A Toughened-up Full-Size Notebook That Doesn't Cost a Lot
(by Conrad H. Blickenstorfer)
When, as a North American consumer, you consider the purchase of a notebook computer, the name "Twinhead" probably doesn't come to mind. That's both amazing and unfortunate as Twinhead is one of the largest Taiwanese manufacturer of high quality notebooks, and has been for 20 years. Twinhead was also one of the first Taiwanese computer manufacturers to establish a subsidiary in the United States, Twinhead Corporation USA. The company's mission is "...to be among the top specialist Notebook manufacturers in the world, and to be a creator of other innovative PC products. Our success will depend upon our worldwide reputation for delivering quality and cutting edge products at competitive prices." They certainly have lived up to those words. In Taiwan and China, Twinhead's efio! line of notebooks is hugely popular. Twinhead has also established itself as the OEM manufacturer for some of the best vertical market notebooks available today. The Itronix GoBook, for example, starts life at Twinhead's manufacturing plants before they are being configured by Itronix in Washington. And a number of other resellers use Twinhead's designs also.
Still, in the US market Twinhead has been playing it low key for many years, concentrating solely on their OEMs. That strategy is about to come to an end. Seeing the mounting success of ruggedized laptops such as Panasonic's Toughbooks, Twinhead has decided on a new marketing strategy that includes bringing their products directly to end users. Under the motto "Slim, mobile, ruggedized and affordable," Twinhead intends to bring value and ruggedness to retail markets. While Panasonic concentrates on corporate accounts with a lineup that includes both fully ruggedized and durable products, Twinhead's stateside offerings address end users who don't need the PC equivalent of a tank, but want something a bit more stable than today's crop of flimsy notebooks with fragile plastic bodies.
Enter Twinhead's N-Series of magnesium-bodied notebook computers. All of them are full-function laptops ranging from the ultralight N23PB model with a 12.1-inch display all the way up to the full-size N15RN reviewed here. Twinhead's naming convention is a bit confusing so don't look at the model designations for much guidance. Suffice it to say that they come in bodies designed for 12.1, 14.1, and 15.1 inch displays and with a variety of Intel CPUs from Mobile Pentium M to Celerons to the fastest Mobile Pentium 4s available today. In line with Twinhead's goal of offering an inexpensive, yet durable and well built notebook in whatever size and weight class you're looking for, all are value-priced but nicely equipped.
The Twinhead N15RN that's been doing duty in our PenLab is company's largest and heaviest N-Series notebook. In this case, "large and heavy" are relative terms. While the N15RN has a full-size 13.1 x 10.8 inch footprint, the handsome machine is only 1.4 inches thick and weighs in at just 6.8 pounds, which represents the low end for that class.
Design and construction is where this Twinhead excels. The entire body, both top and bottom, are made of aluminum-magnesium alloy with a very fine matte-silver powder coat finish. The overall design is clean and simple in the best form-follows-function tradition. In fact, this computer almost looks like one of those fashionable aluminum attache cases, just smaller and slimmer. The overall sense you get is one of trust. This machine will not break anytime soon. It is built to last.
A look at the front and sides of the machine reveals its ports and interfaces. All are open and readily accessible, and that's the way it should be in a consumer notebook. In a conventional rugged notebook we'd expect all those ports to be sealed, but that'd only be a nuisance for the consumer market. Twinhead's designers clearly thought a lot about the placement of all those connectors and port so that they are handy and easy to reach.
In fact, this consumer-oriented design philosophy is evident in the convenient placement of all ports and also in the simple design of controls. Audio in/out, Firewire, and IR are in the front. As is a thumbwheel for audio volume. That all makes sense because the front is where you want to plug in a vidcam or headphones, or synchronize with your Pocket PC. Power, video, LAN/modem, USB and a PC Card slot are on the left. On the right side you find two more USB jacks, a PS/2 port in case you want to use a mouse, and a DVD/CDRW optical drive. There are no ports in the back. The power on/off switch sits on top of the keyboard where it is in plain view. The integrated 802.11b wireless radio can be turned on and off via a translucent green plastic button that sits next to the on/off switch. Push it to turn the radio on, and the button's green backlight comes on. A clever solution. With the N15RN you always know if the wireless LAN is on or not.
The N15RN's keyboard is a sturdy, full-size 85-key affair with excellent feel and key placement. The touchpad in front of the keyboard is large and responsive, and between the two mouse buttons sits a scroll rocker. Good thinking.
The Twinhead's big 15.1-inch display is sharp and bright and as gratifyingly terrific as all recent vintage LCDs. There's just one problem. This big display is limited to 1024 x 768 XGA resolution. A screen this size could easily handle much higher resolutions. As is, all the fonts and icons look very large and you constantly find yourself wanting to pull up the control panel to increase resolution. A 15.1-inch display practically begs for 1280 x 960 resolution every time you look at it.
Our review model came with a 2.4 MHz Mobile Pentium 4 processor, 640 MB of RAM, and a 40GB hard disk. The Pentium processor provided excellent performance, but also generated a good deal of heat, keeping at least one of the notebook's two fans running most of the time. Despite the heavy-duty cooling, the Pentium generates so much heat that the N15RN often gets uncomfortably warm. This is a machine that is much happier sitting on a desk than on your lap. We sat it on a notebook stand that allows for cool air to reach the fan inlets.
Despite its consumer oriented design, Twinhead built this machine to last. The aluminum-magnesium body feels very solid and trust-inspiring. There is nothing on this notebook that ever feels like it might come loose or break off. Almost nothing that is: when closed, the LCD lid is held in lace by two small, flimsy plastic hooks. Please change those! Twinhead even provides some rather impressive drop and vibration specs. You can, for example, drop the N15RN 26 times from a height of 29 inches to plywood over concrete. We would definitely not recommend that, but apparently it did survive that test. As far as general resistance to the elements go, we already mentioned the open ports, so using it in the rain is out. Also, while the metal body will undoubtedly hold up for a long, long time, the nice power-coat finish just looks like it might scratch easily. We didn't try it, but experience with other machines has shown that those all metal finishes scratch all too easily.
Who would be happy with a Twinhead N15RN? Anyone who wants a high quality value-priced full-function notebook that will likely last a long time. The big screen is easy on the eye, perfect for watching DVDs, and big and bright enough to replace a desktop CRT. The keyboard is large and comfortable, too, making it easy to use this machine for hours of work. The Pentium 4 offers desktop-class performance, though it taxes even the N15RN's massive 71.3 Watt-Hour battery. There are enough USB ports to connect the usual array of accessories. We'd have liked to see a separate SD or CF card slot instead of just the one PC Card interface, but you can always use an adapter for those.
This Twinhead is the kind of notebook that's big and powerful enough to handle most of your desktop computing tasks. But unlike a desktop, at the end of your working day you can take it home if you want to. Or on a business trip. The term "desktop replacement" has been overused, but the Twinhead N15RN is just that. - www.twinhead.com
Conrad H. Blickenstorfer
||Mobile Pentium 4 up to 2.6 GHz
||Windows XP Professional
||128MB expandable to 640MB
||15.1" XGA (1024 x 768) "ColorVue" TFT
||85-key full-scale, spill-proof
||20 to 80 GB hard disk
||24X CD-ROM or 8X DVD-CD-RW
||13.1" x 10.8" x 1.4"
||6.9 pounds incl. battery pack
||71.3 WHr Lithium-Ion
||10/100base-T, 56K V.90 Modem, internal 802.11b wireless LAN radio
||3 USB 2.0, audio/mic, IEEE1394, RJ-11, RJ-45, VGA, PS/2, IrDA, 1 PC Card Type II