by Luke Alexander, Liverpool United Kingdom
Note to readers: The Acer Aspire 5020 is currently available only in Europe and Asia, the closest equivalent in North America being sold is the Aspire 5000 series that does not include a dedicated graphics card and is not a glossy-widescreen, but does use the AMD Turion 64-bit ML-30 processor
Overview and Introduction
Acer Aspire 5021 (view larger image)
This is the Acer 5021 WLMi…what a catchy name these things have eh? I suppose it’s pretty difficult to categorise this into one of the predefined notebook segments…I will go for “portable desktop replacement”. That being, it’s suited primarily for life on a desk, but you aren’t going to break your back carrying it. So what are the specs?
- AMD Turion 64 ML28 (1.6Ghz)
- 512Mb DDR RAM (upgradeable to 2Gb…comes on 2 sticks)
- 100Gb 4200rpm Hard Disk (yes, 4200rpm)
- ATI Mobility Radeon X700 128Mb (pci express)
- 15.4″ WXGA CrystalBrite Screen (widescreen shiny type)
- Dual Layer DVD+RW (slot loading)
- 802.11b/g wireless
- 10/100 Gigabit Ethernet & 56k Modem
- 6-in-1 card reader
- Windows XP SP2 Home Edition
- 4 USB2.0 & 4pin firewire port
Reasons for Buying
I remember my first PC, PIII 600Mhz…what a powerhouse. Then it was onto the laptop arena with a Toshiba with a 1.1Ghz Celeron. That will be my first and last experience with Pentium-light, sorry, Celeron. After that, I made do with a loaned Athlon 700Mhz desktop. This was working acceptably I suppose, but I hated it taking up all that space at home. It also couldn’t play any modern games, or even multitask basic programs effectively. So early May I embarked upon researching the new notebook scene as it were. I was immediately struck by all these new developments. Wireless, widescreens, Pentium-M, DVD burners. As early as last year I was looking at the Dell 8600 until I discovered it was a bit of a behemoth. Beyond that I was pretty open minded. Then I stumbled upon the Acer 5024 review on this site. It seemed perfect. Only this new fangled AMD Turion processor was the sticking point. How would it perform versus the much lauded Pentium-M? The matter was settled when I saw good things written on other sites about this processor. Why the 5021 and not the 5024? I guess I wasn’t too fussed with the processor difference, and I always intended to upgrade the RAM anyway. Perhaps it was a rash decision, but at the price, it won’t have been the most expensive of my life. Any modern PC would be capable of meeting my basic requirements I suppose. Which are:
- Some fairly modern games, mainly RTS and driving.
- Image editing using Photoshop and Paint Shop Pro
- Ripping and playing music
- Web browsing
- Microsoft Office
Generally, I multitask with PSP, MSN, iTunes, MediaPlayer, Limewire, Soulseek, Word/Excel and Firefox.
Where and How Purchased
I bought this through my employer for 815-pounds ($1,452.66 USD). Current market price is about 750-pounds ($1,336.80 USD). I did order this in May though so that would explain the discrepancy. But wait…there is more. I also got a 3 year collect & return warranty. Stunning? I also had a carry case, delivery and 5 games included. I felt this was an excellent deal; you are getting a lot for your money. Obviously I had the advantage my employer, but I still feel the current market price is very good.
Build & Design
Call me vain, but I like anything I use in life to be attractive, well designed and well made (women anyone?). The 5021 is a very attractive creature. It conforms to the current market expectations of black and silver chassis. The silver case itself looks metallic, but is in fact some kind of cool touch plastic. It wouldn’t look out of place in a meeting, or on the train. It is understated in design, and I feel this is for the best. It certainly looks a lot more expensive than it actually is. Everything on the system is laid out logically in general, with very few surprises in that department.
Acer Aspire 5021 relative to an Apple iPod Mini (view larger image)
You have to press on the back of the screen fairly hard to get a small rippling effect, and then only in the centre portion. Obviously, a metal or composite case would protect the screen better, but we are talking about a sub 800 British pounds computer here. If you knock the screen when it is open, it wobbles a small amount, but both hinges seem sturdy. There is very little twist in the screen, which is obviously a good sign.
There is very little flex in the palm rests, unlike some more expensive laptops I have used. The buttons on the trackpad seem a little suspect to me in both their design and build, but I’ll get to that later. The screen closes to the lower section using a briefcase-mechanism; with a central slider operating two catches either side. It seems very secure.
In a rather vague point, I rather like the ribbed area at the back section of the computer. It enables you to carry it with a decent grip, without fear you might drop it down the stairs. Why don’t all portable computers consider grip?
It is a wide computer, which Acer unfortunately hasn’t taken advantage of with a wider keyboard, but obviously this is to accommodate the widescreen. Though it is wide, it is very thin – just thicker than 2 CD cases when open, and about 3 when closed. This makes it look pretty swish compared to some budget notebooks.
