by Perry Longinotti, Canada
Introduction — Budget Notebook Overview
As a bonafide notebook computer enthusiast I have watched with interest as budget priced portable computers have plummeted in price these past few years. It was not that long ago that a really good notebook computer cost at least $2,000.00 and really demanding users were paying much more for devices that could meet all of their needs. But the amount of computing power available today far exceeds the needs of the average user. And as ever faster machines come out progress is pushing down great technology to the masses. Great technology at ever lower prices has always been a promise of trickle down economics. As a former skeptic, I am beginning to come around. Half a grand will buy you one heck of a computer these days.
One trend that we are starting to see is that only the biggest manufacturers can really compete at the lowest end of the price spectrum. The best devices come from vendors that can buy in vast bulk quantities and who can make their own chassis or order massive numbers of them from suppliers. Frankly, a company needs a pretty talented product manager (or team of them) to compete in this space. This is a game where every penny counts.
That is why companies like Dell, Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba and Gateway/eMachines dominate here. All of these companies now have interesting notebooks priced at the entry level. A few years ago, a $1,000.00 Windows notebook would invariably disappoint all but the most basic computing needs. Heavy, hot, slow and with meager battery life those machines sacrificed the features people wanted and substituted sponsor ware in their stead. Sponsor ware, if you are not familiar with it, is software that a company pays the PC maker to have installed. If it doesn’t ring any bells, think of all those crummy ISP offers that used to be crammed into every nook and cranny of your PC’s operating system and you have the right idea.
Acer TravelMate 2428 WXCi (view large image)
A LOOK AT THE ACER TRAVELMATE 2428 WXCi
Today, I get to tell you about the Acer TravelMate 2428 WXCi (I will abbreviate it TM2428 from here on in) and it is thankfully none of the things that I used to associate with budget notebooks. This is a small sized wide-screen business notebook targeted at companies that do not need or can not afford to outfit their workers with the latest ThinkPad or Latitude. It comes with an outrageously low price of $599.00 CDN (A similar consumer oriented model in the Aspire line that comes with Linux instead of Windows XP can be had for $50.00 less!).
– Out of box experience
In the box (view large image)
Something that I think is really important for notebook makers to consider, especially for budget and entry level notebooks, is the out of box experience. While Acer can not match Apple in this category because of the latter’s decadent packing materials, the packaging is otherwise excellent. Compact and well laid out, the TM2428 box greets the user with a ‘Just for Starters’ sheet and a minimum of fuss. Install the battery, plug in the AC and get started.
TravelMate 2428 fresh out of the box (view large image)
Stuff you get with the Acer TravelMate 2428 WXCi (view large image)
First boot triggers some configuration routines that run through the setup of various Acer utilities. The software does a good job of conveying progress. Also, you are prompted to create your restore disks. When you first start the TM2428 you are prompted to create backups. This is a good idea because the notebook does not come with any restore disks – remember every penny saved counts when making a notebook in this class. The process is simple and works well (you will need 4 blank CDs).
Acer restore utility running (view large image)
Acer configuration utilities running (view large image)
– What goes into a $600 notebook?
TravelMate 2428 Specs (view large image)
A lot goes in actually. In the case of the TM2428, you get a full Centrino ensemble – some of the parts were top of the line last year. Starting with the CPU, we have an Intel Pentium M 735A. This is a ‘Dothan’ based CPU that runs at 1.7 GHz and has 2 MB of level 2 cache. It is somewhat hobbled by a 400 MHz front side bus speed (typically these CPUs are mated to 533 MHz FSB). This means that the CPU will communicate with RAM and other system components a bit slower than we would normally expect from a CPU of this class. In everyday office tasks this would be a drawback. This CPU uses clock throttling to save power when your workload does not require full processing power. The automatic throttling ranges from 13 to 100% of the CPU’s speed. This is a nice CPU in a notebook of this price.
– Memory / RAM (or lack thereof)
One of the first compromises to get the TM2428 price down is in the memory department. Acer outfits the TM2428 with 256 MB of single channel DDR2 RAM running at 333 MHz. Now, I don’t want to make excuses for Acer but this is a business notebook and frankly it doesn’t need to have a massive HDD or DVD burner but most people would agree with me when I say that it should have more RAM. For this review, we will run our test suite with the stock 256, 512 and 768 MB of RAM to see if there is any real world advantage. If I had a memory/pagefile benchmark that could simulate having Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint open we could probably settle this debate (send your suggestions via the notebookreview forums if you know of any).
