by Perry Longinotti, Canada
Last month I picked up an Acer TravelMate 2428 WXCi notebook and posted a rather glowing review of it. That notebook, despite its budget price and modest specifications was a real corker. Save for some missing connectivity options, it was a perfect small business notebook. My positive experiences with Acer led me to buy one of their 1080p capable HDTVs. That in turn created a need (in my mind anyway) for a decent Home Theater PC (HTPC). With plenty of great experiences using Toshiba and Acer notebooks I decided to stick with what I know and after some trial and error I arrived at the Acer Aspire 5112 WLMi (I'll refer to it as the 5112 for the remainder of this article).
Armed with a low price, a spec sheet that seemed too good to be true, build quality that impressed me in the store and an intriguingly large removable panel on the bottom of the unit the 5112 looks like a perfect mid-range notebook on paper. Let's see if it stands up to some scrutiny. At first blush this notebook has specs that look a lot like those of the Ferrari 5000 series but for half the price.
Out of Box Experience – Look, Feel and Ergonomics
Look and Design
The box! (view large image)
Acer deserves credit for not wasting materials. The 5112 box is tiny. Upon opening it, you are greeted with a list of contents and a getting started guide. Not enough makers think of this, but it is great for novices.
Pulling the 5112 out of the box we see an evolution of Acers recognizable chassis design. This is very similar to Acer's other 15.4" widescreen notebooks. Construction consists of matte silver and black plastics with some piano black accents. You do not get the rich-feeling rubber coating that features on the Acer Ferrari and TravelMate 8200 series, but the 5112 feels good for a notebook in this price range.
Turning the 5112 over so that we can see its bottom there are several user accessible panels. Removing these exposes what looks to be a solid CNC machined aluminum skeleton. A single cooling solution handles heat from the CPU and GPU. The GPU is not removable.
Aluminum skeleton (view large image)
Inside the Acer 5112 (view large image)
A large removable panel makes the guts of the 5112 highly accessible (view large image)
Unlike the Qosmios, the 5112 is truly a notebook. It weighs about six and a half pounds, it is not quite an inch and a half thick, fourteen inches wide and about ten inches long. This is a very portable media center.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Acer's curved keyboard is gone (from this model at least). The keyboard base is spongy and exhibits a lot of flex from the center outwards to the right. This detracts from the overall experience a bit.
The iconic Acer curved "smile" keyboard is gone (view large image)
A simple synaptics touch pad is featured on the 5112. It has a 16:10 aspect ratio just like the display.
Quick-launch buttons line the top the 5112. Media controls (similar to VCR controls) are positioned to the left of the keybaord along with a microphone hole.
So how is the cooling in such a small densely packed notebook? There is a dual core processor in here after all. I am happy to say that while the 5112 certainly gets warm when plugged in and left on all day, it does not get hot. Using Notebook Hardware Monitor I measured temps in the mid 40 Celsius to a max of about 55. What constitures hot? My experience has been that CPUs that hit 65-75 degrees celcius on full power tend to get severe hot spots. The Qosmio F20 series is a good example of a notebook that gets hot spending a lot of time above 60 degrees. A warm notebook can always be made cool running with some undervolting of the CPU, but a really hot one is usually a lost cause.
When running on batteries the 5112 was cool and quiet, just like AMD advertises.
Chipset and Processor
It seems as though almost every notebook I have reviewed in the past year or two has been based on some flavor of Centrino. Intel's Centrino is like a fast moving train that has hit full speed and shows no sign of slowing down. Smart PC makers have hitched themselves to it.
Sticking with the analogy, AMD's Turion is a train on a parallel track with fewer cars attached to it struggling to match the Intel train's pace. Turion never seems to catch up, and frequently it gets left behind. I think this is a pretty fair assessment of AMD's mobile efforts to date. Clearly, despite all of their success in the server market and huge wins like Dell, the boys and girls from Sunnyvale, California have some work to do in the mobile space.
AMD lacks a one vendor solution like Intel because the Turion platform requires bits from lots of different vendors. AMD's recent acquisition/merger with ATI will probably address this deficiency.
Turion64 X2 is AMD's answer to Intel's Core Duo. The 5112 uses a TL-50 version of the chip running at 1.6 GHz. Like the Core Duo, this chip features two CPU cores on a single die. It also boasts x86-64 suppport (something recently added by Intel to their mobie line-up in the form of the Core 2 Duo CPU).
