VPR Matrix laptop

A few days ago, Gen asked me to do a writeup of the new laptop I got, a vpr Matrix 200A5. I'm not usually prone to describing the gadgets and gizmos I buy, because I figure it's not really of interest to anyone who can't play with them, but his argument that "it's not your run-of-the-mill laptop" was sufficiently pleasing to my ego that I thought I might discuss the machine a bit.

This computer is, rather famously, the "Tibook PC clone" that everyone was talking about a few months ago, so named because of its decided resemblance to the titanium Apple PowerBook. The design's the obvious starting point, so I guess it bears mentioning that its dimensions and outside casing color are, yes, almost exactly the same as the Apple machine's.

But more interestingly, the fit and finish are just as impressive. I don't doubt that the designers started with the goal of cloning the Apple notebook, but the impressive part is that the machine ended up being just as well thought-out as Apple products are, and even exceeds the Tibook in some areas.

Take, for instance, the slot-loading DVD/CD-R drive. It's no superdrive, so you can't burn DVDs, but I have no use for that so it's no loss. The thing that's better than the Tibook is that it's side-mounted. Using a front-loading optical drive on a plane or with the machine resting on your lap while you recline is just a pain, and this machine's attention to detail remedies that inconvenience. Plus, you can play a CD in the drive even when the computer's completely turned off, by using the full set of controls and the volume knob that are unobtrusively located on the front of the machine. I only tested it briefly, as computers around our place don't spend a lot of time powered off, but it seems to work pretty well.

There are other little touches that I love, too. The built-in WiFi card can be controlled by a slider power switch on the side of the machine. That means that when you're on a plane or sitting somewhere that doesn't have a wireless network, you don't have to have the machine kill its batteries scanning for active networks. Even better, when the machine's powered off, the same slider switch controls the CD playback function.

And the aesthetic of the machine does veer from Apple's standards into some hallmarks of the best of PC designs. There's a slim red bar that acts as the power switch, and it immediately evokes the classic designs of various IBM ThinkPads that have been released over the years. The ThinkPad's influence carries over to several other elements of the machine, since the keyboard and wrist rest surface are black, instead of the Tibook's silver, and have the same squared corners as IBM's hardware.

Some distinctive parts of the Matrix's design aren't merely aped from others, though. Each of the many LEDs on the system is blue. The power, hard drive, caps lock, and WiFi power lights all gleam with a surprisingly dark shade of blue, set against the black matte housing of the work surface. The overall effect is that this machine, especially when used in a dark room, looks mean. I like it.

There are a lot of distinctive elements under the hood, too. Primary among them is an audio system that vpr markets as "Sonopür". I have no idea where the hell that word came from, but the sound really is very, very good. I plugged in my pair of Grado SR-80 cans when watching a test DVD and it sounds better than any PC I've ever heard, and better than the only stereo system that I had handy. Considering that I live in New York City, I'll never hear this thing against a silent background, so that's good enough for me.

Battery life seems decent, around 3 or 4 hours, but I tend to always use it plugged in, so I can't speak to that. The best parts of this machine to me, though, are that it's super fast and the screen is gorgeous. A Pentium 4 at 2 gigahertz is never going to be slow, but it's matched with a great set of subsystems that let it run just as fast as any desktop. 512 MB of RAM is standard, and the hard drive is a more-than-sufficient 40 gigs. The screen, though, is just magnificent. It's widescreen and flat ratio, of course, but the brightness of it is what impresses me. My desktop monitor is a Samsung Syncmaster 760V and, while I love it, it's got nothing on this little laptop's screen. I've always been picky about screens, and the fact that this one is the peer of any desktop monitor, and a hell of a lot brighter than the Tibook's, just leaves me tickled.

So what's not to like? Not much. There's a goofy extra button to the right of the keyboard which is inset and has the vpr logo on top of it. Pushing it either launches an introductory video or takes you to the vpr Matrix website, by default, but you can uninstall that easily enough, as they give you a link to do so. The pointing device on the machine is a trackpad, and given the "best of breed" mindset that pervades the rest of the design, I'm surprised they didn't bother to also include a pointer device, which is what I prefer.

Less of an annoyance is the absence of built-in BlueTooth, though that's added easily enough. A real disappointment is that they included the PC-standard 4-wire FireWire port, which doesn't provide power to FireWire peripherals that are plugged into it. One of the standard FireWire connectors and one of the smaller useless ones would've been a great compromise. This omission is fairly well mitigated, though, by the surprising inclusion of two USB 2.0 connectors on the back of the machine. That just plain kicks ass.

The vpr Matrix ships with Windows XP Home Edition by default, which is probably appropriate for most users. XP Home is just as stable and robust as XP Pro, and the only difference is that it can't log into a domain, doesn't include the Remote Desktop server, and can't install the IIS web server. Since I don't have a job, I don't need to worry about logging into a domain or connecting to my machine via Remote Desktop anymore. IIS is a bigger omission since I'm a web geek, but I can just run Apache with PHP and MySQL if I don't feel like reinstalling the OS to upgrade to XP Pro.

On any Windows machine that's this great at multimedia, the absence of any Windows equivalent to iMovie or iTunes really stands out. XP's photo management stuff is basically equivalent to iPhoto for my purposes, so I'm covered there, but if I had a DV cam, I'd be sorely disappointed with even the newly-released version of Windows Movie Maker. vpr also throws in Microsoft Works, in case you want to look at that for a while before you uninstall it to free up disk space.

The final verdict for me is that this is the best laptop I've ever owned. I know Windows far too well to consider converting to OS X any time soon, and the performance of even the fastest Macs still feels sluggish to me compared to the snappy response I'm used to on Windows boxes. But the attention to detail and sheer elegance of Apple's hardware is inarguably appealing. This vpr Matrix laptop seems to really have covered the best of both worlds, and to have exceeded its reputation as a mere imitation by showing a few flashes of innovation. There tend to be pretty deep discounts on the computer at Best Buy, which is the exclusive dealer for vpr machines. If you see one that's got a few hundred bucks off the cost and you're in the market for a new laptop, I'd strongly recommend it.

Side note: Long-time readers may recall that the last time I got a new notebook, I was shortly without a job. I am not ruminating on the significance of such things. Also, thanks to Andre for assistance in obtaining the notebook.

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