Acer 5021 has a glossy widescreen (view larger image)
This is a 15.4″ WXGA CrystalBrite TFT. Decoded, it’s a widescreen shiny panel with a resolution of 1280*800. It does, unfortunately have one dead pixel. Its stuck green when on dark backgrounds, which is something of a bother, though I am learning to live with it. From what I hear, this is just unfortunate for me, since most Acer systems have perfect screens. It is of course CrystalBrite, which is another variation on a marketing term for those very reflective panels that are in vogue. Having seen these panels in stores, I knew that these were really nice. When off, the screen is like a black mirror, which is handy for checking your hair. They are very reflective when on as well, but only when the panel is directly facing a light. Otherwise it seems like any other screen (or perhaps I’ve just grown used to it). If your primary work position is similar to this, you could have a bit of an issue, unless you learn to ignore the glare (you do with your TV right?). The resolution is fine, I have no need to go higher, though I guess if you need to do CAD or some other kind of visual editing, you may benefit. I find the widescreen is nice to use, 4:3 ratio panels now seem cramped in comparison. The combination of widescreen and CrystalBrite are another reason the 5021 looks a lot more expensive than it is. If you have never used a shiny type screen before, it is an amazing leap. Everything looks more defined and vivid; it makes standard screens look rather “vague” in my opinion. Over time, it becomes a standard feature, I personally forget it has the shiny coating unless I’m watching a movie, or playing a game. Both games and DVDs look stunning on this screen. One bugbear, which I’m presently in a quandary about though — whenever I play DVDs in fullscreen with Windows Media Player, it has substantial black borders on all sides. I can only think this is because the DVD lacks the resolution to be expanded to fullscreen, though I doubt this can be the real reason. The inbuilt Arcade DVD Player does play it fullscreen, but seemingly at a loss of quality over letterboxed. I am sure I will figure it out eventually, but it is something to bear in mind. The backlighting is extremely bright, on the highest setting in even a semi dark background, it hurts my eyes. It is pretty uniform across the screen, with no light leaks anywhere. It seems to be a good quality panel to me, though I’m no expert.
Screen quality (view larger image)
As with virtually every laptop, you aren’t buying it for Bose-like sound quality. Of course, occasionally you will need to use them. I suppose they are serviceable, but they are fairly quiet and audiophiles certainly won’t be sticking with them. I would recommend good headphones as the output signal is pretty good. The speakers themselves are small grills at the front of the base, almost invisible. The headphone and line-in jacks are located on the front as well, which is an excellent idea. On my previous laptop, it was on the side and left a wire trailing over the keyboard!
There is also a built in microphone just next to power key, which works fairly well.
Processor and Performance
I spent a lot of time considering this category, since outside of benchmarking, it is very subjective. So therefore all I can offer is my subjective opinion. Boot up time is acceptable, at around 40 seconds. This is to when my wireless is good to go incidentally. It is about 30 seconds to the logon screen.
Now, it’s a 1.6Ghz Turion, which is about equivalent to a 1.6Ghz Dothan Pentium-M in my research. 512Mb RAM, this serves my needs generally, but I imagine it would be a little better at multitasking with the full 1Gb. That is just individual load requirements I suppose.
The major flaw of this system is the HDD. It is 100Gb 4200rpm. Certainly the capacity is adequate; though it is partitioned into two 45Gb areas by default (the other 10Gb is for Acer Recovery, which allows you to restore your HDD without discs). I personally can’t say it’s unbearably slow, since I’ve moved up from a very old system. If you use large graphics files, video or play lots of games, this may not be the best solution for you. For me, it is adequate. Once applications are open, switching between them is very fast, with no lag.
So, in every day tasks, it is very efficient, I only found it taxed, when I stress tested it by opening a whole load of applications and images in Photoshop.
The ATI X700 has 128Mb memory, which I am told is a very good graphics card. Certainly the reviews I read hold it in high esteem. All DVDs and what not run smoothly, as you might expect. Games then…I downloaded the Half-Life 2 demo (750Mb in 30mins on my new connection ) just to test this. I tried the game on a variety of settings and then tried to note my subjective opinion. The main performance hog in this seems to be the textures, which I can only think is due to the 512Mb RAM or the graphics memory. I am told anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing are resource hogs, but they didn’t seem to affect playability much. I found the game unbearably ugly without at least 4xAA. It did stutter on the highest settings though, that is for sure. It would be unplayable. Using medium textures, medium model detail 8xAF and 6xAA on 1024*768 was about the highest playable quality I could get. Knocking the resolution down to 800*640 would ease it up. I think it is worth bearing in mind this system costs less than 800, it is not going to compete with the likes of the Dell XPS and Alienware systems of this world.
