August 26, 2010

Review: ZaReason Verix Laptop


One of the challenges of being a Linux desktop user is the difficulty in finding systems that ship with Linux pre-installed. Major OEMs often offer a handful of Linux offerings, but to get a wider range of hardware and choices of Linux distributions you have to look to smaller vendors that are really interested in promoting Linux — like ZaReason.

ZaReason sells a full line of Linux machines, desktops, laptops, netbooks, and servers. They also sell peripherals and some other gear, but what I was most interested in was a laptop with Linux. Specifically, a laptop with muscle. So I asked ZaReason to send me a review unit, the Verix 1656 with Intel's Core i7 and maxed out RAM.


The Verix comes with several choices of Core i7 chips, I got the 720QM, which has four hyperthreaded cores clocked at 1.63GHz, which means it shows up as 8CPUs on Linux. (At least according to top...) The Verix tops out at 8GB of RAM and includes several choices of hard drives. The model I was shipped came with an 80GB SSD, the first time I've used a laptop with an SSD drive instead of a 5,400 or 7,200 RPM SATA drive. It also included a Nvidia GeForce GTS 250M CUDA chipset with 1GB of RAM.

The screen is a 15.4" LCD at 1680x1050, and it's quite bright and crisp. I've seen laptops with a higher resolution, but it's a good balance of size and resolution — a really good choice if you're going to be working primarily on your laptop.

It's a somewhat hefty laptop, but not too heavy. I used it pretty much from the minute I unpacked the box for a couple of days straight. It's a nice balance between portable and powerful.

How's it Work?

ZaReason shipped the Verix to me with Linux Mint 9 installed. This is the OEM version of Linux Mint, so the codecs and such are not pre-installed, but out of the box all that's required is setting up the username and password and you're ready to roll.

The dimensions of the Verix are 14.2" wide by 10.3" deep and 1.3" high. It looks bigger than it is, possibly because they've managed to cram a complete keyboard onto the beast — including a 10-key that will make folks who do accounting happy.

One of the most important features on any laptop, in my opinion, is the keyboard and trackpad. How does the keyboard feel, is it solid, is the trackpad in the way or easily accessible when you need it and not prone to accidental input when you don't need it? My favorite laptop keyboard of all time are the classic ThinkPad keyboards. I've owned or used at least 10 laptops extensively, and the only ones that have really made my fingers happy are the ThinkPads, which get an 11 out of 10 stars in my book.

How does the Verix fare? I'd give it a seven out of 10. The key spacing is good, and the action is passable. It feels a bit light, and the arrangement of the keys with the 10-key is a little off. I kept hitting the NumLock key where my fingers thought the Backspace key should be.

Performance was stellar. With 8GB of RAM, an SSD, and four cores of hyperthreaded goodness, the machine flew like the wind. Linux Mint 9 worked flawlessly on it, excepting the Webcam. That didn't work right out of the box, which was a little disappointing. I pinged ZaReason tech support, and it turns out that the Webcam is not on by default and you have to touch a button above the keyboard to turn it on (or back off). This is a bit non-obvious, though, as the button just looks like an indicator light — odds are many users would never realize it's actually a button without reading through the manual, and who does that? But the good news is that all of the hardware on the laptop is supported.

The sound on the machine is quite good, especially for a laptop. Speakers are clear and it's a good machine if you need to rely on your laptop for tunes. Battery life is modest. Unplugged, I got about two hours of battery life out of the 6-cell, which is not so great if you're needing a machine to work on long flights or other situations where plugging in isn't an option.

Also worth noting that the laptop has an ExpressCard slot and a generous helping of USB ports (three), VGA and HDMI output (but not DVI) and audio input/output as well as a built-in microphone on the body of the laptop. The Verix also has a CD/DVD burner, and generally all the features most users would want in a full-sized laptop.

Price and Final Thoughts

As configured, the unit I tested was priced at about $2,200 — not including shipping or taxes. The Verix line starts at $1,499 with 2GB of RAM and the Intel Core i7 620M clocked at 2.66GHz. It looks like the base of the ZaReason Verix is the MSI 1656, which is rebranded by a couple of companies. The ZaReason pricing looks to be in line with other companies selling the laptop when considering the extras it shipped with when I tested it (SSD, 8GB of RAM).

The performance of the Verix was fantastic. The only disappointment was the video camera (which, frankly, I probably wouldn't use except for testing) and the modest battery life. For road warriors who prize lightweight and long battery life over performance, this isn't the laptop to choose. For those of us who travel occasionally and really want a system that has the horsepower of a desktop system but with the option of going mobile, the Verix should be at the top of the list.

And, it should go without saying, ZaReason is one of the companies that Linux enthusiasts should be shopping with first. They offer a great selection of Linux machines and selection of popular distros you won't find many other places.

The Verix gets two thumbs up. It's not perfect, but it's a really good laptop and one I'd recommend to anyone who wants a solid and speedy Linux laptop. My main complaint with the Verix? It's a review unit, which means I have to send it back. If you buy one, though, you won't have that problem.

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