NEC Generation Performer review
Three years ago, the French education district of CG13 invited companies to tender for the supply of notebooks to each of its pupils. NEC Computers won the contract, and has since supplied more than 90,000 units. Now, NEC has decided to bring the same idea to the UK. This time, however, it’s parents and schools that are being targeted. The result is a product that shows significant efforts to address the education market.
Naturally, making a notebook for this sector presents some specific challenges. The idea of a child carrying several hundred pounds worth of desirable equipment around with them will make many parents nervous, so NEC has ensured that the Generation should have no practical or monetary value outside of its intended environment.
That starts with the distinctive chassis, which has a large ‘Generation’ logo etched into a raised aluminium plate. The prominent identity sticker is recessed, making it all but impossible to remove. The word ‘STOLEN’ is stained into the plastic underneath and can’t be scratched off. If that’s not enough to secure its return, there’s also the Oxygen Cubed tracking mechanism that will reveal the notebook’s location to NEC as soon as it’s connected to the Internet.
Access rights are defined at the first boot, and it’s intended that these are set by a parent, teacher or school IT administrator. This sets privileges for the integrated, swipe-style fingerprint reader, which then governs access to the comprehensive security settings. This includes control of the optical and hard drives, as well as networking, USB and expansion ports. The fingerprint reader can be used in lieu of passwords in Windows too. Inevitably, this is backed up by a ‘fail-safe’, which can bypass the fingerprint reader to change administrator. The chassis itself is fixed using torque screws – not impossible to get round, but enough to prevent casual tampering.
On larger orders, further options are available through NEC’s Factory Integration Service. You can encrypt individual notebooks and their hard disks together, preventing anyone from bypassing the security measures, as well as keeping data safer if removed. There’s also the Safeboot option, requiring the notebook to contact a specific network at least once within a 30-day period.
NEC believes that publicity about this slew of security features will act as a deterrent in itself; a theory that appears to be vindicated in the French experience. NEC claims that only a handful of units have been stolen, with the majority of those soon recovered. If that isn’t reassuring enough, there’s three years’ theft insurance included in the price, which can be upgraded to take in accidental damage too.
On a more mundane security level, NEC bundles a managed version of McAfee’s anti-virus software. Aside from extensive logging options and managed updates, there’s also the Rumor system, using peer-to-peer distribution for updating Generations connected to a local network but not the Net.
There are two SKUs of the Generation: the Traveller and the Performer. The former is based on a Celeron M 360, costing £649 (exc VAT), and the latter a 1.73GHz Pentium M 740 processor, at £779 (exc VAT). A score of 0.76 in our real-world benchmarks shows the Performer is more than capable of dealing with everyday tasks, and there’s a sensible 512MB of RAM in both too. The Performer also comes with an 80GB hard disk, against the Traveller’s 40GB, but the specification is otherwise identical, even including dual-layer, dual-format DVD writers.