Notebooks for under £1,000, even including the VAT, are no longer a rarity, but finding a really good one can be far from straightforward. This is simply because notebooks cost more to manufacture than desktop PCs, so the finished product is more likely to show the effects of any cost-cutting more dramatically.
The list of things that can go wrong includes everything from basic build quality through to ergonomics, specifications, available ports, weight and battery life. Basically, nothing is safe.
This is why we tend to look long and hard at relatively inexpensive machines like the Acer TravelMate 273X, expecting them to disappoint somewhere along the line. When they fail to do so or – even more surprisingly – when they actually impress, we take notice.
Normally, you can tell a (relatively) cheap notebook just by handling it. The major mouldings forming the case will be too thin and feel insubstantial and the machine as a whole is likely to be bulky and none too pretty.
Pick up the Acer TravelMate 273X and you immediately feel the solidity of the build; there is no impression of cheapness at all. True, the lid surface is plastic not alloy, but it isn’t too flexible and should still protect the screen from damage under normal conditions.
The design is restrained but still a little out of the ordinary. Corners are rounded and even the keyboard is gently curved toward the user, which breaks up the usual array of straight lines that define many notebooks. Without being at all loud, the TravelMate 273X manages to stand out from the crowd.
The machine weighs 3kg, partly because it isn’t built out of model aircraft material and partly because it incorporates both a floppy and an optical drive. The drives are fixed rather than modular and the TravelMate 273X offers a basic 24-speed CD-ROM rather than anything more exotic, but it’s all there, with no need for any extras. DVD and DVD/CD-RW combo versions are available as well.
All three models that presently make up the 270 series are powered by a 1.7GHz Pentium 4-M processor and they all come with 256MB of PC2100 SDRAM as standard, expandable to 1GB. They also share the same 20GB UltraDMA/100 hard disk, in this case an IBM TravelStar.
The screen is a standard 14.1-inch diagonal, 1024 x 768 resolution TFT panel. It’s reasonably bright and even, and doesn’t suffer from excessively narrow viewing angles. The graphics engine behind it is integrated into the SiS 650 motherboard chipset and uses 16MB of the main system memory, like a lot of cheaper notebook GPUs.
It’s basic, but efficient enough in 2D and to be fair on the TravelMate 273X, which is not trying to be anything other than an affordable general purpose business notebook, this is probably enough graphics power for most users’ needs.
The usual V.90 modem and 10/100Base-TX Ethernet adaptors are tucked away inside the case and the notebook sports a pair of Type II PC Card slots for further expansion as necessary.
If you prefer your notebooks with more than just a couple of USB ports to their name, then you’ll probably bond well with the Acer TravelMate 273X. It has a parallel port, a serial port, even a PS/2 port, plus Firewire, three USB, S-video TV-out and audio I/O. The only things missing are infra-red and an expansion bus – and an optional port replicator to go with it.
The keyboard is very usable thanks to a sane layout that preserves much of the standard size ratios of the keys and the 4-way scroll button below the touch pad is a welcome additional piece of functionality. It’s one of those simple ideas that once you try you find hard to do without.
Battery life is about average for this kind of notebook, with a typical running time of about 2.5 hours from a full charge. You can get better, but this is good enough at this price. Performance proved to be solid across the board, thanks to sound supporting acts from the hard disk and graphics, and plenty of fast memory to complement the raw power of the CPU.
When you take into account the two-year collect and return warranty (which includes one year’s international cover) alongside the price and overall quality of the TravelMate, it’s hard not to be impressed.
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