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NEC VERSA S5200 review: NEC VERSA S5200

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The Good Highly portable. Great performance. Superb networking capabilities – 802.11a/b/g WiFi, Gigabit LAN, Bluetooth. S-Video port for TV out. Firewire port. Generous memory and hard drive capacities. Three mouse buttons make scrolling through long documents painless.

The Bad Battery life isn’t as long as some competing offerings. Lacks multimedia features such as a widescreen display, instant-on and track navigation shortcut buttons. No ExpressCard slot. Integrated graphics hinders gaming performance. No card reader. Ports lined along the right-hand side could hinder mouse movement.

The Bottom Line While NEC isn't a big name in Australian notebooks, the VERSA S5200 should put the company on the ultra-portable map thanks to its competitive price and performance.

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In Australia, NEC isn't particularly well-known for its notebook computers, with the company's reputation being largely built around its mobile phones and home entertainment products. With the release of Centrino Duo, NEC has decided to jump on the laptop bandwagon with a highly attractive solution that's undoubtedly worth a closer look.

Design
With dimensions of 310(W) x 258(D) x 34.5(H) mm, the VERSA S5200 is slightly larger than other ultra-portables, largely thanks to its 14.1-inch screen (most use 12.1-inch displays). Despite this, NEC has still managed to keep the unit's overall weight down to 1.9kg. As a general rule, any notebook below 2kg is perfectly capable for comfortable use on the road.

The S5200 with its classic black and silver colour scheme is far from eccentric, but we think it looks slick nonetheless. It boasts an angular shape, offering up sharp as opposed to rounded corners. This is purely for aesthetic value, and gives the notebook a professional, modern appeal.

Hidden beneath the lid is a bright 14.1-inch, 1400x1050 SXGA+ display. Its high resolution allows for increased detail in video playback as well as more efficient office productivity performance, since more data (e.g. cells in a spreadsheet) can be seen at any one time. That said, the screen uses a 4:3 as opposed to a 16:9 aspect ratio, so it's not widescreen. This detracts from the DVD playback experience, but the notebook isn't pitched as an entertainment unit. A further testament to this is the lack of an instant-on feature and track navigation shortcut buttons.

The keyboard has large keys that are a joy to type on, while the track pad and mouse buttons are large enough for comfortable use by those with larger hands. Breaking away from tradition, the S5200 offers three mouse buttons instead of the usual two. The left and right ones perform their usual tasks; however, the middle button is actually a rocker switch that makes scrolling through long documents a breeze. Think of it as a notebook version of the scroll wheel found on a regular mouse.

Our only real design qualm is the fact that most of the ports are lined across the right-hand side of the bezel, which could hinder mouse movement should you connect an external mouse since there'd be cords constantly falling in your path.

Features
Spec-wise, the S5200 is a mixed bag. While it uses the lowest clocked Core Duo chip -- the 1.66GHz T2300 -- it's also got a generous 1GB of DDR2 memory and a fairly hefty 80GB hard drive. A dual-layer DVD writer provides additional optical storage capabilities, while Gigabit LAN, Bluetooth and 802.11a/b/g wireless are also supported.

Ports include four USB 2.0, one Firewire, S-Video (also known as TV-out), VGA and two PCMCIA card slots. There's no ExpressCard slot which could prevent complete future-proofing, but this isn't a huge issue since almost all add-in cards are still using the PCMCIA format.

Gamers need not apply, as the notebook is hobbled by an integrated graphics chip that struggles to run most recent games at even close to a smooth frame rate. That said, few ultra-portables are equipped with dedicated graphics hardware so this is to be expected.

Another disappointment is the lack of a card reader, which makes downloading images from external devices such as a camera more of a chore than it needs to be. The notebook's software bundle is also relatively light, with the only notable inclusion being a copy of Norton Antivirus 2005.

Performance
For our performance tests, we compared the S5200 to the HP Pavilion dv1600 -- another Centrino Duo notebook offering up the same 1.66GHz processor but only half the memory.

We used MobileMark 2005 as our quantitative benchmark, and the S5200 performed extremely well in its office productivity test. Its score of 221 trounced the dv1600's score (158), which is surprising given that both notebooks are configured quite similarly.

BAPCo MobileMark2005 performance rating
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

221 158

Battery-life saw the proverbial shoe move to the other foot. The S5200 lasted for exactly three hours -- close to NEC's promised time of 3.4 hours -- while the Pavilion dv1600 stuck it out for over half an hour longer at 216 minutes. Granted, this isn't a huge difference and, on its own, the S5200's battery life is quite impressive.

BAPCo MobileMark2005 battery life rating
(Longer bars indicate more battery-life minutes)

180 Minutes 216 Minutes

Finally, proof that the S5200 isn't a good choice for gamers is the fact that the notebook failed to complete our 3DMark06 benchmark without locking up. The NEC S5200 doesn't lose many points for this however, as we're yet to find an ultra-portable notebook that offers even passable gaming performance.

Service and Support
NEC offers a two-year limited warranty with the S5200. It's got service centres located all over the country should your unit require repairs, but NEC doesn't offer on-site service -- you'll have to send the faulty notebook into a service centre.

The company's website doesn't list a phone support number for general notebook support enquiries, but there's an e-mail address on which an NEC representative should provide prompt assistance.

While NEC isn't a big name in Australian notebooks, the VERSA S5200 should put the company on the ultra-portable map thanks to its competitive price and performance.

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