You might not have heard of ZT Systems, but this low-profile brand sells computers through many familiar retailers, including Amazon.com, Costco, Circuit City, Office Depot, Staples, and Target. Although the Affinity N4004i-17 ($1,099 as configured) lacks the brand recognition of an HP or a Dell system, it offers strong performance for the money, as well as a number pad, a rarity on 15-inch systems. However, this machine suffers from a bland design and a mediocre keyboard and touchpad.
Large Keyboard, Dull Design
In a season where every other notebook manufacturer is incorporating glossy elements into their chassis, the Affinity is positively matte. While the black lid is fairly boring, we do like ZT's logo, which is gray with orange accents and has two circular LED lights shining through. At 5.8 pounds, the Affinity is a reasonable weight for a 15-inch notebook, although the battery jutting out of the back makes carrying in the crook of your arm slightly awkward.
It's when you open it up that the Affinity starts looking homely. The interior includes a matte black keyboard and panel, and a silver palm rest and touchpad. The flat, color-blocked design vaguely reminds us of Toshiba's budget Satellite notebooks--that is, before the company jumped on the glossy bandwagon. At the lower right corner of the palm rest are seven blue LED lights, indicating everything from AC power to Wi-Fi connectivity. We would move the LED lights to a more discreet spot, such as the front side of the notebook.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The keyboard is unique in that it includes a number pad, something you rarely see on 15-inch notebooks. Unfortunately, the keys have too much flex: when we pounded out sentences we could see the entire keyboard give beneath our fingers. Moreover, in adding a number pad--a feature many consumers don't need--ZT had to shrink several important keys--namely, the Enter, right Shift, and Backspace keys--which makes typing unnecessarily awkward. It's unacceptable that a keyboard that stretches all the way across the chassis on a mainstream notebook still feels less than full-size.
Although large, the touchpad has too much friction; moving the cursor across the screen took a bit too much effort. The cursor also regularly jumped to parts of a document we weren't working on. We found the buttons easy to press but noisy.
Above the keyboard are four launch buttons for e-mail, a browser, and enabling or disabling Wi-Fi (the fourth is programmable). The buttons are responsive, but we would have appreciated multimedia controls, too.
Display and Audio
The Affinity's 15.4-inch (1280 x 800) display has a glossy finish, but it's not nearly as reflective as other mainstream consumer laptops' we've seen. When we watched an episode of Heroes using the integrated 6X DVDRW drive, the screen looked slightly dark, and while we were comfortably able to watch the show head-on and with the screen pushed forward, the picture was near-impossible to make out at a 180-degree angle.
Two speakers, located on either side of the panel stretching above the keyboard, produced pleasant but weak sound. Sitting about two feet away from our notebook with some other people in the room, the volume seemed far too low when set to 50 percent.
Ports and Webcam
The Affinity has four USB ports, a VGA port, Ethernet and modem jacks, and mic and headphone ports. It also has an ExpressCard slot and a 3-in-1 memory card reader. We would have liked the memory card reader to accommodate more formats (this one does SD, MMC, and MS). While it's missing ports such as FireWire, HDMI, and DisplayPort, we do like that the ports are all located along the sides of the notebook, and not on the back.
The 1.3-megapixel webcam produced fluid, albeit dark, video. In a Skype test call, the video quality dragged more visibly, however. In the end, though, our problem wasn't with the camera but the software; by default it records 10-second clips, and saves them to a path that doesn't exist (there are no icons on the Camera Recoder console allowing users quick access to recordings they've made). Both of the latter two shortcomings can be corrected in the settings. The Camera Recorder software does not allow for still photo captures, nor does it include any special effects.
Equipped with a 2.0-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo P7350 processor, the Affinity held up well on our performance tests; thanks to the generous 4GB of RAM, it scored 3,092 on the PCMark Vantage benchmark, about 40 points above average in the mainstream category.
In real-world testing, too, the Affinity was fast: it converted a 2-minute-and-16-second H.264 clip to an MPEG-4 file in 51 seconds; with a DVD playing in the background it took 50. And, save for our issues with the keyboard and touchpad, we had no problem moving between several tabs in Internet Explorer, responding to e-mails, typing in Google Talk, blogging, and scrolling through various Web pages.
The 5,400-rpm, 320GB hard drive booted Windows Vista in just 45 seconds, which is about 15 seconds quicker than the typical mainstream notebook (and many take longer than that). On the other hand, the hard drive transferred a 4.97GB file in 5:41, which translates to a rate of 14.9 MBps. That falls short of the category average of 17.3 MBps.
The integrated Intel GMA X4500 graphics card notched 2,557 on 3DMark03 and 964 on 3DMark06. These scores are about 2,600 and 1,800 points below the category average, respectively. This means the machine does a much poorer job of smoothly rendering graphics in even mainstream games (forget the more graphically demanding ones).
Wi-Fi and Battery Life
While the Intel WiFi Link 5300 Wireless-N radio (Intel's latest) notched a powerful 18.2 Mbps at 15 feet, it dropped to a measly 8.0 Mbps at 50 feet. However, when we streamed a clip from Hulu.com at that distance, the video and sound quality were both smooth.
The Affinity's nine-cell battery lasted 5 hours and 34 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi). That's about 2 hours and 10 minutes longer than the average mainstream notebook, although many of those systems come only with six-cell batteries.
Software and Warranty
The Affinity's fast 45-second boot time is particularly impressive when you consider all the bundled software that could have slowed it down. It comes with a 60-day trial of Microsoft Office 2007, and a host of programs by CyberLink, including Power2Go 5.0, PowerBackup, PowerDirector Express, PowerDVD, PowerDVD Copy, PowerProducer, MediaShow, and PhotoNow 1.0.
The Affinity has a one-year parts-and-labor warranty, which is standard. Particularly nice is its lifetime, toll-free, 24/7 phone support. (Some companies charge for phone support after the parts-and-labor warranty expires.)
The ZT Systems Affinity N4004i-17 has a few things going for it: good performance, a number pad, and long battery life (with the bulky nine-cell battery). But the number pad makes for an awkward typing experience, and the design is relatively unattractive. Those on a budget will likely prefer a system like theGateway MD Series(MD7801u), which offers similar Vista performance, a sleeker chassis, and a larger 500GB hard drive for a more affordable $799. The Affinity is a decent mainstream notebook, but much better options are available.