Alright, I'll come out and say it. I love netbooks. It all started when I first laid hands on the original Eee PC. She was different from the stream of hard drives, motherboards, and power supplies that regularly float through the Benchmarking Sweatshop. This was a fresh face and a new idea: basic ultraportable computing on a budget.
The first Eee PCs ultimately had more novelty value than mainstream appeal. However, they would be just a warm up for the deluge of similar systems with rapidly expanding capabilities. Intel's Atom processor was arguably the catalyst for this surge, which was no doubt helped by the move to slightly larger 9" and 10" systems with usable keyboards and 1024x600 displays. Budget ultraportables finally hit their stride, and the term "netbook" was born.
I was so sold on the netbook concept that I went out and bought an Eee PC 1000HA for myself. This was to be an experiment of sorts; my old laptop was well past its prime, and I was curious to see just how little horsepower I could really get by with when away from my desktop.
Overall, I'm quite happy with the 1000HA. It's been a solid travel companion, a great couch surfer, an incredibly convenient writing platform, and quite a fun little system to play around with. But now, some 10 months into this experiment, I can't deny the fact that the Eee isn't meeting all of my needs. While adequate for basic tasks, even a 1.6GHz Hyper-Threaded Atom fails to deliver a smooth multitasking experience in Windows, and it has issues with multi-tabbed browsing when lots of Flash is involved. What's worse, although the 10" 1024x600 display is just big enough for a single application window, it's hard to squeeze much else onto the screen without making other compromises.
Even though I'm looking to ditch my Eee PC for something with more notebook flavor, I still love the netbook concept. More specifically, I love the fact that the genre's infectious popularity has inspired notebook makers to reconsider the hefty price premiums associated with their ultraportable designs.
Aided by the introduction of low-voltage Athlon Neo and Core 2 CULV processors, the price of ultraportable notebooks has plunged. A few years ago, you'd have been lucky to find a new one for under $1500. Today, MSI's X-Slim X340 pulls off a heck of a MacBook Air impression for only $800. For less than $700, you can get a 12" HP Pavilion dv2 with discrete Radeon graphics. Acer's in the game, too, with a new 13.3" Aspire Timeline series that starts at just $600.
The 13.3" Timeline series is decked out with Core 2 processors, 1366x768 displays, gobs of memory, effectively full-sized keyboards, and promises of eight-hour battery life. Naturally, we had to get our hands on one for testing. So we did, and after several weeks of using the system, I have quite a lot to say about this latest Aspire.
Before sinking my teeth into the Timeline, I should take a moment to explain what sets it apart from a netbook. For me, the biggest and most important differences lie in the hardware under the hood. Rather than tapping an anemic Atom CPU designed for Mobile Internet Devices like web tablets, the Timelines come equipped with a selection of processors from Intel's new Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage family.
The particular Aspire Timeline model we're looking at today is the AS3810T-6415. This just happens to be the flagship of the lot, so it sports a pretty swanky CPU: a Core 2 Duo SU9400 running at 1.4GHz on an 800MHz front-side bus. The SU9400 is equipped with 3MB of L2 cache and carries a 10W TDP rating. You can also order 13.3" Timelines with Core 2 Solo SU3500 and Pentium SU2700 CPUs. The former shares the SU9400's clock speed and L2 cache size, but with only a single core, its TDP drops to 5.5W. Interestingly, the single-core Pentium actually has a 10W TDP, despite having only 2MB of L2 cache and a slower 1.3GHz clock speed. All three of the Timeline's CULV options support 64-bit extensions and SpeedStep, but only the Core 2s offer Intel's VT virtualization acceleration.
Acer pairs the Timeline series' CULV processors with Intel's GS45 Express integrated graphics chipset. The chipset has a modern ICH9M south bridge component and an integrated GMA 4500MHD graphics processor that packs considerably more punch than the GMA950 you'll find in most netbooks. Intel says the 4500MHD is a DirectX 10-class part, and while the company's history of dismal 3D performance makes such distinctions largely meaningless to gamers, you can at least expect full support for all the eye candy built into Windows 7. Like most modern graphics processors, the 4500MHD also offers a measure of decode assist for high-definition video. Decode acceleration is supported for VC-1 and H.264 content, although oddly, not for MPEG2 formats.
|Processor||Intel Core 2 Duo SU9400 1.4GHz|
|Memory||4GB DDR3-800 (2 DIMMs)|
|Chipset||Intel GS45 Express|
|Graphics||Integrated Intel GMA 4500MHD with 64MB dedicated memory|
|Display||13.3" TFT with WXGA (1366x768) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||Toshiba HDD2HD21 500GB 2.5" 5,400-RPM hard drive|
|Audio||Stereo HD audio via Realtek codec|
3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Realtek RTL8168
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
|Expansion slots||1 SD/SDHC/MMC/MS/MSPRO/xD|
802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi via Intel WiFi Link
Bluetooth 2.0 + EDR
"Full size" keyboard
Trackpad with horizontal and vertical scrolling zones
|Camera||1.3 megapixel webcam|
|Dimensions||12.7" x 9.0" x 0.9-1.1" (323 mm x 229 mm x 22.9-27.9 mm)|
|Weight||3.5 lbs (1.59 kg)|
|Battery||6-cell Li-Ion 56Wh|
Skimming the spec sheet of the flagship 13.3" Timeline model we have in house, it's evident Acer has attempted to cover all the bases. In addition to Bluetooth and draft-N wireless support, this model comes with 4GB of memory and a 500GB, 5,400-RPM hard drive. You also get a webcam and memory card reader, as is customary even for most netbooks these days.
Acer feeds the system with a six-cell battery rated for 56Wh. More impressively, it claims this battery can keep the system running for more than eight hoursan assertion we'll put to the test in just a moment.
Since many folks will be eyeing the lower rungs on the Timeline ladder, I should note that many of the perks associated with this higher-spec model are standard equipment up and down the line. All of the flavors listed on Acer's website have 4GB of memory, Gigabit Ethernet, draft-N Wi-Fi, and six-cell batteries. As far as the hardware goes, only the processor, hard drive, and Bluetooth support appear to change from one model to the next.