Thursday, June 4, 2009

Thin, cool and light but not a netbook

Everyone has been waiting for a notebook that can be used for as long as an ordinary cell phone can.

Some computer makers have been able to offer such a product, but the problem is they usually achieve it with the help of an extended battery, or sometimes two batteries. The problem with the extended battery is that it usually protrudes from the back of the notebook.

There are also third-party solutions, which add another slice under the notebook. The slice is actually an extra battery. The result is a notebook that may be too heavy for real mobility. And it costs extra, too.

Acer has met the challenge with a marvel.

Drawing on its close cooperation with processor maker Intel, it hatched a new category in its consumer-oriented Aspire line of notebooks. Right out the box, the new line called Aspire TimeLine promises to give us a full day of true mobile computing.

“It can run for about eight hours with one full charge,” said Husen Halim, brand manager in the consumer marketing division at Acer Indonesia, when I interviewed him before the product launch here last week.

So, how have they done it? First, they use an Ultra Low Voltage (ULV) processor from Intel, which is the Core 2 Solo SU3500. “You can tell it is an ultra-low voltage processor as all Intel’s ULV processors have SU in their names,” explained Husen.

The name of the processor itself explains the contribution made by this type of processor to reducing power consumption. The standard battery is a six-cell pack. There is no part that sticks out, as commonly found in a notebook with an extended-life battery.

But if you think the notebook is rather bulky like the other Aspires that you have seen, you are in for a big surprise. Even the thickest part is less than one inch thick. And at around 1.6 kg it is quite light, too.

The design is not overtly fancy. There is no chrome element, there is no artistic decoration. But each time you open it, people will immediately understand that you mean business.

The thin casing is another outcome from the close Acer–Intel cooperation. Intel has created a cooling technology especially for the ultrathin notebook.

The technology, adopted from the design of a jet engine, is called Intel Laminar Wall Jet. The focus of this technology is on optimum airflow to keep the skin of the notebook cool. So the TimeLine is not only razor-thin, it also runs cool.

“It is around five degrees cooler that an average notebook,” said Astrid Warsito, PR specialist at Acer Indonesia.

The new TimeLine category comes in three sizes. My demo unit is the smallest, with a 13.3-inch backlit LED widescreen. Its bigger brothers are the 14-inch and 15.6-inch versions. All come with the 16:9 aspect ratio. The 13.3-inch may be small in its packaging, but the one to be offered here in Indonesia will be equipped with a 320 GB hard disk and 2 GB of DDR3 RAM.

While there is no CD or DVD ROM drive in the 13.3-inch model, the 14- and 15.6-inch have it. As it is a consumer notebook, the operating system is Microsoft Windows Home Premium. In addition to Wi-Fi with Acer’s radio enhancement called SignalUp, it also comes with an integrated Bluetooth.

There are several things that I like about the TimeLine. First, it has the so-called “floating” keyboard, which is quite comfortable for touch-typists. Acer makes full use of the body width by adding a separate row for Home, PgUp, PgDn and End. This is definitely how a notebook keyboard should be laid out.

Another important feature is the gesture-sensitive touchpad, the same as the one we see in a MacBook or an iPhone. It allows us to zoom in and zoom out, and navigate up and down. Still another attractive addition is the touch buttons.

I was looking for the regular Fn-F2 key combination to switch off its Wi-Fi. It was not there. It turned out that all I had to do was to touch the lighted Wi-Fi button.

You may recall that Acer used to brag about its Empowerment Technology, which allows the users to make adjustments by clicking on some options on the screen.

In TimeLine, the software applications have been replaced by the touch buttons.

For example, one of these buttons allows us to run the configurable backup utilities and set the power level. As expected, the eight hour battery life is only possible with some performance compromise. It is also selectable through another button. To maximize the battery life, the screen will have to be set a little bit dimmer than it already is.

This is also a Green computer. The power adaptor has a sleep mode, which it enters each time the battery is fully recharged. It consumes around 0.1 watt, as opposed to the maximum 0.3 watt required by the Energy Star standard.

Remember, however, that the Acer Aspire TimeLine is not a power user toy. The Windows Experience Index of my demo unit is 3.1, which is not too bad. It still enables us to run corporate applications with ease — even Microsoft Office. “The 13.3-inch version is designed with mobility in mind,” said Astrid.

The truly bad news for netbook makers must be the price. The 13.3-inch version can be had for around US$760, which is not much higher than the price of a stylish netbook. Acer will have to work hard to help Intel in making consumers understand the distinction between the netbook and the notebook.

A netbook is meant to be a tool for content consumption. The full benefit of an Intel-Atom netbook can be realized only when it is connected to the Internet, where most of the content resides. If you need something to help you create instead of consume content, you will need a notebook with Core 2 Solo- or Core 2 Duo SU9400 processor

If I were to criticize this notebook, the only thing I do not like would be the hinges that do not let me open the screen flat (180 degree). Other users, of course, can easily live with that.

The next generation of TimeLine will have support for 3G or WiMAX. It will also feature a discreet graphics processor. It seems that the thin and light TimeLine, with an extra-long battery life, will be the upcoming wave in notebook design. Today, if you need a notebook with acceptable computing power and a mobility that allows you to be away from an AC outlet for many hours, you should absolutely check out the TimeLine Series.


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