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OCZ Technology Neutrino Netbook Review
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Date: May 18, 2009
Section:Mobile
Author: Shawn Oliver
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Introduction
We know what you're thinking. You're thinking that this is just another netbook by yet another manufacturer trying to ride the wave of popularity -- and at a glance, we'd say you're right. Upon further investigation, however, you'll find that OCZ Technology's Neutrino is actually a horse of a different color, so to speak. Design-wise, it's a perfectly average netbook, and if you check out the basic specifications, you'll see more of what you're used to. But if you read a little further, you'll notice a few key omissions. And unlike most machines, it's what the Neutrino lacks that differentiates it from the pack.



Somehow or another, OCZ has managed to deliver a unique netbook well over a year since the category was formed. Rather than squeezing in new features, tweaking the hardware or just pricing it competitively, the company instead decided to strip away some of the major components in order to both lower the barrier to entry and provide end users with more flexibility. OCZ admits that its "DIY netbook" isn't for everyone; in fact, it's for a rather narrow niche. But in many ways, this is the best netbook to get for PC users who wouldn't typically bother with getting one.



You see, this semi-barebones approach -- one that's definitely new and interesting -- attracts a different crowd. Generally speaking, netbooks have been appealing to average Joes (and Janes, to be fair) looking for a simple, small notebook that can handle basic tasks at a low price. Most netbooks even have the same specifications, by and large, giving users very little choice when it comes to selecting one. OCZ has decided to go against the grain and offer loads of options in a segment where the lack of choice is typically a selling point. Obviously, this machine is far too new on the market to determine whether this approach will end up being successful, but so long as the company doesn't expect to move a million of these, we suspect they'll be happy with the results.


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Just so we're clear, the Neutrino ships without a hard drive, a multi-format card reader (though there is a slot for one), RAM or an operating system. And trust us, if there were an easy way to add a dedicated GPU, OCZ would have left that option open as well. OCZ reckons that this netbook will appeal to a class of PC buyers that have been largely ignored by the likes of Acer, Asus, Dell and HP: the enthusiast or at the very least, the tech savvy end user. You know, the PC buyer that already has a spare hard drive or two laying around. The same person that has more SO-DIMMs collecting dust than they care to count. In other words, not your traditional, stereotypical netbook buyer.



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Honestly, we love the idea here. There are literally dozens of options for folks scouting a pre-fabricated netbook, but outside of the Neutrino, there are no options whatsoever for those looking to pay for only the basics. For consumers who already have a few spare components laying around, this seems like a no-brainer. You get a netbook for less than you'd spend on one that's fully spec'ed, and you simultaneously find a home for parts you thought were useless. It's the barebones approach that's commonly used on desktops and the occasional notebook, but not for netbooks.


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The only thing that would make this proposal more intriguing would be a lower starting price point. We understand that this is a small market device, but charging $269 for a notebook that lacks a costly HDD, a stick of RAM and an OS seems a bit steep. Of course, if you already own those, $269 is still better than the overall price of most other netbooks. We've seen Dell's Mini 9 stoop below that point a time or two before, but again, those who already own an SSD will likely save lots by choosing this route over paying other vendors a steep premium to add one. Check out the following pages to really get a feel for the first ever netbook to ship in a non-bootable configuration.


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Specifications

OCZ Technology Neutrino "DIY Netbook"
Specifications and Features
From the folks at OCZ about their new barebones netbook:

"Based on the Intel Atom processor, the 10.1” Neutrino was developed to push the envelope in the growing area of netbooks as the first DIY offering. Proving that good things come in small packages, the Neutrino provides all the day-to-day file viewing and web-surfing needs for on-the-go traveling, education, office or home use. Equipped with a built-in camera and microphone, Neutrino will expand your horizons through communications between family, friends, and colleagues. Because you are buying the DIY notebook kit before the hardware is marked up and a tech assembles it, the savings are passed down to you. Additionally, you won't need to replace your entire laptop or void your warranty to upgrade your RAM, or increase your hard drive storage capacity." -OCZ Technology


