Hercules eCAF EC-1000W Review

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Pros: Attractive design ; Large hard drive and online storage ; OpenOffice.org software included ; Two-year warranty

Cons: Tiny mouse buttons ; Shorter battery life than competition ; SD Cards stick out when inserted

Verdict: This netbook's distinct style and software bundle help it stand out from the crowd.

Hercules, a brand better known for its speakers, Wi-Fi routers, and other PC hardware and accessories, is expanding its reach into the netbook category with the eCAF EC-1000W. A follow-up to the EC-900 series, the 10-inch eCAF features a distinct look and a sleek island-style keyboard. This Windows 7 Starter Edition netbook also comes with OpenOffice.org 3--making it easy for users to work on Office documents out of the box--and a generous 50GB of online storage (though you have to pay after the first year). Other machines in this class offer longer battery life, but the EC-1000W is worth a look.

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Design

The 10.8 x 7.7 x 1.3-inch eCAF EC1000-W blends design flourishes reminiscent of other popular netbooks into its design. The squared-off lid with rounded corners evokes the body of the original Lenovo IdeaPad S10, as does the hinge. Taking a cue from the Samsung NC10, Hercules integrated the power button into the hinge, but on the left side. Under the lid we found a chiclet keyboard that aesthetically recalls the Toshiba mini NB205.

There are a few singular touches on the EC-1000W: The lid features an "in-mold" design that reflects metallic-like swirls of color when you look at it from different angles. The serene blue color and bamboo silhouette add a stylish touch that users of all genders will appreciate. We're also fans of the eCAF's speaker placement; they adorn the left and right edges of the deck, and are tucked close to the hinges.

While slightly heavier than most 10-inch netbooks (3.0 pounds instead of the typical 2.8), this system felt sturdy in our hands. It comes across as a bit bulky, but not inelegant.

Keyboard and Touchpad

The EC-1000W's keyboard sits in a recessed area on the deck, so it doesn't extend all the way to the edge. 88 percent of full size, the layout is a bit undersized but not uncomfortable or difficult to use. However, it took us a while to get accustomed to typing on it; even after some practice we scored 18 percent below our normal speed on the Ten Thumbs typing test. The keys weren't as springy as we'd like, but they were decently responsive (with the exception of the smallish space bar, which dropped our keystrokes often enough to be noticeable and frustrating).

The 2.8 x 1.5-inch touchpad had just enough friction to provide decent accuracy. Thanks to its width, we didn't have to pick up our fingers much when moving the cursor around the desktop. It doesn't feature mutitouch, but does support side-scrolling. We're definitely not fans of the mouse buttons; in fact, they almost caused us to stop using the EC-1000W's touchpad in favor of an external mouse. Not only are they far too narrow for normal-sized fingers, but we also found them stiff and difficult to press.

Display and Audio

The EC-1000W's 10.1-inch, 1024 x 600-pixel display delivered bright, rich colors and deep blacks. The glossy screen threw back reflections of varying degrees when viewing content under bright lights. While watching an episode of Forever Knight on Hulu in dim light, the reflections weren't as big of an issue. The inch-thick bezel that surrounds the screen is also glossy to the point of distraction, reflecting flickers of light as we typed this review.

Colors seemed a bit washed out with the display angled at just over 90 degrees, but they improved as we pushed it back a bit more, and only became distorted at extreme angles. Horizontal viewing angles were satisfactory. Three people can easily watch video or read text with the eCAF between them.

The top-mounted speakers produced tinny sound, not out of the ordinary for netbooks. We were pleased that the distinct bass lines in Superchick's "One Girl Revolution" and "Battle Without Honor or Humanity" from the "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" soundtrack were both present and surprisingly strong. At 75 percent volume the sound filled a small room.

