Look and feel
When it comes to laptops, there are only so many screen sizes to choose from, which means the AS5830 is just about the umpteenth notebook we've seen with a 15.6-inch display. And yet, it manages to stand out among the pile of test laptops currently sitting on our desk. Mostly, that's a function of its elongated, flattened shape. At 14.88 inches across, it's as wide as the 15.6-inch HP Pavilion dv6, though it looks
more expansive. Part of the reason for that is that the TimelineX is all about clean lines and sharp corners, whereas the dv6 and others use rounded-off edges to create the illusion that they're saving space.
In fact, the laptop comes dangerously close to being boxy, except for one important thing: it's thin. All told, the AS5830 measures just an inch thick at its skinniest point, swelling to 1.23 inches at its chunkiest. That compares with the dv6, whose profile narrows from 1.39 inches to 1.23. At 5.6 pounds, it's about on par with the 5.54-pound Dell XPS 15z
about a fifth of a pound lighter than the dv6, to name just one example. Trust us when we say you can feel the difference.
As far as looks go, this is one of the more aggressively industrial laptops we've seen in a long time, and based on the comments
y'all left when it was first announced, we have a feeling shoppers are either going to love it or hate it. Available in black and a "cobalt" blue that looks more like navy, the entire Timeline family has aluminum lids and keyboard decks, though the bottom side is decidedly plastic. Both the palm rest and the display feel sturdy, and we're sure that aluminum casing is part of the reason this system feels relatively light in the hands.
It's underneath the lid that the system starts to reveal its macho side. Hold on tight, kids, because there's a lot going on here. First you've got a black chiclet keyboard sitting atop a layer of matte, gray aluminum. That silvery color stretches above the keyboard, and extends in between the keys, but it suddenly stops short, bumping up against a navy blue (or black) palm rest. And we mean it when we say "bump up against" -- the keys panel sits on a lower plane than either the speaker strip or palm rest, so that when you lift the lid you'll see ridges flanking the top and bottom of the keyboard.
We're not done yet. You'll also notice some conspicuous Dolby Home Theater branding on the speaker, a prominent TimelineX logo in the upper right-hand corner of the palm rest and an arrow painted on the touchpad to show where you can use two fingers to scroll. There are also two LED lights above the keyboard, along with a PowerSmart button for optimizing battery settings while unplugged (more on that later). On the bottom side, the six-cell battery creates a bulge interrupting the flat, thin profile. Throw in some stickers and you've got a design that's just a little too busy.
The good news is that the AS5830 comes well-stocked with ports, including three USB 2.0 sockets (and one of the 3.0 persuasion), HDMI- and VGA-out, an Ethernet jack, Kensington lock slot, 5-in-1 memory card reader and headphone and mic ports. That one inch-thick chassis also leaves room for a DVD burner. The one thing you'll want to keep in mind is that the three USB 2.0 ports sit next to each other in a row on the right side, so you might want to use a cable-extending dongle in case having three peripherals plugged in at once proves too crowded a setup.
As for the 1.3 megapixel webcam, we were pleasantly surprised by the warm, but well-lit image quality. Our images weren't the sharpest -- hair tends to look like a smudge of pixels -- but the camera does
pick up on some details, such as chapped lips and wrinkled clothes.
Keyboard and trackpad
It's funny: the AS5830's keyboard surprised us where we expected to be disappointed, and let us down where we didn't envision any problems. Starting with the good news, this is one sturdy panel -- more rigid, perhaps, than you'd expect on a budget system. Even as we pounded out emails and news posts we didn't feel any bend or flex in the 'board and in fact, we settled in so nicely that we ended up typing much of this review on it. The keys themselves have a faintly textured finish -- a reassuring kind of tactility. We should warn you that they make a tinny, high-pitched clack
, a springy, occasionally distracting sound.
Ultimately, though, the keyboard is odd not because of its sound effects, but because of its uneven proportions. On the one hand, you've got a full number pad -- something many 15-inchers don't offer. The keyboard's expansive, and like we said, there's plenty of room on that long chassis to squeeze in lots of keys. And yet, as a way of making it all fit, Acer shrunk some of the most important buttons, such as Ctrl, Tab, Caps Lock and the left Shift key. We might have resigned ourselves to this kind of corner-cutting if this were a netbook, but on a mainstream laptop we'd expect all of the keys to be full-sized. Not that that impeded our accuracy; it just meant having to pause ever-so slightly whenever we wanted to pull off a keyboard shortcut, as our fingers often missed the buttons if we went too fast.