Confused yet? Wait, there is more: Turion X2 also features 'Direct Connect' technology to reduce bottlenecks when CPU cores compete for access to memory and Input/Output. A dual channel memory controller supporting DDR2 RAM up to 667 Mhz is built into the CPU. Turion X2 features AMD's multimedia extensions, virtualization technology and virus protection. You can read up on these technologies here. An added bonus is that the TL-50 used here sits in AMD's S1 socket and in the case of the 5112 this is fully user accessibel and serviceable. This increases the odds (no guarantees) of having an upgrade path in 2007. The reason this might be a perk is that AMD has architectural improvements planned for Athlon/Turion CPUs next year that should level the playing field between them and Intel. There are no guarantees in this business, so don't be disappointed if compatibility is somehow broken.
About that playing field, the Turion is not much of a match for the Core Duo. In Super Pi the Turion X2 completes calculating Pi to two million places in 2 minutes 7 seconds. A Core Duo CPU is about twice as fast. This will break your heart if your idea of a good time is calculating Pi.
The T7400 Core 2 Duo (sadly, not in the G35) takes only 58 seconds to calculate PI to 2M digits!
Super Pi comparison results:
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Acer Aspire 5112WLMi (1.6GHz Turion64 X2 TL-50)||2m 07s|
|HP nc8430 (2.16GHz Core 2 Duo)||0m 58s|
|Compaq V3000T(1.6GHz Core Duo)||1m 26s|
|Dell Inspiron e1505 (2.00 GHz Core 2 Duo)||1m 02s|
|Toshiba A100(2.0GHz Core Duo)||1m 18s|
|Acer Aspire 5102WLMi(1.6GHz Turion64 X2 TL-50||2m 22s|
|Gateway E-100M(1.2GHz Core Solo ULV)||2m 02s|
|Dell Inspiron 600m (1.6 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 10s|
|HP dv5000z(2.0GHz Sempron 3300+)||2m 02s|
Super Pi and processor utilization (view large image)
What is odd about this performance is that the Turion X2's score is lower than a regular single core Turion score (admittedly the single core was working at a faster clock speed). I was curious about this so I ran the benchmark with the Windows Task Manager's Performance tab open. What I found was that neither CPU core ever went past 50% utilization, so it might be that the Turion's true performance is not represented.
Another synthetic benchmark we use is Futuremark's PCMark 05. This is a good general measure of system performance. The 5112 achieved a score of 3143. In detail, the PCMark 05 score looked like this:
PCMark05 Comparison results:
|Acer Aspire 5112WLMi (1.6GHz Turion64 X2 TL-50, ATI X1600)||3,143PCMarks|
|Fujitsu N6410 (1.66GHz Core Duo)||3,487 PCMarks|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60)||5,597 PCMarks|
|Sony Vaio SZ-110B in Speed Mode (Using Nvidia GeForce Go 7400)||3,637 PCMarks|
|Panasonic ToughBook T4 (Intel 1.20GHz LV)||1,390 PCMarks|
|Asus V6J (1.86GHz Core Duo T2400)||3,646 PCMarks|
|Sony VAIO FE590 (1.83GHz Core Duo)||3,427 PCMarks|
PCMark05 detailed results
|HDD -- XP Startup||6.03 MB/s|
|Physics and 3D||105.26 FPS|
|Transparent Windows||238.26 Windows/s|
|3D -- Pixel Shader||59.03 FPS|
|Web Page Rendering||1.9 Pages/s|
|File Decryption||26.93 MB/s|
|Graphics Memory -- 64 Lines||633.23 FPS|
|HDD -- General Usage||4.39 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / Audio Compression||1556.71 KB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 1 / Video Encoding||224.73 KB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Text Edit||84.49 Pages/s|
|Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Decompression||17.4 MPixels/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / File Compression||3.08 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / File Encryption||16.3 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / HDD -- Virus Scan||36.73 MB/s|
|Multithreaded Test 3 / Memory Latency -- Random 16 MB||7.01 MAccesses/s|
Not bad results, but not great either. The 5112 is very close to the performance of the Toshiba P100 that I tested in March (which had a slightly faster CPU, but slower video and storage). Seagate's fast HDD boost the 5112's score. The Core Duo is really tough to beat in computational tasks so the results are not surprising. The CPU is not a champ, but it is good and is feature-laden.