Ports and Webcam

There are no surprises when it comes to ports on the EC-1000W: two USB ports and the headphone and microphone jacks grace the left side. The power, VGA, Ethernet, and third USB port line the right alongside the 4-in-1 memory card slot. The card reader comes with a rubber cover, which annoyingly remained attached to the casing once we peeled it away to expose the slot. We're also not pleased with how far SD Cards stuck out from the unit once inserted.


The 0.3-megapixel webcam mounted above the display worked surprisingly well, delivering a decent picture as we chatted with a friend over Skype. She reported blur only when we waved a hand quickly in front of the camera, but otherwise the video was clear and colors were true.

Performance

The EC-1000W contains a 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU and 1GB of RAM, which is expandable up to 3GB. PCMark Vantage wouldn't run, but we were able to measure a Geekbench score of 820, slightly below the netbook average of 834. The eCAF beat out the Toshiba mini NB205's score of 805 (similarly equipped with Windows 7 Starter) but fell short of the ASUS Eee PC 1008HA Seashell (826) and the HP Mini 311 from Verizon Wireless (861), which both run Windows 7 Home Premium.

The 5,400-rpm, 250GB hard drive completed the LAPTOP Transfer Test in 5 minutes and 16 seconds for a rate of 16.0 MBps. While this is just above the netbook average of 15.4 MBps, it lags behind other Windows 7 netbooks. Far outstripped by the Eee PC 1008HA's score of 22.2 MBps, the eCAF is a bit closer to the Toshiba mini NB205 and HP Mini 311's scores of 17.9 and 17.2 MBps, respectively. The system took 57 seconds to boot, just 1 second longer than the netbook average and 10 seconds faster than the Toshiba mini NB205 with Windows 7 (67 seconds).

Using HandBrake, we transcoded a 5:05 MPEG-4 video clip (114MB) to the AVI format in 31 minutes and 16 seconds, which was almost two minutes longer than the 29:31 category average.

We experienced snappy performance when working with documents, surfing the Web, and listening to music. However, the netbook lagged while attempting to perform such graphically intense tasks as loading Flash-heavy Web sites, playing Facebook games, or streaming video.

We weren't able to run 3DMark06 to formally test the Intel GMA 945 graphics chip. We experienced smooth playback when watching a standard definition file of Torchwood: Children of Earth, but 720p video played poorly. While watching Forever Knight on Hulu, video playback wasn't always smooth at normal size, even after buffering, and hitched a bit at full screen.

When we took a sightseeing tour in Google Earth with 3D buildings turned on, the EC-1000W was slow to render each location, but flyovers were smooth.

Wi-Fi and Battery Life

At 15 feet from the router, the EC-1000W managed throughput of 22.1 Mbps, 2.1 Mbps above the netbook average of 20.0 Mbps. This score rests at the median between the Toshiba mini NB205-N330BL (20.7 Mbps) and the Eee PC 1008HA (25.5 Mbps). However, at 50 feet the score dropped to 15.0 Mbps, 1.6 Mbps below the average and well below the mini NB205 and 1008HA's scores (18.7 Mbps and 19.3 Mbps, respectively). If you're going to stream media or do heavy downloading, you'll want to stick close to the router with this netbook.

The EC-1000W's six-cell battery lasted 5 hours and 21 minutes while running the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous surfing over Wi-Fi). This is about an hour under the six-cell average for netbooks (6:10) and was easily bested by the Toshiba mini NB205 running Windows 7 (8:51). However, the EC-1000W did manage to last a bit longer than both the Windows 7-powered Eee PC 1008HA and the HP Mini 311 (4:43 and 4:52).

Software

Hercules opted for Windows 7 Starter Edition for the EC-1000W, which is a lightweight version of Microsoft's latest OS. Though the limitations are somewhat minor--no Aero Glass interface, DVD playback, Windows Media Center, remote media streaming, or XP mode, along with limited personalization options--they can be frustrating for users who use their netbooks for more than just Web surfing and e-mail.

