Chem USA isn't exactly a household name, but its latest desktop replacement, the ChemBook Z7-1719, is pretty well equipped for the price. It packs a fast 2.2-GHz Core 2 Duo processor (although not Penryn), good mid-range Nvidia graphics, and a high-def, 17-inch display for under $1,500. However, this Windows XP system's lame matte-finish screen and cramped keyboard layout will make you want to take a close look at the competition before cracking open your wallet.
Design and Ergonomics
Just in case any of your friends are ever unsure of the type of computer you're using, the Z7-1719's shell has a backlit sign on the lid that says "Notebook." Seriously. Otherwise, the Z7-1719 looks relatively modern, with a glossy all-black chassis that measures a svelte 1.3 inches thick. Unfortunately, this system is a smudge magnet.
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We're definitely not fans of the keyboard. Chem USA attempted what most desktop replacement manufacturers usually nail on the head: squeezing in a full number pad. This system's large keyboard border, however, left too much space around the edges, making the layout unnecessarily cramped. Chem USA opted to shrink the Enter, Arrow, right Shift, and punctuation keys to make everything fit. The result is a confusing and annoying typing experience.
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The touchpad is a bit small, but we liked the dedicated scroll zone. We didn't like the stiffness of the mouse buttons. Four quick-launch buttons along the top of the keyboard grant fast access to the Internet, webcam, Wi-Fi settings, and opening the Windows XP search application.
Display & Audio
We like that the 17-inch display features a full-HD native resolution of 1920 x 1200, but why the matte finish? Gamers and multimedia mavens want glossy screens. A 1.3-MP camera is fitted just above the display, flush with the casing.
During our gaming and DVD playback tests, we were disappointed with the display's utter lack of pop. Under our normal office lights, gaming proved difficult during dark levels. Watching a DVD of There Will Be Blood wasn't as bad, but the viewing angles of both the horizontal and vertical axes aren't good enough for more than two people to watch the display together, and even then you'd have to cuddle directly in front of the display. We expected deep blacks on the high-definition screen but were instead greeted by light grays and washed-out colors.
Despite the Dolby Home Theater sticker beneath the keyboard, the two circular speakers above the keyboard lacked bass and were too quiet for our tastes.
The Z7-1719 is powered by a last-generation 2.2-GHz Intel Core 2 T7500 processor and 2GB of RAM. For some reason, our configuration featured a measly 60GB hard drive, which we wouldn't recommend for an ultraportable, nevermind a desktop replacement that's ostensibly designed to store and enjoy large multimedia files. The Chem USA site says you can order this system with capacities up to 160GB.
The notebook features three USB ports, plus a DVDRW drive on the left and an ExpressCard slot and HDMI and VGA ports on the right. We appreciated having the 3-in-1 card reader (MS/SD/MMC) up front, as well as the FireWire, headphone, line-in, and microphone jacks. The Ethernet and modem jacks are on the rear of the unit.
The ChemBook Z7-1719 held its own against competition with similar CPUs and against its own desktop replacement class where most notebooks come with a higher price tag. The Z7-1719 notched a score of 4,908 on PCMark05, a hair above its desktop replacement class average. On the other hand, its Nvidia GeForce 8600M with 512MB of video memory produced a 3DMark06 score of 3,223 points, which is 1,824 points below the average for other desktop replacements; this is likely due to the much more powerful GPUs other manufacturers typically pack in notebooks in this category.
If it's casual gaming you're after, you won't be disappointed. On our Call of Duty 4 tests, the game set most of the graphics details to low when we set it to optimum settings. That means most of the in-game visual goodies are off: The deck of the ship in the first level, for example, won't glisten in the floodlights as you fight for your life to get to the helicopter. However, at its native 1920 x 1200-pixel resolution, we were able to pull in an average of 26 frames per second--not bad at all--and the game was still enjoyable. On F.E.A.R. with the settings at maximum, the system raked in a modest 32 fps; the average for this category is 46 fps.
Wireless and Battery Life
Wireless scores from its 802.11a/g/n radio were fine: 16.8 Mbps at 15 feet and 12.0 Mbps at 50 feet, compared with category averages of 16 Mbps and 14 Mbps at 15 and 50 feet, respectively. The Z7-1719 offered very good battery life, turning in a runtime of 2:57. That's more than an hour longer than the average desktop replacement.
Software and Support
We appreciated that the Z7-1719 didn't come packed with a bunch of crapware or any trials that we would have had to uninstall right off the bat. Chem USA offers business-hours tech support over the phone from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (PST), Monday through Friday, but its Web site does not inspire confidence. For one, the "Notebook PCs" tab on the home screen didn't work; we had to click on Products to find information on the 1719 series. And the support section is limited to BIOS and driver downloads and a generic FAQ section.
The ChemBook Z7-1719 offers a big screen and decent productivity performance, but it lags behind competing desktop replacements when it comes to design, display quality, and gaming prowess. For example, the Gateway P-6831FX, which costs $100 less, sports much better graphics and outperforms the Z7-1719 in every category. And while the Z7-1719 will play DVDs and games at its high native 1080p resolution, both experiences left us wanting more.