Considering that netbooks are a tinkerer’s dream, it’s a wonder that a netbook like OCZ’s Neutrino hasn’t come around sooner. This bare-bones $269 netbook comes without a hard drive, memory, or even an operating system, letting buyers customize to their heart’s content. However, the hardware that comes standard—namely, the touchpad and battery—aren’t as good as those with traditional netbooks (although a longer-lasting six-cell battery will be available in May). If users can get over these deficiencies, the Neutrino will make for a compelling do-it-yourself project.
Black Boxy Design
The Neutrino’s design looks instantly familiar to us, and that’s because it’s identical to the Workhorse PC Certeza MC10. The black boxy design looks good from afar, but up close it doesn’t have the same luster as its competitors. The lid, which is a fingerprint magnet, has a small indented, rectangular-shaped slot with a silver OCZ logo. Along the top of the keyboard, a plastic strip, which was blank on the Workhorse, is emblazoned with Neutrino, giving it a more finished look than the Workhorse. Five lights on the front left edge show the status of the battery, Wi-Fi, broadband, hard drive, and Caps Lock.
The Neutrino is quite compact for a 10-inch system. At 10.4 x 7.3 inches, and tapering from 1.1 to 0.8 inches thick, it has the same dimensions as the very svelte Dell Inspiron Mini 10, but tips the scales at a slightly heavier 3 pounds (when outfitted with components). Nevertheless, with a travel weight of 3.6 pounds with its AC adapter, the system fit in a small messenger bag with room to spare and didn’t weigh down our shoulder while walking.
Configuring the Neutrino
A bare-bones Neutrino lists for $269, which is $60 cheaper than what the Workhorse PC costs for a similar setup, but only $30 less than an 8.9-inch Acer Aspire One with a hard drive, RAM, and operating system. Outfitting the netbook with what it needs will bring the cost up higher than that of many other netbooks. For example, we opted to configure ours with a Western Digital Scorpio Blue 320GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive ($80), Windows XP Home ($85), and 1GB of RAM from Quimonda ($20); the total price—$454—is much higher than the MSI Wind U120 ($379) or ASUS Eee PC 1000HE ($399), both of which provide double the runtime and have more attractive builds. For that reason, OCZ touts this as a system for those who already have spare parts lying around or want to install expensive solid state drives they couldn’t get on a prebuilt netbook.
While less expensive options, such as a free Linux OS (the Neutrino is compatible with gOS and Ubuntu) and a smaller hard drive, will bring the price down considerably, the Neutrino can accept up to a 250GB SSD and 2GB of RAM for those who really want to splurge.
Installing the components was fairly simple. The bottom cover is held on by six screws; after removing them, we were able to easily insert both the hard drive and the RAM. You will also need an external CD-ROM; even if you don’t opt for Windows XP, and can install a Linux OS from a USB key, you will still need the external drive to install the drivers that come with the Neutrino.
The longest part of the process in getting our Neutrino up and running was installing the software; all told, it took about two hours to get everything loaded onto the machine. Considering there’s no productivity software included, count on a bit more time to download and install programs such as OpenOffice and Skype.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard on the Neutrino is very similar to those on the MSI Wind U100 and U120, which is a good thing. The black matte keys offered a good amount of springy feedback when typing, and the right Shift key (located to the left of the up arrow) and Backspace key are comfortably large. While the HP Mini 2140 and the Samsung NC10 have slightly better keyboards, touch typists should have no problems using the Neutrino for extended periods. Above the keyboard are three shortcut buttons that launch the Webcam utility, e-mail, and Web browser.
To make room for the spacious keyboard, OCZ had to sacrifice some of the trackpad’s size. Similar to the touchpad on the MSI Wind U120, the Neutrino’s 2.1 x 1.4-inch trackpad is disappointingly small. However, we liked the dedicated right and left mouse buttons, even if they make a distracting clicking sound when pressed. Unlike the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE and Samsung N110, the touchpad does not support multitouch gestures, but does allow for horizontal and vertical scrolling along the edges. However, the driver, made by Asia Vital Components, did not work well; the screen would scroll in the wrong direction when we tried to use that feature.
The Neutrino is surrounded by two USB ports, a 4-in-1 card reader, mic and headphone jacks, a VGA port, and an Ethernet jack. While most netbooks have three USB ports, OCZ used the space for an ExpressCard/34 slot—handy if you have a broadband card. Additionally, a hatch on the underside of the system unscrews to allow a SIM card for mobile broadband.
