The Acer Aspire 1363WLMi is a budget laptop on steroids, available for £760 inc VAT in the UK. What's nice about Acer's range is that you can choose a full-featured laptop like this in terms of screen, RAM, disk capacity, optical drive capability, and WI-FI, without blowing the budget by having those features tied to the latest (and most expensive) processor ranges. It's the best value laptop deal I've come across.
Mobile Sempron 3000+
15.4 inch, 1280x800 wide screen display
GeForce FX Go5200 with 64Mb dedicated RAM
10/100 wired LAN
802.11b/g wireless LAN
Windows XP Home with SP2 pre-installed
The fullest spec sheet I've found, which includes optical drive format compatibility and supported read/write speeds, is (strangely) here:
To get a feel for what the laptop is like physically, take the virtual tour link on this page:
AMD's Mobile Sempron seems to be a good compromise processor for a budget laptop. In terms of out-and-out performance, the 3000+ looks like a match for the highest-spec and highest-premium Pentium M's available today (1.7-2.0GHz). It can't match the battery life of a Pentium M, but at the same time it's more practical than a transplanted desktop processor, running cooler than the latter and yielding a battery life somewhere between the two.
Sandra 2004 CPU Arithmetic
Dhrystone ALU : 8284MIPS
Whetstone FPU : 2845MFLOPS
Whetstone iSSE2 : 3688MFLOPS
The Sempron matches a 2.0GHz Pentium M on this benchmark.
Sandra 2004 CPU Multi-Media
Integer : 17182
FP : 18311
The Sempron matches a 1.8GHz Pentium M on this benchmark.
Sciencemark 2.0 Beta
Molecular Dynamics: 103.4 seconds
The Sempron matches a 2.0GHz Pentium M on this benchmark.
Reports vary, but this would seem to put the Sempron roughly on a par with a Pentium M 1.8
I tried and failed to run PCMark04 (some kind of DivX configuration problem), so all I have to offer is a couple of file system benchmarks that put performance about where you'd expect a well-configured 4200 rpm drive to be.
Sandra 2004 File System
Average access: 12 ms (est)
HD Tune: IC25N060ATMR04-0 Benchmark
Transfer Rate Minimum : 14.2 MB/sec
Transfer Rate Maximum : 27.1 MB/sec
Transfer Rate Average : 21.7 MB/sec
Access Time : 18.1 ms
Burst Rate : 69.3 MB/sec
I didn't expect great things from the Go5200, so I wasn't disappointed by its poor performance on benchmarks exercising newer DirectX features. This was never going to be a machine for the hardcore 3D gamer.
CPU Score: 491
What you get
First impression out-of-the box was that this was quite a hefty laptop. It's approximately the same width as an Amilo A1630, but an inch deeper and half an inch thicker. It's the same weight as the Amilo, though, and that coupled with its extra volume somehow conspire to make it feel lighter than you expect when you pick it up. Build-wise, it feels pleasantly solid.
The keyboard is comfortably placed for typing, and the touchpad has a good feel. The keyboard isn't perfect - slight vertical travel towards the centre, and daft Pg Up/Down placement among them - but nothing I haven't already got used to. The touchpad buttons are apparently notoriously on the stiff side on many Acer machines, and this one is no exception. My workaround has been to program everything onto the touchpad itself (e.g. using tap zones), and that done I never go near the buttons at all.
In addition to the laptop itself and its battery (fully charged), the box contained the power supply, Windows XP license bumf and a full set of recovery CDs, a copy of Norton AntiVirus on CD, and some rather terse manuals.
Having booted it, run through the XP setup, and logged in, it then kicks off some aditional Acer-specific setup. This installs various bits and pieces, then sets the display to its native resolution of 1280x800. The screen looks gorgeous; bright and sharp, viewable from a wide range of angles, and with all pixels present and correct. It's as good as any I've seen, and not at all washed-out like some other wide-screen laptop displays I've looked at. I'm not particularly fond of the new wave of highly reflective displays, though, so my opinon on this could be unrepresentative.
The disk is split evenly across two FAT32 partions, plus a small system partition containing a restore image. Still deciding whether to bother to reformat one or both of them to NTFS.
Both wired and wireless LAN now work fine on my home network. It successfully established an 802.11g 54MBs link with my wireless access point, and 802.11b fallback works fine too.
I did have a problem for a time with periods during which the wireless link would seem to go up and down like a yo-yo, a problem which the other two laptops on the same network didn't seem to share. Windows update offered me a driver upgrade which I took, and since then the problem hasn't come back. Fingers crossed anyway. I use a slightly unusual wireless access point (an Apple AirPort Express) and it's quite possible that those with more mainstream hardware wouldn't suffer the same way with the pre-installed drivers.
It took some time to track down concretely what the optical drive supports and what it doesn't (see link above). To date all I've done with it is written a few audio CDs from iTunes, a DVD-R backup disk at 2x, and some DVD+R backup disks at 4x. I did experiment with higher write speeds, but 2x max to -R and 4x max to +R seem accurate.
Battery life and heat
I've gone through a battery cycle with it many times now, each time connected wirelessly for the duration, typically doing a mix of tasks including browsing, downloading and installing software, and running the odd benchmark. Average work time to the 10% warning has been in the region of 2 and a quarter hours. This is with the laptop left in the Portable/Laptop power mode, allowing the CPU to throttle up on demand. I guess with WI-FI powered down and power mode set at Max Battery something close to the 3 hour battery life quoted may be achievable.
[Later...] Just for completeness, I finally had occassion to play a DVD on battery and it managed to make it to the closing credits of Matrix Revolutions (but only just). So about 2 hours DVD playback.
I have to say it doesn't take that much to set off the fan. You can browse, and you can edit documents, and you can play music through iTunes for long periods in absolute silence, but much beyond that the fan will make itself heard. The fan noise isn't over intrusive, however. Even under stress the cooling seems to be able to cope comfortably, and any warming is limited to the rear of the machine. The keyboard and wrist rest areas don't heat up at all.
Conclusions after a month's ownership
First my requirements:
0. As cheap as possible
1. A domestic laptop not destined to roam much further than the bedroom or kitchen
2. But a proper laptop, not a desktop squeezed into a box that makes like a hovercraft, fries eggs on its keyboard, and lasts 15 minutes between charges
3. Nevertheless, sufficient grunt and screen real-estate for software development with the current generation of IDEs
4. Integrated DVD writer for convenient data backup
5. Otherwise, day-to-day stuff: browsing, mail, writing documents, ripping CDs, playing MP3s
6. Very occassional gaming
And my evaluation:
I think it meets my criteria well. I actually dithered over whether I really needed the wide-screen version of this laptop, but now having used one for a while I'd never go back to 1024x768. Everyday performance is great, and it has enough CPU power and memory for comfortable development.
It could benefit from better battery life, but that was the trade-off I chose to make. A similar spec machine with a 1.8MHz Pentium M or better would've been getting on for a couple of hundred pounds more expensive. For now I'm happy with it, so hopefully I made the right choice.