by Kevin O’Brien
Ruggedized notebooks have always had a steep starting price point, which in the past has scared away many hopefully buyers. The most notable rugged notebooks from the Panasonic Toughbook line start upwards of $2,000, and go above $4,000 for some versions. Systemax, one of the few “American Made” PC manufacturers, hopes to change this trend with a new rugged notebook of their own, starting at $999. Buyers are allowed to customize this model, with a starting point of an Intel T2350, 512MB RAM, 60GB Hard drive, Microsoft Windows Vista Home, and a one-year warranty.
Our review model had the following configuration:
- Windows Vista Home Premium (32-bit)
- Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T7200 (2.0GHz, 4MB L2, 667MHz FSB)
- Mobile Intel 945GMS Express Chipset
- Intel Wireless WiFi Link 3945AGN (802.11a/b/g)
- 2GB PC2-5300 DDR2 SDRAM (2 x 1GB, maximum capacity 4GB)
- 120GB Western Digital SATA HD (shock protected mounting)
- 8x DVD (+/-R double layer) drive
- 14.1″ 1024×768 (XGA, Matte)
- Intel GMA950 w/ up to 224MB
- PC-Card Slot, Smart Card Slot
- 4-in-1 media card reader
- VGA, Modem, 1Gb LAN, IEEE 1394,Serial, and Mic/Headphone connectors
- Three USB 2.0 ports
- Dimensions (WxDxH): 12.3×10.1×1.5″
- Weight: 5lbs 12.6oz actual, 6lbs 10.3oz travel weight
- 60W (20V x 3.25A) 100-240V AC adapter (13.6oz)
- 6-Cell Lithium Ion Battery 4.4Ah (11oz)
- 1-Year Standard Limited Warranty
Build and Design
The design of the Systemax Assault is all towards a rugged look and feel. All ruggedized notebooks need a solid base and screen cover to protect the laptop when closed, and also provide support if the laptop is dropped while open. While open the interior surface of the notebook feels like standard plastic. It might not hold up as well as a high-end rugged notebook, but it still felt quite solid. The exterior on the other hand is very well built, with its all metal alloy body and screen cover.
The chassis of the Assault notebook looks as if it would stand up to daily abuse, showing only scuffs in the paint, hinting of prior damage. To give you an idea of the abuse this thing could take, the corners are over 6mm thick. This means it can take stronger impacts than a standard notebook, or survive drops from greater heights. The hard drive bay cover and processor/ram cover use the same alloy material to protect those vital components from impacts. Both of the covers had an average thickness of 1.5mm on the flat surface, and up to 3.5mm at the screw attachment points.
The display cover has rubberized bumpers on each of the four corners, matching the bumpers on the bottom of the notebook. While they are not solid rubber which would have been nice to absorb an impact, they do feel solid enough to take an impact and spread the impact over the larger surface. Under the bumpers is a sturdy metal alloy panel, which greatly enhances the protection of the screen compared to most notebook covers. The cover shows little sign of flex under moderate pressure, and pressing on the back of the cover doesn’t create any ripples on the LCD.
The interior of the notebook is very similar in build to any standard notebook. Plastic bezels form the trim around the LCD, as well as plastic palm rest and keyboard surround. I wouldn’t say it feels cheap, but it also doesn’t creak or rattle with such a strong frame supporting it. Systemax also claims that the keyboard is spill resistant. Since I was weary of doing any spill test during my review of the product, I did take the top cover off and remove the keyboard to see how the area was designed. The section that holds the keyboard tray is completely sealed from the rest of the notebook, and it has a single drain exiting through the center of the notebook. From seeing this, I can safely say the notebook could survive from most any liquid dumped onto the keyboard, but the keyboard itself have problems if it’s a sugary substance. In the following YouTube video from the TigerDirect site (reseller of this notebook) you can watch the presenter dump water over the notebook. The style of video isn’t normally something we would post directly in a review, but I think it is worth it.
