Micro Express manages to ship a staggeringly average laptop using Intel’s new Sandy Bridge CPUs.
If you’ve ever listened to National Public Radio’s Prairie Home Companion, you may have heard the host mention in a folksy way that “all the children are above average.” Alas, some products are just average–neither setting the bar for excellence nor dismally poor. Micro Express’ NBL26 is just such an undistinguished product.
Of course, “average” doesn’t mean “bad.” If what you need is a capable 15-inch laptop that’s not too heavy and not too expensive for running desktop apps, browsing the web, and other normal computing tasks, the NBL26 fits that bill. Desktop performance is surprisingly robust for a dual-core unit. Intel’s new Core i7-2620M (a Sandy Bridge CPU) scales up from a default 2.7GHz to a whopping 3.4GHz. That, plus the 4GB of DDR3 memory, pushed the NBL26 to a solid score of 126 in our WorldBench 6 test suite.
On the other hand, battery life seems a little below average, at 3 hours, 15 minutes, but that’s probably because Micro Express didn’t stack the deck with a maxed-out battery, thus keeping the weight down to a reasonable 5 pounds, 9 ounces without the power brick. The 90W power brick adds only 1 pound.
While desktop performance seems reasonable, gaming performance is dismal. The NBL26 ships with a discrete Nvidia GeForce GT 540M GPU, which has a scant 96 shader cores. This means that gaming performance is pretty limited, though probably better than with integrated graphics. The NBL26 delivers a very modest score of 310 in 3DMark 2011. Far Cry 2 running in DirectX 10 mode manages only a little over 10 frames per second. I finally gave up on games when Just Cause 2 refused to respond to keyboard input. The bottom line: don’t expect to use the NBL26 as a gaming system.
Visual fidelity while running desktop apps seemed fine, though color saturation in photographs looked just a little muted. On the plus side, the viewing angles of the LCD panel were better than on most laptops I’ve tested. Video quality, particularly when viewing DVD movies at full resolution, is subpar. I took a close look at the Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD, which is an excellent transfer, as well as the DVD of Serenity. Both exhibited substantial noise and just enough edge enhancement to be annoying.
Audio quality also falls short. For Webcam and VoIP use, the speakers should work well, as they seem to be tuned so that voice and vocal frequencies are enhanced, but bass and high treble are almost nonexistent. If you’re planning on listening to music, you’ll want to use headphones.
The keyboard is nothing special, either. The good news is that it’s not a Chiclet-style keyboard, and it offers good tactile feedback. The bad news: The keys aren’t sculpted, and it’s easy for fingers to slip off when touch-typing, resulting in more errors than normal. While the keyboard does have a separate numeric keypad, the Page Down, Home, End, and Page Up keys are overloaded–you’ll need to turn Num Lock off if you want to use those keys.
I did run into one annoying glitch: After the NBL26 went into sleep mode, the display would sometimes–but not always–remain dark when the unit woke. On those occasions, the laptop was still active (I could make the system create audible error sounds), but only a hard reboot would bring the screen back.
In the end, the Micro Express NBL26 is a generic-looking laptop that’s pretty much as average as you can get. It’s likely to be a decent unit for normal desktop use, but it’s definitely not a gaming or multimedia powerhouse. If that’s all you need, then it may be worth a closer look, but at its price level, you can find better units.
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