Micro Express NBL5100: Sturdy and Fast--But With a 32-Bit OS
At a Glance
MicroExpress NBL 5100
The NBL5100 offers so much to like, but Micro Express's cheap OS choice undercuts it.
Micro Express's NBL5100 is a remarkably solid brick of a machine for $1199 (as of November 15, 2010). A matte-black block, this desktop replacement laptop makes a clear statement: You do not care about looks. And that isn't even the "I don't care about looks" deliberateness of ThinkPads. You simply do not care how your laptop looks. Unfortunately, although the NBL5100 has a lot of elements I enjoyed, its operating system holds it back. I can only guess that Micro Express's designers cut a few corners that they shouldn't have.
In hardware, the NBL5100 packs a punch. You'll find a lot in this machine. It measures 14.7 by 9.9 by 1.7 inches and weighs only 6.1 pounds--that's a lot of weight, but relatively light for the desktop replacement class. It feels a lot lighter than it looks. Inside it has an Intel Core i7-640M CPU running at 2.8GHz, 4GB of RAM, and Nvidia's Optimus technology, so you have both Intel's default HD graphics system and the more-powerful GeForce GT 330M discrete video processor. Putting a damper on the whole thing, however, is Micro Express's pointlessly cheap decision to ship the laptop with 32-bit Windows 7. That means only 2.3GB of the RAM is usable; the OS strictly limits the machine in the future, too. This is the single worst element about the NBL5100. Micro Express tells us, though, that a 64-bit upgrade is available.
The 15.6-inch screen offers full 1080p resolution, 1920 by 1080 pixels. Vertical viewing angles aren't great, but horizontal viewing angles are fantastic. Colors don't really pop as much as I'd like. The real draw here is the screen size and resolution, framed nicely by a clean black plastic bezel. Thanks to Nvidia's Optimus technology, you won't have to worry about your graphics card's chewing up the battery when you're just chugging through work, yet you can still play around with some computing muscle. On our WorldBench 6 tests, its score was a quite respectable 118; the battery life of 2 hours, 36 seconds, while short, is typical for the category.
The audio isn't nearly as easy to praise. The NBL5100's sound is too quiet, and utterly unsatisfying. Headphones are a must, although the headphone jacks are at least unintrusive.
The structure of the laptop is solid, black, and clean. I really like its look and feel, but it isn't for everyone. It's black on the exterior, black on the interior, and matte throughout, offering a plain black bezel with the 1.3-megapixel Webcam up top, plus Chiclet keys laid out in--you guessed it--matte-black plastic. A few function keys sit just above the keyboard, with a noteworthy item being the VGA button. This button lets you turn off the discrete video card and Optimus altogether, to ensure that you can eke out every bit of power possible.
The keypad is very springy, requiring a decent amount of force to depress a key, with a nice response after that. The layout is very natural, with a number keypad of about two-thirds size set painlessly on the right. The biggest issue I have with the arrangement is that the arrow keys are positioned between the number keypad and the regular keyboard, making it difficult to reach the arrow keys while touch typing. It also feels not so sturdy, and I worry that Micro Express may have cut a corner here just as with the 32-bit OS.
Speaking of touch, I love the touchpad. I've never used a Synaptics-based Windows touchpad that was this accurate with multitouch scrolling before. In other respects the touchpad's responsiveness is excellent, too. Having two physical keys at the bottom is nice, but I think placing the biometric fingerprint scanner between them is a mistake. It makes shifting from button to button tougher, and takes up some useful space.
If the Micro Express NBL5100 I tried were operating on a 64-bit version of Windows 7, it would be a laptop that I'd get a lot of use out of. I usually don't like machines this big, but the reliable performance and precise typing sold me here. It's a shame that the company limited the laptop so severely in useful RAM.