  • Intel Atom N270 Processor @ 1.60GHz, 512KB L2 cache, 533MHz FSB
  • One (1) SODIMM socket for up to 2GB of DDR2-667 Memory [none included]
  • 10.1 inch LED-backlit WSVGA LCD (1024 x 600 resolution); Matte/Anti-Glare panel
  • Intel Mobile 945GSE Chipset
  • Supports up to 2.5” 250GB Hard Disk Drive at 5400 RPM or a 2.5" SSD [none included]
  • 802.11b/g Wi-Fi
  • 1 PCI-Express Slot(for 34mm Mini Card)
  • Built-in 1.3MP Digital Video Camera with built-in Microphone
  • Open slot for 4-in-1 card reader (SD/MMC/MS/MS-Pro) [none included]
  • VGA Output (supports resolution up to UXGA (1600 x 1200)
  • USB 2.0 (x2) ports
  • RJ-45 (Gigabit Ethernet 10/100/1000)
  • Headphone / Mic Input Jacks
  • 2 High Quality Speakers (1.5W)
  • 83 Keys with inverted-T cursor keys, Windows Hotkeys
  • Integrated Trackpad / buttons
  • Kensington security lock slot
  • 2.86 Pounds (with Battery Installed)
  • 4 Cell 2200mAh Removable Smart Li-ion Battery Pack
  • No operating system included
  • Compatible with Microsoft Windows XP/Vista/7 and gOS/Ubuntu Linux
  • Color Options: Black
  • Warranty: 1 year Notebook / 1 year LCD and Battery

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As you'll notice in the specifications above, the Neutrino is a relatively vanilla netbook in most regards. It features the common 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor, includes just a single SODIMM slot, rather weak integrated graphics and a standard fare WSVGA 10.1" LCD. The 2GB SODIMM and OCZ Apex SSD were installed by us, but are not included at the bottom-end $269 price point.


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The machine itself is encased in glossy black, and all of the inside area (around the keyboard and LCD) is black. Classic, classy and simple styling all the way around.


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The bottom showcases the six main screws that OCZ Technology encourages you to remove -- don't worry, it won't void your warranty. It also includes a pictorial guide for installing your hard drive and RAM, which turned out to be a cinch. The small flap on the bottom-left/center is actually for a SIM card. We weren't able to test out whether or not this machine could handle AT&T or T-Mobile 3G, but we suspect the hardcore modders could whip something up to make this machine one that's WWAN-capable. Fair warning: you'll need an eyeglass repair kit or a specialized set of screwdrivers with incredibly small heads in order to open this rig up. And no, OCZ doesn't include this.


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Mechanical Design and Exterior
OCZ Technology's Neutrino is an interesting beast from a design standpoint. On one hand, the all-black motif is classy and should serve folks well when not trying to draw attention. On the other, the glossy black lid turns ugly after a few minutes of fingerprint planting, and we can't help but feel a touch bored by the overall styling. One thing is for sure: the Neutrino's design is best described as "plain and toned down." Whether or not that's a perk or a negative is totally subjective, but we would've appreciated a bit more color to spice things up.


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As for build quality, the Neutrino is perfectly satisfactory. The machine is solid, rigid and sturdy for the most part. The plastic lid (on the LCD) could stand to be reinforced a bit more, but the bottom casing is certainly rugged enough to handle most excursions.

    

    

    
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Yet again, "plain" pops to mind when surveying the sides and port assortment. The front panel includes a five pack of status LEDs along with 3.5mm audio in / out ports. The right side includes a gaping hole for a multi-format card reader (not included), a single USB 2.0 port, an RJ-45 Ethernet jack and an AC power input.


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Around back, there's a Kensington lock slot on the far left and a VGA output on the far right. Spinning around to the left side, you'll find a single USB 2.0 port, a ventilation port and an ExpressCard slot. With all the extra space, we can't help but yearn for a few more USB sockets and an HDMI out (along with a more robust GPU).