The TM2428’s RAM is also a bit slow at 333 MHz (533 MHz DDR2 is much more common). Memory performance is comparable to first generation Pentium-M memory performance. It should be noted that when I installed a single 512 memory module rated for 533 MHz that the TM2428 did not benefit from it. Rather it ran the memory at 333 MHz – so if you upgrade the RAM on a TM2428 get the cheapest name brand RAM you can find and save a few bucks. Apparently if you install matching memory modules that run at 400 MHz the system will switch to dual channel mode, but I did not try this.
– Hard Drive and Optical Drive
Storage and optical duties are handled by a 40 GB ATA HDD and combination DVD/CD-RW drive respectively. No DVD burner here, but for basic business use this drive is fine.
The model of Hard Drive used on the TM2428 is the Western Digital Scorpio WD400UE. It spins at 5400 rpm and has a 2MB cache. Although it is a budget drive, some of the latest features are present including shock protection and noise reduction. Western Digital has succeeded in making a quiet drive, but I did not have the guts to test the durability claims.
Hard drive space is partitioned into three sections. There is a hidden three gigabyte restore partition with 16 and 17 GB volumes – one for system files and one for storage. Both are formatted in Fat32 to facilitate Acer’s restore utility which thankfully will leave the storage volume alone if you ever need to restore your system. You can easily convert to the volumes from Fat32 to the generally preferred NTFS format without losing any data using a command line utility built into Windows.
Part of Intel’s Centrino platform is the 910 GML Express chipset. Along with the CPU it packs all the great power saving features that Intel’s last few generations of mobile components have been known for. The tight integration of Centrino and the benefits that come with that integration have made Intel the only show in town for mobile users for a few years now. AMD’s Turion effort fell well short of the mark. You get Intel’s ICH6 south bridge chip that has a great USB 2.0 implementation and High Definition (Azalia) audio if you pair it with the right codec, but Acer used an AC’97 chip. Seriously, who needs high definition audio on a business laptop anyway? The speakers are fine for this type of notebook.
– Accessory Expansion Slots
The TM2428 lacks a media card reader. That also tends to be more of a consumer feature but it is handy to have a SD or Compact Flash card reader to transfer files. A PCMCIA slot is included rather than the newer (and scarcer) ExpressCard.
– Graphics and Screen
The TM2428 uses Intel’s GMA 900 video accelerator. As has been said countless times before, this video subsystem is perfectly acceptable for business use and watching media. Older games like Civilization 3 and Baldur’s Gate should run fine just remember the purpose of this notebook and don’t set your expectations too high as far as gaming goes. There is plenty of room in your notebook bag for a PSP, Nintendo DS or Gameboy Micro if mobile gaming is something you crave. If you have 512 MB or more of RAM, the system is Microsoft Vista ready according to Intel’s 910 GML product page.
Matte screen (view large image)
Acer has equipped the TM2428 with a lovely 14.1″ wide screen display in 1280*800 (WXGA) resolution. The panel does not use Acer’s CrystalBrite high gloss coating, but the screen is still nice and bright. It came out of the box with no defects (no stuck or dead pixels). Although inexpensive, the screen looks really good.
Networking is another strong point and the TM2428 comes with Intel’s PRO/wireless 2200BG chip completing the Centrino spec. This does not give you the latest and greatest such as speed doubler technology, but what you do get is solid reliable WiFi that is Cisco compatible and has Acer’s SignalUp antenna technology for increasing signal strength. In my unscientific tests, the TM2428 bested all other laptops tested in my home for detecting networks. Where my Ferrari only saw three wireless networks, the TM2428 saw ten. Wired networking is 10/100 Ethernet and 56 K modem – perfectly acceptable. There is a Bluetooth button on the TM2428 but this feature is not implemented. It might be possible to retrofit Bluetooth but I can’t say for sure. Often the chip is soldered right onto the motherboard. Infra red is also absent from the TM2428.
The 2428 uses Acer SignalUp technology (view large image)
– Battery and AC Adapter
The battery is a basic 4000mAh unit with three cells. This is a lower capacity battery – another cost saving sacrifice. I expected that a small battery like this one would mean approximately two hours on battery power. I started up our battery benchmark of choice Battery Eater Pro 2.60′ but that software must hate me. It failed to register a score when I attempted to benchmark the TM2428’s. Every once in a while I seem to have this same problem with Battery Eater.
Battery (view large image)
In real world testing I managed to get almost four hours from the battery while surfing and writing an article. I simply let the Acer power utility choose the power profile for me and the results were quite good. This result was a big surprise to me. Imagine how long a bigger battery would last.
