By Adama D. Brown, New York USA
Averatec is currently the fastest growing laptop manufacturer, and lightweight machines are a major section of the market. We’ve got Averatec’s 3250HX to see whether it makes the grade.
Design and Construction
Most of the casing is metal, with a few plastic panels on the underside, and assorted plastic buttons and switches. I would wager that the case is aluminum, but it could also be magnesium. The metal has a matte finish bordering on brushed aluminum. Far from glossy or polished, but not quite textured or anti-slip.
Front edge, just left of center-line are the 3250’s audio jacks and a volume dial. Headphones on the left, microphone jack on the right. All the other ports are located along the front half of the laptop’s side. Along the right are the 3250’s three USB 2.0 ports, which constitute a bit of a pain. Placed right there, next to my right hand and in between me and the DVD drive, the USB ports would be a real inconvenience with something plugged into them. I would have preferred one or two front USB ports for temporary things like flash drives, and one or two rear USB ports for more significant or long-term attachments like mice, docking stations, hard drives, dongles, etcetera.
Farther back along the right hand side is the optical drive. Without any release screws or anything else to assist in the removal of the drive, the only conclusion I can come to is that the drive isn’t meant to be replaced. Fortunately, there’s little chance that you would want to, seeing as how the installed drive does nearly everything. Past the drive is the DC power jack on the right rear corner. It’s a standard barrel plug with no added refinements or proprietary touches.
On the Averatec’s left are the two wired communication ports for landline modem and ethernet, along with the VGA connector and CardBus slot. Towards the rear on this side is the attachment point for a security lock.
The back side of the case is mostly taken up by the battery slot and battery. The placement would imply that the 3250 was designed with an optional extended battery in mind, since sticking out the back would be the best place for such a thing. However, Averatec currently doesn’t list any extended battery for the 3250 series. Next to the battery is the fan’s hot air outflow vent.
I’m used to a laptop automatically coming out of standby when I lift the lid, so it was a bit of a surprise to find that the 3250 didn’t. To wake it, you have to press the power button at the top of the keyboard. Situated next to the power button is a control for the 3250’s internal 802.11g wireless radio. This allows you to toggle the wireless on and off without using the built-in Windows wireless control applets.
You can check the status of the wireless radio from the panel of LED indicators on the edge of the left palm rest. Representing power, wireless, and battery status, they’re placed where they can still be seen with the lid closed.
|Processor:||AMD Athlon XP-M 2200+ (1.67 GHz)|
|Operating System:||Microsoft Windows XP Home Edition|
|Display:||12.1 inch 1024 x 768 XGA LCD; S3 Unichrome display controller /w shared video memory|
|Memory:||512 MB PC2700 (333 MHz) DDR RAM|
|Storage:||80 GB 4200 RPM 9.5mm Hitachi Travelstar hard drive|
|Optical Drive:||QSI SDW-042 dual format 4x/2x DVD RW drive|
|Size & Weight:||10.9 inches wide x 9.6 inches deep x 1.0 inch thick, 4.4 pounds|
|Expansion:||1x CardBus slot, 1x VGA out, 1x RJ45 ethernet, 1x RJ11 modem, 3x USB 2.0 ports|
|Docking:||No docking connector|
Integrated 802.11g WiFi, 10/100 ethernet, 56k modem
|Audio:||1x headphone jack, 1x microphone jack, internal stereo speakers|
|Input:||Standard keyboard, touchpad|
|Battery:||44 watt-hour (11.1 volt, 4.0 amp-hour) Lithium Ion battery|
Although it runs at a clock speed of 1.67 GHz, the XP-M 2200+, like its desktop Athlon siblings, claims to have a performance equal to a higher clock-speed Intel processor. Hence the origin of the 2200+ rating–according to AMD, the 1.67 GHz XP-M is equal to the performance of a 2.2 GHz Pentium 4-M.
I was surprised how cool the 3250 ran most of the time. Despite having a similar clock speed to my 1.6 GHz Inspiron 8200, the 3250 generated much less heat while active. I don’t know whether the processor actually produces less heat, or if it’s simply the effectiveness of the metal case in redistributing the excess, but it shows. After running at full speed for awhile, the 3250’s underside was only warm to the touch, about as hot as my ancient 266 MHz Thinkpad 600 would be. Very heavy and extended use did result in a considerable amount of heat buildup, but it took more and longer usage than my Inspiron.
To test out the processor speed, I used a program called Super Pi to calculate to two million digits of accuracy. While running on external power, the 3250 completed this calculation in 2 minutes and 45 seconds, which is in the same range as the 2.2 GHz P4Ms. While running on battery power, the result differed greatly depending on the level of power saving that the system was set to. With Windows set to maximize battery life, Super Pi took 8 minutes and 30 seconds to complete. Set to minimum power management, the same test took 2 minutes and 49 seconds, barely longer than the result on battery power. The moral of the story: power management matters.
The Averatec 3250HX, which is the variant I recieved, comes with Microsoft Windows XP Home edition. For $100 more–list price, that is–you can buy the 3250PX, which comes preinstalled with XP Professional.
