A few months with Acer's Aspire 1810TZ budget ultraportable notebook


— 4:38 PM on March 18, 2010

About a year and a half ago, I bought an Eee PC 1000HA as an experiment of sorts. Both batteries for my aging 14" notebook were on their last legs, so I figured the time was right to see whether a netbook could suffice as my only portable PC. Plus, I was curious whether I'd like having an ultraportable enough to justify splurging on a more powerful one should the Eee PC's Atom CPU prove too anemic for my needs.

Well, the Eee PC turned out to be a capable writing tool, a competent web surfer as long as I avoided Flash-heavy sites, a great standard-definition video player, and even a decent MAME gaming platform. I also fell in love with the marriage of excellent battery life and ultraportability, which encouraged me to use the system far more than I'd used previous notebooks.

In fact, I ended up using the Eee PC so often that I began to want it to do more than the basics. I craved a screen with enough pixels for a proper desktop, not just a single application window. I desired more CPU power to handle multiple Flash-heavy tabs in Firefox with a side order of light multitasking. And I longed for a GPU that wouldn't limit my gaming to World of Goo and old-school arcade emulators. 

My search for a new notebook began last fall, which proved a good time to be looking. Intel's Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage mobile CPUs were all over the market, promising just the sort of horsepower upgrade I was looking for without pushing system prices much above the cost of premium netbooks. Most CULV CPUs found their way into 13-15" notebooks, but after a year of enjoying the Eee PC's ultraportable dimensions, even thin-and-light 13.3" systems feel bigger than they need to be. Fortunately, Acer started putting CULV chips into 11.6" Aspire 1410 and 1810 Timeline ultraportables. The 1410 instantly caught my attention with its netbook-like $400 price tag, but I ultimately settled on an 1810TZ, coughing up an extra $150 for a faster CPU, more memory and hard drive capacity, Bluetooth, and most importantly, a bigger battery.

I've been using the 1810TZ as my primary notebook ever since the unit arrived in November, and wow, what a difference. The first thing that struck me about the Aspire was the fact that it really is an ultraportable. It's a little thinner than the 1000HA and can even squeeze into the neoprene sleeve that came with the Eee PC. Plus, at round about three pounds, the Aspire is light enough to carry around with ease.

The Aspire's slightly larger size allows Acer to equip the system with an 11.6" screen that has a 1366x768 display resolution. This is a huge step up from the 1024x600 display on the Eee PC, and the extra pixels make all the difference in the world for me. Having only 768 vertical pixels still feels a little short, especially with Windows 7's pudgy taskbar, but moving it over to the left-hand side of the screen helps tremendously.

As far as display quality goes, the Aspire's screen is as average as you'd expect from a budget system. The transreflective coating is too glossy for my tastes, but you can overpower a lot of its reflectivity by cranking the LED backlight's ample brightness. Color reproduction is decent enough, and while the viewing angles aren't particularly good, I only know that because I just checked. When I'm actually using a notebook, I tend to be looking at the screen dead on.

I spent a good five minutes buffing up the Aspire before snapping pictures of it for this post, which is why the system's glossy plastic exterior has a nice sheen. But it never looks this pristine in the real world; the lid's always covered with fingerprints and smudges, as is the bezel that surrounds the screen. Recently, I've also noticed that the screen will occasionally pick up a little bit of finger grease from the keyboard. This only seems to affect the very center of the screen, which when the system is closed, just so happens to line up with what looks like the slightest of peaks in the middle of the keyboard.

As a writer, I'm particularly picky about keyboard quality. The Aspire's is nearly full size, which provides plenty of room for my meaty paws to type at full speed. There's plenty of key travel, too, and spirited strokes hit with a satisfying dull thud. However, the keyboard feels a little mushy overall, and its tactile feedback isn't as good as that of the Eee PC. I can deal, and folks who aren't so anal about such things may never notice a problem.

Below the keyboard sits a Synaptics touchpad that, with the latest drivers, offers all sorts of useful multi-touch scrolling schemes and gestures. The touchpad's surface is perfectly smooth, too, facilitating silky smooth tracking.

Under the hood, my particular Aspire model has a dual-core Pentium SU4100 1.3GHz CPU, an Intel GS45 Express chipset, 3GB of RAM, and a 320GB 5,400-RPM hard drive. While hardly a performance monster, the system nevertheless feels nice and responsive, even when multitasking. High-definition video plays back smoothly, Flash doesn't bog down the system, and the integrated GMA 4500MHD graphics chip is potent enough for Audiosurf, Darwinia, and Geometry Wars—all I need to keep myself entertained while traveling. This is really an entirely different class of performance than a netbook.

I actually made the Aspire a little bit faster by swapping in an Indilinx-based Super Talent SSD. Not that it feels much faster—just more chuckable, since I'm not worried about jostling bringing a mechanical hard drive to a grinding halt. Kudos to Acer for making it easy to access not only the hard drive bay, but also the DIMM slots and Wi-Fi card.

While the SSD swap has probably improved the Aspire's battery life to some degree, its run times were already excellent with the mechanical drive. In my experience, the six-cell battery is good for 7-9 hours of Wi-Fi web surfing, writing, and video playback. And the battery lasts even longer if all I have open is a Remote Desktop Connection to my primary PC.

The elements that underpin the Aspire 1810TZ may be modest at best, but Acer has struck a nice balance between robust performance, excellent battery life, adequate screen real estate, and easy portability that's just about perfect for my needs, especially since I only had to pay $550 for the privilege. Intel's Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage platform deserves a lot of the credit here, and so do netbooks, without which we might never have seen CULV processors, let alone found them squeezed into budget ultraportables.

CULV-powered systems like this one may ultimately push netbooks further into niche territory. I think there's still room in the market for Atom-based systems, but only at lower price points than those currently occupied the ultraportable CULV crowd. And pint-sized CULV systems may become even cheaper if Ultra-Low-Voltage Core i5 CPUs migrate into smaller notebooks than the 13.3" models we've seen thus far. Only time will tell, but in the meantime, I'm going to thoroughly enjoy my Aspire 1810TZ.

For more pictures of the Aspire, see the image gallery below. Also included in the gallery are pictures of Scott's grey 1810TZ, a black Gateway EC1430u that's virtually identical to the Acer system, and a few comparison shots that stack the Gateway on top of Samsung's NC20.

   
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