The display on this notebook is not the best in terms of viewing angles or brightness level. Viewing angles were pretty limited, but you don’t notice it as much sitting directly in front of the screen. Some call this a privacy feature just because most of the screen becomes washed out at steeper angles, like if you were trying to view the screen sitting next to the user. Brightness levels were less than what I would want for a rugged machine, since the primary “combat zone” of operation would be outside, where the sun will wash out dim screens. This can be somewhat noticed in bright conference rooms as well as using the notebook outside. Colors were average for a matte finish screen, and no particular color range appeared washed out.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Frequent and lengthy typists will really enjoy the keyboard on this notebook. The action to each key feels very similar to the Thinkpad keyboards, and each gives a nice clunk when pressed. Spacing between keys felt more cramped than my 15″ notebook, but the primary keys were the same size. Support under the keyboard was very firm, partly because of the full plastic cavity that the keyboard sits inside of. Little inward flex was present when you mash down on the keyboard.
The touchpad design is very short and wide compared to what I am used to. It has a semi dedicated section for scrolling, but that was only from the adjustment that the Synaptics software gave you. I found that this setting had to be tweaked to extend the scrolling section from its factory preset, to allow the entire scrolling section to operate, instead of the very edge of the touchpad. The surface has a mild rough texture which I really enjoy on a touchpad surface. The touchpad buttons have shallow feedback, and for the rugged look are covered in a sheet of rubber. The sheet doesn’t appear to be glued in place, and can be spread around above the keys.
Performance and Benchmarks
Graphics performance on the Assault was below average from the use of Intel’s older 945GM chipset, which has the GMA950 integrated graphics. This limited the machines gaming performance, but other that the machine performed just fine for business activities. Below are benchmarks to give you an idea how it compares to other notebooks:
wPrime is a program that forces the processor to do recursive mathematical calculations, the advantage of this program is that it is multi-threaded and can use both processor cores at once, thereby giving more accurate benchmarking measurements than Super Pi.
Notebook / CPUwPrime 32M timeSystemax Assault Ruggedized (Core 2 Duo T7200 @2.0GHz)41.982sToshiba Tecra M9 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @2.2GHz)37.299sHP Compaq 6910p (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz)40.965sSony VAIO TZ (Core 2 Duo U7600 @ 1.20GHz)76.240sZepto 6024W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2GHz)42.385sLenovo T61 (Core 2 Duo T7500 @ 2.2GHz)37.705sAlienware M5750 (Core 2 Duo T7600 @ 2.33GHz)38.327sHewlett Packard DV6000z (Turion X2 TL-60 @ 2.0GHz)38.720sSamsung Q70 (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz)42.218sAcer Travelmate 8204WLMi (Core Duo T2500 @ 2.0GHz)42.947sSamsung X60plus(Core 2 Duo T7200 @ 2.0GHz)44.922sZepto Znote 6224W (Core 2 Duo T7300 @ 2.0GHz)45.788sSamsung Q35 (Core 2 Duo T5600 @ 1.83GHz)46.274sSamsung R20 (Core Duo T2250 @ 1.73GHz)47.563sDell Inspiron 2650 (Pentium 4 Mobile 1.6GHz)231.714s
PCMark05 measures the overall system performanceof a notebook, the 6910p came out with a respectable score, though nothing spectacular:
NotebookPCMark05 ScoreSystemax Assault Ruggedized (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, Intel GMA950)3,413 PCMarksToshiba Tecra M9 (2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M 128MB)3,723 PCMarksHP Compaq 6910p (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)3,892 PCMarksHP Compaq 6510b (2.20GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, Intel X3100)4,241 PCMarksHP Compaq 6910p (2.20GHz intel Core 2 Duo T7500, ATI X2300 128MB)4,394 PCMarksHP Compaq 6515b (1.6GHz AMD Turion 64 X2 TL-52, ATI x1270)2,420 PCMarksToshiba Satellite A135 (Core Duo T2250, Intel GMA 950)3,027PCMarksHP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)4,234 PCMarksFujitsu LifeBook A6010 (1.66GHz Core 2 Duo, Intel GMA 950)2,994 PCMarksAlienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60, Nvidia Go 7800GTX)5,597 PCMarksSony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)3,637 PCMarksToshiba Tecra M6 (1.66GHz Intel T2300E, Intel GMA 950)2,732 PCMarksAsus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400, Nvidia Go 7400)3,646 PCMarksSony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo)3,427 PCMarks
