OCZ’s Neutrino DIY netbook

OCZ’s Neutrino DIY netbook

Who doesn’t make a netbook anymore, besides Apple? Just about every PC vendor seems to have hopped on the netbook bandwagon at this point, each bringing its own, slightly different take on the concept. Now, it’s OCZ’s turn.

If you’re not familiar with the DIY laptops OCZ has been offering for the past year or so, the concept is pretty simple: instead of selling you a full-fledged notebook computer, the firm offers barebones units that typically lack a processor, hard drive, memory, and an operating system. In theory, OCZ can sell these DIY notebooks at a lower cost than full-fledged laptops, and the end result can be a cheaper yet fully customized machine for the customer. You do need a little bit of technical know-how to get things up and running, but of course, PC enthusiasts who like to get their hands dirty may find the notion appealing.

With its Neutrino DIY netbook, OCZ takes one step out of the process and includes an Intel Atom N270 processor, leaving just the storage, RAM, and OS choices up to the end user. Before we get into the DIY options, though, let’s take a look at the Neutrino in more detail.

Although it sports a glossy finish on the top of the unit, the OCZ Neutrino has a fairly low-key design. You won’t find any garish LEDs or gaudy chrome on this netbook.

While some may praise the simplistic design, others might go so far as to call it boring—even ugly. Design aesthetics are a matter of personal taste, though, and I’ve never been one to make a fashion statement with my netbook. In fact, the Neutrino’s simple black finish reminds me a lot of Lenovo’s ThinkPad designs (save for occasional glossy trim). Now that I think about it, some people consider ThinkPads ugly, too, but I digress. The form factor alone is still enough to turn heads for now.

Processor Intel Atom N270 1.60GHz
Memory None
North bridge Intel 945GSE
South bridge Intel ICH7M
Graphics Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950
Display 10″ TFT with WSVGA (1024×600) resolution and LED backlight
Storage None
Audio Stereo HD audio via Realtek ALC269 codec
Ports 2 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100/1000 Ethernet via Realtek 8168
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots 1 SDHC
1 ExpressCard/34
1 Mini PCI Express
Communications 802.11g Wi-Fi via Realtek 8187SE
Bluetooth 2.0
Input devices 83-key keyboard
Touchpad with vertical scroll zone
Camera 1.3-megapixel webcam with microphone
Dimensions 10.3″ x 7.3″ x 1.5″ (241 x 185 x 38 mm)
Weight 2.86 lbs (1.3 kg)
Battery 4-cell Li-Ion 2200mAh

Do these specs look familiar? Intel Atom N270, Intel 945GSE, Intel ICH7M, and Realtek audio—yup, it’s a netbook all right. The Neutrino’s out-of-the-box configuration lacks storage and memory, but for the sake of this review, OCZ provided us with one of its Apex Series 60GB SATA solid-state drives and a 2GB DDR2-667 SO-DIMM.

The Neutrino’s Wi-Fi is limited to 802.11g, but OCZ at least packed in Gigabit Ethernet support. If you’ve got a ton of backed up movies you want to transfer to your netbook before a long trip, your best bet is to use a network patch cable.

As for the Neutrino’s dimensions, its footprint is just a shade smaller than that of the Asus Eee PC 1000HE. OCZ claims the Neutrino is only 27mm (just a hair over one inch) at its thickest point, but our measurements showed otherwise. At 1.5″ thick, the Neutrino is actually a bit on the chunky side—and it doesn’t have an 8700mAh battery to take the blame like the 1000HE. Instead, this netbook only comes with a 2200mAh battery much like the one you’d find in the slimmer MSI Wind U100.

Design and human interface elements
Most netbooks have nearly identical components, so some of the key differentiating attributes are chassis design, port layout, and keyboard and touchpad performance.

Bucking the trend set by its competitors, the Neutrino’s speakers sit just above the keyboard rather than in the LCD bezel or within the chassis. To pull that off, OCZ shifted the keyboard away from the hinge a bit, decreasing the size of the palm rest and the touchpad’s tracking area.