I must mention the power supply unit that comes with the TM2428. It is tiny! This is great when compared to the monster power supplies that come with some notebooks. An added benefit is that it never gets terribly hot.
(view large image)
(view large image)
Software is sparse on the TM2428 – exactly the way that I like it (and probably IT departments too). You get your software based DVD decoder (Cyberlink), burning application (NTI), Norton Antivirus 90 day trial ware and the ubiquitous Acrobat Reader 7.0. The only other software is Acer’s ‘Enabling Technologies’ utilities – all of which are well designed and worth keeping. These utilities include restore, security, performance tweaking and presentation tools to name a few. They can quickly be called up by pressing one of the TM2428’s quick launch buttons.
Windows XP Home is the operating system of choice on the TM2428. Acer offers a very similar model to the TM2428 in the Aspire consumer line that runs Linux. That seems an odd choice as Linux might be a better choice for a cost conscious small business with its plethora of power and free software applications. And for larger companies looking at the TM2428, a Linux version would be like buying the notebook without OS. That is a plus if you have volume licensing in place with Microsoft.
I have to say, after getting all the Windows XP updates installed, you might want to try Linux or send a letter to Apple begging them to release OSX for generic x86 based PCs. Between auto updates and Norton’s software updates the restarted about six times. A first timer might find the process a little frustrating.
– 256MB, 512MB and 768MB RAM Performance Comparison
My subjective testing concluded that the TM2428 with 256 MB of RAM performed fine in most situations, but when I had WordPad, several Internet Explorer windows and SiSoft Sandra open the notebook chugged a bit. I also found that Norton’s live update feature used a lot of CPU time and made multitasking tricky. With 256 MB of RAM installed I had to stop some non-responsive applications manually using the task manager several times.
Bumping up the RAM to 512 MB yielded immediate improvements in how the TM2428 multitasked. Specifically, there were fewer instances of slow screen refresh and jumping between open applications was a much more responsive. Stability also improved with nary a locked application.
Finally, running the TM2428 with 768 MB of RAM also showed an improvement particularly when several applications were open. This is subjective unfortunately, but I think if you saw the performance of the TM2428 with the three tested memory configurations you would notice the difference too. We are not talking about fractions of a second here.
We use a few synthetic benchmarks create an ‘apples-to-apples’ comparison of performance between notebooks. Try as I might I could not get PCMark 05 to complete a full run on the TM2428. I was greeted with failure each time I ran the test because the ‘Windows Transparency’ test repeatedly failed – this was irrespective of how much RAM was installed.
Here is what I was able to squeeze from PCMark 05:
HDD — XP Startup
Physics and 3D
Failed (numerous times)
3D — Pixel Shader
Web Page Rendering
Graphics Memory — 64 Lines
HDD — General Usage
Multithreaded Test 1 / Audio Compression
Multithreaded Test 1 / Video Encoding
Multithreaded Test 2 / Text Edit
Multithreaded Test 2 / Image Decompression
Multithreaded Test 3 / File Compression
Multithreaded Test 3 / File Encryption
Multithreaded Test 3 / HDD — Virus Scan
Multithreaded Test 3 / Memory Latency — Random 16 MB
– Appearance, ergonomics and construction: does it look and feel budget?
In my opinion the only thing budget about this notebook is the price. Acer has done a great job of establishing a ‘look’ for its notebooks that has been consistent for a year or two now. I think this is important for any company that wants to become a well-known brand because it makes your products instantly recognizable. Like most Acer laptops, the TM2428 has an understated yet classy look. Constructed entirely of plastic, the TM2428 looks anything but budget in a metallic silver and matte black finish. With a good carbon fiber lid decal you could fool people into thinking that this is a much more expensive notebook.
Front side view (view large image)
Back side view (view large image)
Left side view (view large image)
Right side view (view large image)
I am quite fussy about keyboards and the TM2428 did not let me down. It sports the same curved keyboard as its more expensive siblings and has an excellent dampened feel. The keyboard on this model is nicer than that of the Ferrari 4005 WLMi. The base is not quite as stiff as the Ferrari, but the keys feel better.
A look at the keyboard (view large image)
The TM2428’s touchpad is wide to match the screen, but it might be too small for some folks. The right and left mouse buttons are very light weight and feel as if they might be the first item on this notebook to wear out. Oddly, the centre mouse button feels more robust.