3DMark06 comparison results:
Notebook3DMark06 ScoreSystemax Assault Ruggedized (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, Intel GMA950)234 3DMarksToshiba Tecra M9 (2.20GHz Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA Quadro NVS 130M 128MB)1,115 3DMarksSony VAIO TZ (1.20GHz Core 2 Duo U7600, Intel GMA 950)122 3DMarksLG R500 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GS 256MB)2,776 3DMarksHP dv2500t (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB)1,055 3DMarksDell Inspiron 1420 (2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7500, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB)1,329 3DMarksSony VAIO FZ (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, Intel X3100)532 3DMarksDell XPS M1330 (2.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T7300, NVIDIA GeForce Go 8400M GS 128MB)1,408 3DMarksSamsung Q70 (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7300 and nVidia 8400M G GPU)1,069 3DMarksAsus F3sv-A1 (Core 2 Duo T7300 2.0GHz, Nvidia 8600M GS 256MB)2,344 3DMarksAlienware Area 51 m5550 (2.33GHz Core 2 Duo, nVidia GeForce Go 7600 256MB2,183 3DMarksFujitsu Siemens Amilo Xi 1526 (1.66 Core Duo, nVidia 7600Go 256 MB)2,144 3DMarksSamsung X60plus (2.0GHz Core 2 Duo T7200, ATI X1700 256MB)1,831 3DMarksAsus A6J (1.83GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB)1,819 3DMarksHP dv6000t (2.16 GHz Intel T7400, NVIDA GeForce Go 7400)827 3DMarks
Input and Output Ports
Front: 4-in-1 Card Reader, headphone/microphone jacks, and optical bay (w/ locking switch). (view large image)
Rear: Battery (view large image)
Left: Kensington Lock Slot, CPU Exhaust, AC plug, VGA connector, modem/LAN connectors, Smart Card Reader, and PC-Card Slot. (view large image)
Right: Three USB ports, Firewire connector, and Serial plug. (view large image)
The speakers on the laptop were below average for most notebooks, but for a rugged laptop you are pushing it if you expect home theater quality sound. If you had to watch a movie on the laptop they would work just fine to pass the time on a long flight. Headphones would be a better option though, and the jack worked perfectly. Sound was clear without any audible hiss.
Heat and Noise
High heat levels were not a problem for the processor inside the notebook, but with the all metal framework it tended to go directly into your hands or lap. Unless you had the notebook in the power saving profile, the palmrests were very warm after having the notebook on for an extended period of time. Average temperature evened out at almost 100 degrees Fahrenheit for parts of the palm section, and as high as 105 degrees on the bottom. Below are temperature readings from the notebook (as well as the ambient room temperature) listed in degrees Fahrenheit:
Fan noise out of the box was completely unbearable, as the fan had a very shrill whirring noise. It would also run at full speed constantly, blowing out mostly cold air. This caused me to do some tinkering, and I eventually found an auto-calibrate feature inside the BIOS for the cooling system. After it readjusted itself, the fan operated less frequently, and when it did was at a lower speed (less nails on chalkboard whirring).
I have to really commend Systemax on their battery design. Out of every laptop I have had my hands on to date, the latch mechanism was the best. It used two metal spring loaded hooks that barely took any pressure to latch onto the battery. The case also had just the right amount of tension on the sides of the battery, to not make it bind as you were sliding it into place. It was a small touch, but I think I spent way too much time playing with that latching system.
Battery life was ok for a 6-cell battery inside a 14″ notebook reaching 2 hours and 40 minutes with 80% backlight and average wireless activity during testing. The battery lasted 2 hours and 5 minutes while playing a DVD movie at 80% backlight. This should be long enough to squeeze out a single movie during a flight.
For a ruggedized notebook starting at $999, the Systemax Assault really performs well. It was built to hold up to more than average abuse, and I feel it should handle it with ease. System components could have been newer, using the Santa Rosa platform for greater performance, but that would have probably raised the price point above its current level. I give this notebook two thumbs up since its build quality was much higher than what I was expecting.
- Very solid chassis and great screen cover
- Excellent keyboard and touchpad
- Better liquid protection than most notebooks
- Screen not that bright for an outdoor notebook
- Rubber cover over touchpad buttons slides around
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