Acer Aspire M3400: How Much Does $649 Buy?

Reviewing the Dell Studio XPS 7100 recently was very interesting and even enlightening. Our audience may chiefly be people who build their own machines (and indeed we certainly review enough hardware), but it was refreshing to see the oft-maligned "factory build" put in a good showing and justify its existence in our world of enthusiasts and builders. If you didn't feel like putting together your own machine for high-performance gaming and computing and didn't want to pay through the nose for a custom enthusiast build, the XPS 7100 was a fine choice.

But we're not talking about a twelve-hundred-dollar mean machine here. We're talking about a $649 budget build, and in this author's opinion those waters are substantially more fraught than the consumer market for machines north of a large. A reliable budget build is the kind of thing a good enthusiast can specialize in, so the question for Acer the M3400 worth the trade-offs? We lose name brand components and the individual warranties that go along with them, but we gain something that's been built and tested from the factory and at least guaranteed to work as is, and we potentially gain more computer than we could've gotten for the price had we built it ourselves.

Acer Aspire M3400-U2052 Specifications
Processor AMD Phenom II X4 820
(4x2.8GHz, 45nm, 2MB L2, 4MB L3, 95W)
Chipset AMD RS880 Northbridge, AMD SB850 Southbridge
Memory 2x2GB and 2x1GB DDR3-1333 (Total 6GB, Max 4x4GB)
Graphics ATI Radeon HD 5450 512MB GDDR3
(80 Stream Processors, 650MHz Core, 1.6GHz Memory, 64-bit memory bus)
Hard Drive(s) 640GB 7200 RPM (Western Digital Caviar Blue)
Optical Drive(s) DVD+-RW combo drive
Networking Realtek Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC662 HD Audio
speaker, mic, and line-in jacks doubling as 5.1 jacks
Front Side Optical Drive
Open 5.25” Bay
MMC/SD/CF/MS reader
Top 4x USB 2.0
Headphone and mic jack
Power button
Back Side AC Power
2x PS/2
8x USB 2.0
Gigabit Ethernet jack
Mic, speaker, and line-in jacks
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 16.5" x 15" x 7.1" (WxDxH)
Weight 37 lbs shipped
Extras 300W Power Supply
Wired keyboard and mouse
Flash reader (MMC/MS/CF/SD)
Warranty 1-year basic warranty
Pricing Priced as configured: $635 online

The Acer Aspire M3400-U2052 (gotta love those catchy Acer names) is the top end of the M3400 line. Starting at the top, we have the heretofore-thought-to-be-defunct AMD Phenom II X4 820; the 800 series Phenom IIs had a very brief tenure in the marketplace but apparently live on in OEM circles. The only difference between an 800 and 900 series Phenom II X4 is in the amount of L3 cache: the 820 sports only 4MB while the 900s have the full 6MB. Given the middling performance differences in most circumstances between the entirely cacheless Athlon II X4 and the Phenom II X4, the lost 2MB of L3 probably isn't worth losing any sleep over. At 2.8 GHz, the 820 should provide plenty of performance for the price.

There are two extremely pleasant surprises in the Aspire M3400's build. The first is the use of the modern AMD 800 series chipset, which brings 6Gbps SATA support along with generally improved storage performance. If nothing else, the motherboard has legs that it may very well be able to stretch as prices on SSDs continue to fall while performance continues to rise. The other is the inclusion of a Western Digital Caviar Blue 640GB drive. These drives have been excellent and reliable performers since their introduction years ago and have remained near the top of the performance heap for mechanical hard drives; I might just be biased, though, I've been running four in my own tower for years and have been consistently pleased with their performance along with their low acoustics and power consumption.