Display, Audio, and Webcam
The OCZ Neutrino features a 10-inch matte display with a resolution of 1024 x 600 pixels. The LED-backlit panel was bright and crisp while playing an episode of How I Met Your Mother on Hulu.com, with good horizontal and vertical viewing angles. Unlike most other netbooks, you can tilt the screen back 180 degrees.
The MC10’s dual speakers, which are located above the keyboard, produced decently loud sound for such a small system. A voice call over Skype was plenty audible, and Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” was loud enough to fill a quiet living room, even if it was on the tinny side.
Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel webcam that provided very clear but slightly washed out images when videoconferencing with a friend over Skype, and it showed little motion blur. The microphone, located on the bottom of the screen’s bezel, allowed our voice to come through loud and clear to our caller, without us having to speak up.
The 320GB, 5,400-rpm Western Digital Scorpio Blue hard drive we installed on the Neutrino booted into XP Home in a fast 40 seconds—18 seconds below the average; of course, this is due in large part to the system having almost no software preinstalled. Not surprisingly, it excelled on the LAPTOP Transfer Test (copying a 4.97GB folder of mixed media). The task took 3 minutes and 44 seconds, a rate of 20.9 MBps. That’s almost 7 MBps faster than the netbook average, but that average is based almost exclusively on 160GB, 5,400-rpm drives.
The Neutrino’s 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270 processor and 1GB of RAM we installed provided good performance while running Windows XP. The system was able to keep up with our demands. Firefox 3 and Windows Media Player opened quickly, and simultaneously conducting video calls over Skype and surfing the Web caused no significant performance hit. When transcoding a 5-minute-and-5-second video (114MB) from MPEG-4 to AVI using Handbrake, the Neutrino took 28 minutes and 40 seconds; that’s 2 minutes better than the Samsung NC20, which has a VIA processor, and just six minutes slower than the HP Pavilion dv2.
On PCMark05, the Neutrino notched 1,551, which is about 200 points higher than the netbook average, and about 30 points shy of the ASUS Eee PC 1000HE. Similar to the Workhorse, the Neutrino’s integrated Intel GMA 950 graphics scored 689 on 3DMark03 and 119 on 3DMark06, which are 69 and 50 points lower than the respective category averages.
The Neutrino handled HD video fairly well. The 720p version of “The Magic of Flight” downloaded from Microsoft’s HD Content Showcase played smoothly in full-screen mode; not surprisingly, the 1080p version stuttered constantly.
During testing, the system kept its cool: The keyboard, touchpad, and underside never exceeded 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
Short Battery Life (for Now), Decent Wi-Fi Performance
Like the Workhorse, the Neutrino’s four-cell, 2200-mAh battery provides subpar endurance. On the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi) the netbook lasted 2 hours an 28 minutes, which is 18 minutes shorter than the average for netbooks with batteries smaller than six cells (most of which are three-cells). OCZ plans to make a six-cell battery available in May.
The 802.11b/g Wi-Fi card provided a strong connection for working in the cloud. On our tests, the Neutrino pushed data along at a rate of 18.3 Mbps at 15 feet and 17.6 Mbps at 50 feet from our access point—almost identical to the Workhorse. Those scores are both around the netbook averages of 19.0 Mbps and 15.7 Mbps from those respective distances. Streaming video clips from Hulu.com was smooth. Users can also add a SIM card to the netbook, and OCZ provides Novatel Wireless’ Mobilink software.
Software and Warranty
As mentioned, the Neutrino comes with a disk that contains all the requisite drivers, but no other software, and users must also provide their own operating system. OCZ backs the Neutrino with a one-year warranty, and its phone hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. (PST). Additionally, customers can access the company’s online forums.
The OCZ Neutrino is the answer to the prayers of many DIY techies. This bare-bones system allows for hundreds of different configuration possibilities and, for just $269, makes for an inexpensive platform for those looking to extend the life of components they’ve pulled from an older laptop. But no matter what you put inside, you’re still going to be saddled with an inferior touchpad and short endurance, which might deter otherwise enthusiastic tinkerers. Once the six-cell battery becomes available, the Neutrino will be more worthy of your time and effort.