Eurocom rocked us with the most powerful per-pound choice in a notebook that we've seen to date. The Panther 5SE came with 4TB of storage, 64GB of DIMM3 memory and eight Xeon cores. You won't find the Panther at the big-box retailers the version we tested runs $7,500. But we rate this device highly for its extreme flexibility and muscularity.
Eurocom specializes in deceptively powerful machines in notebook formats (or all-in-one-piece desktops). When they first approached us to review the product, we looked at their website. It has the Chinese Menu effect of too many choices, but then we started thinking about the choices. What Eurocom eventually delivered was a server-grade machine in an industrial notebook form factor -- minus the kevlar-and-concrete-wall aesthetics of most hefty industrial notebooks.
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Most notebook form-factor machines have been in decline for various reasons. One of them, we feel, is the inability for any sort of reasonable customization. At most, one can choose a bigger hard drive or memory, perhaps an operating system change, or it's on to the next model. Eurocom's choices, we found, are almost the antithesis of the cookie-cutter approach.
Pound for pound -- and they're plentifully heavy -- Eurocom's notebooks might voted "Most Likely To Succeed In A Variety Of Demanding Situations". We found a few small quirks, but we were also fascinated by how much stuff can be crammed into a notebook form factor.
What You Get
As mentioned, Eurocom asked what we wanted. We responded: put your best foot forward. The model they selected is the Panther 5SE, and it has many, many possible assembly combinations. At a hefty 12 pounds it weighs more than double our Lenovo T530s and four times a MacBookAir. And that doesn't include the power supply.
But the weight isn't a bad thing, nor are the four hefty fans on the bottom of the unit. This beast of a notebook is designed for actual work. You can have pretty much anything from VMware or Linux or, as in our case, Windows Server 2012 boot up. It has RAID arrays available, serious storage options in conventional fast hard drives, or if you're not budget-challenged -- SSDs. It has four drives inside. There's an Intel Xeon e5-2687w with not two or four cores -- there are eight. Instead of just 8GB of memory max, the machine came with 32GB.
The fit-and-finish of the Panther 5SE is nice enough that we'd hesitate to put the Eurocom into an easily scratched service, like into a public-safety vehicle or a construction company trailer. Instead, while it could be used in these places, Eurocom's aesthetics are probably more poised to the road warrior who needs not only the Eurocom, but voluminous VMs, and or other machines in a network configuration.
As a laptop, it would plentifully breeze our legs; because of its four bottom-side mounted fans, we suggest it be placed on a table unless you need your lunch heated on your lap.
Look and feel
The unit shipped to us had a 17"-inch display, high-density raster, and a fast chipset that sports an Intel Xeon 3.1GHz processor with eight cores/16 threads. This CPU alone is worth more than the price of a MacBook Air at retail. There's a full 101 keyboard, and although it doesn't have sculptured keys, the keys are rectangular and have a reasonable feel to them for touch typists.
The keyboard's QWERTY keys are pushed to left-of-center, and getting used to the key positions vs. the centered touch pad and mouse keys proved initially disconcerting. We found ourselves needing to additionally lift our hands, as the height of the keyboard is not quite two inches above the plane of the desk that it sits on.
In the center of the touchpad/mouse button combo is a fingerprint reader that worked correctly for Windows 2012. The combination of the keyboard offset and the unusual reader/touchpad/mouse buttons took longer for us to adjust to than we anticipated. We also needed to move the adjustments for the touchpad as it didn't seem to match the display geometry well, but the adjustment took only seconds until we were happy with it.
The display is a 17-inch full-HD (FHD or 1920x1080) bright LED display. It has a glossy surrounding bezel rather than matte coating, which in areas with many light sources could make the display perimeter awkwardly reflective, although the display is clear, vivid, and responded quickly with no perceived image persistence.
There is a 5.1 speaker system installed, a rarity in most notebooks, but we rated the fidelity as just "good" and the "subwoofer" is inaudible if there's any background noise. In a quiet room, however, we decided it was a good multimedia machine. Gamers and content producers might salivate.
Aiding multimedia are a number of output jacks for audio and video, including DisplayPort v1.2; DVI-I (SL); HDMI 1.4a out w/HDCP; headphone; microphone; S/PDIF output; and (audio) line-in. There's a full 30fps onboard camera built into the top of the display bezel as well. Skype never looked so good.
Storage holds a max of 4TB today, a factor of how many small drives can be installed in the form factor. The drives can be made into several combinations in terms of RAID, and can also be composed of SSD drives. External storage can be connected through a Fireware 800 jack or through USB 3 and USB 2 jacks.
Cloud or network attachment comes through a Gigabit Ethernet jack or an integral WiFi 802.11b/g/n/n+ connection. An ExpressCard slot on the side of the metal chassis could accommodate more network connections like LTE or other services, but we didn't test the ExpressCard connection.
Eurocom sent our test unit with an Intel E5-2687W that clocks at 3.1GHz. It has eight cores and sixteen threads, and so makes for a rational NOC-grade 1U equivalent server platform. This Xeon uses 150 watts of power and has plentiful processing capabilities -- as well as a lot of waste heat to dissipate. Despite that fact, Eurocom's 5SE chassis wasn't loud -- but it wasn't completely quiet, either.
Eurocom supplied Windows 2012 Server Edition installed -- although it missed a few simple default settings which we quickly fixed -- and Windows 2008 R2 Server editions along with Windows 7 or 8 can be ordered. Also available is RedHat Linux, and as that's true, other Linux distributions should be able to work correctly, too, although we didn't extensively test this. VMware ESXi can also be installed and finds the drives correctly, unlike a few other servers that needed support media.
The server is ready to roll quickly. We say that, and then remember that its form-factor is actually that of an overgrown notebook.
Several weeks of using the server in the labs drew mostly praise. Uniformly, we feel the keyboard placement is awkward in relationship to the touchpad. It's wickedly heavy for some, but easy to change components -- it passed the "can I use a coin to tighten everything" test. Speed was glorious, but we occasionally had trouble booting from a flash drive so that we could install new hypervisors or operating systems in the USB-3 jacks. Were we to have had SSDs installed, the disk performance would have been faster, but we had no real complaints, just that the SATA drive speeds aren't as fast as 1U servers containing fast SAS drives. Eurocom can solve this; it just takes money. And if Eurocom wants this to be a server, it arguably needs more Ethernet ports and remote administration.
Although the unit has a metal case that's good looking, we felt we might be able to scratch its high gloss finish with comparative ease. The keyboard bezel surface uses anodized metal, and would be tough to scratch unless gouged. Still, we would hesitate putting the 5SE into a public safety vehicle, ambulance, truck, or dispatch unit. Perhaps it might survive but we didn't want to attempt it. It doesn't have "industrial" looks, which is a two-edged sword. Road warriors doing heavy work may not care if it gets a few marks.
The Eurocom Panther 5SE notebook server has good looks, and more importantly: very serious power for its form-factor. It's vastly heavier than a typical notebook but has the guts of a hefty 1U, NOC-grade server inside. It can be backpacked, but you'll need to exercise first. It's wickedly expensive, but has high value for its form factor and flexibility.
Henderson is principal researcher for ExtremeLabs, of Bloomington, Ind. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This story, "Eurocom Panther 5SE: The Incredible Hulk of notebook computers" was originally published by Network World.