|Introduction and Specifications|
Acer is a somewhat understated name in the notebook business, but even though they may not receive the sheer press that Apple, Alienware, Dell and HP do, they're still one of the world's prominent PC makers. Hanging amongst the top five in total PC output is no easy task, and the company's Aspire line has been quietly climbing the charts in popularity for some time now. The Aspire line in particular has become quite the hit, and if there's one company that has somewhat rivaled Asus in the netbook sector, it's Acer.
As we have pointed out before, netbooks aren't what they used to be. These days, you're more likely to see a new netbook emerging with a near-$500 retail price than one with a near-$200 price point. We're partially blaming tablets. There are a number of sub-$300 tablets on the market and on the horizon (the $188 CherryPad comes to mind!), and that has allowed netbooks to up their position in the market place. Climbing up the ladder, so to speak. But this upward mobility has also allowed netbook makers to broaden their scope when it comes to internal configurations. With more latitude in pricing, you're seeing more interesting builds and configuration options. Acer's 1551-5448 is a great example of this.
Like we said, this doesn't feel much like a netbook. 4GB of RAM? A 64-bit operating system? HDMI and VGA outputs? A WXGA screen on just an 11.6" panel? All of these are unusual for the sector, but definitely welcome additions. We have generally had good experiences with AMD's chips on the netbook level, but the 1551 presents an entirely new opportunity to see how it stacks up against Intel's newest Atom CPUs. The price point here is identical to the one on Asus' new Eee PC 1215N, which just so happens to be dual-core Atom-powered, so we'll be comparing the two throughout.
|Design and Build Quality|
As we mentioned in the introduction, the Acer 1551-5448 is no ordinary netbook. The grid-like top panel is far nicer than the standard glossy shell that adorns most of its competitors. It just feels more sturdy, more rugged, and honestly, it's just a breath of fresh air. Netbook design has stagnated somewhat lately, and it's great to see a company still investing time and effort into changing things up for end-users. The top shell is still plastic, as is much of the body, but it definitely feels more rigid and less pliable than some others that we have used.
Port wise, the 1551 is on par with other netbooks in the field. Along the left edge, there's a USB 2.0 port, an exhaust vent for heat, a full-size HDMI port, AC input socket, and a VGA port. Along the right edge, there's a 3-in-1 card reader, audio in/out ports, two USB 2.0 sockets, a Kensington lock slot and an Ethernet port.
The underside is fairly standard, with a slight bump along the rear for the 6-cell battery to be inserted. On the front edge, you'll see three LED lights for sleep/on, power and Wi-Fi.
Once you open the screen, you'll notice something new and something old. The display, an 11.6" WXGA panel, is surrounded by a very glossy black bezel, and the display itself is extremely glossy. This is unfortunate given just how fingerprint resistant the rest of the machine is; in fact, it just magnifies how badly the screen and bezel pick up prints and dust. There's a webcam atop the bezel, as well as a few rubber bumpers along the edges to keep the keys from smashing into the panel while closed.
Now, for the "new" part. The keyboard, palm rest and trackpad are all huge upgrades compared to most netbooks. The slick, non-glossy palm rest feels nice to the skin in use, and the trackpad is smooth (not textured), which we prefer. It's not an oversized pad, but the fact that it supports multi-finger gestures really boosts productivity. Two-finger scrolling worked like a charm, for example. Also, the left/right mouse buttons had a great amount of travel, which is hard to find on a netbook. Acer really nailed this implementation.
The keyboard itself isn't exactly the "chiclet" style that is used on so many Asus netbooks these days. These keys essentially go edge-to-edge, enabling each key to be large (for a netbook keyboard, anyway). We loved the keyboard here. It was probably our favorite netbook keyboard to date. We experienced minimal typos and the learning curve coming from a full-size keyboard on a 15.6" notebook was basically nonexistent. Kudos on this, Acer!