    
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Installing SSD, RAM and OS
Here's a section you won't often find in a netbook review: the one that explains how to install a hard drive, RAM and operating system in order to get the darn thing to turn on. In fact, this is the first netbook review to have such a section. As we explained earlier, OCZ ships this "DIY" machine without a hard drive, OS, SODIMM or multicard reader. It's up to you to select those, crack open the rear and install them once it arrives.


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For our testing, we selected an OCZ Apex Series 60GB solid state drive (2.5"), a 2GB SODIMM (there's only one slot) and Windows 7 RC1. We didn't bother installing a multicard reader, as it's a well known fact that those work as advertised. The Neutrino comes with the above pictured drive tray as well as screws to fix your HDD or SSD of choice into it. It also comes with the pictured battery, guides and AC adapter.

    
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OCZ provides a great, picture-laden guide to removing the back panel and installing your hard drive / RAM. It was easy to follow, and there are only six screws to remove before you have access to the internals. Unfortunately, those screws require a diminutive screwdriver like the one shown below, and OCZ didn't think to include one.


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Removing the back cover and installing the RAM and hard drive was as easy as could be, though we should caution you to make absolutely sure your HDD / SSD and SODIMM are securely seated before bolting everything back together. Our SSD was ever-so-slightly out of place initially, forcing us to remove it and re-seat it before the Neutrino would recognize it. On the bottom of the image below, you'll notice a SIM card slot. OCZ doesn't really promote the built-in WWAN functionality, but there's definitely a slot here. We didn't have a spare data card to try in it, but as we mentioned earlier, experienced modders may be able to squeeze some extra utility out of their machine with this.


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Once everything was reassembled, we fired it up for the first time and proceeded to install Windows 7 RC1 via a USB flash drive. We must caution you that this was far and away the most time consuming part of the setup. We needed another PC to download Windows 7 RC1, ready the USB drive and transfer the files. Your life will be made much easier if you have a spare USB optical drive laying around along with Windows XP, Vista, Ubuntu or any other operating system on a disc. If you've never installed an OS yourself before, you'll be on your own; OCZ provides no help here. We're only pointing this out in order to make sure you understand that you'll need to provide your own legitimate operating system before this machine ever does anything. That's an unusual requirement for notebooks these days, so we feel it deserves the elaboration.
 
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User Experience
By the sheer nature of this being a DIY machine, the user experience with the Neutrino is vastly different than the one you'll find on pretty much any other netbook. From the moment you open the box, you'll be doing things that other netbook buyers won't -- namely, installing the rest of the necessary parts to make it run. We have to applaud OCZ for a great how-to guide for getting the HDD / SSD installed, but we can't help but point out that a screwdriver for the amazingly small screws should have been throw in.


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The OS installation was easily our least favorite part of the experience, but it's not too awful if you've done it a time or two before on a fresh machine. Just make sure you have a spare OS with an unused license (if applicable), a roomy USB drive and a spare PC to facilitate the data transfer. We've used Windows Vista on a typical 1.6GHz / 1GB / 160GB HDD netbook before, and it's not pretty. Clearly, Vista was designed to run on machines with a bit more horsepower than that. Ideally, one would use Windows XP or a version of Linux on the Neutrino, but considering that Microsoft has worked hard to make Windows 7 less resource intensive, we figured we'd give the RC1 -- which was just released days before this machine arrived to us -- a fair shot.



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We won't bore you by detailing our thoughts on Windows 7 again -- for that, feel free to check out our in-depth review here. What we will say, however, is that Windows 7 RC1 really impressed us on this netbook. Of course, 2GB of RAM and a SSD (instead of a comparatively sluggish HDD) certainly helped move things along, but we found ourselves really surprised by how well the Neutrino managed Microsoft's forthcoming OS. Boot time was understandably quick (thanks in part to the SSD we used in the build) and launching applications was speedy as well. In fact, we had no issue multi-tasking with basic apps such as Firefox 3, Microsoft Word and iTunes going simultaneously.