Everything else in the Aspire M3400 seems bog standard, but there is an odd bird in this configuration: the Radeon HD 5450. In Ryan's review of it he wasn't particularly impressed and it's not hard to see why: the 5450 offers virtually no practical improvement on its predecessors. The inclusion here is even more questionable, because while a Radeon HD 5450 on the shelf can at least be justified as a potential HD playback performance upgrade, the M3400's motherboard has capped HDMI and VGA ports that suggest an 880G integrated graphics part on board. The 880G already has enough horsepower to handle decoding HD, and the 5450 isn't going to bring enough of an improvement in image quality or gaming performance to justify its inclusion. Okay, it's roughly twice as fast as the integrated HD 4290 and it has DX11 support, but it's a $40 entry-level GPU when $65 gets four times as many Stream Processors in the HD 5550. All things being equal, we'd rather have gone up to the full 8GB of DDR3 or the HD 5550 rather than get the 5450.

The M3400 is rounded out by a DVD+/-RW combo drive, standard media reader, and gigabit ethernet. We'd have liked to see some kind of wireless networking solution included, or a Blu-ray reader (which may have driven costs up, but they're so cheap these days anyhow), but these omissions aren't deal-breakers. As a whole, this review unit seems reasonable for the asking price, but let's take a closer look.

Acer Aspire M3400 Closer Look
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  • fire400 - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    you'd expect quality comprimise for higher end parts, but here, it's the worse of both worlds.
  • GeorgeH - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    The price seems very reasonable to me. I went to Newegg and selected the absolute lowest priced components in each category, and got two prices (due to no X4 820):

    With 2.8GHz X4 630:
    With 3.0GHz X4 945:

    Shipping to a California zipcode added ~$30, so you're looking at either $610 or $650.

    Compare that to $635 with free shipping on the Acer, and the Acer looks like a great deal. You could get better price/performance by spending a few hours looking for deals and perfectly balancing components, followed by another few hours assembling it all and installing an OS (and maybe a few more hours troubleshooting things if bottom shelf components don't work perfectly), but unless that kind of thing is fun for you it's probably not worth it.
  • mariush - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    So what you're saying the system should be 600 $ if you factor in the shipping.

    Well, for 600$ you can do much better, for example at power supplies, video card and a slightly better motherboard.
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    As pointed out in the conclusion, though, you can either save $100 and get an HP with very similar performance (provided you don't really want the 5450), or spend the same amount for a slightly slower CPU but get a GPU that's more than twice as fast. It's not a terrible system, but it's definitely budget through and through. If it had a 450W PSU then at least upgrades would be feasible. I'm sure you can run a 5770 in this system, even with the 300W PSU, but I'm not sure how long the PSU will last under such a load. I'd wager the current configuration idles at around 70W and load is probably pushing 200W, and I wouldn't want to exceed that with a 300W PSU.
  • GeorgeH - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    I completely agree that the configuration probably isn't ideal and is nowhere close to what I'd select for a personal build. My (very badly made) point was that the system doesn't have a price problem, if anything it has a component selection problem for most uses. In other words it's a niche market system, which doesn't make it a bad product so much as a generally bad fit.
  • blackbrrd - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    I have been running a system on a 400w PSU that is rated for 30A on 12v for about 3.5 years now, and it has a 8800gts and an overclocked core2 in it. I haven't had any hiccups from the PSU. As far as I have calculated, the system runs at about 300w under load... I don't see why you need so much extra power just to be safe...
  • strikeback03 - Friday, August 6, 2010 - link

    What brand PSU though? Given that this is likely built with the cheapest PSU they could find, it is unlikely to hold up as well as a decent PSU you would purchase stand-alone would.
  • Taft12 - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    Did you include an OS in your total?

    I will say this Acer machine is a reasonably good value, but the features on the motherboard are where you really see a difference between Asus and Gigabyte's lowest-end offerings and the ultra-low-end Foxconn-built trash.
  • GeorgeH - Thursday, August 5, 2010 - link

    OS, KB, mouse, and card reader were all included. The cheapest 880 board at Newegg was a step up from a generic OEM POS, but only a very small one. :)
  • nafhan - Friday, August 6, 2010 - link

    Yeah, but the thing is if you're building your own budget box, you can shop around and look for deals rather than just going with the standard retail pricing on things. I put together a similar machine last October for less than $450 (including OS). Less RAM and slower CPU, but much faster GPU and a quality PSU.

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