On the bright side (no pun intended), the Neutrino’s LED-backlit display can prove almost overwhelming. Thanks to both the luminosity and the matte panel finish, I had no problem using the Neutrino in outdoor conditions. (You know how I love to read my e-mail while lounging poolside.) Aside from a 1.3-megapixel webcam and a microphone, the area around the LCD is distraction-free, too.

The front edge houses an array of status indicator lights and the Neutrino’s audio connectivity options. I usually prefer the headphone and microphone jacks to be on the front of a notebook, but on a device this small, they actually get in the way while typing. If all you’re doing is watching a movie with headphones on, then you won’t really notice. If you’re trying to get some writing done while listening to music, however, the headphone cord can be distracting.

On the left side of the Neutrino is a lone USB 2.0 port, the system’s thermal exhaust port (please don’t fire any proton torpedoes at it), and finally, an ExpressCard/34 slot. We haven’t seen many such slots in netbooks yet, so this is a noteworthy inclusion—especially since just about every mobile phone provider here in the U.S. offers data plans with ExpressCard adapters. Many carriers also offer USB adapters, however, so that isn’t your only option.

Along the starboard side, you’ll find the netbook’s SDHC slot, an additional USB 2.0 port, an RJ45 port for Ethernet, and the power connector. The presence of only two USB 2.0 ports in total is somewhat disappointing. Those who need more could always carry a small USB hub or pick up a USB 2.0 ExpressCard adapter, but neither of those solutions is particularly convenient.

The back of the Neutrino is where you’ll find the VGA output and battery compartment, along with a Kensington security slot. Bulky VGA cables generally get in the way when plugged into the side of a notebook, so placing the VGA port at the rear seems like a good design choice.

The Neutrino’s keyboard has a standard 83-key layout with a scissor-switch design. All of the keys are where they should be, even down to the inverse-T layout for the arrows. Both shift keys are comfortably sized, as are common modifier keys like control, alt, and function.

Perhaps the biggest problem with typing on the Neutrino is the relatively small wrist rest. While this is an inherent drawback of the netbook concept, the Neutrino is a particularly bad offender because of the way its speakers are positioned. With less than 2″ from the bottom of the space bar to the front of edge of the device, I found it best simply to rest my hands on the desk and reach up with my fingers to the keyboard. This left my hands in an awkwardly curved position that sufficed for typing but was hardly comfortable.

Shifting the keyboard closer to the front edge proves to be more trouble than it’s worth. The touchpad’s tracking area is quite small, and the buttons are just annoyingly tiny. That fact made using the touchpad an exercise in frustration: I had trouble tapping buttons with my thumb without getting the bottom edge of the touchpad with them, sending the cursor careening off its intended target. You’ll need a mouse for any extended periods with the Neutrino.

DIY and expansion capabilities
All right, so it’s a DIY notebook. Just how hard is it to set it up yourself?

Six screws keep the Neutrino’s guts safe from prying eyes, with the cover coming off as one solid piece. As you would hope from a netbook that’s designed to be tinkered with, the Neutrino’s internal layout is extremely easy to access.

The Neutrino uses a drive sled to keep the user’s chosen storage device in place. Simply use the included screws to attach your drive to the sled, and then just slide it into place. The exterior screws that hold the cover down keep the drive from moving around, as well.

You’re free to use any 2.5″ SATA drive you can get your hands on, whether it’s a leftover from a previous upgrade or a state-of-the-art SSD. Unless you happen to find a killer deal, new laptop hard drives tend to start at around $50 and go up from there.

Installing RAM in the Neutrino is the same process as in just about any modern laptop. Since this is a netbook, though, you’ll only find room for a single SO-DIMM with a size up to 2GB. If you don’t have any spare SO-DIMMs lying around, 2GB of DDR2 should set you back around $20.

Well here’s an interesting design choice. Along with the aforementioned ExpressCard/34 slot, OCZ provides us with an easily accessible Mini PCI Express slot designed for an HSDPA or WiMAX broadband adapter. The Neutrino even has a pre-installed spare antenna, with leads provided right next to the Mini PCIe slot. There’s also a socket for a requisite SIM card.