I have played Medal of Honour Allied Assault, C&C Generals, Sim City 4 and The Sims 2 all on maximum settings with no slowdown whatsoever, and they look great on this screen. It is unlikely a hardcore gamer would be looking at this system anyway though versus the dedicated PC or gaming notebook.
The system is very quiet in use, though when playing games the fan does operate continuously. It is very quiet as well however, which is good. I doubt you would hear it over medium loud music. It is also a cool running system; you can use it on your lap for everyday computing without fear of sterility in later life (hopefully). The palmrests stay relatively cool, though under heavy use the left side gets slightly warm. The air exhaust provides warmth on a cold day (like today) at least.
|Notebook||Time to Calculate Pi to 2 Million Digits|
|Acer Aspire 5021 (AMD Turion 64, 1.6GHz)||2m 11s|
|Sony VAIO FS680 (1.86 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 53s|
|IBM ThinkPad T43 (1.86 GHz Alviso Pentium M) ||1m 45s|
|Fujitsu LifeBook N3510 (1.73 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 48s|
|Dell Inspiron 6000D (1.6 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 52s|
|Toshiba Tecra S2 (2.00 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m 41s|
|Sony VAIO S360 (1.7 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||1m 57s|
|Sony VAIO S170P (1.5 GHz Dothan Pentium M)||2m 07s|
|Sony VAIO S380 (1.86 GHz Alviso Pentium M)||1m|
|HD Tune Results||IBM X32||Acer 5021|
|Minimum Transfer Rate||11.9 MB/sec||18.2 MB/sec|
|Maximum Transfer Rate||34.6 MB/sec||26.0 MB/sec|
|Average Transfer Rate||38.1 MB/sec||24.8 MB/sec|
|Access Time||17.7 ms||17.4 ms|
|Burst Rate||67.5 MB/sec||73.4 MB/sec|
HD Tune Benchmark results
The super-pi score is not too bad, roughly similar to a 1.6Ghz Dothan Pentium-M, but being obliterated by higher clocked processors. The other scores seem rather arbitrary on their own, so they are best use with reference to other system’s scores.
Keyboard and Touchpad
I personally prefer the spring action and smaller key travel of notebook keyboards, so this is great for me. The keyboard has some flex around the pressed key, especially on the upper left. The rest of the unit is fine. Only people who have a heavy hand will notice serious flex I assume. I find the key depression very nice; it is very easy to use if you are familiar with this smaller layout. I am somewhat confused by having dedicated $ and keys next to the direction arrows. I still find it faster to use shift & the appropriate key. Still, I suppose it’s better than having blank plastic there.
Acer Aspire 5021 keyboard (view larger image)
There are hotkeys at the top to launch email, browser, power management and Acer. They are user definable to anything one would like, however I don’t tend to use these. Dedicated media buttons would have made for a better experience — especially a hardware volume control. You can adjust brightness and volume using the function key (fn) and the arrows. On the left, along the home/end keys, there are fn+ buttons for windows media player (fn+home is play/pause for example) so I guess the lack of hardware buttons isn’t too bad.
The trackpad itself is great. Its size matches the widescreen and is totally configurable using the Alps software driver. You can even scroll using the sides of it, or tap certain areas to launch specific programs — useful. I do however have an issue with the buttons. There are 3 — left and right mouse, plus a 4 way rocker switch. The rocker is placed in-between the other two, meaning it’s an extra distance to travel between the left and right mouse buttons. I often hit the rocker key instead of the right button, causing me some consternation, The rocker switch can be configured anyway you like, to launch programs for any direction pressed. Default it is used to scroll. The actual mouse buttons seem rather flimsy. If you hit them to the side, they depress a good way down, but don’t click. This means you have to strike each button cleanly in the centre for it to work effectively. This has annoyed me so much, I have been forced to use an external mouse. For those of you who use a mouse anyway, it’s not too important. You could learn to live with it I guess, but its sloppy considering how good the rest of the system is.
Shortcut buttons (view larger image)
Input and Output Ports
There is a wealth of ports on this computer, which is obviously a good thing. The optical drive is a rather fancy slot load affair on the right hand side. I personally think this is great, since drive trays are easily broken. It looks rather cool as well. It burns most media, including dual layer DVD. I certainly have not had any problems in using it. It is quiet when playing DVD movies as well, which you may be glad to hear.
On the left hand side there are 3 USB2.0 ports, a 4pin firewire, card reader (Accepts an MS, MS PRO, MMC, SD, SM, or xD-Picture card) as well has S-Video. There is also a Type II PC Card Slot. Lots of USB is always good, there is another USB on the back. I have to ask though, why is there not a port on the right hand side, surely two on each side would be better? There is an IR port next to the card reader as well. The card reader works well, I have been using it with memory stick duo from my SonyEricsson K750i, and it is faster than using the attached USB cable at least, as well as looking far cooler!
