Intel Core 2 CULV Roundup: Who Needs Atom?by Jarred Walton on February 4, 2010 4:00 AM EST
Acer Aspire Timeline AS1810T
We'll start with the Acer Aspire Timeline 1810 (AS1810T), which competes against other 11.6" CULV laptops. It's better in some areas and comes up a bit short elsewhere. Also worth noting is that the basic design of the AS1810T is used on the AS1410, the differences being in the internal components. The Gateway EC14 and EC18 share the same design, with the only difference being a few cosmetic changes to the colors/surfaces and a small tweak to the keyboard - the latter being for the worse, as they moved the backslash key next to the Z key instead of putting it above the Enter key.
|Acer Aspire Timeline AS1810T-8679 Specifications
|Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300
(2x1.3GHz, 45nm, 3MB L2, 800FSB, 10W)
|Intel GS45 + ICH9M
(Max 2x2GB listed by Acer, but it may support 2x4GB)
|Intel GMA 4500MHD IGP
|11.6" LED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)
|Gigabit Ethernet (Atheros AR8131 PCI-E)
Intel Wifi Link 5100 AGN
Bluetooth v2.1 + EDR
|2-Channel Realtek ALC269 HD Audio
(2.0 speakers with headphone/microphone jacks)
|6-Cell, 11.1V, 5600mAh, 63Wh
|1 x USB 2.0
|Flash reader (MMC/MS/MS Pro/SD/xD)
2 x USB 2.0
|Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
|11.2" x 8.0" x 0.9-1.2" (WxDxH)
|3.1 lbs (with 6-cell battery)
|1-year standard warranty
|Available Online starting at $680
(Black version available for $600)
Let's start with the good news first: the model we received has decent specs compared to the Dell Inspiron 11z we'll look at next. You'd think with both being the same size that they'd be very similar, but that is not the case. First, Acer includes a slightly higher capacity battery, so the AS1810T should get better battery life… and it does. Acer also includes two SO-DIMM slots; in theory that means you could run up to 8GB RAM, but we didn't have any 4GB modules on hand so we were left with the default 2x2GB configuration. Regardless, you still get more RAM than the Dell 11z at a lower price point, and the dual-channel memory means it should have a bit better performance as well (since the IGP shares memory bandwidth). In practice, the added bandwidth doesn't really matter, as the FSB limits the bandwidth to the CPU and the IGP is too slow to really benefit. Finally, Acer elected to send us the 1810T with an SU7300 CPU (rather than the more mundane Pentium SU4100). What does that really mean? Well, they're the same 1.3GHz clock speed but the SU7300 comes with 3MB L2 cache; it probably amounts to a 3-5% performance increase at best, at a slightly higher price.
So if that's where the Acer is better than the Dell, where does it fall short? Our biggest complaint is the keyboard, and the touchpad is better in some ways and not as good as the competition in others. Let's take these areas in turns.
The keyboard has large keys, but the shape of the keys just didn't feel as good when typing and the action is mushy compared to the Inspiron 11z. There's also a bit of flex/bounce in the keyboard, especially towards the center area - not as bad as what I've seen on some MSI laptops, but still noticeable. When I first looked at the keyboard I thought it would be better than the 11z, but after typing on both for a while I definitely prefer the Dell keyboard. While the keys themselves are large, there's very little space between the keys and it's easy to accidentally brush another key if you're typing quickly; the same is true of the 11z, but the 1810T keyboard just feels more fatiguing to use and I made more typing errors.
Another problem with the keyboard is the cursor keys; they're made cumbersome by their small size and the inclusion of PgUp/PgDn keys to the sides of the up arrow key. I'd prefer these to be Home and End keys as the primary function (that's currently accessible via an Fn key combination), but even then the small cursor keys are more difficult to use than on other keyboards. The main 11z keys are all slightly smaller than the 1810T keys, but by making them fractionally smaller Dell is able to squeeze in a column of Home, PgUp, PgDn, and End keys on the right of the keyboard. The left and right edges of the Dell keys are also slightly rounded, and in general it just feels better in my opinion.
As for the touchpad, here the 1810T is definitely better than Dell, but there are still a few issues with the design. Dell includes a large touchpad with integrated buttons in the bottom corners, and the result is highly unpleasant. Acer includes two dedicated buttons, but the touch-sensitive surface is smaller and it's very difficult to feel the difference between the active surface and the remainder of the palm rest. The result is that it's quite easy to move your finger off the touchpad without realizing it, which makes double-tap-and-drag all but useless. The touchpad does support both gestures and multi-touch, and with dedicated buttons I found both worked fine. Because of the limited area on the touchpad, the swirling scroll feature was perhaps slightly more useful than using two fingers, but this is counterbalanced by the need to start the scroll gesture on the right edge of the touchpad.
