Compaq Evo N400c

The Latest Compaq ultraportable notebook sports a USB connection on the lid

WHAT'S HOT: Compaq's first notebook in its new Evo (short for evolution) line, the N400c, sports something extra: a USB connection on the back of the screen panel. Dubbed the MultiPort, the silver USB docking panel accommodates plug-in modules that sit flush with the lid. So far, Compaq is selling just one plug-in, the 802.11b MultiPort Module, which includes a wireless radio and antennas for local-area wireless networking. At $189, the module costs about the same as an 802.11b PC Card and leaves the Evo N400c's sole PC Card slot free.

For short-range wireless networking with PDAs and other small devices, Compaq will begin selling a Bluetooth MultiPort module by the end of August 2001 for an extra $199. A MultiPort module adds only about one-tenth of a pound to the Evo; our review unit with an 802.11b MultiPort attached weighed a scant 3.6 pounds.

Like its predecessor, the Armada M300, the Evo N400c bucks the legacy-light trend favored by most other ultraportables, instead offering a nearly full set of standard connections--so many we're not sure how Compaq fit them all on the 1-inch-thick case. You get a V.90 modem jack, an ethernet jack (with an RJ-45 network cable thrown in for good measure), a parallel port, and a monitor connection. The Evo has one more USB port than the M300 (for a total of two) and adds a composite video-out jack, a first for this class of notebook. All that's missing is the little-used serial port.

Unlike the M300--whose standard battery served as a foot/port cover and had to be swapped out for an extended-life power pack--the Evo can accommodate both the now-internal primary battery and a secondary power pack ($217 extra) via two slots on the back. With Compaq's newly revamped Mobile Expansion Unit snapped on to the bottom of the Evo, you can carry a total of four batteries, which (according to Compaq) will allow you to work away from an outlet all day. The MEU's new modular floppy-drive bay makes that quadruple-battery feat possible. And the floppy-drive bay now can accommodate any of the same devices that the optical bay can take, so if you don't need superlong battery life, you can add other drives to the bay, such as three 30GB hard drives or two optical drives. The MEU duplicates most of the Evo's connections for an impressive total of four USB ports (not counting the MultiPort), and it adds decent-sounding stereo speakers.

WHAT'S NOT: Using an optical drive with the Evo requires attaching an MEU, which means you'll have to lug an extra 2 pounds along on trips, even if you don't need the MEU's other features. What's more, Compaq stopped bundling a floppy drive with the notebook. An MEU with a floppy drive and an 8X DVD-ROM drive in its internal bays is a pricey $489. (If you just want a floppy drive, you can save money by opting for a USB floppy drive from another vendor.)

And while the MEU's internal bays may be versatile, we found them a pain to use. To remove or insert devices with rewritable media (such as the floppy drive, a Zip drive, or a CD-RW drive), you must turn the notebook off first. To release devices, you must tilt the 6.2-pound notebook-and-MEU combination to the side and slide a stubborn latch located on the bottom.

The Evo has a bigger keyboard than most ultraportables have, with a full 3mm keystroke and 19mm key spacing. Unfortunately, the Evo inherited its predecessor's small, easy-to-miss mouse buttons and extra-small Fn keys.

WHAT ELSE: Sporting a thin black case, baby-blue mouse buttons, and four dedicated shortcut buttons above the keyboard, the Evo bears a strong resemblance to the Armada M300. Its crisp 12.1-inch screen is capable of a higher maximum resolution of 1024 by 768.

You can easily slide the Evo's USB-based MultiPort module into place on the lid and secure it on the end with a small screw (though you'll need to use a Phillips screwdriver to do so). The only thing missing is an on/off switch: To turn off the MultiPort, you must press Fn-F2 on the keyboard.

Compaq provides its usual fine documentation, including separate introductory and troubleshooting booklets and a Portable Document Format electronic manual on CD. The Evo performed well for a laptop with Intel's Pentium III-700/500 processor, turning in a PC WorldBench 2000 score of 152. Battery life with the standard four-cell internal power pack could be better, however, as it lasted only 1 hour, 57 minutes in our tests--about an hour shorter than the typical notebook we see these days.

UPSHOT: With its silver MultiPort connection, the Evo N400c gives ultraportable users a stylish way to add local wireless capabilities without filling the notebook's single PC Card slot or having to keep track of a loose card. If you can overlook this portable's small mouse buttons--and if you don't mind being railroaded into buying an expensive docking station just to use an optical drive--the Evo could be the perfect companion for your corporate travels.


Compaq Evo N400c

PC WorldBench 2000 score of 152, Pentium III-700/500 CPU, 128MB of RAM, 256KB L2 cache, Windows 2000, 12.1-inch active-matrix screen, ATI Rage P/M Mobility graphics chip with 8MB of SDRAM, 20GB hard drive, 8X DVD-ROM drive, built-in V.90 modem and ethernet connection, eraserhead pointing device, 7.3 pounds (including AC adapter and phone cord). One-year parts and labor warranty; free unlimited 24-hour toll-free tech support.

Street price: $2738 (including $489 Mobile Expansion Unit with 8X DVD-ROM drive)


By Carla Thornton