Being a smaller company, AMD does not have as many resources working on optimizations as Intel does. This is not cheating, it is smart business. Intel has a small army of marketing and technical resources evangelizing developers to optimize for Intel's chips. They even have their own compiler! AMD needs to shamelessly copy the Intel Developer Forum and Early Access Program. Perhaps AMD has made the decision to compete with Intel on price. With this out of the way, the remainder of the 5112 spec is really nice.
The ATI chipset used on the 5112 is the Radeon® Xpress 1150 variant. Reading through the specs nothing really jumps out, you get everything you should from an AMD platform: Hypertransport, support for the CPU's power and virus protection features and a good array of input/output features.
Many notebooks in this class come with 1 GB of RAM, but the 5112 comes with double this amount. It's 2 GB (two sodimms) of DDR2 533 MHz RAM in dual-channel mode does not operate as fast as the RAM in most Core Duo notebooks (667 Mhz) and this too may have affected the benchmark results. The RAM is good quality though coming from Samsung.
One of the features that really grabbed my attention (besides the generous amount of RAM) was the storage. The drive in question is a 160 GB Seagate Momentus 5400.3 . As the name implies, this drive spins at 5400 RPM. This is the first drive I have tested that uses perpendicular technology – a new method of cramming even more data onto a 2.5 inch platter. According to Seagate's product brief, this drive is 50% faster than a 4200 RPM drive but uses the same amount of power. As you can see from the HD Tune results, it is a good performer. Under heavy use I noticed it hit 49 degrees Celsius and that is quite hot – but well short of the 70 degree max specified by the manufacturer.
HDTune Results (view large image)
You also get a Philips SDVD8821 dual layer DVD burner that accepts both -/+ media. It burns regular DVD-/+R and +RW discs at 8x, -RW discs at 6x, dual layer at 4x and DVD-RAM at 5x. It should cover most needs. I burned several CD and DVD projects with out a single problem. It appears as though the drive can be removed by extracting a single screw on the 5112's base but I did not test this.
Watching a moview on the Aspire 5112WLMi (view large image)
This notebook's 15.4 inch widescreen display has a native resolution of 1280*800 pixels. It uses an LG Philips LP154W01 panel which is extremely common in notebooks and boasts 200 nit brightness and 500:1 contrast ratio. In addition to having a wide aspect ratio, the display also has Acer's Crystalbrite high-gloss coating which enhances contrast and makes for a more TV-like viewing experience. Sitting next to a Toshiba Qosmio G30 and F20, the Acer screen is not as bright and the viewing angle is not quite as good. The refresh rate is 25 ms according to the LG Philips site, but I did not notice any ghosting watching movies.
Video and Graphics
Powering this display is an ATI Radeon X1600 GPU - second from the top of that company's range until recently. The X1600's Graphics Processing Unit operates at 472 Mhz and the RAM runs at 750 Mhz. It comes with 128 MB of dedicated video RAM but can share an additional 384 MB of system RAM for a total of 512 MB. With 2 GB of system RAM, lending some out to the video system does not impact overall performance but it isn't likely that you will need so much video memory on the 5112. I was not able to reduce that amount of video memory because the ATI Hypermemory feature that manages the shared RAM is not user accessible - it is set at the factory and stays that way. Because the system RAM runs at slower than the 5112's video RAM and is 64 bits wide it essentially bottlenecks the X1600 (128 bit is common for performance mobile GPUs). I think that current-generation Hypermemory takes a lowest common denominator approach rather than a hybrid (some fast RAM and some slow).
Frankly, the 64 bit memory bus hobbles what could otherwise be a good gaming notebook. I think there are two reasons for this. First, Acer needs to differentiate this from the new Ferrari notebook otherwise performance might be a little too close and the extra cost of the Ferrari might be hard to justify. Second, I really don't think this notebook was meant as a pure gaming machine. Don't get me wrong, with a score of 2425 in 3DMark05 you should be able to play newer games with decent visual settings at the 5112's native resolution, but this is half of what the performance could be.