My 3250’s screen was fairly clear, with one dead pixel, residing on near the top center, being the only visible defect. It was a bit of a shock going back to using 1024 x 768 after many months of using a laptop with a 1600 x 1200 screen, but once I adjusted I found the 3250’s screen to be quite nice. Colors are good, brightness is good, and while it may not compete with some of the specialty high-end LCDs it’s certainly not going to draw many complaints.
The are only a couple of issues I have with the 3250’s screen. One is that it seems to have a slightly bluish cast to it. Not so much that it would be a major flaw, but enough that a sharp eye could notice it. The other is that the LCD has a very wide horizontal viewing angle, but a very narrow vertical angle. You can see the image on the screen from almost 180 degrees around the sides, but if you’re not dead on straight up and down you start to lose accuracy.
For graphics performance benchmarks, I used the ever classic 3DMark03. The news wasn’t good. The S3 graphics adapter choked hard in all the tests, earning a 3DMark score of 59. For those who aren’t familiar with the 3DMark scale, that’s not out of a possible 100. More like a possible 5000. In comparison, the far-from-cutting-edge Radeon 9000 in my desktop PC scored upwards of 1500, and the Acer Ferrari 3400 recently reviewed here at NBR scored above 3100. Don’t expect to use the 3250 for 3D games of any kind. Not even the relatively undemanding ones.
The 3250HX comes standard with 512 MB of PC2700 (333 MHz) DDR SDRAM occupying its single SODIMM memory module slot. With no free slots, a memory upgrade would mean pulling out the existing module. In turn, that would require a new memory module of at least 1 GB if you want to get a net gain. However, according to Averatec’s specs 512 MB is the maximum RAM capacity of the 3250. I don’t know if this is a hard limit or just something that’s left over in the documentation from when there weren’t any 1 GB DDR333 SODIMMs available, but either way it’s fortunate that 512 MB is plenty for most peoples usage. Only professional grade photo and video editing would really demand more, and that crowd is probably already looking elsewhere.
While not the most cutting edge drive on the market, the 80 GB 4200 RPM Travelstar hard drive in the 3250 offers ample room and good dependability. The drive has fluid bearings for low noise, along with SMART–Self-Monitoring And Reporting Technology–and a variety of other ‘under the hood’ features to increase lifespan and speed. Most of these come directly from IBM, who used to make the Travelstar line before Hitachi bought out their hard drive division.
The 3250 uses a QSI DVD burner in its optical drive bay. The SDW-042 is a dual format DVD burner, capable of using either DVD-R/RW or DVD+R/RW media formats. Using DVD+R media, it writes at 4x, and rewrites at 2.4x. On the DVD-R side, it can only write at 2x, and rewrite at 2x. A little disappointing to me, since all my DVD media is DVD-R. Still, it’s undeniably nice to be able to burn a DVD on your laptop, even it doesn’t significantly outpace the Toshiba burner in my Inspiron. Maximum read speed for all flavors of DVD and DVD R/RW media is a solid 8x. For CDs, the 042 burns at 16x, rewrites at 10x, and reads at a maximum 24x.
Oddly, the SDW-042 didn’t take well to my DVDs. While trying to burn one of my Ritek G05 DVD-Rs it spat out a coaster, and the second one it failed to burn the lead-out. The second disc was usable afterwards, but it’s still an odd problem.
Size & Weight
The 3250 is about as small as most laptops go. To get a much smaller machine, you’d have to look for a much more expensive sub-notebook model for not much additional gain. Despite it’s mostly metal casing, the 3250 is still a relatively light 4.4 pounds, again at the lower end of the spectrum.
The 3250, like many slim laptops, offers only a single CardBus–a.k.a. PC Card–expansion slot for additional functions. For most people, one slot is as much as, or more than, they’ll need. For those not familiar with them, CardBus slots are used for adding various peripherals–usually communication devices, like an aircard for mobile internet or Bluetooth for wireless peripherals.
The VGA monitor connection on the 3250 is substantitively unchanged from the VGA monitor connection on any other hardware. Likewise, the ethernet, modem, and USB 2.0 ports are 100% standard.
One thing that you won’t find on this list is a Mini PCI slot, because the 3250 doesn’t have one. Possibly as a compromise to save space, possibly because they decided it just wasn’t neccessary, Averatec decided to forgo a Mini PCI slot in favor of directly integrating the laptop’s WiFi. This does preclude any upgrading of the wireless gear later on, as well as preventing the use of an additional antenna, but these are relatively minor concerns.
The 3250 doesn’t offer a special connector designed specifically for a docking station. If you want one-plug connection of peripherals, you’ll need to add a USB based docking station. That could be a little bit of an annoyance–see my nit about the location of the USB ports.
The 3250 starts with the basic communication methods. First up is a 56k v.92 landline modem, followed by a 10/100 ethernet port.