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You'll notice that the Windows 7 User Experience Index rating resulted in a lowly 2.1. In Vista, a 2.1 would mean infinite frustration. In Windows 7 RC1, however, we found overall usability to be just fine. Of course, this machine isn't capable of even light- to medium-duty gaming, and it couldn't play back a 720p video file without skipping and stuttering every three seconds, but it handled the basics with poise and grace.

As for interacting with the machine, we found both the trackpad and keyboard to be a touch cramped. The trackpad in particular was annoyingly small, and the slivers of plastic that OCZ calls "trackpad buttons" aren't very good. For short stints, the built-in trackpad will get the job done, but we can't recommend an external travel mouse enough. The buttons are just too small and too finicky to use for any length of time. The keyboard did manage to grow on us somewhat, with our error rate dropping dramatically as we learned to contract our finger reaches to deal with the smaller-than-usual gaps between keys. It's worth noting that key placement was perfect here -- it's just the size and spacing that took some getting used to.


   
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The built-in speakers weren't anything to write home about; they handled the usual "bleeps" and "bloops" fine, but there's no bass to speak of when listening to tunes. The 10.1" LED backlit WSVGA display is really a standout feature here. Unlike many other netbooks on the market, this one has a matte panel rather than a glossy one. We feel this was a great choice on OCZ's part. Netbooks, by and large, are meant to be used on the go, and oftentimes that means in broad daylight. Glossy panels are a nightmare to use when the sun's beaming down, as looking through reflections becomes a challenge in and of itself. This matte, anti-glare display is perfect for those who detest screen reflections, and we found the color and brightness to be satisfactory for the average eye. Kudos to OCZ on selecting a matte display.

We'd be remiss of our duties here if we didn't touch on the heat aspect. Unlike Dell's Studio XPS 13, the Neutrino never got warm enough to make us exceptionally uncomfortable. With the machine on our lap, we definitely noticed the increase in warmth over about an hour of use, but even when we were stressing it out with 720p video clips, it never became so hot that we needed to use a laptop stand or cooler. On a flat surface with plenty of ventilation, it fared even better. Overall, we'd say the heat level here was as expected, but nothing to fret over.

We should also point out the severe multimedia limitations on the Neutrino. Under no circumstances would it play back 720p content with any semblance of fluidness. To break it down further, we tested playback of YouTube vidoes in SD (standard) quality, HQ and HD. It handled both SD and HQ with relative ease, but it simply could not play back the HD clip without stopping every few seconds to push out a few more frames. While testing with movie trailers, we couldn't find a single 720p trailer that would play back smoothly. In other words, smaller clips and audio files will work fine on this, but don't expect the Intel integrated graphics and 1.6GHz Atom to handle any heavy multimedia tasks.
 
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Software and Benchmarks
As we've made painfully clear already, OCZ Technology doesn't include many extras in this package. No extras, really. Thus, it should come as no surprise to find that the Neutrino arrives with absolutely no software to speak of. As in, none whatsoever. No operating system. No bundled extras. Nothing. Of course, you knew that going on given the "DIY" nature of this beast, but we just wanted to make absolutely sure that you understood what comes with this netbook in terms of software, which is nada. You can, however, surf over to the Neutrino web portal in order to download drivers, but only after you get an OS on there and get your Internet connection working.

Using SiSoftware Sandra as a benchmarking tool (and the Processor Arithmetic test, specifically), we found that the 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 within OCZ's Neutrino fared just a wee bit better than the baseline N270. As expected, it lagged behind the baseline N280 (1.66GHz) by a small bit, though it did perform better than the Core Solo U1500. On the whole, this processor performed exactly like any other N270-equipped netbook that we've seen, which is to say sufficiently enough for everyday tasks, but certainly not nimble enough for CPU intensive chores such as playing back HD video.


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Looking at the Processor Multi-Media test, you'll notice results that are eerily similar to those above. Once again, the Neutrino manages to best the baseline N270 by a hair, yet falls behind the most potent Intel offerings. As it should, it left the 1.3GHz Via Nano U2500 in the dust. Again, we weren't shocked by these results; in our multi-media testing, we found the CPU to be adequate in playing back standard definition (SD) video, but playing back more intensive clips (720p or higher) really put it in a bind.


