David Huff e-mailed me this morning about a Sotec 3120X laptop that sells at Office Depot, Wal-Mart, Sam’s, Bestbuy.com, and possibly other places, for around $900 and asked if I knew anything about it.
It would appear not many people do. I found a handful of discussions on Usenet, including a couple of people who claim to have bought one. They described it as quiet, cool-running, and fast. One user said it was faster than his Dell 1.4 GHz P4 at work. (Which I don’t doubt, because the P4 is a horribly inefficient chip–the Tualatin-based Celeron is the better processor, and with its 100 MHz FSB and 256K onboard cache, it’s very nearly a P3. Its specs aren’t far off from the last P3s, the chip Intel didn’t want to sell because it made the P4 look so bad.)

One user complained about the keyboard. The itty-bitty spacebar would drive me nuts. But the only laptop keyboards I’ve ever used and halfway liked were Thinkpads. You definitely pay for the privelige–the keyboards had better be good, considering the price.

Back to the Sotec. One user reported it’s less than an inch and a half thick. It has a mobile Celeron 1.2 GHz, a SiS 630T chipset (with integrated video), a 20 GB HD, 256 MB of SDRAM, 12.1″ LCD screen, LAN and modem built in, a combo DVD/CD-RW drive, and a PCMCIA slot for expansion. It weighs 4.4 pounds, and its lithium ion battery specifies a life expectancy of about 2.5 hours. It runs Windows XP Home.

What it doesn’t have: serial or parallel ports, floppy drive, or PS/2 ports. Definitely legacy-free here. Depending on your intentions, that may or may not matter to you. (I find myself dealing with floppies a lot more often than I’d like, but part of that is because of my job.) No Firewire either, so this isn’t an instant portable video-editing machine. One user reports its memory maxes out at 384 megs. Apparently there’s 128 megs non-replaceable, and another 128-meg stick you can replace with a 256 to get to 384.

So what about Sotec? A Usenet suggests they’re not a newcomer. A post from 1995 asked for parts for a 386sx notebook manufactured by the company. There are suggestions that Sotec has made notebooks for Gateway, Dell, and Winbook in the past.

The price is definitely right, and the feature set is definitely right. It’s not a performance laptop, but most people don’t need performance laptops. It’ll read e-mail and run a word processor and presentation graphics and browse the Web just fine.

Is it a risk? Absolutely. Any laptop is. But having all the stuff integrated minimizes compatibility concerns. One of my biggest gripes about laptops has always been getting them onto networks. Usually it’s easy. When it’s not, you can just about forget it. Or you can count on networking breaking something else.

That leaves reliability. The part that most often fails is the hard drive. That’s luck of the draw. I’ve seen a lot more dead Hitachi laptop drives than IBMs. Some of my readers agree with me. At least one tells me he sees lots of dead IBMs and never sees a dead Hitachi. But I know you can’t count on getting an IBM laptop drive even in an IBM Thinkpad–occasionally those ship with Hitachi drives.

All I can say is, keep a backup of any important data you’ll keep on this or any laptop. And be ready to buy a replacement hard drive in a year or two. At least they’re not terribly expensive.

Can I recommend it? Not without seeing it and spending some time with it. From looking at the picture, I think they tried to cram way too many keys into too small of a space and they’d have been much better off without some of them.

But the price is definitely right. It’s powerful enough to be useful until it dies. With 1.2 GHz of CPU muscle and 256 megs of RAM, it’ll always run Windows XP well, and if some future version of Windows manages to outgrow it, there’ll always be a Linux that’ll run very nicely on it. It’ll give much better battery life than a P4, and it’ll outrun any low-end P4 as well. (P4-based laptops aren’t a good buy right now.)

And it’s small and light, which I know matters a lot to some people. (I’m old enough to have serviced one of the old Compaq luggables. I never had to carry one with me, but since I know and remember those, I have a hard time listening to anyone complain about the size and weight of any modern laptop.) Don’t buy one sight unseen. But don’t write it off sight unseen either.