Size is not a problem for the TM2428; it is small enough to slip into almost any laptop bag. Its 14.1″ widescreen allows the chassis to be much smaller than comparable 15.4″ notebooks. Despite a smaller size, the TM2428 weighs about six pounds with adapter. Not quite as light as a good ThinkPad, but at one third the price we can’t be too choosy now can we?
Perhaps the small size of the TM2428 make it impossible to leave empty space inside the notebook’s chassis and that in turn makes it stiffer, but whatever the reason this is one well made notebook. Out of the box it feels as solid as some of the better notebooks that I have tested. A year from now that might not be the case but my initial impression is quite favorable.
When plugged in, the TM2428 gets warm underneath the right palm rest immediately above the HDD. During my HD Tune test the TM2428 had a HDD temp of 42 degrees. Fan noise is no problem when running on AC power (you will hear a soft fan blast when the unit powers on), and the TM2428 quiet and cool when running from battery.
Conclusion, is it worth $599?
I think the TM2428 is absolutely worth it. It looks and feels like a machine that costs double or even triple, and it comes in at just the right size for a truly mobile computer.
Sure, there are some sacrifices here no doubt about it. The ram will only be sufficient for users that keep a maximum of two or three applications open at a time and keep the number of running background services as low as possible. The battery is small and this will limit how productive you will be when you are away from wall power. If you can live with the battery life, the system’s RAM can easily be expanded. The only question mark is longevity – can you get three years from it? Acer provides a limited 1 year International Travelers warranty and that is pretty good. A true road warrior might be better off getting a low spec ThinkPad T4x, but for most people and businesses the TM2428 will be pretty tough to beat.
On the positive side, you get excellent value. A truly usable notebook with a great look and feel, good components in the form of Centrino and some nice value added software and hardware features that are unique to Acer. Also, unlike entry level notebooks of years past this one would actually be worth upgrading.
- Great value!
- Good looks and decent build quality
- Centrino on the cheap
- Clean install
- Acer value added features and software
- Four hour battery life is great
- Itsy bitsy AC adapter
- Great out of box experience
- Runs Linux very well
- Not enough memory for most people
Acer 2428 Tested with Ubuntu Linux
Because of the similarities between the Aspire 3623N WXMi-Linux and the TM2428 I am actually going to test this notebook with a current Linux distribution (Ubuntu) to gauge the viability of that operating system for the average user. Essentially I will test to see how well supported the TM2428 hardware is. Naturally, you lose all of the excellent Acer utilities in a Linux environment – until such time as Acer decides to write versions for Linux.
NBR on FireFox running on the Linux powered Acer 2428 (view large image)
For this test I selected Ubuntu 6.06 because it is based on Debian and most importantly, it is a Linux distribution designed for normal people. One of the features that I like best is that the number of applications is kept low. This results in less confusion. The average user does not need four web browsers, three office suites, and a hodge-podge of obtuse media players so Ubuntu keeps it simple — they hand-picked the best applications and wrapped everything up in a pretty and easy to use shell.
In the standard install, you get Firefox, OpenOffice, Ximian Evolution Mail, IM client, GIMP (think Photoshop) and even VoIP. This is a heck of a lot of functionality for free and the applications are both mature and very high quality.
GIMP on the Acer 2428 under Linux (view large image)
It has been a couple of years since I gave Linux a go, and I must say that the improvements made by the legion of volunteer programmers around the world who work on Linux are immediately apparent.
Wireless networking worked immediately. Ubuntu started applying updates right after booting — this was a shock because the TM2428 had connected itself to the Net before I had even configured anything! The system had connected to one of the numerous un-protected WiFi networks in my neighborhood automatically. That might even be taking ease of use too far!
Navigating a Windows network is no problem at all. Linux reads shared folders with no problem. I would even say that the networking setup is easier than Windows.
Updates work like Windows Update, and there are a lot of pop-ups and readily accessible help to guide you along. Ease of use is one area where Linux has made significant inroads versus Windows.
Battery life on the TM2428 while running Linux was about 20% less than in windows. Manually controlling the settings I was able to get about three hours of use from a charge and in ‘DVD mode’ I managed two hours. There isn’t really a DVD mode in Ubuntu (it maxed the CPU speed when playing a DVD – but I found playback was fine at 600 MHz), I had to adjust the screen brightness and CPU speed manually.
I must also point out that the TM2428 ran very nicely with 256 MB when I was using Ubuntu. Linux is famous for being able to make modest hardware look good when it is configured right, and Ubuntu’s automatic install and configuration obviously did a good job.