There is thankfully no trial software loaded on the EC-1000W. In fact, aside from Windows Live Essentials, the netbook only comes preloaded with the OpenOffice.org 3 suite. While this is free for anyone who knows where to download it, it's nice to see that Hercules eliminated that step.

Hercules also includes a suite of eCAF-branded programs and utilities: Connect and Update Manager, eCAF Email Center, Webcam Station, and Xtra Controller Pro.



The Email Center allows users to check multiple accounts in one program, and defaults to running constantly in the background with corner pop-ups when new messages come in. However, we were unimpressed with the software because it offers less functionality than Thunderbird, another freely available e-mail manager. Users are limited to POP mail; still, when we tried to sync our Gmail account via POP, we weren't able to fine tune the settings to allow for SSL encryption, which Google requires. We did manage to set up a non-Gmail POP account, but the lack of any junk filters left us bombarded with spam other programs would have easily identified and removed from the inbox. When we attempted to select multiple e-mails to delete them, the program wouldn't allow it.

Webcam Station fared better, offering some fun functions for the webcam. In the main window users can adjust the settings to improve the picture and sound. There are even a few effects and frames to play around with. Opening Hercules' Xtra Controller Pro alongside Webcam Station, Skype, or other video conferencing programs allows users to share a portion of their screen or a slideshow of pictures with a friend on the other end of a video chat.



The eCAF Connect utility helps users manage wireless and wired Ethernet connections. Providing more information than the basic Windows 7 Wi-Fi utility, Connect shows not only the available wireless connections but also their protocols, channels, and the type of security protecting them. Users can manage favorite hotspots and profiles, prioritize data transfer packets to improve performance, and enable power-saving functions.

Update Manager will provide automatic updates to eCAF-branded apps and alert users to new programs and games available from Hercules.

Online Storage

eCAF EC-1000W owners can access a web portal that provides support documents and downloads, a user forum, and 50GB of free online Web storage (maintained by Hercules) for one year. Pricing afterwards has not yet been determined.

Configurations, Green Testing, and Warranty

Hercules is not planning to offer any other configurations of the EC-1000W at this time.

The EC-1000W took 3 hours and 40 minutes to fully recharge its battery, using 5918.0 watts in the process. When this is divided by its battery life (to determine its LAPTOP Battery Efficiency Rating; lower is better), the eCAF scored 18.4. That's a bit above the netbook average of 16.6.

The EC-1000W is covered by a two-year parts-and-labor warranty and is backed up by both phone and e-mail support. Their hours are as follows: Mon--Fri 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sat--Sun 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. (EST).

Verdict

Hercules' $399 eCAF EC-1000W is an attractive netbook whose design stands out in a sea of competitors. The bundled OpenOffice.org suite, online storage, and other utilities also help differentiate this system, as does the two-year warranty. However, other Windows 7 netbooks, such as the Toshiba mini NB205, last over three hours longer on a charge and cost only a little bit more. This machine is a good first effort, but there are better options available.

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Laptop Mag & Tom's Hardware
CPU 1.6-GHz Intel Atom N270
Operating System MS Windows Starter Edition (32-bit)
RAM 1GB
RAM Upgradable to 3GB
Hard Drive Size 250GB
Hard Drive Speed 5,400rpm
Hard Drive Type SATA Hard Drive
Display Size 10.1
Native Resolution 1024x600
Optical Drive
Optical Drive Speed
Graphics Card Intel GMA 945
Video Memory 8MB
Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n
Bluetooth
Mobile Broadband
Ports (excluding USB) Headphone
Ports (excluding USB) Ethernet
Ports (excluding USB) VGA
Ports (excluding USB) Microphone
USB Ports 3
Card Slots 4-1 card reader
Warranty/Support Two-year parts-and-labor/Mon--Fri 7 a.m. to 11 a.m., 12 p.m. to 6 p.m., Sat--Sun 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. (EST) toll-free phone
Size 10.8 x 7.7 x 1.3 inches
Weight 3.0 pounds
Company Website http://www.hercules.com/us