Another reason we so got comfy with the AS5830, we think, is that the trackpad and touch buttons just work
. The pad is small enough that you might assume it doesn't support multi-touch gestures. In fact, it does, and they work beautifully. Pinching and zooming is especially smooth, which is a shame, since there isn't quite enough room to stretch those digits out. Two-fingered scrolling works, too, though you'll have to train yourself to apply a little extra pressure and keep your fingers in the well-marked scrolling zone. Couple this no-drama trackpad with some simple, tactile buttons and you're golden. Sure, the buttons are a tad narrow for most fingers and they, too, make a clacky sound, but they're easy to press -- not too mushy, and definitely not too stiff. The AS5830 isn't what we'd call pretty, but it at least gets the trackpad and buttons right -- a feat when all too many stylish laptops drop the ball.
Display and sound
We've been around the block and reviewed enough laptops over the years to know that even among reflective displays, the AS5830's 15.6-inch (1366 x 768) panel is particularly shiny. Have a gander at the gallery above and decide for yourselves, but in our humble opinion, the screen looks cheaper than what you'd find on other systems. As you might expect, that glare translates to uneven viewing angles. On the one hand, we were pleasantly surprised at how much we could see when watching from way off on the side. And yet, if you push the lid forward even slightly, the screen becomes too washed out to really enjoy it. This was true whether we rested the laptop on a table or on our legs. Suffice it to say, fiddling with the display until you stumble on the right angle gets old fast.
As for that Dolby speaker strip, the audio quality is slightly richer than what you'd get out of a garden-variety laptop, but even on bass-heavy songs you can still hear some tinny sounds creeping in, especially at higher volumes.
For $799.99, the AS5830TG-6402 comes armed with a 2.3GHz Core i5-2410M processor, 6GB of RAM, a 640GB 5,400RPM hard drive and a discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M graphics card with Optimus and 1GB of DDR3 video memory. Not bad, considering an HP Pavilion dv6
with the same processor and integrated Intel graphics rings in at $770, making the Timeline's 520M card a tempting alternative. As a budget machine, this is aimed at folks interested in email, web browsing and Netflix streaming, and based on our hands-on testing, it's more than up to the task. Like we said, we wrote a sizable chunk of this review on the AS5830TG, all while jumping back and forth between tabs, gabbing away on GChat, loading PDFs in the browser, reading various news sites and Googling an untold number of things. The machine also booted in 43 seconds, which is fast for a Windows machine of any size.
Acer TimelineX AS5830TG-6402 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M)
Dell XPS M15z (2.7GHz Core i7-2620M, NVIDIA GeForce GT525M)
3:41 (Optimus disabled) / 4:26 (Optimus enabled)
HP Pavilion dv6t (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000)
2011 HP Envy 14 (2.3GHz Core i5-2410M, Intel HD Graphics 3000 / AMD Radeon HD 6630M)
Notes: the higher the score the better. For 3DMark06, the first number reflects score with GPU off, the second with it on.
Since Acer first launched the Timeline series back in 2009, the outfit's been talking up the line's stellar battery life. The AS5830 doesn't disappoint -- it offers pretty long runtime for a laptop this size. All told, the six-cell battery lasted six hours and 25 minutes in our standard rundown, which involves playing the same movie on repeat with WiFi on and the display brightness fixed at 65 percent. That's almost four hours longer than the Sandy Bridge-powered 2011 HP Pavilion dv6t, which gave out just two hours and forty-two minutes into the test. It also bests the Dell XPS M15z, another thin 15-incher, which lasted four hours and 26 minutes with Optimus disabled (otherwise, it craps out 45 minutes sooner). So the AS5830 stacks up nicely.
Like we said, Acer has some built-in technology (dubbed PowerSmart) designed to optimize battery life. Really, it's just a launch key above the keyboard that allows you to switch to Acer's power management settings. It's not that much different than if Acer added its own profile to the list in Power Options; now, it's just easier for low-tech types to enable it. Because the technology's meant to extend longevity, you can only use it when the system is unplugged. When you do press that button, it'll glow blue to let you know it's working, and you'll also see a graphic of a battery and earth-friendly leaf briefly flash on-screen. As for the power management profile, it'll knock the brightness down to 30 percent, which was a tad too dim for us, even in a brightly lit office.
If you know anything about Acer, you know the company isn't big on letting customers build their systems to order. With Gateway PCs, too, the outfit would rather announce several configs with enough variation to cover a few price points. In case you were hoping to spend even less, Acer is also selling the $599.99 AS5830T-6862, which forgoes that USB 3.0 port and steps down to integrated Intel graphics.
And, of course, it's worth repeating that the TimelineX spans several screen sizes, with two 13-inch models in the US fetching $649.99 and $779.99, respectively, and a lone 14-incher that costs $699.99. Rather than delve into those other weight classes here, we'll just go ahead and drop the product page down in the "More Coverage" area.
