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Micro Express EL80 review: Micro Express EL80

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.

5.4

Micro Express EL80

The Good

Great battery life; cool retro styling; fingerprint reader; large, attractive display.

The Bad

Screen is too reflective; flimsy, clacking keyboard; mediocre mobile performance.

The Bottom Line

Look at the specs and the price of the Micro Express EL80, and you'll immediately be impressed. Its long-lasting battery won't do anything to sully your opinion, either. Outweighing these positives, however, is an overall shabby design and disappointing performance.
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 . While the Micro Express EL80 boasts a lengthy battery life, the Lenovo is a better deal.

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.

The Micro Express EL80 we reviewed cost $1,848 for a 2.16GHz Intel Core Duo processor; 2GB of screaming 667MHz RAM; a blazing 7,200rpm hard drive with a modest 80GB capacity; and Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 graphics with 256MB of system memory. Those are some pretty sweet specs for the price, so we were a bit disappointed with the EL80's performance on CNET Labs' mobile benchmarks; the EL80 just couldn't keep pace with the Lenovo 3000 N100 or the TravelMate 8200, even though both those systems have slower processors. Some of that performance might be explained by the EL80's power-saving features: the Micro Express EL80's battery lasted a lengthy 6 hours, 3 minutes--around 3 hours longer than both the TravelMate 8200 and the Lenovo. The upshot is that the Micro Express EL80 gives you plenty of computing time while roaming, but you might not want to stray far from the wall socket if you need maximum performance.

The Micro Express EL80 ships with an industry-standard one-year warranty on parts and labor, with extensions to three or four years of coverage available; any software you purchase preinstalled on your machine is supported for 90 days. The company also offers toll-free phone support for as long as you own your computer--a nice perk that we wish more companies offered. The company's support Web site is limited to simple driver downloads; we would have liked to have seen a decent knowledge base, customer forums, or the opportunity for a live chat with technicians.

Mobile application performance
(Longer bars indicate faster performance)

Battery life
(Longer bars indicate longer battery life)

Find out more about how we test Windows laptops. System configurations:
Acer TravelMate 8200
Windows XP Pro; 2GHz Intel Core Duo T2500; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM PC4300 533MHz; ATI Mobility Radeon x1600 512MB; Seagate Momentus 5400.2 120GB 5,400rpm

Lenovo 3000 N100
Windows XP Pro; 1.83GHz Intel Core Duo T2400; 512MB DDR2 SDRAM PC2700 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce Go 7300 256MB; Hitachi Travelstar 5K100 80GB 5,400rpm

Micro Express EL80
Windows XP Home; 2.16GHz Intel Core Duo T2600; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM PC5300 667MHz; Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB; Hitachi TS72108G 80GB 7,200rpm

5.4

Micro Express EL80

Score Breakdown

Design 3Features 6Performance 4Battery 8Support 6