Reviewed by: Jeffrey Bernard Yozwiak
Review Date: August 2009
ComputerShopper-We'll leave it to economists and pundits to sort out whether this is indeed the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. What we do know for certain is that we’re all making sacrifices: cutting our spending, saving more, and searching for deals. At ComputerShopper.com, we’ve seen an undeniable surge in interest—from both readers and sellers—in low-cost computers, and part of that wave is the Aspire Timeline series from Acer. Dressed in an austere gray and promoted at Wal-Mart, among other outlets, these bare-bones notebooks are built for business users on a budget. The latest Timeline configuration we tested, the AS5810TZ-4657, is the largest of the line (it has a 15.6-inch screen) and lists for $598. (Note that at the time we wrote this, Wal-Mart had knocked down its selling price to $548, and other sellers had discounted this model, too.) But, in keeping with the times, this laptop will also demand you make some sacrifices. It has great battery life for a mainstream notebook, but its performance is mired somewhere between that of a low-end laptop and a netbook.
On the outside, this Timeline sports a dull, brushed-aluminum finish. It's not as flashy as some notebooks we’ve seen—if you want to stand out on a budget, try the HP Pavilion DV2-1030US—but it’s certainly professional-looking. Measuring in at 1x15x10 inches and weighing 5.3 pounds, the chassis is slim yet solid; we felt like we were typing on a slice of steel. And, without the glossy exterior finish that many of its competitors bear (including the Pavilion DV2-1030US), the Aspire 5810 Timeline is immune to fingerprint smudges.
Under the lid, the laptop hosts a luxurious full-size keyboard with a dedicated number-pad region. The keys are black, flat, and slick, with clear separation between the keys in what's commonly called a "Chiclet"-style design. Unlike the rest of the body, though, the key tops do become greasy with use. Our opinion of the keyboard is divided: We think the smooth (as opposed to sculpted) key surfaces make touch-typing tough, but we also love the keys’ snap and response.
The Chiclet-style keyboard is roomy and features a dedicated number pad. Media controls are via Fn-key combinations.
The touch pad, by contrast, has the same appealing, nonsmudging finish as the case, and its single left- and right-click button has a satisfactory click-feel. A separate, tiny button to the pad's right allows you to lock the touch pad—and, at times, you'll want to do so. The pad is very sensitive, and so much as a stray headphone cord can muddle your mousing. The touch pad also supports multitouch gestures, and here the pad's sensitivity is a plus; scrolling through text, zooming in on photos, and flipping through Web pages using two fingers is a lot of fun.
The wide-aspect-ratio screen measures 15.6 inches corner-to-corner and has a spacious native resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. The display can support a cinematic 16-to-9 aspect ratio, but we noticed that some of our favorite test DVDs—The Matrix, The Bourne Ultimatum, and Brazil—appeared a little washed-out on this LCD. Indeed, the screen had a mild paleness about it in other applications, too, evident even after much tweaking of brightness levels. Above the screen is a 1.3-megapixel Webcam; in our tests, it gave us a saturated image under most lighting conditions. We wouldn’t recommend it for videography (even with Acer’s Crystal Clear Webcam software), but it's fine for everyday video chats.
Acer Aspire 5810 Timeline
We didn't expect meaty sound from the morsel-size speakers. We were, alas, right.
Volume levels, and audio in general, were a slight disappointment in this model. The overall sound proved a bit muted. Granted, we didn’t expect much bass from the tiny speakers, but we couldn’t get the volume cranked up very loud, either. The Beethoven snippet included in Windows Vista's Media Center sounded clear enough in our tests, but at top volume it didn't pack much punch and evinced some clipping of high notes. Although the Aspire 5810 Timeline is not an ideal laptop for media lovers, it should suffice for users who mainly want to use productivity apps and browse the Web.
Indeed, our benchmark-testing regimen confirmed that those two classes of task are the best fit for this laptop. Performance heavily reflected the laptop's budget innards. The 5810TZ-4657 configuration we tested employs Intel's 1.3GHz Pentium SU2700 processor and 3GB of DDR3 RAM. The SU2700 is a recent, power-efficient addition to Intel's mobile-CPU armory; classed as a "CULV" processor (the acronym stands for "Consumer Ultra Low Voltage"), it's one of several new laptop-centric CPUs intended for use in low-cost, thin, mainstream laptops. Disconcertingly, though, the SU2700 is a single-core processor (not all CULV chips are), which foreshadowed the dismal numbers we saw on our tests.
