Okay, I think after 3 years I can post a good assessment on the early NEC Versa latpops.....though this is on my website, this is a custom shorthand VOGONS version......I'm thinking of eventually nabbing 2 M/75's or an M/100 as I've determined those to be the best of the lot in performance, construction, battery life, and reliability.
Ultralite Versa (20, 25, 33MHz)
Released in 1993, discontinued in 1994. These were the first version, and a continuation on the "UltraLite" line. They differ from the other models in that the i486 DX SL CPU runs at the bus clock, not double or quadruple. This might make them better for older DOS Games that run too fast on something DX2 or faster (Though most games were well throttled by this point for faster hardware). The two most common versions of these are the 25Mhz Versa 25C and the 33MHz NCR badged version called the NCR Safari 3180. They came in color (C models) and Pen (P and CP models).
- probably the best battery life of the lot
- Active Matrix Screens seem pretty standard on these
- 2x PCMCIA Slots, so if you can find sound or WiFi, it's availible
- Handles ATA-133 drives pretty well with a DDO (I Suggest OnTrack, especially if using a Dock and want to boot from CD)
- 20MB Memory Ceiling
- 528MB HDD Maximum Size w/o DDO
- No Trackball
- Monochrome more common on this version
- Has a bigger power supply (though the smaller later Versa E and later PSU will work).
- Fair parts availability and interchangeability (memory, screens, keyboards, batteries)
- Plastic cracks the worst of the five lines
- Tends to have issues with leaky caps taking out other parts of the motherboard (2 at the front for the power section in particular)
- Seems these also get power supply issues fairly often (will not boot)
- CMOS Battery requires desoldering and dissassembly
Versa E (40, 50, 75MHz) & Versa V (40, 50, 75Mhz)
Released in late 93' or early 94', these were a DX2 upgrade to the originals. They dropped the "UltraLite" name from the model. The E-series has a detachable screen and labels that just say "Versa" on them, the V has a non-detachable screen and labels that say "Versa V/40" "Versa V/50" or "Versa V/75" on them. The 40EC and V/50C are the two most common versions of these laptops. These tend to run more like a 486 DX2-66 desktop (non SL) and bat well above their weight class performance wise.
- Active matrix seems to come standard on the majority, Monochrome or DTSN is a rarity
- Feels like a much faster system, the 40MHz E-series hits more like a DX2-66 would
- Most lax of the lot regarding HDD
- Will run 95 more than comfortably for basic use
- Better parts availability than the other models (batteries, keyboards, screens, memory, HDD, etc.)
- Good CMOS Battery placement (Versa V only - longer battery door hosts 2340 coin cell)
- 20MB Memory Ceiling
- 528MB Hard Disk Maximum size w/o DDO
- Bios Simplified (Versa V only)
- The 1995 Model Versa V seems to exclude an extra screw in the case, but seems to have better plastic than the E (Cracks less)
- Non-user removable screen (Versa V series only)
- Motherboard issues seem common on these, especially the Versa E, luckily they are $20.00 from a place in CA
- No Soundcard
- Plastic cracks on hinge, hinge cover, under battery compartment(s), and the PCMCIA door tends to break off
- CMOS Battery requires disassembly to access
- Third most fragile on the list
Versa M (75/100 MHz 486)
The Versa "M" series (Multimedia) were released in 1994 and are the best units I've found from personal use, on this list. I've owned two, and while one crumbled (12/94) the other one has been a tank (5/94). The model designations for the Versa M are C (color 640p), CP (Color with pen, 640p), TC (True Color, 640p), and HC (High Resolution Color, 800p). It seems the majority of these were C and TC models, with a few HC models eeking out here and there.
- Seem to be the strongest on the list plastic and structurally. Even with cracked plastic they seem to hold together much better than the other models.
- Improvements to the VersaTrak tends to promote stability of the device
- 486 DX4-100 CPU performs extremely well even on some Windows 95 applications intended for lower-end Pentium based machines
- Can use the same batteries as the old Versa V/E/UltraLIte, or the new Smart Batteries which get longer life & longevity due to a management controller
- Not sure why keyboards vary so much by the M-series seems to have the least trouble with sticky keys or an odd "Feel" to the keyboard
- Windows Sound System Audio tends to provide CD Quality Audio in most programs as it's hard wired to that
- Seems the least finicky with BIOS settings and HDD
- Higher 40MB Memory Ceiling
- More Socketed components (easier to fix if something like the extra 4MB on-board RAM or Display controller dies)
- Audio is Windows Sound System Compatible Crystal CS-4231-KQ with no OPL (at least not on the M/75 models, still not sure about the M/100)
- 640x480 units come with a NEC NL6448AC30-10 panel that has small flickering issues sometimes due to aging in the power control board
- Screens not interchangeable on TC models due to a LCD controller board that's different - but can be swapped with a regular M/75 control board for the 800/640/touch screens
- 640x480 non TC models can be upgraded to 800x600 if they have the right connecting board and user is proficient with soldering
- No OPL on the M/75 (might be true for M/100 as well), so no SoundBlaster Music
- WSS compatible audio chipset only works with games with certain audio engines not found on most DOS Games
- CMOS Battery is hidden under the endoskeleton inside, is a strange barrel-type shape, and oddly they seem to not leak nor die/not take a charge
Versa P (75 MHz Pentium)
This was the last version in this first series (before the 2000/4000/6000 series were released). They are less as sturdy as the M-series, actually the 2nd worst on this list, but they have SoundBlaster Compatible Audio, but the Pentium 75 MHz CPU is "Bus Castrated" because it's still tethered to the same general chipset and underpinnings as a 486-based Versa M/75. Put head to head with an M/75, the speed increase is marginal at best. The battery life can also be slightly longer due to a few tiny improvements in APM, but it's still not enough to knock the M/75 off the top.
