Notebook Review: Acer Aspire TimelineX 4820T

Acer’s All-Around Performer

My five-year-old, 15-inch IBM ThinkPad (predating Lenovo’s buyout of the brand) still works, but it’s long in the tooth and short in battery runtime. While I’ve been eyeing ultraportable netbooks and three-pound notebooks, when it comes down to a candidate to replace my aged ThinkPad — one with a big enough display, good balance between power and battery life, built-in optical drive and affordability — the Acer Aspire TimelineX 4820T, a 4.9-pound machine with a 14-inch display and a starting price of $750, has me sorely tempted.

The 4820T is one of four models in the TimelineX series Acer introduced in June, ranging from a 3-pound, 11.6-inch flyweight to a 5.5-pound, 15.6-inch desktop alternative. It measures 9.6 by 13.5 by 1 inches.

The model I tested had a 2.26GHz Intel Core i3-350M processor, Intel HD graphics, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a 320GB hard drive, dual-layer DVD±RW burner, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and a six-cell battery.

Many of the features on the 4820T apply to all four TimelineX models; Windows 7 Home Premium, to start with. Ports include HDMI, for doing high definition on external displays; VGA; and Gigabit Ethernet. There’s a 1.3-megapixel webcam and digital microphone, and a multi-gesture (two-finger scroll, pinch, rotate, and flip) touchpad with a scrolling strip at the right. The touchpad can, sensibly, be toggled off when you don’t want to do things by accident. Either Dolby Home Theater v3 or Dolby Sound Room audio is standard.

There are actually four versions of the 4820T in Acer’s catalog. If the dual-core, quad-thread Core i3 CPU isn’t macho enough for you, an alternate configuration comes with a Core i5 processor and a 500GB hard drive, while corresponding 4820TG models replace the Intel processors’ integrated graphics with AMD’s ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5650 adapter. Configurable options include bumping RAM up to 8GB, a higher-capacity battery, and Bluetooth.

All Modern Conveniences

Like all the other notebooks I’ve tried lately, the 4820T is ready to rock and roll when it arrives: remove from box, insert battery, charge battery, start using. I’ve used the Acer in my office alone and through my KVM switch with my regular monitor, keyboard and trackball; worked on my dining room table, on the front steps, while waiting at the dentist’s, and at a local trade show or two.

Acer touts the TimelineX’s performance, battery life, and design, and I can’t disagree with any of these.

Performance-wise, the 4820T was great — given the machine’s specs, I’d have been surprised if it was anything different. The Acer handled everything I threw at it with nary a hiccup, and none of the glitches that I’ve gotten on other Win 7 systems I’ve tried over the past few months. No crashes, no blue screens, no slowdowns or pauses. Downloads are fast, so are installs, and there’s been no hesitation in opening up bunches of browser windows, switching apps, or letting a handful of things run. The comparison to the various low-powered netbooks I’ve tried is night and day.

In terms of battery life, Acer claims up the 4820T can get up to eight hours with the regular six-cell battery or up to 11.5 with a nine-cell — in both cases, with settings carefully tweaked. I’ve been reliably getting at least six hours without paying attention to screen brightness or other settings, and listening to Pandora streaming radio plus a fair amount of web browsing most of that time, plus some largish software downloads.

As for looks/design: The 4820T is black brushed aluminum, giving it an understated wood-grainy look — a step up from boring without being garish.

Carry-wise, the 4820T is comfortable enough — not as svelte as a netbook, of course, but pleasantly portable compared to, say, a bulkier desktop replacement. I might prefer a slightly smaller machine to take to a trade show where there’s a continually growing pile of stuff to tote, but I wouldn’t balk at walking with this all day, even with the AC adapter, and certainly wouldn’t hesitate to use it as a bring-to-meetings, take-on-trips machine.

Display, Keyboard, Sound

The keyboard is full-sized, comfortable enough for prolonged, fast touch typing. The key tops are flat, rather than the slightly beveled ones on most desktop keyboards and on my old ThinkPad, so they’re not quite as comfortable, but they’re more than good enough. The action (travel) distance is good, enough to let me feel I’ve pressed a key but not so far or resistant as to tire my fingers out.

The keyboard includes dedicated Home, End, PgUp, and PgDn keys stacked below the Delete key on the right, comfortably and intuitively located above the cursor arrows. The touchpad is positioned in such a way that my thumbs aren’t constantly grazing it and changing my cursor location or window focus accidentally — and as noted above, Acer lets you toggle the touchpad off altogether by pressing Fn-F7, handy if you’re using an external mouse or trackball.

The 1,366 by 768-resolution display is excellent, tested with bunches of movie trailers and other miscellany. Text and graphics from web browsing and office apps are crisp and readable, and image colors are clear.

The Acer’s audio is the best of any notebook I’ve tried to date, including volume loud enough to use it as a background radio. I’ve listened to Pandora, some NPR segments, a CD, and a bunch of movie trailers and TV clips, and I could let this be my while-I-work sound system all the time.

A Few Concerns, But No Showstoppers

The closest I’m able to come to criticism is a mild negative: The laptop’s left rear underside gets a little warm, but not so bad I can’t use it in my lap (while wearing shorts, even).

My only other issue is how the TimelineX might survive the bumps, thumps, drops and jostles of being carried and used in and out of the office. The notebook feels solid, but like most laptops, it’s not an officially ruggedized or business-rugged machine, so I refrained from knocking it off the desk or spilling liquid on the keyboard. Still, if nothing else, I’d be tempted to swap in a solid-state disk (especially since I have one kicking around), which could also extend battery runtime.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried out a dozen or more ultralights, desktop replacements, and midsized machines, and while almost all have been fun to check out, none has called out, “Buy me, with your money, at this price.” The 4820T is calling, or at least talking loudly enough for me to give it five stars across the board in the HardwareCentral ratings box. (I’d give it 4.5s on principle, but editor Eric insists there’s no such thing as star fractions.)

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