Make no mistake: 15-inch laptops remain hugely popular, as they represent the perfect combination of portability and usability for lots of folks. It doesn't hurt that they tend to be cheaper than their 12-, 13-, and 17-inch counterparts. The point is you'll have no shortage of options if a mainstream laptop is what you're after. Here are some biggies to look out for.
Starting with Dell, you could go for the Inspiron 15 ($449.99 and up) or the slimmed-down Inspiron R (starting at $599.99), but neither is offered with discrete graphics. And though you can get the Inspiron R with the same Core i5 CPU found in this here TimelineX, the base plain-Jane Inspiron only ships with a Core i3-380M. Instead, Dell's most likely competitor to the Timeline is the XPS 15z, a 0.97-thin laptop that starts at
$999.99 with a GeForce GT 525M graphics card, 4GB of RAM, the same Core i5 CPU and a 500GB 7,200RPM hard drive. What's more, it's configurable with add-ons that include a Blu-ray player and 1080p display. The downside, if you'll recall, is that the battery life is shorter and, well, it looks suspiciously like a several generations-old MacBook Pro, which might not be your cup of tea.
From top to bottom: the Gateway NV55, HP Pavilion dv6 and the Acer TimelineX AS5830.
Not to be outdone, HP also has multiple contenders. Starting at the lower end, there's the Pavilion g6s, which starts at $599.99 with a Core i3 processor, 6GB of RAM and a 640GB 5,400RPM hard drive, though if you wanted to bring it on par with the TimelineX you could upgrade to the same Core i5 processor for $75 and get AMD Radeon HD 6470M graphics with either 512MB or 1GB of video memory -- $50 and $100 upgrades, respectively. Here, too, Acer has some competition in the "bang for your buck" department.
Oddly, if you move up HP's lineup to the Pavilion dv6t, you'll find that the playing field levels a good deal. The base $749.99 configuration is pretty darn comparable to our AS5830 unit, with the same processor and hard drive size and speed, though it trades discrete graphics for 6GB of RAM and integrated Intel graphics. Once you upgraded to that 6470M card with 512MB of RAM, you'd be paying what you would for this Timeline. You'd be left with more memory, but the dv6t we've been testing dishes up shorter battery life, so that's something to consider.
Then there's Toshiba, which is undercutting everyone with the $529 Satellite L750D
. This 15-incher has a quad-core AMD Fusion A6 APU, a 640GB hard drive and 4GB of RAM -- not to mention, of course, the discrete-class AMD graphics built onto the same die as the processor. We can't speak for its performance and battery life, though we're optimistic about its graphics capability, and suspect students and other folks on a budget will look twice.
You know who's not offering a bargain, though? Sony. The company's 15-inch C series laptop that starts at $729.99 has wholly lesser specs than the TimelineX, including a Core i3 CPU, a 320GB hard drive and integrated Intel graphics. As for Apple, we're not going to dwell on any comparisons with the MacBook Pro, since the 15-inch MBP starts at $1,799 with a quad-core Core i7 processor, switchable graphics and 1GB of video memory, putting it in a completely different budget category. Something tells us prospective MBP buyers won't be considering the 15-inch TimelineX, and vice versa.
Like other laptop makers, Acer went and bundled a mix of its own software tools as well as some third-party apps. You'll see the usual suspects on there - namely, Microsoft Office 2010 McAfee security software. But the list runs longer, and also includes bloatware such as Norton Online Backup, an eBay shortcut, Times Reader, Nook for PC and Windows Live Essentials.
As for Acer's own apps, the roster includes Acer Backup Manager, USB Charge Manager, Registration, screensaver and Updater. The company also bundled clear.fi
, a tool it loads onto lots of Acer machines (and, lately, tablets
) that allows the user to wirelessly stream media between devices.
We can't promise whether you'll love or loathe the TimelineX series' industrial, color-blocked design, but we'll say this much: this mid-range 15-inch laptop grew on us. We're finicky about our laptops (aren't we all?), and yet we quickly grew comfy with it nonetheless. It might not be the prettiest notebook on the shelf at Best Buy, but the sturdy keyboard and reliable trackpad alone make this a sensible choice -- and that's not even delving into the longer-than-average battery life. It's also thinner and lighter than competing models, making it that much easier to schlep around campus (or, you know, from room to room).
Still, with the exception of that impressive battery life, the AS5830 is a forgettable machine, with both its performance and design skewing middle-of-the-road. To give just one example, for just a hundred bucks more you could get the HP Envy 14, one of the most stunning notebooks we've seen, with the same processor and 6GB of RAM, along with switchable graphics and a full gigabyte of video memory. And that's not even mentioning the tempting machines that cost the same as the AS5830 or less. Put differently, you can't go wrong with it; we just suspect you can do better.