I've been in classrooms that sport monster 17" Dell "workstation-class" laptop computers at each desk for learning CAD. The problem with 17-inchers is that they aren't very portable; the huge power supply brick Dell uses would on its own tip your luggage overweight.
With a two-week stint in Manila coming up, I needed a portable workstation of my own, with the emphasis on portable. My current laptop is a 10" netbook from LG that is fabulous for word processing (best keyboard evah!), doing the Web, running Linux, and is several years old. I knew I had a problem when I tried installing Office 2007, and the installer complained of insufficient memory!
So I went casting about to see what kind of performance was possible in something with a 14" screen or smaller, and without breaking the bank. For an example of breaking the bank, there is, for example, a 13" Sony available from London Drugs on sale for $1,350. The aluminum body and backlit keyboard are desirable, but not at that premium.
Mike's Computers had an interesting one for $599, but they were out of stock.
I tried Staples next, since the last few times I found the right computer at the right price with them, such as my current desktop, an Acer. They had three possibilities for my needs, each one $150 more expensive than the next. After some hemming and hawing, I went with the cheapest of the lot, an Acer with a sticker price of $629.
Here's what the Acer 3830GT came with:
- 4GB RAM, expandable to 8.
- 2.1MHz, four-core i3 CPU
- Integrated HD graphics from Intel
- A second graphics board, a 1GB Nvidia Geforce GT540M
- 13.3" screen with 1360x768 resolution
- 750GB hard drive
- Dolby-tuned speakers that sound great for such small speakers
- A proper multi-touch trackpad (by "proper" I mean that it has real buttons)
- Two USB v2 ports, and a third one that does USB v2, v3, and is always powered, even when the computer is turned off
- Bluetooth, wireless N, ethernet, 1.3megapixel webcam, HDMI and VGA output, mic, audio connectors, SD card reader.
- 8-hour battery
All this in a package that's about 1" thick, and weighs about four pounds.
It has a couple more extras that are cute. A "P" button instantly switches between power saver and powerful modes, when on battery. The battery LED is a button; when on battery, the LED is off, to save even more power; press the button to see the charge level. The battery is not removable, and so there is a small hole for "resetting" it, like pulling the battery to reset a stubborn operating system.
All this for $629, sticker price.
When I went to pay for it, however, the cash register rang up $599. The following Wednesday, the Staples flyer came out, and the price was down to $549. I immediately drove to the store to get my "price protection" refund, and the cashier rang up a sale price of $529. Sweet.
The computer has a few drawbacks. No DVD drive, although I have an external one I can use.
Initially the Bluetooth did not work. I followed instructions at Acer's Web site about uninstalling and reinstalling the drivers, but no luck. I contacted Acer tech support, who had me do a few things, which got it half working: other devices, like my cell phone, could see the Acer, but the Acer could not see any Bluetooth devices, like mouse or cell phone.
At one point, tech support instructed me to reboot the computer, and so we lost contact. When I returned to tech support, I had a new guy, who asked if the computer is under warranty. "Yes," I said, "I just bought it today." In that case, he declared, there was no problem with the hardware, and so I would need to pay for further support.
In the meantime I found that the keyboard was a pain. The key travel is shallow, to be expected for a thin computer. But the left Shift key was split in half to make room for some French quotation marks. I kept hitting quotation marks instead of Shift.
Between the keyboard flaw, the non-working Bluetooth, and the demand for payment from Acer support, I was annoyed enough to bring back the computer the next morning. Problem was, I had spent the evening looking for a replacement, and I just could not find a laptop with better price/performance.
At Staples the next morning, the techie showed me that all laptops in Canada now have the split Shift key. This is the fault of separatists in Quebec, who demand that the rest of Canada be English-French bilingual, yet ban the use of English in Quebec. To keep Quebec in Canada, the old Liberal government gave into the demands of the separatists, and as a result we are now stuck with awful bilingual keyboards. Lesson learned: don't give into separatists.
The techie found the Bluetooth problem fascinating, and proceeded to work on it. Long story short, he spent six hours at it, finally getting to the point where he wiped the drive clean, and then reinstalled the OS and support software. It was then that he found that one Bluetooth utility program had not been present following the factory install, and so got it working. No charge.
Memory for Nothing and Chips for Free
My daughter has taken over the MacBook I bought a year ago. I was dismayed to see how slowly programs loaded, and how long the Apple product took to just even switch between applications. I figured I should upgrade it from 2GB to 4GB RAM, but hesitated at the $100 cost.
With my new computer, however, I saw my chance:
- I took the two 2GB memory cards out of my new Acer, and found they worked just fine in her MacBook. (Acer and MacBook have identical memory specs.) One memory upgrade completed for free.
- I searched the Internet for two 4GB memory cards to put into my new Acer. First site I checked was futureshop.ca, who had the memory on sale for 60% off -- $30 each. I raced to the store, but the peg was empty. I looked around the store for other memory that might work -- and found one card I was looking for on another peg, and the second card on yet another one. Last two $30 modules in my entire home town! The RAM came to $60, but then a few days later, I got a $70 refund from Staples, as noted earlier. Two memory upgrades completed for free.
So the Acer 3830GT now has 8GB RAM with another 8GB ReadyBoost. Let me tell you, AutoCAD loads just like that!