The laptop market has largely been dominated by a few 1000 pound gorillas for the past 10 years, though it’s nowchanging.   Dell and HP have tried to maintain their dominance as brands like Apple and ASUS exploit new opportunities in small and light laptops and – in the case of ASUS, affordable portable gaming computers.  Where does that leave Acer, a company known for a long time as a discount brand?  After purchasing Gateway and integrating some of their notebook designs, the company is slowly changing their image in the PC notebook industry and the 13.3″ Aspire TimelineX 3820TG-6829 is a testament to the brand’s transformation.

At about 4 pounds and less than an inch thick, the 3820TG model line is clearly targeted for mobile power users who need fairly good specs under the hood but in a fairly small form factor.   Having both performance and portability at $800 certainly makes the 3820TG an attractive choice for road warriors .  Usually, laptop manufacturers will have to decide between looks and features/performance when deciding at what price range to sell the computer.  Acer has a notorious track record for abandoning both for the sake of a low price point.  While the 3820TG is certainly not in the league of what Apple or Alienware are putting out in the sub-notebook market as far as aesthetics or bleeding edge innovation, it’s certainly a huge improvement over what they were doing  a few years ago.

Aesthetics and Construction

The Chassis is plastic yet painted in a brushed aluminum style that looks very good, and aside from a few large stickers and a standard black plastic bottom, looks like a more expensive product.  The standard 6 cell battery is completely flush with the casing and plugs into the back of the system. The touch pad, like the battery, is completely flush and features a single button for both right and left mouse clicks. It looks good and works well.  In addition to the standard scroll arrows built into the touch pad, Acer incorporated a new style of scrolling where you rotate your finger in a circular fashion to scroll through pages.   It’s an interesting and useful input method, akin to the scroll wheels found in the older iPods, but still not as accurate as a scroll wheel found on a standard mouse.

The keyboard is unfortunately not the standard one found in most laptops, the keys are spaced apart slightly and it does take a little time and effort to adjust, particularly when hitting the return key.  Still, it isn’t too different and really not too big of a deal once you get a used to it. The particular model I purchased was bought from a Canadian website and features an English and French bilingual keyboard. Oddly this particular model is not available for purchase in the United States and must be imported.  It’s quite puzzling why Acer would keep a good product out of a major market.

Good looks aside the chassis certainly does feel like a sub $800 product.  The computer tends to creak slightly when any sort of flex is applied to the chassis, it’s certainly not as bad as some of Acer’s past laptops but can be noticeable.  The good news for internal components is that the system features a dual fan design the surprisingly keeps the small computer relatively cool during normal use.  The downside to this is that it’s at the cost of the fairly standard optical drive; although some, myself included, would say that in 2011 an optical drive is much less of a requirement than it was say five years ago.

If any one thing has suffered from the affordable price point it’s the screen.  The glossy 13.3″ 1366×768 LED display is quite bright at the maximum brightness level but has poor contrast level, color vibrancy and viewing angles.  The the vibrancy can be remedied to an extent using the ATI display control panel when using the dedicated graphics; unfortunately it doesn’t look quite as good with the intel HD graphics enabled.  Overall, the display is serviceable enough, particularly when considering the machine’s price-point.

Specs:

Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit

13″ 1366×768 screen

Intel Core i5 480m 2.93ghz turbo boost

ATI Radeon 6550m 1GB Graphics/ Intel GMA HD Hybrid Graphics

500 GB Hard Drive

4GB DDR3 Ram

Wireless B/G/N + Bluetooth

3.97 pounds without charger

12.7 x 9.25 x 0.86~1.14 inches

1 Year Acer Warranty


Performance

Acer may have a ‘bottom of the barrel’ reputation, but that hasn’t stopped them from cramming beefy hardware into this 13″ chassis; namely the Intel Core i5 480m processor with turbo boost up to 2.93ghz, and a mid-range ATI Radeon 6550m graphics card.  The processor is at the high end of the sub-notebook category and the graphics card is perhaps the most powerful seen yet in a 13″ form-factor. The closest direct competitor in terms of performance is the Alienware m11x 11.6″ sub-notebook (Intel core 2 duo @1.73ghz and Nvidia Geforce GT 335M), which will be baseline comparison for the benchmarks scores. All of the following benchmarks were run using the dedicated graphics card with the ac adapter plugged in.