We always intrigued when we get out hands on a netbook or ultraportable that's powered by AMD. We respect both AMD and Intel equally, but it's just simply more rare to find a machine with an AMD processor under the hood. The netbook market has become saturated with Atom options, and it's just hard to differentiate with that many Atoms floating around.
Also, AMD has generally performed very well at the netbook level, with the main complaint being that their lower-end notebook chips produce more heat ad use more power than roughly equivalent Atom chips. The 1.5GHz, dual-core Turion II Neo X2 K625 is at the heart of the Acer 1551, and it's one of the quickest processors that we have seen in a netbook. Of course, this machine is at the very high-end of what could reasonably be marketed as a netbook, and at $499, we would expect nothing but the best for this product category.
Thankfully, that's just about what is delivered. This is one of the most fully featured netbooks we have come across, with Acer shipping 4GB of DDR3 memory and a 64-bit OS to take advantage of it. The result is a netbook that plays like a baseline ultraportable, but at just $499. In average tasks, we were very pleased with how quickly the machine reacted. Loading up Firefox took only a second or two, and while there was some lag when loading apps like Photoshop, we're attributing most of that to the sluggish 5400RPM hard drive. Just look at the Windows 7 Experience score below. This 4.2 is leaps and bounds better than the 3.3 which was received by Asus' $499 Eee PC 1215N, an Atom-powered machine.
If equipped with an SSD instead (a nice upgrade consideration), you'd see a lot more speed out of this machine. But even still, many will be thoroughly pleased by how quick and responsive the overall feel is, particularly if you have been let down by Atom-based units of the past. The graphics chipset is another bright spot; the HD 4225 isn't powerful enough to plow through today's first-person shooters, but it's more than capable of playing back 720p and 1080p movie clips while multi-tasking. And for most, that's plenty. No one buys a netbook to game, anyway.
We also loved the keyboard and trackpad experience, which really helped round out a great overall experience. We still wouldn't recommend any serious crunching (video editing) on this machine, but it's right up there with the Lenovo X100 in terms of performance; of course, the X100 starts at $50 less, but you get a 32-bit OS, half the RAM and a potentially slower CPU. The value proposition here is evident.
|3DMark & PCMark Vantage|
The Futuremark 3DMark06 CPU benchmark consists of tests that use the CPU to render 3D scenes, rather than the GPU. It runs several threads simultaneously and is designed to utilize multiple processor cores.
When looking at the 3D Mark 06 scores, we see the Eee PC 1215N dominating the competition. But remember, it has an Ion 2 graphics chip under its hood. The Acer Aspire 1551 holds it own quite well given that it's relying on an integrated chipset, and while these scores prove that it's not capable of hardcore gaming, it's definitely powerful enough to handle 720p/1080p multi-media playback.
Next we ran the system through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition video and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.
On less GPU-intense benchmarks, you see the performance benefits that we have been talking about. In overall performance, the Aspire 1551 surpasses the competition easily. So basically, in every case outside of gaming, this unit outpaces its rivals.
|SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2010, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic,
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge
CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge
Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge
Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge
Our gauntlet of SiSoftware SANDRA tests show nice performance gains in terms of CPU performance compared to Atom processors of the past few months. AMD CPU options have always impressed us in the "netbook" category, and while this unit definitely gets warmer than we would like, you can tell that there is some performance benefits in exchange for it. The 5400RPM hard drive is obviously no race horse, but it's an easy thing to upgrade in the future should you choose to. SSDs are getting cheaper, you know.
To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included a screenshot of the 1080p clip from the Mini 311 (which uses the original NVIDIA Ion GPU) to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from a slightly different type of system.
Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264 - Acer Aspire 1551-5448
Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD - Acer Aspire 1551-5448
Click To Enlarge; 1080p - Acer Aspire 1551-5448
Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion
In our video playback tests, we see that the Aspire 1551 is plenty capable of handling high-definition video. Both 720p and 1080p clips were perfectly smooth, even with applications running in the background. If you're only looking for good HD media playback (and don't much care about gaming), this netbook is a champ. We'd definitely trust it as a media playback device for HDTVs via HDMI.