- SoundBlaster Compatible Audio Chipset (ESS688), requires no TSRs or Drivers to work with most DOS games
- Pentium 75 CPU IS slightly faster, but only just slightly, only just barely noticeable
- Slightly better APM
- Some might come with a 10.4" Screen instead of a 9.4" (later units got this upgrade)
- seems the screen plastics are much better on these models
- Pentium CPU is bus castrated by antiquated 80486 based chipset behind it, but might help pass those "requires Pentium" pre-launch checks with some software
- The vast majority of these tend to come in the 800x600 "HC" variant, so if you don't like letterboxing this might be a problem, seems worse on the 10.4" models
- Case integrity is the second worst, being as these tend to crack across the front, the doors tend to all crack off, and bad integrity causes problems with CMOS , track ball, and sound card working
- harder to get parts for because you can't switch in certain parts from other Versa models due to all the special changes made to accommodate a Pentium CPU (relocation for thermals & Circuitry)
- Bus castrated, so performance is more on par with a i486 DX4-120 than a Pentium 75 CPU. Might have been better to make a M/133 and put a Am5x86 133 in there.
Overall, the M is the winner IMHO. The only thing to really make it better is a PCMCIA Sound card, which I"m tempted to start working on one of my own, and a member of this forum has one in the works as well.
1.) Versa M - best structural integrity, good audio (when compatible), and seems to be electronically the most reliable of the lot
2.) Versa V - better plastics than the other three, extremely reliable electronically, does have the flickering 640p screen of the Versa "M" though
3.) Versa E - plastic integrity is the third worst, motherboard issues, particularly involving power, make this on ea bit trickier to reccommend with nothing to offset the trouble spots
4.) Versa P - while it's the best for gaming overall the structural integrity due to reduced support points to accomodate a bus castrated Pentium puts it 2nd to Last
5.) Ultralite - No trackball, weird CMOS stuff, Cracking plastics worst than any, plus non-module-setup motherboard make this the worst model
SUGGESTED SETUP TIPS FOR M-SERIES FOR BEST EXPERIENCE
On my M/75, I'm setup like this. I have 2 HDD, one with Win95/WFW311/DOS7.01 (80GB), and one with FreeDOS 2.1 (80GB). Both drives are loaded with ISO files for all of my CD-ROM games ripped and put on there. In DOS you can do this using omi, which is a part of the SHSUCDX package (if you have a CD-ROM for the parallel port or docking station).
Memory is topped out to 40MB (32MB Card installed). For WiFi I have a Cisco Aironet LMC-352 installed in the top PCMCIA Slot which I tether to my cell phone (which is limited to one client per settings) for internet access anywhere. One Smart Battery can get me as much as 2 hours of battery life if I maintain it properly, run it down at least once a month, do occasional reconditioning, and drain it enough to get rid of any crystalline shorts - this is achieved by the lower-power ATA-133HDD, keeping power management high when on battery, and turnning the brightness to the lowest setting with HI-Lite (NEC feature that turns text in DOS stark white) off. If I put in an LED backlight kit in the LCD, I'm sure I could get battery life even higher. You could get even more time swapping the floppy drive with a second battery.
The Docking Station is currently setup with a high speed 48x CD-RW burner. It also has spots for a second floppy, which I'm planning to put a 5.25" floppy low-profile drive in at some point, and possibly an extra HDD with a backup of drivers for the whole Versa series on it to make rebuilding systems easier. You could even throw a Gameblaster or TNDY card in there for even more audio support, or in lieu of a SB Comaptible PCMCIA card, put a Soundblaster card in there of some kind so at least you have that capability when docked.
On the subject of 800x600 vs 640x480, I've found the later models (P/75, M/xxx) better for DOS gaming in general in that the scaling in DOS games is proper as the older models get letterboxed even on the 640p LCD panels (bars on top and bottom). Also, the 800x600 allows for use of some of the weirder modes in emulators like MAME or NESticle where none of the screen is cut-off when undocked. You will have letterboxing though.
UNIVBE has excellent support on these laptops and truly speeds up the C&T 65545 chipset incredibly. Things like GTA and GTA London run smoothly, and things like Quake, Whiplash, and Virtual Karts run comfortably enough to be fun at the lowest graphics settings in DOS. It also seems to help in WIndows a bit when it comes to games like Postal, Doom, or DIablo, though it can be glitchy depending on version of SciTech Display Doctor/UniVBE you are using.
So I think that puts out there what I think of these. I know nobody asked, but I figure - might as well put this info out before I start working on researching the 2000/4000/6000 series, and the earlier models too (Ultralite SL).