3DMark05 Results and comparison:
|Notebook||3DMark 05 Results|
|Acer Aspire 5112WLMi (1.6GHz Turion64 X2 TL-50, ATI X1600)||2,425 3D Marks|
|Apple MacBook Pro (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 128MB)||2,866 3D Marks|
|Alienware M7700 (AMD Athlon FX-60 Nvidia GeForce Go7800 GTX)||7,078 3DMarks|
|ThinkPad T43 (1.86GHz, ATI X300 64MB graphics)||727 3DMarks|
|Asus V6Va (2.13 GHz Pentium M, ATI Radeon Mobility x700 128 MB)||2,530 3D Marks|
|Fujitsu n6410 (1.66 GHz Core Duo, ATI X1400 128MB)||2,273 3DMarks|
|HP dv4000 (1.86GHz Pentium M, ATI X700 128MB)||2,536 3D Marks|
|Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi (2.0GHz Core Duo, ATI X1600 256MB)||4,157 3DMarks|
Where this GPU really shines is in the area of multimedia. Specifically ATI's Avivo technologies many of which will be of interest to people buying this computer as a bonafide HTPC. Unlike Nvidia, which forces its customers to pay for media decoding features, ATI offers these features for free. Acer's standard video drivers for the 5112 include the extra Avivo features without requiring any downloading.
What is the fuss about? The X1600 features hardware accelerated MPEG-2, MPEG-4, DivX, WMV9, VC-1, and H.264 decoding and transcoding, de-blocking and noise reduction filtering, motion compensation, vector adaptive per-pixel de-interlacing and 3:2 pulldown (frame rate conversion). It also features hardware resolution scaling (when outputting to displays), Xilleon TV encoder for outputting analog signals, and can drive two display fully independently of each other (different resolutions and refresh rates). This is a veritable shopping list of features important to HTPC enthusiasts. This, and not gaming, is the real motive for including the X1600 chip to this notebook. How well these functions work, and how much of the decoding is off-lifted from the CPU is reliant of raw shader performance. While the less-expensive ATI Mobility Radeon X1400 will do many of the same things as the X1600, it will not do them as efficiently.
It was my pleasure to test the Avivo features out. Having recently tested a few Nvidia-based systems for their HTPC capabilities (my old desktop, a Qosmio G30 test unit and an F25 that I own), using the 5112 with my 1080 HDTV was a joy. Initial setup was a matter of minutes and the results were excellent. Video quality was noticably better than the Nvidia systems.
Video from the 5112 can be output via DVI-D, VGA and S-Video cables. It is nice to see a full complement of outputs. Looking at the specs, I do not think that the X1600 suppports HDCP so future HD content might pose a problem (either downloaded content or materials played from an upgraded or external optical device).
No TV tuner is included with the 5112 and this Canadian model does not accept Acer's optional external DVB-T, Secam and NTSC tuner unit. According to a manual included with the 5112, these require an RF-in port that is absent on mine.
Networking and Wireless
Wireless networking is handled by the Atheros AR5005G chip that supports 802.11b / g networks . Antenna performance was terrific, this is the second Acer with that company's SignalUp technology that I have tested . Where the 5112 find s eight networks the Toshiba F20 that I also have can only see five . I also found that using www.speedtest.net that everything else being equal, the Atheros solution in the Acer was consistently capable of double the data throughput of the Intel 2915 chip in my F20 (often it would beat the Intel chip by a factor of four). Gigabit Ethernet is handled by a RealTek RTL8110 chip installed on the PCI bus.
Broadcom's 2045 Bluetooth 2.0 chip with enhanced data rate is included. Backward compatible with previous versions of Bluetooth (BT), this is three times faster and consumes less power than its predecessor. The extra bandwidth should improve this notebook's ability to connect with multiple Bluetooth devices – an example would be syncing a phone or PDA will using a BT mouse or keyboard. Acer has wisely decided to include Widcomm's excellent Bluetooth software which includes a wizard to connect just about any BT device you can think of.
Fast infra-red and a 56k soft modem round out the networking options. With so many choices it is hard to imagine not being able to get connected.
Realtek's ALC883 chip handles audio output. This is a 'soft audio' solution which means the CPUs do the audio mixing, not a dedicated audio chip. This is a pretty good chip and features up to 24bit/192Khz stereo output . Two inputs and one S/P-DIF/headphone jack are included. Realtek 's codec is accompanied by a nice driver control panel that gives you access to all of the chip's software options (Yeah! Karaoke mode) . The speakers are not branded but they sound pretty good and are definitely loud. During my DVD testing I tried the headphone output and was very happy with the sound quality.
