One aspect of ultra-portable notebooks that we tend to dislike is their lack of entertainment features for users to dig into when they're not on the road. BenQ's Joybook S61 subverts this tradition entirely, being the first ultra-portable media centre notebook we've come across.
The S61's design makes few departures from the typical ultra-portable mould. It weighs 1.65kg (1.5kg without battery), measures 303.75 by 225 by 27.5mm and offers up a 12.1-inch 1280x800 widescreen display. For its size, the S61's screen is brighter than we'd expect and offers up a higher than average resolution, but we couldn't help but notice the thick screen borders -- BenQ could have easily fit in a 13-inch screen without sacrificing on the notebook's design.
Conversely, BenQ has made full use of the notebook's proportions when designing the keyboard. All keys, with the exception of the rarely used function keys, are large and well-spaced; typing comfort is assured. That said, we weren't as impressed with the track pad, since the pad itself and the buttons are smaller than we're used to.
For the most part, the S61's port layout is pleasing. On the left is a mini-Firewire port, one USB 2.0 connector, headphone/mic jacks and a VGA output for connection to an external display. The back offers up a single USB port, while on the right lies a third USB connector, LAN and modem ports, a TV aerial connector and a 5-in-1 memory card reader. The right side is also home to a DVD writer and an on/off switch for the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth functions (turning these off when they're not in use conserves battery power).
Given that the S61 is an ultra-portable, it's a surprise to see that it includes a digital TV tuner. In order to pick up channels you'll need to connect the external antenna, which retracts into a small, portable unit so as to not be a pain to lug around. Live TV can be recorded to the 80GB hard drive at the push of a button, using the media centre software detailed below.
In theory the TV tuner sounds like a great idea, but we weren't too impressed after putting it to the test. In our Pyrmont offices (just outside the Sydney CBD) we couldn't tune into channels 7 and 10, and the reception on the channels we could receive was flaky. That said, it's not totally the fault of the small antenna or the tuner -- you could have better luck with reception in your area.
Despite being a media centre notebook, BenQ has decided against adopting Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition operating system. Instead, the S61 uses Windows XP Professional, and the media centre functionality is accessed using BenQ's own "QMedia Center" software. This provides a menu system similar to that of Media Center Edition, enabling you to access TV, DVD, other video, pictures and music through an intuitive interface. Curiously, no remote is provided so you'll have to navigate the menus using the mouse and/or keyboard.
Other BenQ software bundled with the package includes QMusic (manage your music library and sync with portable devices), QPower (adjust power management settings) and QPresentation (aids in connecting the notebook to a projector). All of these add useful functionality on top of the standard Windows suite. Microsoft Office Basic, PC-Cillin Anti-Virus, Nero Express 6.0 and Skype round out the impressive list of pre-installed software.
Built-in networking connectivity is another impressive aspect of the S61. Gigabit (10/100/1000) wired Ethernet is supported, as are 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.0 and a 56K/V.92 dialup modem. It lacks infrared, but this standard seems to be well and truly on its last legs due to the increasing uptake of Bluetooth.
Considering that it's equipped with an Intel Core Duo T2300 (1.66GHz) processor -- rather than a low-voltage Pentium, as seen on many ultra-portables -- we were expecting high performance but relatively low battery life from the S61.
These expectations were for the most part met; the S61 produced an impressive MobileMark2005 office productivity score of 234, which trumps most of the competition. One of our initial concerns was that the meagre 512MB of memory would have an adverse effect on performance, but this didn't eventuate. Still, we'd recommend upgrading to 1GB regardless.
BAPCo MobileMark2005 performance rating
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Battery life isn't nearly as impressive. While over three hours of battery life isn't so bad on its own, it's nonetheless disconcerting since we've tested a number of notebooks of late that last for over five hours (such as the Sony VAIO VGN-TX27GP). Avid road warriors should consider purchasing the optional 3-cell battery for use in addition to the 6-cell offering that comes standard with the notebook.
BAPCo MobileMark2005 battery life rating
(Longer bars indicate more battery-life minutes)
Even though battery life isn't exceptional and great TV reception isn't guaranteed, the Joybook S61 is sure to impress most users thanks to its liberal slathering of work and entertainment features.