By February 26, 2010

Acer Aspire AS5740 i5 Laptop First Impressions Review

I’ll be honest. I had laptop envy. It struck me pretty hard over the winter holiday, wherein my friends and family spent time cruising the Internet and doing work while all sitting within thirty feet of each other. I retreated up to my office to dink around on my workstation, labeling me both as anti-social and a gaming dork.

There was a problem with joining their mobile computing ranks, however. At the end of 2009 I bought a sweet Lenovo G450 laptop on sale for about 60% off the original price. It was equipped with an Intel dual core processor, 3GB of RAM, and had everything necessary for daily computing. It could play high definition video, had a built-in Web cam for Skyping, and plenty of output ports. I liked it so much I wanted to buy another one.

The issue was that Lenovo (and just about every laptop manufacturer, apparently), was about to transition to Intel’s new mobile processor architecture. That meant the dual core laptops were undergoing deep discounts, and that remaining stock (namely the then-top-of-the-line Core2Duo) was at full price. I waited a few months, checking deal sites and our employee purchase program discounts, but never found a comparable deal.

I resigned myself to waiting for the i3, i5 and i7 machines to come to market, get some age, and then lower in price as the second-generation of ix came to market. Essentially, I was going to have to wait for two generations to pass me by.

That is, until I saw the Acer Aspire AS 5740 i5 laptop on sale at Costco for $599.99.

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Processor

The 5740 features the i5-430M processor, part of the new Core architecture from Intel. It runs at 2.26GHz under regular circumstances, but the processor can take advantage of Intel’s dynamic overclocking system called Turbo Boost. Essentially, the computer can give you a little (very little, by percentage) horsepower boost if your laptop isn’t very hot inside. The processor comes with a 3MB L3 cache.

Memory

The 5740 comes with 4GB of memory, which seems to be the upper limit of factory-installed affordability. Sure you can get laptops with more memory (my friend The Thing configured an HP with 16GB of RAM), but that’s $$$$ territory. The 5740 is upgradeable to up to 8GB of DDR3 memory, but that will run you about $300 as of this writing.

It wasn’t too long ago that 4500rpm drives were common in laptops, with 5400rpm drives only on more expensive models. Now 7200rpm drives are reserved for the cream of the crop, and the “budget” 5740 comes with a 320GB 5400rpm drive.

The majority of my data is on a home network I need even less storage, but 320GB is plenty of space for someone, even if this is their primary computer. I found the 5400rpm drive to be a little slow, but it Acer had to cut some corners somewhere to get an i5 laptop to market at a lower price than most of the older Core2Duo technology.

Aside from the integrated graphics, I consider this the weakest component of the 5740. And that’s pretty telling how far laptop technology has come in the last few years.

Graphics / Video

I have no illusions of playing modern games on this computer, but the shared / integrated Intel HD graphics do a fine job of handling HD 720p playback. I have a full-sized computer with a pretty decent setup for my future Starcraft II needs.

The Acer 5740 also has a VGA out and an HDMI out. I haven’t hooked up the laptop to a TV yet (mostly because I already have an HTPC on each television), but I suppose it would be nice to watch some nice video on the road. There’s a built-in Web cam. It records at 640×480 and has pretty decent visibility in low-light conditions. Skype detected it without a hitch.

The 15.6″ screen is glossy. This may be a point of contention for some, especially if you live and/or work in a brightly light environment. I’ve not had any problems reading the display in the kitchen during lazy afternoon weekends. Native resolution is 1366 x 768 at a 16:9 aspect ratio.

The screen is nice and bright; I often put the screen at 40% brightness. Fonts are crisp and easy to read at the “normal” size in Windows 7.

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Audio

The speakers in the Acer 5740 suck. Any thing over about 50% volume sounds crackly and muddy. I don’t know if it is my particular unit, but the laptop definitely fails in this regard. It’s a shame, given the trumpeted “Virtual Surround Sound” and Dolby Home Theater sound system.