Aw, look at that! It’s a little doggy door for a SIM card—how cute. I’ve been known to swap between multiple SIM cards while traveling, so easy access to the Neutrino’s SIM card area is a useful addition. There’s only one problem: you need a screwdriver to get it open. I don’t know about you, but I don’t keep a miniature Phillips-head screwdriver on me while I travel. A simple latch would get the job done just as well.

Getting started
Once you’ve got all of your hardware installed, you may turn to the documentation to figure out how to get an operating system onto this bad boy. After all, plenty of us have installed hardware before, but not everyone’s had to install an OS on a system without an optical drive. The Neutrino comes with two pieces of documentation: an installation guide and a quick-setup guide. Thumbing through the former, you’ll realize it only deals with installing a hard drive and RAM, which you’ve already completed. On to the quick setup guide, of which I will provide the Cliffs Notes version below:

  • “Step 1: installing the battery pack.” Well, I didn’t need instructions on how to do that, but thanks.
  • “Step 2: plugging the power cable.” All right, that one I really didn’t need instructions for.
  • “Step 3: opening the display panel.” Are you making fun of me?
  • “Step 4: turning on the Neutrino netbook.” Let me guess: you press the power button!

That’s it. That’s where the quick start guide ends. There’s no “Step 5: how to install an operating system;” no “Step 5: apply directly to the forehead;” not even a “Step 5: Google!” OCZ provides instructions for the most simple actions, but it neglects to tell you how to get an OS on the thing. In fact, the documentation doesn’t even mention an operating system.

The only hints you’ll get are in the driver CD, which contains a folder called “WinXP,” and on the box, which says “Windows XP & Vista Compatible.” There’s also no mention of needing an external optical drive or even a USB thumb drive to get your system off of the ground. Maybe they think enthusiasts will figure it out (which they probably will), but if that’s the case, why include the simplistic quick start guide at all?

Windows 7 and the Neutrino
The first Windows 7 public beta back came out in January, and the first release candidate is rapidly approaching. Microsoft has designed Windows 7 to be less resource-heavy than Vista so it better accommodates netbooks. Since the Neutrino lacks an operating system out of the box, we felt it would be a good guinea pig to take Microsoft’s next OS for a spin. Hey, after all, the final Windows 7 release may hit stores as early as October.

The first problem with getting an operating system onto the Neutrino is figuring out what installation media to use. Loading up Windows XP from a USB flash drive can be a tricky endeavor, but at least Windows 7 makes it a bit easier. The process still isn’t as simple as copy and paste, but if you’ve got a few gigabytes free on a USB flash drive, it will only take a few minutes to get the Windows 7 installer booting off of it. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any USB drives large enough for Windows 7, so we had to use an external DVD drive. Having an external optical drive around ultimately proved worthwhile, since the Neutrino’s drivers come bundled on a CD.

The first boot into Windows 7 was surprisingly rewarding. Most of the Neutrino’s hardware was recognized and had the appropriate drivers installed automatically. Video and audio were present and accounted for, although as is often the case, the most important software for any new system was missing in action: networking drivers. After a few minutes with the OCZ driver CD, we were in business and the Neutrino was online. A run through Windows Update later, Windows 7 was chugging along quite well.

Even after the initial setup, the Windows 7 experience on the Neutrino was very smooth. The UI was quick and responsive, and boot times were fast. Media playback was impressive, too, although high resolutions proved troublesome as always for the Atom. From a performance standpoint, Windows 7 already looks like a winner for netbooks. We did encounter some small, nagging hardware compatibility problems—the webcam never worked, and neither did the touchpad’s control panel, which left the tap-to-click function way too sensitive. However, snags like that are hardly surprising for a brand-new product running an unfinished operating system. The Neutrino’s other hardware worked just as expected, right down to the hotkeys to adjust volume, dim the backlight, and launch applications.

Battery life
At last we come to the battery, a feature that can make or break a netbook for many users. According to our readers, after price, battery life is the single most important consideration when shopping for a netbook. You can understand our disappointment, then, to see the Neutrino packing only a 2200mAh battery.

