NEC Versa M160 review

Price when reviewed

The introduction of Intel’s Core 2 Duo for notebooks is good news for those on a budget. With one more chip on the market, it’s likely prices will come down at the lower end too. This month, both Toshiba and NEC show us what they can do for under £400 and, while the specifications are similar, it’s a different story when it comes to the overall package.

NEC Versa M160 review

NEC’s choice of a 15.1in diagonal and resolution of 1,280 x 800 TFT is a sensible one, but compared directly against the Toshiba Satellite Pro A120 it’s immediately clear that it’s an inferior screen. Vertical viewing angles are so narrow that as soon as you move your head, you’ll see the horrible darkening or lightening indicative of a budget panel, and it was a constant annoyance during testing. When viewed head-on, its colour handling was actually quite good, but the restricted viewing angle made watching films or sifting through pictures a lacklustre experience. It’s also poor at displaying moving images, with very noticeable lag whether moving the pointer on the Desktop or viewing video.

At 2.9kg, the M160 is fine for the occasional trip, but our next disappointment was with battery life. NEC claims it’s capable of running for five hours away from a power source, but even the lesser of our tests saw it failing in less than half this time. Whereas the A120 managed a reasonably respectable 2hrs 30mins, the 1hr 40mins of this notebook makes it all but impossible to rely on as a travelling companion. The claims are based on use when in the ECO mode, which halves CPU speed to 700MHz to save power consumption. Unfortunately, this feature didn’t work on our review sample, but it’s unlikely this alone would have a stunning impact, and would also mean a notable reduction in speed.

In normal mode, the Celeron M 410 will be working at its top speed of 1.4GHz. It’s up to tackling most tasks, including those in our gruelling Real World Benchmarks, although our tortuous multi-application test left it stretched. The real problem, though, is the paltry 256MB of RAM onboard (shared with the Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics) – it just isn’t enough to keep even single applications and Windows XP running smoothly. With so many disk read/writes to the page file forced by the lack of free RAM, our benchmark score of 0.53 compares poorly to the respectable 0.63 of the Toshiba.

The one redeeming feature for the M160 is its excellent keyboard, which is satisfyingly comfortable to use: the keys are firm and lack the rattle that plagues so many budget notebooks. Unlike the Toshiba, it stretches across the whole chassis allowing for slightly larger keys, as well as a numeric keypad. The layout is a little frustrating, with the Delete key being at the base near the cursor keys, for example, but it’s a minor complaint. By comparison, though, the Toshiba keyboard is only a small step down in quality and still perfectly serviceable.

There’s another marginal win for the M160 when it comes to the ergonomics of port arrangement, with a USB port easily accessible on the left-hand side. The Toshiba has all its ports at the rear to accommodate its uniquely housed motherboard. On the NEC, there’s one more well-placed USB port to the left, which is joined by a Type II PC Card slot. The rear of the M160 houses the other two USB ports, plus serial, D-SUB and a 10/100 LAN port. But once again, the Toshiba goes one better by matching that and adding a slot for SD/MMC cards.

The M160 can’t compete with general build quality either: it’s made of a cheap-feeling plastic that sounds hollow when tapped, whereas the Toshiba has a smoother, more solid finish and a generally thicker construction. Neither is rugged by any means – there’s too much flex in chassis and lid on both – but the Toshiba inspires far more confidence. The M160 can’t even distinguish itself when it comes to warranty, with both offering a basic one year of collect-and-return cover.

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