Great Windows notebook. (NCR 3170 notebook computer) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes
Is the NCR 3170 the perfect Windows notebook? Although some people may disagree with me, I think this computer has an ideal combination of small size, light weight, and Windows-ready power.
If you remember the NCR Safari NSX/20, which caused such as stir when it was released about a year ago, you'll have a basic idea of what the 3170 is like. From the outside it looks exactly like its predecessor, but the 3170 is smaller, faster, lighter, and more powerful.
Right out of the box, you can tell that this machine is different. The case is sleek, modern, and sensual. The exterior is a rich, textured dark brown, and the inside is khaki, with important controls and other accents highlighted in turquoise. The 3170 is amazingly small (8 x 11 x 1.8 inches) and light (4.9 pounds with a battery), but it feels solid and rugged, and its fit and finish are outstanding.
The soul of this machine is a snappy 25-MHz 386SL CPU with a 64K cache. Memory checks in at 2MB RAM, upgradable to 20MB. The display is a 9.5-inch paper-white VGA with a maximum resolution of 640 x 480 and 32 shades of gray. I found the display to be excellent in almost all lighting conditions. The keyboard has a very good feel for a laptop. The full 101 -key AT keyboard is simulated with 78 keys, including 12 function keys (F11 and F12 are key combinations) and an embedded numeric key-pad. The Enter and Shift keys are large enough to hit easily, and the space bar is almost normal length.
The most interesting aspect of the keyboard is the FingerMouse. This is a pointing device that uses a pivot to control movement and has buttons on each side of the pivot that work just like a mouse's left and right buttons. The FingerMouse comes with a ballistic driver and boasts a very large pointer that's easy to find in Windows.
The FingerMouse doubles as a cursor-control station, so you have to switch modes when you need these keys. This is a bit of a challenge at first, but you soon get used to pressing Function+Shift to toggle modes.
The FingerMouse is very responsive, and while not quite as fast and fluid as a real mouse, it's a close second.
In terms of storage, the 3170 comes with either an 80-or a 120MB hard drive. My review unit had an 80, which I transformed into a 160 with Stacker 2.0. The machine also features a 1.44MB external floppy drive (there is no internal floppy). I found the external drive arrangement to be a good way to make the machine lighter and faster on the road. When I'm en route, I never need a floppy drive, but back in the hotel room, I may, so I can pack the external unit in my suitcase.
The 3170 also includes a PCMCIA slot, so you can plug in credit-card-sized PCMCIA cards for almost anything you can imagine, from extra memory to Ethernet adapters. I tested a 1MB static RAM card that worked like a charm. Although PCMCIA cards are relatively new, they're the wave of the future, so don't buy a lap-top without one.
The 3170 was designed from the ground up for communications, and ports abound. In addition to the PCMCIA slot, there's one serial port; one parallel port; one PS/2 mini DIN for an external keyboard, keypad, or mouse; an external FDD port; an external VGA connection; an internal 9600-bps data/fax modem; and an external bus for an expansion chassis.
The ni-cad battery has an advertised life of about three hours, and using suspend mode, this time can be extended to about one week, according to NCR. I didn't have a chance to test the battery for a full three hours, but it was still pouring out juice after two hours of heavy computing.
The 3170 comes with some useful bundled software, including DOS 5.0, Windows 3.1, BitFax 2.0/SR, AT&T Mail Access PLUS, a 3170 Tour Guide, Microsoft Productivity Pack, some utilities, and the Windows User's Guide on disk in Write files. This last item is especially useful. You never carry manuals on the road, but you often need to refer to them, and this is an excellent compromise.
In the final analysis, at $3,181, the 3170 may be a tad expensive, but it's small, light, rugged, beautifully designed, and expandable. And it runs Windows like a charm (NCR, Dayton, Ohio 45479; 800-225-5627).