In other areas of design, the 1810T rates higher than the 11z. For one, the dimensions are slightly smaller; the Dell 11z has a larger palm rest and ends up being about .75" deeper, and the battery jutting out the bottom of the 11z makes it significantly thicker (though that's only if you get the 6-cell battery upgrade). The large palm rest on the Dell may be part of what makes it more comfortable for typing, and it would have been better if Acer could have moved the keyboard up another inch or so - which would have also made it possible to give the touchpad a larger surface area. LCD quality ends up being pretty much a wash - as in, "washed out". Like so many other laptops on the market, the panels are very low contrast with limited viewing angles. They're plenty bright for indoor use, but the glossy finish makes outdoor use suspect.
We do have some complaints with the AS1810T, and these are areas we've discussed before. First, the shiny plastic exterior feels cheap and attracts fingerprints. Shiny may look nice in photos, but we prefer matte finishes. The glossy LCD is also practically a given, unless you get a business laptop. For indoor use, it's not a huge problem, but we find the reflective surfaces to be practically useless outdoors. It's interesting to note that the Gateway EC54 we'll be looking at in a minute ditches the glossy surfaces in several areas, but unfortunately the EC14/18 do not, and neither do the larger Timeline models. Another interesting tidbit is that the 11.6" Acer laptops use DDR2 memory while all of the 13.3" and larger models use DDR3 - the benefit being slightly lower power requirements for DDR3, but the cost is also a bit higher. Build quality in general is decent but not great - there's a bit of flex in the keyboard, as mentioned, and the top cover will twist and bend more than the other two laptops we're looking at (though not so much that we feel it's a serious concern).
Outside of the design, the features and package on the AS1810T are very good. You get HDMI and VGA output, and the GS45 chipset (GMA 4500MHD IGP) is able to handle H.264 decoding without too much trouble. We were able to view 1080p x264 (12Mbit) content on all of the CULV laptops, with CPU load in the range of 5 to 23% (average of just 13%), so clearly there's plenty of headroom left. 1080p on an Atom-based netbook (without ION or some other GPU/video decoder to help)? Blu-ray playback should be possible, though we lacked an appropriate drive to verify this - you'll need an external USB device, obviously, so it's easier to get your video fix from the HDD. Forget it.
The current CULV offerings deliver much better features in terms of video decoding, and they're also significantly faster than Atom. In general, CULV ends up delivering twice the performance of N280/N450 in a variety of applications, as our benchmarks will illustrate. Battery life isn't quite as long as the latest Atom offerings, but the 1810 definitely reaches the "8+ hours" of battery life Acer advertises; we measured just shy of 10 hours idle battery life (you'll come very close to this if all you're doing is typing in a Word document) and slightly less than 8 hours in a heavy internet surfing test. Video playback (at least when Atom is fast enough to handle it) does favor Atom by a larger margin - we only got about 4.5 to 5 hours of video playback on the 1810, compared to 5 to 6.5 on an N280 netbook and 6 to 7 hours with N450.
Ultimately, making a smaller laptop is an exercise in balance and compromise, and what works well for one person may not be pleasant for another. For many people, 10.1" netbook keyboards are fine but they have definitely passed the limit of what I find comfortable. The 11.6" chassis of the AS1810T allows for larger keys, making it somewhat more comfortable, but the action of the keys and the spacing still leave me wanting. It should be possible to find one of the various Acer 1410/1810 (or Gateway EC14/18) models at a local Best Buy or similar store to try them for yourself. If you're not happy with the 11.6" Timeline, Acer offers 13.3" (AS3810T), 14.0" (AS4810T), and 15.6" (AS5810T) models, with the latter two providing optical drives on some models.
We really need to look at all of the Acer Timeline series to put things in proper perspective. Pricing on the Aspire 1410 starts at just $420, so you get the same chassis as the AS1810T with an SU2300 and 2GB RAM. You can find the AS1810T for around $600 if you're willing to wait for it to ship, or $680 if you can't wait. As an alternative, the AS1810TZ is $580, with the difference being the use of a Pentium SU4100 instead of the Core 2 Duo SU7300. Similarly, the 3810T goes for $650, with 4GB DDR3 and a 500GB HDD along with the SU7300; drop to the SU4100 and 320GB HDD for $580. The AS4810TZ adds a DVDRW for around $650; AS4810T with Core 2 Solo is something we'd recommend skipping, and the models with an SU9400 bump the price up to around $800 so we'd pass on those also. Finally, the $650 Timeline AS5810TZ goes with the SU4100 again, and we'd avoid the more expensive SU7300 versions as well as the Core 2 Solo models.
Given the similarity in pricing, any of the TZ models would be a great alternative to netbooks and still deliver plenty of mobility. We're inclined to go with the 13.3" AS3810TZ because of the larger keyboard, but others might be happy with the 1410/1810 models. For $420-$450, the AS1410 makes a very compelling argument against higher priced Atom netbooks.