast DDR2 RAM running at 533MHz, but less demanding users may prefer to buy the cheaper M555N-H, which has 512MB. Neither version uses a discrete PCI Express X16 graphics card so you'll have to put up with the basic Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 as supplied by the chipset.
According to AJP, all M555N laptops use a 15-inch TFT SXGA+ screen. These should run at a widescreen resolution of 1,400x1,050 pixels, but our review sample maxed out at a more ordinary resolution of 1,280x1,024 pixels due to the laptop being incorrectly configured on arrival. As a result, the definition and clarity of its images was quite low, but AJP says final retail samples of the laptop will run at the correct resolution. The laptop can be connected to an external monitor, but it only supports those that use analogue D-Sub or S-Video connections.
The M555N-E has a 100GB hard drive. This is a healthy size for a thin and light laptop, as the largest commercial laptop drives top out at 160GB. With this you'll have all the space in the world to store your Word documents and spreadsheets, and there's plenty of room to hoard a sizeable multimedia collection. Making regular backups is advisable, particularly with a portable computer, so we were happy to see a Sony DW-Q58A drive. This is a dual-layer part that can write up to 8.5GB of data to compatible discs at 4x. It'll also write to DVD+/-R at 8x, and CD-RW discs at 24x.
Small laptops can be trickier to handle and therefore more difficult to use than their larger counterparts, but we were relatively happy with the M555N-E, as its keyboard is a good size, and its keys are logically arranged. Our only gripe was the amount of flex in the keyboard, which bends noticeably if you're heavy-handed with your typing -- a sign of questionable build quality. The mouse touchpad feels responsive though, and it has a handy automatic scrolling function that comes in handy when browsing the Web.
The laptop's usability is boosted thanks to its relatively low heat emission. We used it on our laps for a prolonged period, and it stayedfor most of our testing. Running demanding applications such as video-editing software increases the heat output significantly, but this is a problem we've come to expect from most laptops.
Like all new Centrino laptops, the M555N-E features an integrated 802.11a/b/g wireless adaptor, so you can use it to get online in your local Starbucks. There's an optional Bluetooth module for an extra £49, but the laptop comes with a free Vodafone 3G/GPRS Mobile Connect Card worth £219. This lets you get online at near-broadband speeds should you find yourself out of range of a Wi-Fi hotspot, although you'll have to sign up for a contract with Vodafone to use it.
If you're considering buying the M555N-E, you're probably not looking for a high-performance laptop. That's just as well, because it isn't particularly quick. It has a good amount of memory, and its 1.83GHz dual-core CPU is fast enough to run anything asked of it, but it ran noticeably slower than other laptops that use the same specification. It clocked up a reasonable PCMark total of 2,844, but we were expecting this figure to be at least 20 per cent higher.
While the M555N-E will keep most users happy with the speed at which it churns its way through everyday office productivity and Internet content creation programs, it's useless for running games. It achieved a 3DMark 2006 of 143, and ran Doom 3 at a completely unplayable 3 frames per second.
This average overall performance has a positive side though -- the M555N-E has a long battery life. It lasted 2 hours 33 minutes during our intensive tests, and should last even longer when doing basic tasks such as browsing the Web.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide