With a silver lid and a black case, the EL80 from Micro Express, a small manufacturer that specializes in both preconfigured and custom-built desktops and laptops, could almost pass for a laptop from Dell or Toshiba. The EL80's spec list, which includes a fast Intel Core Duo processor and a discrete Nvidia graphics card, could almost describe a more-expensive laptop from those manufacturers, as well. But the similarities end there: the $1,848 Micro Express EL80 suffers from a few usability issues, such as a superreflective display and an overly flexible and loud keyboard. What's more, despite its impressive specs, the EL80 couldn't quite match the mobile performance of competing systems with slower processors, including the $1,399 Lenovo 3000 N100. While the Micro Express EL80 boasts a lengthy battery life, the Lenovo is a better deal.
Measuring 14.3 inches wide, 10.4 inches deep, and 1.3 inches thick, the Micro Express EL80 is a bit thicker than the Acer TravelMate 8200 and thinner than the Lenovo 3000 N100. Weighing an even 7 pounds, the EL80 is heavier than its competitors; its AC adapter brings the total travel weight to a barely portable 8.1 pounds.
The Micro Express EL80 features a beautiful 15.4-inch wide-aspect display with a native resolution of 1,280x800. We usually like a glossy display that makes colors in movies and games pop, but the EL80's screen is too glossy for its own good; we were annoyed by glare and reflections in every environment except a theater-dark room. We like the sliding cover for the 1.3-megapixel Webcam, however, which sits above the display. Call us paranoid, but we find it comforting to be able to physically close the lens of the Webcam.
Along the left side of the EL80's metallic-silver keyboard deck are raised rectangular buttons to control media, as well as a key that launches a media player without booting the OS. Above the keyboard sit four similarly styled programmable quick-launch buttons. The overall effect of the raised buttons is retro chic--they reminded us of the controls on our dad's late-'70s stereo system.
The EL80's overall construction feels about as sturdy as a laptop from a major manufacturer, but its keyboard is extremely flimsy. Though it's full size, key travel is shallow, and the keys make an annoying clacking sound when you type. In addition, the board flexes noticeably with even light typing pressure. The touch pad is ample, and we like its scroll zone, but the pad is so close to the keyboard that it's impossible to type more than a sentence without misplacing your cursor--we really wish there was a hardware switch to turn it off for long periods of typing. The mouse buttons are large and have good travel; a fingerprint reader sits between them. The final design feature of note is the Wi-Fi on/off switch along the laptop's front edge.
The EL80's large case leaves plenty of room for ports and connections; you get 4-pin FireWire, VGA, S-Video, and three USB 2.0 ports, as well as a microphone jack and a headphone jack that supports S/PDIF output. The laptop includes a PC Card slot and a slot for the latest ExpressCards, plus a 4-in-1 card reader that recognizes Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro, Secure Digital, and MultiMediaCard formats. Networking options include Ethernet, modem, and 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi. A dual-layer DVD burner rounds out the feature set. In keeping with its consumer focus, the Micro Express EL80 runs on Windows XP Home Edition; its software bundle includes some basic disc viewing and burning apps.