In order to bring a notebook down into the sub-AU$1000 price bracket, it's inevitable that many corners will be cut and design sacrifices made. This is evident upon first removing the 350S from its packaging. The plastic used for the chassis has a distinctly cheap, low quality feel. It's thin, flimsy and coarse -- an instant giveaway that this is a budget notebook. In order to divert attention away from the 350S's questionable build quality, Pioneer has given the notebook a textured lid, but this only makes matters worse.
OK, so we've established that aesthetic appeal isn't the notebook's trump card, but what about its port layout? Fortunately, this aspect isn't nearly as disappointing. On the right hand side lies a set of headphone and mic jacks, while on the left is a TV-out jack, an S/PDIF digital audio output, a 10/100 Ethernet port, a modem port and a VGA output for displaying content on an external monitor.
Unfortunately, only two USB 2.0 ports are present (most notebooks we've tested offer at least four), and there's no Firewire port in sight. On the whole though, the 350S's port layout impressed us (given the price) and there's even a set of three quick-launch buttons along the front of the chassis which proved convenient during testing.
Weighing 2.4kg and measuring in at 312(W) x 263(D) x 27.5(H)mm, the 350S is far from an ultra-portable, but it's not a desktop replacement either. It's certainly suitable for transportation to and from venues, but don't expect to be using it whilst on the go.
As well as being the cheapest notebook we've tested, the 350S is also the most underpowered. It's got an Intel Celeron-M 1.5GHz processor, a paltry 256MB of regular DDR-333 memory and a tiny 40GB hard drive. Further, the SiS integrated graphics processor is at the bottom of its class, with the more common Intel Graphics Media Accelerator chip offering better DVD playback performance. Both are unsuitable for gaming, however.
Curiously, despite cutting corners on all other components, Pioneer has still managed to fit the unit with an 8x DVD-/+RW dual layer drive. This budget would have been far better spent on increasing the notebook's memory capacity or processor speed, in our opinion.
The 350S is fitted with a 14.1-inch screen, but the meagre 1024x768 resolution and lack of colour vibrancy is somewhat off-putting. On the whole, it's clear that Pioneer has integrated the most inexpensive screen it could get its hands on.
Finally, the software bundle is petite, but generous for such an inexpensive notebook. It includes Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition and Word Perfect Office.
Aside from the qualitative observations made above, we also used the MobileMark 2005 benchmark suite to punitively gauge the notebook's performance relative to the competition. The closest set of notebooks we could find for comparison were the budget notebooks tested a few months ago, all of which retail for around the AU$1500 mark.
In MobileMark's office productivity test, the 350S's score of 86 places it at the back of the pack by a long margin. It's realistically only suited to basic e-mail, web browsing and office tasks, but even these tend to run at a chuggy pace.
BAPCo MobileMark2005 performance rating
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Battery life is similarly poor, with the notebook not even able to last for two hours on a single charge.
BAPCo MobileMark2005 battery life rating
(Longer bars indicate more battery-life minutes)
The Pioneer DreamBook Light 350S will pass as a basic machine for those on a super-tight budget, but its poor quality and dismal performance will soon frustrate even the most frugal of users. We'd suggest giving this one a miss and shelling out a little extra for a classier notebook such as the Dell Inspiron 630m.