PassMark is one of the most popular software for benchmarking various PC components. It comprises of several CPU tests like video encoding and image editing along with windows browsing, graphics performance, and hard disk read and write speed.  The 3820TG performs admirably with more than double the CPU performance and a much higher overall PassMark score.

The venerable 3DMark06 is now several years old but still remains to be the premier benchmark for video cards, especially mid-range cards featured in most laptops.  Both the 3820TG and the M11x ran the test at 1280×768 resolution with default settings.  The 3820TG’s CPU score is double that of the M11x and in line with the PassMark results.  The overall score is a good bit higher, though some of that is attributed to the much faster i5 processor.  In comparison a desktop Radeon 4850 scores about 13000 3Dmarks at the same resolution.  Still this is a VERY good score for a 13″ laptop and amongst the highest for the category average.

Crytek’s 2007 blockbuster Crysis punished even top of the line desktop computers at it’s release.  4 years later it is still considered to be one of the most graphically demanding and good looking games on the PC platform.  The benchmarks for crysis were run with all settings on high in DX9 with a 1280×768 resolution – as opposed to the native 1366×768 – on order to achieve a more playable frame rate.  Due to both a slightly slightly Radeon 6550 and the exponentially faster core i5 processor, the 3820TG did a better job at running the game while maintaining most of the gorgeous eye candy.  A few of the settings, like shadows for an instance, can be brought down to medium to make for a very smooth 30+fps.

If Crysis made graphics cards weep at it’s release then Rockstar’s GTA IV comparatively made processors weep upon release.  Requiring tremendous CPU power to render it’s giant city, the game makes for a perfect test of the 3820TG’s speedy core i5 chip.  The game was run at 1366×768 resolution with visual distance and detail set at 1 and vehicle traffic set at 27.  Even when increasing the distance and detail levels during game-play the 3820TG managed to keep up with the workload while the M11x displayed unplayable frame rates.

THQ’s real-time-strategy Dawn of War II presents a good mix of both graphical and processing requirements.  With tons of units and explosions on screen the 3820TG pulls ahead of the m11x thanks due to its superior processor.

Battery Life

Battery life is perhaps one of the most important features of a 13″ notebook and with a 6cell 6600mah battery the 3820TG largely delivers  – though not the advertised promise of 8 hours.  In light real world usage – think browsing, word processing, occasional Youtube video – the machine will last around 5 and a half to 6 hours on Intel graphics using the balanced power profile.  Once switching over to the dedicated graphics card and turning up the processor to high performance, you will be lucky to see one hour of gaming.  There is of course a balance between these two but in either case the 3820TG won’t last as long as the M11x or even an apple Macbook Pro 13″.  Acer does sell a 9-cell high capacity battery if your are willing to deal with some added weight and the extra plastic sticking out at the bottom than it may be a good choice for road warriors and frequent fliers looking for more battery juice.

Cooling

Acer’s double fan cooling design allows for a quieter notebook by keeping both fans at low speeds as opposed to one fan at a high one.   Long video editing and processor intensive games such as Grand Theft Auto IV can cause the fans to rev up to a high speed  as the CPU reaches 80 degrees Celsius – a safe temperature, but one that ideally should not be maintained for too long.  The graphics card tops out comparatively low 72 degrees Celsius. The thermal management is thus fairly efficient, especially when you consider the 3820TG’s small 13″ frame.

Conclusion

The Acer 3820TG is a great, if not perfect, mid-range 13″ sub-notebook.  You get a great value and fast performance while only having to make a few concessions on the screen and, speakers, and the less than stellar build quality.  For professionals and gamers alike the machine has little if any direct competition.  That said, the competition may be much easier to find as Acer unfortunately did not release this particular model in the States.

Price as Reviewed: $750 CAD

Pros:

+ Pleasing aesthetics (south of an apple product)

+ Fast processing / gaming performance

+ Great Value

Cons

Not available in the United States

Less than stellar build quality

Poor Screen contrast

Overall:   B+


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