Packard Bell dot m/a notebook review

3.5 out of 5
£349

For

Screen resolution, software bundle, 3G modem option

Against

Keyboard not great, battery life, screen reflection (for mobile use)

It is with some trepidation that we embark on this review of the Packard Bell dot m/a, given it's proximity to the Acer Aspire One 751, to which this model owes some of its heritage. It is also one of a new breed of Packard Bell notebooks, redesigned as part of the Acer group, with a new consumer angle. It also is a small format AMD notebook, rather than Intel which we've seen in most devices of late.

In terms of design, it has lost some of the good looks of the Aspire One 751, but it retains the same flat style keyboard and the glossy 11.6-inch display. That display means the dimensions of the dot m/a are larger than many netbooks out there, measuring 288 x 199 x 25.4mm.

The glossy lid is something of a fingerprint magnet, with a single chrome-effect strip emblazoned with the new Packard Bell logo. The same chrome effect is applied to the hinges and like the Acer Aspire One before it, the screen sits up from the body of the notebook to give you space to squeeze in the battery between the hinges.

Although it isn't the most sturdy of devices, the screen does have more substance to it than the slimmer Acer equivalent, which we take as a bonus.

The textured deck of the base feels good, surrounding the keyboard which stretches to fill most of the available space width-wise - something we are always keen to see. With plenty of space available the keys can be large, in fact, no different in size to many full-sized notebooks, with large numbers, tab, control, return and backspace keys, so it is relatively easy to use.

We aren't particularly keen on the flat style of keyboard however. The keys are responsive enough, but the flat face means it can be less accomplished for fast typing than keys with tapered edges or complete separation, but some of this comes down to personal preference. There is unfortunately a great deal of flex on the left-hand side of the keyboard which does mar the typing experience somewhat.

The left-hand side of the notebook is also prone to getting hot, much more than the right-hand side, which does give a strange sensation during long periods of use. The heat sink and ventilation holes are on the left (which explains this) and we found the fan ran most of the time so it isn't the quietest of notebooks to use.

The screen, however, is impressive. With a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, Windows Vista Home Basic looked sharp and impressive, with sumptuous colours and plenty bright. The screen does have a glossy finish, so suffers from reflections fairly significantly. A matte version would be much more friendly for those looking to use it on the move.

You'll notice that we said this notebook runs Windows Vista. That's because technically it isn't a netbook. It runs the AMD Athlon L110 processor at 1.2GHz, which means it can break out a little, ship with 2GB RAM, run Vista and pack in an ATI Radeon X1270 chipset to handle graphics.

Our test sample came equipped with 1GB RAM (unfortunately) and a 160GB hard drive, but the retail version will be restored to 2GB RAM and in some models carry a 320GB hard drive.

Whilst some will complain about the inclusion of Windows Vista over Windows XP, the chances are that if you are buying now, then Windows 7 is looking like a favourable option as an upgrade. That said, Windows Vista seemed to run at a fair lick without too much lag opening windows and navigating around.

The increased graphics offering means that the dot m/a can make better use of the hardware it has than some of the Intel rivals with integrated graphics solutions. Standard definition content is handled well, so if you have an SD collection of video files, then they'll playback nicely. Given the available power (and accepting that the 1GB version we tested will fall short of the final retail versions), the dot m/a isn't the best multitasker out there, so don't try to watch films whilst doing anything else.

However, it struggles with high-definition content but with some tweaking you may have some successes. We couldn't get it to run HD content from iPlayer or of the YouTube HD variety, but we did get it to play back some 720p files from a digital camera. Generally, however, there isn't enough power for HD content so most users would be advised to look to a more powerful machine if that is important to you.

Given the size of the keyboard, the touchpad is a little on the small side. It features a scrolling bar on the right-hand side as well as multitouch controls, which don't really stand-up to the level set by Apple's devices, and are easily all bettered by using a mouse for control instead.

Around the body of the dot m/a 3x USB 2.0, microphone and headphone jacks, an SD/MMC/MS/MS Pro/xD-card reader and VGA. In terms of connectivity you have an Ethernet connection and Wi-Fi as standard and then options of Bluetooth and 3G. Our test model came with both these options included, and after slipping the SIM card from our dongle into the slot behind the battery, we were good to go online anywhere.

On the front edge of the dot m/a are neat toggle switches to power on/off Wi-Fi and the 3G modem, and Bluetooth, which also gets a keyboard shortcut.

The software offering is fairly comprehensive according to the specs supplied you'll get full versions of Microsoft Works, Norton Internet Security and Adobe Photoshop Elements, which covers you for most everyday tasks.

Verdict

Overall we were surprised by the Packard Bell dot m/a. As an overall package including the 3G modem, this works relatively well as a portable device, accepting that the screen is prone to glare and the keyboard is a little sloppy. The software bundle too should make the dot m/a appeal too.

However, the let down here is in the battery performance. With the 3-cell battery we were supplied, we struggled to get near the quoted 4hrs, with around 3hrs more common. A larger 6-cell battery is available and one to look out for if you are looking to go mobile.

We were also impressed overall with the performance of Windows Vista on normal daily tasks, thanks to the extra graphics power available here. The Packard Bell technically sets itself aside from netbooks, whilst retaining a form factor that still offers great portability and feels more like a mini notebook than some rival netbooks do.

As an exercise in escaping some of the "bargain basement" stigma attached to Packard Bell in the past, the influence of Acer seems to have lifted the brand, and for those interested in low-demand general computing tasks, the Dot m/a represents a choice alongside identikit netbooks.