Included web camera (view large image)
A 0.3 mega pixel Orbicam CMOS camera is built into the 5112's lid above the display. It can rotate vertically 225 degrees. A simple application for using the cam is included, and Skype detected the camera immediately for video conferencing.
Ports and Slots
Right side view (view large image)
Front view (view large image)
Rear view (view large image)
A 5-in-1 media card reader is included that supports the smaller card formats (Secure Digital®, Memory Stick™, Memory Stick PRO™, Multi Media Card, xD Picture Card). A four pin Firewire port is included for connecting that DV cam you have kicking about. Four USB 2.0 ports are available.
Both Cardbus/PCMCIA and Express Card 34 slots are included. This is a smart move that offers users the best of both worlds: compatibility with current cards and the ability to use the interesting Express Cards that are on the horizon.
Acer outfits the 5112 with a 4800mAh 6-cell battery. You can expect to get about three hours of light use (web surfing with screen brightness at 100%). Watching DVDs on the 5112's 'Entertainment' power profile I finished Shaun of the Dead (run time of 100 minutes) with 30 minutes of battery left. Battery Eater Pro consumed the battery entirely in about 88 minutes.
An AC power brick of moderate proportions (approximately 5" by 2" by 1") is included and it does not require a proprietary interface to the notebook. Unlike the notebook itself, the power brick gets hot.
Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) is the 5112's operating system. It is basically Windows XP Professional with media components bolted on. There are both commercial (BeyondTV) and freeware (GBPVR) alternatives to this on the market but I really prefer MCE to all the alternatives. Microsoft has done a great job of integrating TV, Personal Video Recorder (PVR), Photo, Video and Music management into a single consumer-electronics-like interface.
You also get trial ware anti-virus software from Norton. I have said this before when reviewing other notebooks; it is silly not to include the full version of an anti virus product.
Cyberlink's Power DVD software is included for DVD playback. With this software (and its MPEG codec) installed you can watch DVD movies in Windows Media Player or MCE. Perhaps my eyes are playing tricks on me, but ATI's Avivo features seem to work better when media is being played back using Microsoft's media player. Also included is NTI's burning software which works nicely.
Acer power management software (view large image)
Acer's 'Empowering Technologies' configuration utilities are included. These work great and continue to get better each year and include eLock, ePerformance (system optimizer), eRecovery (craete restore disks), eSettings, ePower (enhanced power management), ePresentation, eDataSecurity. These are pretty self-explanatory and fill-in feature gaps in Windows XP. Many people remove these types of utilities when they buy a new notebook, but I would advise trying them out first. The only thing missing is an LG -like auto-update utility - something that will go out and get the latest versions of drivers and utilities for your notebook without you having to navigate the vendor's website .
Acer's GridVista application is included. This allows you to have multiple desktops that you can cycle through, much like a Linux system. With the 5112's 2 GB of RAM it is conceivable that having multiple desktops and lots of applications running would be viable.
Wrapping all of these utilities into an easy to use bundle is a floating widget that you can position anywhere on your desktop. Like all of the Empowering Technologies, it is a modern application that offers nice presentation with attractive design and the use of transparency. I also liked the Acer screen saver which comes complete with some new age Enya-like music (that you can disable if you like).
It is really hard to find anything substantive to dislike about the Acer Aspire 5112 WLMi. There are no deal breakers here.
When I first saw the specs posted I really thought the reseller whose site I was looking at had made a pricing error. The specifications of this notebook are fantastic. It has an abundance of memory and storage combined with a powerful video system and comprehensive connectivity options. Nothing that I can think of is missing form this notebook. The regular price of this notebook is $1,299.99 Canadian. With a product like this it is clear to me that Acer is very serious about closing the gap between their second place position in the world-wide notebook market and Dell's pole position. I could not configure any Dell notebook to match all the features of this notebook for a similar price – when close, there was always something significant missing such as DVI out.
Having said this, there are some compromises made to hit a specific price point.
If a Core Duo system with similar specifications were available for the same price, your choice would be an easy one: go with Intel. But to match the 5112's features in a Core Duo notebook will cost a couple hundred dollars more.
This notebook also offers a nice degree of future proofing. It has all the RAM you will need to run Vista, a video system that will enable all of Vista's eye candy effects, and has a capacious hard drive.
If you are looking for a notebook in this price range, you owe it to yourself to track one of these down and have a look at it.
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