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Memory performance was nothing to write home about, but results were about as expected -- if not a touch on the low side. You can only expect so much from a single channel DDR2 configuration.


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Power Consumption and Battery Life
OCZ's Neutrino comes bundled with a removable, rechargeable 4 Cell Li-ion battery (2200mAh), which sits nicely between the puny 3 Cell options found in most netbooks and the bulging 6 Cell alternatives that typically cost users an extra $50. This battery slides into the rear of the unit perfectly, and it doesn't add a noticeable amount of bulk to the machine's bottom.


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In our testing with Battery Eater Pro, we found that the Neutrino lasted exactly three hours on the dot with Wi-Fi activated. Mind you, Battery Eater Pro attempts to strain the machine it's running on as if to replicate real-world usage. If you were to turn brightness all the way down, disable Wi-Fi and simply type a Word document, we could definitely envision you squeezing four hours of life from a full charge. Crank up the YouTube videos and keep the SSD / HDD active, and it's not hard to think that two hours would be all it could handle.


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The bottom line? You can pretty much bank on netting three hours of usage here in most real-world scenarios, which is darn good for a 4 Cell battery. We were duly impressed with how long this machine lasted without forcing Windows 7 into hibernation, and we'd wager that three hours of life is plenty for most folks in all but the most extreme or atypical of circumstances.
 
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Conclusion
All told, OCZ's Neutrino is a fantastic addition to the netbook world. For too long now we've needed an option such as this: a netbook for the technology enthusiast that may already have a few parts lying around. The major problem we see, however, is that the non-selectable components (1.6GHz Atom N270, 945GSE graphics chipset and the WXVGA resolution) are somewhat lacking. Indeed, netbooks are shipping today with more robust processors and GPUs, so it's a bit odd that an enthusiast-targeted netbook wouldn't go ahead and equip itself with more cutting-edge hardware. The other sad part is even an $800 SSD and the quickest 2GB SODIMM money can buy won't help this machine play back 720p video clips, though perhaps that's not the most common usage model for a machine of this class anyway.

   
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That being said, we still think the value proposition here is great for those with a spare 2.5" HDD / SSD, SODIMM and OS license laying around. For $269 -- compared to nearly $400 for Asus' excellent N280-equipped Eee PC 1000HE -- it's somewhat of a bargain if you can consider the cost of an HDD / SSD and OS as "sunk." Plus, most DIY'ers would agree that assembling computers is somewhat entertaining, and there's a certain level of pride that comes with even partially building your own laptop. Also, this approach gives you the ultimate flexibility to select the hard drive, operating system and RAM that suits you best. There is no bloatware to delete and no worries over voiding your warranty if you take a peek inside.


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In the end, we're able to both recommend and recommend against consumers buying this netbook. It's pretty simple, really. Do you have a spare 2.5" hard drive, a spare SODIMM and a spare operating system laying around? Do you want a netbook? If you answered 'yes' to both of those questions, this is the one to buy. It's well built, the display is very good  and the battery lasts three full hours even under a fairly intense workload. The Neutrino may also be a good choice for consumers looking to customize their netbook, without having to cast away the hardware included with all of the pre-assembled models on the market.

Do you have no experience installing computer parts or operating systems? Do you not have any spare PC parts laying around waiting to be used? If you answered 'no' to those questions, this is not the netbook for you. There are plenty of
other options out there that don't require this much effort on your part to get up and running. There's also no financial benefit to buying this along with those extra parts individually. You'll come out much better by selecting a pre-fabricated unit from Asus, Acer, Dell, HP, etc.  That said, as we've mentioned, if you're the type that wants to customize things yourself with a larger, faster hard drive or more RAM, then right now, the Neutrino may just be the only game in town.

  

  • Good bargain
  • Solid battery life
  • Flexibility
  • A DIY'ers delight 
  • Beautiful matte display

 

  • Chipset is aged
  • Poor multimedia/gaming capability
  • Lackluster trackpad
  • Plain styling

 






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