I tried to test the former out, but it didn’t seem keen on letting me dial-up my ISP, instead throwing ‘cannot connect’ errors on every attempt. Maybe it’s the fact that the phone line crackles when it rains–not that it’s much better the rest of the time. In any event, I have no idea what made it have a fit. The ethernet worked perfectly.
Probably the most used connection is also the least visible–the 3250’s 802.11g WiFi radio. I don’t just blanket but actually swaddle my house in WiFi, so it’s very hard to not get a signal practically anywhere short of the barn. However, in the interest of testing, I deactivated one of my wireless access points in order to see how well the 3250 picked up on the second, much weaker AP one floor down and on the other side of the house. Very well, as it turns out. The 3250 consistently held four out of five bars of signal on the XP connection status while my Inspiron only held two at the same 11 Mbit speed. The 3250 also stayed at 11 Mbits, while the Inspiron tried shifting its speed down a couple of times.
One interesting side-effect of this test was watching how the laptops behaved after I’d reactivated the primary AP. The Inspiron automatically switched back to the closer and more powerful signal, while the 3250 stayed connected to the second AP. The 3250 refused to automatically switch APs even when it had to down-shift temporarily to 5.5 Mbits. Both APs are part of the same network ESSID, so I don’t believe that the 3250 could have seen the primary AP as another network, and yet it remained doggedly attached to the secondary AP even though a much stronger one is ten feet away. Frankly, I don’t know if this is a virtue or a vice on its part.
I would have liked to see Bluetooth built into the 3250. With the number of available Bluetooth phones and accessories, it would be nice to see Bluetooth added as standard equipment for more laptops. This is particularly relevant given the single CardBus slot–add a Bluetooth card, and you’ve burned your expansion capabilies.
The stereo speakers built into either side of the chassis are not the greatest quality, but on par for laptop speakers. Likewise, the quality of sound through headphones is pretty good across the range of laptop computers, and the 3250 is no exception.
The keyboard’s response felt good. Key travel and size are within the standard margins, and the tactile response was textbook feel for a good laptop keyboard. I think that the key placement may be lacking, however. All the keys are crammed into a single large rectangle, virtually all of them the same size and same spacing. For finding your way across in the dark, there couldn’t be a worse configuration, since there’s no landmarks for your fingers to feel for. Without spacers between certain blocks of keys, you would need a light to see whether you’re hitting F4 or F5, Delete or Insert.
I found the touchpad on the 3250 to be rather flakey. I’m not a big user of touchpads in general, preferring a Trackpoint style stick, but I have both options on my current laptop. While it’s not my preference, I find the touchpad on the Inspiron to be reliably accurate. Not so with the 3250. Frequently the touchpad caused the cursor to jump around, making precision movements nearly impossible, with small random motions when you put down or pick up your finger. Strangely, it doesn’t always do this–sometime it functions perfectly.
There are several good features about the 3250’s touchpad. When you move your finger to the edge of the pad while dragging an icon or something, you can leave it there and the cursor will continue scrolling in that direction. This eliminates the need to move your finger when one length of the touchpad isn’t enough. The touchpad also has a pair of scroll bars silkscreened onto it. Placing your finger on these lets you use them to scroll up and down a web page or document without having to move the mouse cursor to the on-screen scroll bars.
Since there are a vast number of variables in how much power a laptop draws, I decided that rather than try to comprehensively test it under all conditions that I would base my tests on some approximation of normal to heavy usage. To that end, my main testconsisted of moderate web browsing over wireless, burning two DVDs at 2x, and running the screen at full brightness. Doing these things, I managed 1 hour and 53 minutes of use before the system hibernated and would not restart. Not bad but not great for that kind of usage. Overall usage backed this up, showing around two hours for moderate to heavy use and closer to three hours for lighter use.
There is one more battery-related issue I have encountered. For whatever reason, it seems like the 3250 consumes an unusual amount of power while it’s in standby mode. A couple of times now I have left the 3250 unplugged and asleep, reactivating it a couple of days later to find the battery dead or nearly. I can’t explain this, as I’ve never seen any of my previous laptops run through power so quickly on standby.
The overall feel of the 3250 is very solid. While a metal case is far from immune to drops, nicks, and scratches, it lends a more durable and reliable feel to the already very positive build-quality of the machine. It packs a big hard drive, powerful processor, DVD burner, and 802.11g into a very tiny frame. The biggest downsides of the 3150 are the poor graphics adapter and a short battery life. It does fine with basic functions, but the second that the 3250’s graphics card is asked to do 3D it cowers like a lackey caught stealing from Al Swearengen.
There’s not much to do about the short battery life either, except carry a power supply. Fast and bright plus small battery equals short autonomy. Such is the trade-off when you want high-end features in a small shell. That said, if you don’t need 3D or an all-day battery, the 3250 has a lot of appealing characteristics.
- Light and powerful
- Metal casing
- Good value
- Runs cool
- Poor graphics performance
- Flakey touchpad
- Short battery life
Some nice features in a small package with a reasonable price tag. Just avoid games and field trips.
Pricing and Availability