I also hate the audio controls. There needs to be a mute button, and the – / + buttons should reflect the current volume on the screen. Sedagive’s Lenovo G450 does this, as does my Dell Inspiron D630 from work. It’s inconceivable that a modern laptop doesn’t have an on-screen display for something as basic and oft-used as volume control.

Ports

There are plenty of ports on the Acer 5740.

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The left side has the aforementioned VGA and HDMI ports, along with two USB ports, a line-in audio jack, a line-out jack for headphones and S/PDIF out, and a microphone in jack. The Ethernet jack is also on the left side.

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Most of the right side is taken up by the dual-layer DVD drive, but there are two more USB ports and a modem jack.

It’s worth noting that the ports on the right are full-power and can drive a 2.5″ external hard drive off of one connection instead of two USB connections. I’m not sure about the left-hand side, but I reckon they are the same.

The 5740 has a built-in SD card reader. I put an 8GB SDHC card in there and ran Windows ReadyBoost off of it.

Connectivity

My particular model has b/g/draft-n wireless. Apparently some models get 3G connectivity, and Bluetooth is also apparently an option. My laptop has a Bluetooth button next to the hardware wifi switch, but it doesn’t do anything.

Battery and battery life

The Acer 5740 has a 6-cell battery. I conducted a battery stress test after fully charging the battery. I played a DVD with the screen at maximum brightness and the volume set to 50%. I disabled all power saving options and did not allow the computer to sleep or hibernate. It is rated for three hours of life; however I got less than two hours when running my test.

In typical usage I do get closer to three hours. The screen is set to about 40% brightness, and I let the computer sleep after ten minutes of inactivity. The Acer 5740 goes into hibernation mode after twenty minutes.

Keyboard and touchpad

The Acer 5740 has a full-sized laptop keyboard along with a 9-key keypad to the left. The keys are flat, unlike the typical typewriter-style keys I’m accustomed to on my Dell machine or Microsoft Curve 2000 keyboard on my desktop computer. I didn’t think I’d like the keys at first, but they are responsive and easy to type on. I type at about 110WPM, so having a good keyboard is important to me. I’ve grown to like the keyboard.

The only thing I continue to dislike is in regards to the layout. The delete key is located in its typical position, right about the backspace key. What’s weird about it is that the keypad is close to the QWERTY keys, so that the delete key is right next to the home key. I’ve gotten used to this (just like the flat keys), but it was disconcerting at first.

Build quality

Acer is not known for its build quality. It recently ranked third to last in laptop manufacturer failure rates by SquareTrade. This was my major reservation when buying this machine; however buying from Costco gave me a no-questions-asked 90 day return policy along with Acer’s standard
two year warranty.

There are a few things that make me nervous about the 5740’s construction. One is the abundant use of plastic throughout the system. Even the hinges are plastic; check these out:

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The screen has too much flex in it for my liking. I would estimate my work-class Dell D630 flexes about 1/3rd as much as the Acer. Sedagive’s Lenovo G450 is a little more sturdy than the Acer, but since they are both entry-level consumer grade machines that is to be expected.

The base of the laptop doesn’t flex, but it does have some weak spots upon pressing down on the wrist rests and up above the keyboard. As you can imagine, this isn’t a good thing.

All of that being said, one of the cornerstone sayings of my life is “he is stupid, but he knows that he is stupid, and that almost makes him smart.” For the Acer, this means that I realize it isn’t the most robust laptop out there, and I treat it as such. I close the lid when moving the computer anywhere. I am careful to open the laptop with even force from the center of the lid, as to not strain the hinges.

Conclusion

Overall, I like the Acer Aspire 5740. I think it’s a great value for an i5-based laptop. If you are a casual user, this laptop will probably serve you well for years to come — if Acer’s build quality holds. It has plenty of RAM, horsepower, and storage to meet the needs of most users. It is lacking some high-range amenities, like a Blu-Ray drive, 8GB of RAM, or discrete graphics, but then again some things have to be cut to make the $600 price point. Other i5 laptops are usually in the $700 – $850 range.

As of this writing, the Acer Aspire 5740 is sold out on Costco.com. You might be able to go by your local warehouse and put your hands on one in person — and still grab the $50 instant rebate.

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