To touch on gaming
Here's where the $499 Eee PC 1215N looks like a far better choice. The Ion 2 on that machine helps it handle 3D games, while the Acer Aspire 1551 here doesn't fare so well. We were able to crank the details all the way down, and set the resolution levels as low as they would go in order to get a semi-playable experience on these titles, but it's not enjoyable. Nor is it recommended. The 1551 isn't a gaming machine. But it's a netbook, after all. The Radeon HD 4225 IGP is plenty capable of handling HD multi-media, but not so much 3D games. It shouldn't come as a surprise, but if you had any lingering doubts, let these figures drown those out.
And here's where all of that AMD performance comes back to bite you. The 1551 can get a bit toasty. It also drains battery life pretty quickly. We could barely muster three full hours during our real-world usage test. If you use it heavily, you'll see it die before then. This may seem unacceptable to some, so pay close attention. There are definitely better options out there that'll last longer on a full charge, but those generally have weaker performance numbers. We think this machine strikes a decent balance. 3 hours isn't anywhere near the 5 claimed hours, but then again, you could probably squeeze out closer to 4 hours with light usage or perhaps by turning down the display a bit etc.
Part of us wishes that Acer would've included a 9-cell battery, even if it made the machine more bulky. But alas, that's not the case. You'll either need to cough up the money for a spare 6-cell or just keep yourself somewhat close to a power outlet if you think the battery life sounds short.
Click To Enlarge
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the Acer Aspire 1551-5448 showed fairly well, but when compared to the netbook competition out there, we'd say it did even better. AMD's chips tend to be great for netbooks, oftentimes feeling far snappier than Atom counterparts. This was again true here. The 1551 felt far faster in use than any of the Atom-based units we have used, even the new 1.8GHz D525 CPU. The 3D benchmarks showed the real weakness here; this machine is definitely not a gaming machine. Not that we would expect an 11.6" machine to ever be good at gaming (except for an Alienware), but at least it was more than capable of handling HD multi-media playback. The 5400RPM was another weak spot; we would love to see how this machine would test if equipped with an SSD.
From a design standpoint, we love the Aspire 1551. The grid-style lid, comfortable keyboard, multi-gesture trackpad and sleek overall build make it one of our favorite mini notebooks to date. It's a refreshing change from the glossy machines that compete with it. Our only real gripe in the design is the overly glossy LCD and the glossy bezel that surrounds it. These tend to clash with an otherwise classy and understated vibe that we really enjoyed.
Click To Enlarge
The 1551 shows just how nice the K625 is as a CPU. There's definitely a price to be paid in the form of excess heat and noise, but it's a fair one in our estimation. We just enjoy how this netbook feels more like a standard low-end notebook in terms of performance. We aren't stuck waiting around for simple applications to launch as we are on Atom machines. The only downside is how much bloatware Acer loads on; you'll probably spend the first 15 minutes of ownership paring down what auto-loads of startup in order to streamline things (a security suite that pesters for activation is one that really irked us).
If you aren't concerned with gaming, and you can stomach the ~3 hour battery life, the Aspire 1551 is hard to ignore on the netbook landscape. It ships with 4GB of DDR3 memory, an IGP capable of handling 720p/1080p movie playback, a great GPU and a 64-bit OS. All for the same price as the Eee PC 1215N. If this had a matte LCD and a slightly more potent battery, we would give it our highest recommendations. The build quality is great, as is the overall user experience. The only caveat here is that CES is just 2 months away. CES almost always reveals a slew of new hardware, and if you're terrified of buying a machine that'll be outdated before you can blink...well, you get the gist. If you need a netbook soon though, perhaps for the holidays, the Acer Aspire 1551 is definitely worth considering.