On our PCMark Vantage test, which measures a computer's ability across a range of common hardware-usage scenarios, the Aspire 5810 Timeline eked out a score of 1,452—the lowest result we’ve seen from a mainstream, non-netbook notebook this year. The laptop also took almost 22 minutes to encode our standard test clip in Windows Media Encoder 9 (WME9), and 8.5 minutes to convert our 11 standard MP3 test files to AAC format in iTunes. In both cases, the Aspire 5810 Timeline lagged behind just about every comparably priced laptop we've bench-tested this year that wasn't an Atom-based netbook. And its score on Cinebench 10, a measure of CPU and graphics performance, was, at 1,387, very close to the trailing edge of the group.
At $599, we certainly don't expect the Aspire 5810 Timeline to take on dual- or quad-core laptops with dedicated graphics chips, but it could offer much more pep as a budget laptop. The Gateway NV5214u, for instance, recently managed a 2,261 score on our PCMark Vantage test, encoded our WME9 test video in less than 10 minutes, and converted our iTunes test tracks in about 6 minutes. Even though the Gateway’s performance isn’t stellar, the model we tested rang up at $500.
As you'd expect, with its integrated Intel graphics chipset (the GMA 4500MHD) and single-core Pentium engine, the Aspire 5810 Timeline isn't a fit gaming machine. At its native screen resolution, it achieved a score of 557 on our 3DMark06 test. (Once again, the less-pricey Gateway NV5214u scored higher.) Undemanding older games may run adequately at a dialed-back resolution, but we wouldn't expect much more. Think Bejeweled rather than Crysis.
You can't tell by looking, but the center two icons indicate push-buttons for data backup and a power-saving mode.
In our battery-rundown test, however, this laptop got its chance to shine. The Aspire 5810 Timeline's screen is energy-efficient and LED-backlit, and Acer’s patented PowerSmart technology senses when the laptop is unplugged and automatically reduces power-draining functions. (PowerSmart can also be activated by a button above the keyboard, although at first we mistook the button for a status light.) In our grueling battery-draining benchmark test—we play a DVD movie continuously until the laptop dies—the Aspire 5810 Timeline survived for an impressive 3 hours and 56 minutes. That’s longer than any other mainstream notebook that we've tested has endured, a testament to an efficient design and the power-sipping SU2700 processor. The thin-and-light MSI X-Slim X600, which crossed paths with the Timeline in our labs, came close in our battery test, but, then again, it costs about $200 more and lacks a built-in optical drive. Under lighter and more judicious usage, we suspect that the Aspire 5810 Timeline could last close to Acer's projection of a full 8 hours.
On the left edge, VGA and HDMI video outputs live side by side. Three USB ports here are joined by a fourth on the opposite edge.
The laptop offers plenty of connectivity options. You’ll find a two video outputs (old-school VGA and modern HDMI), as well as microphone and headphone jacks, and a Kensington-lock slot. The four USB 2.0 ports on the chassis are one more than the norm. The front edge of the laptop has a five-format memory-card reader and a handy indicator light that shows at a glance whether the battery is fully charged. The notebook can connect to the Net wirelessly over 802.11b/g Wi-Fi or cabled through the Ethernet jack.
As for the rest of the package, our test model had a spacious 320GB hard drive preloaded with the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium. Acer also includes 60-day trials of Microsoft Office Home and Student 2007 and McAfee Security Center, and it backs the machine with a one-year warranty. Other software includes eSobi Lite 2 (an RSS newsreader) and Acer Backup Manager, which is integrated nicely with the machine. By simply pressing a button above the keyboard (again, it’s tricky, because the button looks like a status light), you can trigger a backup to an external hard drive.
The Aspire 5810 Timeline may bear a low price, but it sacrifices some serious performance to make it possible. We did like its steel-gray finish and strong battery life, but even at the budget end of the spectrum, a laptop is a long-term investment for most users. If you’re looking to get the best value, spending a bit more for a peppier, more media-friendly machine will be the right move, unless your two big motivators are a big screen for spreadsheets and maximum off-the-plug runtime. (For alternatives, see our guide to shopping for a budget laptop.)
Price (at time of review): $598 (mfr. est., as tested)
27 August 2009
Posted by KwaxKwax at 9:10 PM