Acer Aspire 5749
Not everyone wants to pay for all the latest and greatest extras on a laptop. From USB 3 to WiDi, and audiophile sound to slim brushed metal design, the top-end laptops now offer outstanding features at what can quickly add up to a serious hole in your bank balance.
The Acer Aspire 5749 achieves a far more reasonable price by leaving out high end features and high end materials.
The design of the Aspire 5749 definitely fits under the heading functional. The grey plastic lid and keyboard surround have a waffle texture not unlike no-slip flooring; it's a bit military for some tastes but it's practical.
The matte finish won't show every mark, there's no problem with fingerprints and that texture gives you plenty of grip. The keyboard, speaker bar and screen surround are black, as are the hinges. Annoyingly, the screen surround is glossy enough to put annoying reflections around the screen, one of our pet hates.
Buttons and indicators are as minimal as you can get, a large circular power button set into the speaker bar and two indicator light below the trackpad are all there is. The microphone is in the palm rest, so make sure your hand isn't covering it if you're doing a video or VOIP chat.
Keyboard and trackpad
There's a sturdy edge around the chassis that helps prevent any flexing on the isolated keyboard which has an unexceptional layout. We're not delighted by the rather clicky feel to the keys, which have very flat key tops and not much travel - but plenty of space for dust and crumbs - but the keys are a good size and mostly well spaced.
The numeric keypad doesn't leave room for any dedicated control keys and the arrow keys are a half-size inverted "T" layout that double as volume and brightness controls. The home/end and PageUp/PageDown keys have secondary functions as a full set of media controls. The main function keys have only the most useful secondary controls like Wi-Fi, mute and turning off the trackpad.
The trackpad is slightly on the small size for a 15.6-inch screen and thankfully is smoother than the textured case. It feels fluid and responsive for two-finger gestures like scrolling, rotating and zooming. There's a two-finger navigation flick, but no three-finger gestures to master. There's a single physical button and while pressing at either end gives you a positive and accurate click, you need to avoid the middle as it doesn't move at all. As with the rest of the Aspire's spec, you get what you need, with no frills, distractions or overpriced extras.
Extras and ports
The slightly dropped hinges put all the ports and slots on the sides and front of the case and the combination of the optical drive on the right and air vent on the left put the ports further forward than usual, with the memory card slot and headphone and speaker ports on the front edge. Having the three USB ports in the front corners is convenient if you mainly use USB sticks, slightly annoying if you have external drives, scanners or anything else with a cable.
While the power jack is in the back left corner, the Ethernet port, VGA and HDMI port are all in the middle of the left side, which definitely makes for trailing cables. Both USB and Ethernet ports are slower than on many new machines; you don't get Gigabit Ethernet or USB 3 - along with the 2.2GHz Core i3-2330M CPU, that's one of the main ways Acer has kept the price down. For many people, that's a fair compromise; you may regret the slower USB speed once faster peripherals become common but that won't be for a while.
The CPU isn't disappointing; you don't get the full power of a Core i5 but you get a capable Sandy Bridge system with 4GB of RAM for the price you'll pay for an AMD or Core 2 Duo budget laptop. The hard drive is also generous - 750GB - when we're used to 320GB at this kind of price.
The Core i3 can handle just about any application you want to throw at it, but while the Intel HD 3000 graphics do an excellent job streaming video and playing DVDs - or test 1080p streaming video play smoothly and with excellent detail - they aren't up to any serious gaming.
The screen is a Windows 8 ready 1366 by 768 16:9 widescreen 15.6-inch panel that's bright, clear and colourful with good contrast even in dark areas of images. The viewing angles are reasonable vertically and horizontally, so you don't have to enjoy movies solo. The volume is disappointingly low though, and there's little bass, although audio quality in the midrange and treble is otherwise pleasant and there's no distortion.
With Wi-Fi on and frequent Web surfing, streaming audio and video and using a mix of mainstream applications, we measured a welcome three to four hours battery life. If you're a bit more frugal with power, you could easily see five hours or more. That's good for a 15.6-inch laptop with a six cell battery. And while you certainly won't forget you're carrying it, the 2.3kg weight is on the light side for fully equipped system like this.
As usual, Acer crams on a mix of useful utilities like Backup Manager and Clear.Fi for streaming music and video between PCs and other DLNA devices, with umpteen extras like the Kobo ebook software, lots of low-quality games - how about John Deere Drive Green for tractor fans - and Skype.
There are too many utilities running by default, like MyWInLocker file encryption. You get both trials of MacAfee Family Protection and Norton Online Backup alongside the usual Office Starter and Windows Live and the DVD software is NTI Media Maker 9. In short, it's a bit of a grab bag and you'll want to spend some time cleaning up the system before use.
It's easy to underestimate the Aspire 5749 when you look at the £400 pricetag and the all-plastic case, but when you cast your eye over the specifications and try it out it starts to look more attractive.
Add in decent battery life, an impressive screen for the price and sturdy build quality and what you're getting is closer to bargain than bargain basement. To get more you have to pay more and if you won't miss a more striking design - or Bluetooth, USB 3 and Gigabit Ethernet - the Aspire is a good basic buy.