Compared to other netbooks with batteries rated up to 6600mAh or even 8700mAh, the Neutrino’s maximum longenvity seems downright anemic. We’ve already taken a look at multiple netbooks that use 2200mAh batteries, so we have some idea of what to expect from the Neutrino: a little under two and a half hours of portable power. How did it fare?

Our first test measured the Neutrino’s battery performance while surfing the web, which is probably the most common usage scenario for a netbook. First, we opened up a pair of Firefox windows for The Tech Report and Shacknews. Leaving static pages open doesn’t generate nearly enough Wi-Fi activity or CPU usage to reflect average web browsing, so Firefox was set to refresh both pages every 30 seconds automatically. These image-laden sites also provided a good middle ground between lightweight Wikipedia reading and multimedia-rich sites like YouTube.

With the brightness set one notch above minimum, the Neutrino survived just over two hours of web surfing before calling it quits. This result wasn’t nearly as bad as we feared, but still below the mark set by comparable netbooks. Next up was a video playback test. We loaded up some standard-definition Xvid content in VideoLAN, set it to loop, and pulled the plug. We picked VLC over Windows Media Player because of its lower CPU use, which should theoretically improve battery life. Once again, the Neutrino got slightly past the two hour mark before needing its AC adapter.

Battery run time of little over two hours seems disappointing, but there are some caveats to these tests. The most important consideration to keep in mind is that Windows 7 is still in beta, so there’s likely some room for optimization. The public build we used (7000) is now several months old, and those who have kept up with more recent, leaked versions of Windows 7 have reported great strides in mobile performance. The forthcoming Release Candidate could quite possibly improve the Neutrino’s battery life and get it to the two-and-a-half-hour mark, but that’s all conjecture right now.

Of course, this wouldn’t be a DIY netbook without different battery options. OCZ plans to make a 6-cell battery available near the end of May, which should (in theory) add a couple more hours to the Neutrino’s unplugged longevity. Until then, we’ll have to settle for getting through only one movie on a single charge.

OCZ has taken a worthy risk with its DIY laptop initiative, which is something that can’t be said for all PC hardware vendors. By catering to the customization needs of enthusiasts and driving products almost through value alone, OCZ has a truly unique product line on its hands. Any product that brings differentiation and experimentation to the PC market is welcome in my book, even if the final execution is flawed. However, with an MSRP of $269, I believe the OCZ Neutrino is still a tough proposition to sell. This system could appeal to those who have spare 2.5″ hard drives and DDR2 modules sitting around, but otherwise, the added cost make it no cheaper than a ready-made netbook.

For example, let’s pretend we don’t have either mobile storage or RAM handy. Add $40 for the least expensive 2.5″ hard drive on Newegg, and we’re already at the same price as the MSI Wind U100—and that’s without any RAM or an operating system. We also didn’t factor in the cost of an external optical drive or a large flash drive, which you’ll likely need to install an OS.

Even when properly configured, the OCZ Neutrino has some serious design shortcomings compared to other netbooks on the market. The cramped typing and pointing conditions are worse than in some smaller netbooks, while the disappointing port arrangement inhibits peripheral use. With such a small battery, there’s also no excuse for how bulky the overall product feels. At least the forthcoming six-cell battery could justify that.

As an overall DIY package, the Neutrino comes up a tad short. Hardware complaints aside, the documentation isn’t all that helpful, and the inclusion of a driver CD (which requires additional hardware to get drivers onto the actual netbook) is mildly annoying. Perhaps the easiest solution would be for OCZ to include a 4GB flash drive preloaded with all of the driver files, with leftover space for an operating system installation. After all, OCZ already sells flash drives.

Of course, the Neutrino doesn’t seem to be targeted at customers who’d need to buy all the hardware off the shelf—and at $269, it’s easily the most affordable 10″ netbook if you’ve got the spare hardware. Anyone looking for a home for leftover laptop parts could turn this barebones system into a fun new netbook. Just don’t expect the end result to be as good as one of the fully assembled alternatives. The lackluster battery performance and uninspired hardware design keep the Neutrino out of the top tier of netbooks, instead relegating it to the status of a curiosity for bargain hunters.

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