Back right side LAN, Modem, power, USB and video out port displayed
Optical drive on the right side
Front left side USB ports, FireWire, S-Video port (view larger image)
Left front side (view larger image)
Right side optical drive closed (view larger image)
The back of the unit contains the fourth USB port, LAN, Modem and power sockets. It also houses an analogue monitor output if you want to run a dual screen setup or something. That is your lot on the back other than a Kensington lock slot if you need such a thing. The front has the line-in and headphone jack.
The 5021 contains a Broadcom B/G WiFi adaptor, using Acer’s Signal-Up technology. This apparently increases the signal strength, and I have no reason to doubt that claim so far. It certainly holds the signal from my D-Link G604 router at least Very Good’ all over my house, at 54Mbps mode. Never drops less than 30Mbps, which is easily sufficient for my 4Mbps ADSL. There is a hardware button on the front of the unit to toggle the wireless on or off, and glows orange when in use.
I used Bluetooth extensively on my previous laptop, so I was rather frustrated by its absence here, despite the presence of a Bluetooth hardware button next to the wireless button. I can still use a USB dongle I suppose, but with my new phone having a MSDuo card, I find that method of data transfer more efficient. There is always the IR receiver on the side for slower transfer, which works fine with all the phones I’ve tested it with.
Acer claims battery life at 3hrs. I am usually suspicious of these claims, so I decided to run some tests using my trusty stopwatch.
- Watching a DVD at full brightness with Wireless on yielded 2hrs 15mins, enough for most movies.
- Watching a DVD at medium brightness with wireless off yielded 2hrs 45mins.
- General office tasks (iTunes, MSN, Word, Firefox) at minimum brightness with wireless on yielded 3hrs 15mins.
- General office tasks at minimum brightness with wireless off yielded 3hrs 40mins.
Certainly it is no match for Centrino based systems, but is perfectly adequate for some surfing in front of the TV or taking notes at a meeting. If you needed maximum battery life, you probably wouldn’t choose a desktop replacement anyway.
Operating System and Software
Like most PCs, this comes with Windows XP Home Edition, with the latest Service Pack 2. Also like most systems, a “proper” Windows CD isn’t included; instead you have the standard “recovery software”. This consists of three discs which revert the 5021 to its factory settings. At least they give you the actual discs instead of making you burn your own. Usefully, there is a dedicated driver disc.
Acer also includes a variety of “utilities”, its own Arcade multimedia player which can play pretty much any audio, video or photo you throw at it. It also has an interesting “Gridvista” system, which causes windows to snap to a predefined area of the screen. This basically means you get the best use of the real estate available, though it’s not something I often use.
Acer also thoughtfully includes five EA games to demonstrate the X700 graphics card:
- Medal of Honour: Allied Assault
- Lord of The Rings: Return of The King
- FIFA Football 2005
- Sim City 4
- Command & Conquer: Generals
Acer also includes Microsoft Works, which is no MS Office, but it’s better than nothing I suppose. More beneficially, the system doesn’t include various bloatware and demos of other manufacturers. You won’t find any AOL trials on this system.
I haven’t yet had to use Acer customer support, so I can’t really comment on it. I believe they have a local rate telephone number for all localities, though I may be wrong, since I haven’t researched that all too deeply. I am sure their email and chat support is free however. My warranty is 3 year collect and return, so if anything goes wrong, I am sure I will be in good hands, though that is in the hands of the gods at the moment. The warranty was part of the system cost, though not free, so I was essentially just having it bundled in. From what I read, this length and type of warranty costs somewhere in the region 200- 300 British pounds, so I think I got a pretty good deal from that angle. The standard warranty is 1 year return to base, like most other manufacturers.
It is difficult to complain too much about such a well priced piece of hardware, so I won’t. However, I find the issue with the mouse buttons pretty frustrating. They are useable, but they are poorly designed and made. The only consolation is that this button type is generic to the whole Acer range, including the premium priced Ferrari models. At least I can glow in the satisfaction of those well-off owners cursing on the train as they click.
There are much to praise about this system, from the good build quality to the high quality components, with a lot of areas between. If I had to point out specific praise, the graphics subsystem and screen would be worthy recipients. The system exceeds my expectations specifically in build quality. Sure, the performance is good and it is packed with features, but that is no good if it falls apart within a few days. The 5021 feels as though it is built to last (fingers crossed).
Aspire 5021, reflective nature of screen is easily seen in this photo
I would wholeheartedly recommend the 5021, with only a few reservations. The fact of the matter is you are getting a good quality multimedia system, for a budget notebook price. If you are somebody who needs some power and versatility and a fairly tight budget, this system is great. Students this means you. If you frequently use system hogging applications, or travel frequently perhaps this isn’t for you, but you will be looking at a price premium for your troubles.