Acer Aspire 9504WSMi review
A solidly built laptop with plenty of entertainment features - including an integrated digital TV tuner - and a bright, clear display. Power and quality that won't break the bank
Acer is in a bullish mood at the moment, producing a range of good-quality products at aggressive prices. On the notebook front, the TravelMate 2403WXCi stormed the A List last month, and this 17in widescreen desktop replacement shows similar promise.
Falling between the price and specifications of the A-Listed Gateway 8550GB and Evesham Voyager C720, the core components of the 9504WSMi consist of a 2GHz Pentium M and 1GB of PC4300 RAM. We can't argue with this amount of power in a notebook: its score of 0.83 in our application benchmarks is just 17 per cent slower than a top-of-the-range dual-core Pentium D desktop.
There's the 100GB hard disk that will house plenty of video and music files before needing archiving, and a Panasonic dual-layer DVD writer that burns DVD+R discs at 8x when you do. There's also Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11b/g WLAN to complement the Bluetooth, while five USB ports are liberally scattered around the sides of the chassis for extra convenience.
But there are also some more unusual features that help the 9504WSMi stand out from the crowd, such as the integrated hybrid analog/digital TV tuner. The supplied aerial extends to 28cm and packs away to something solid and small enough to be portable. We tried it without success in central London, but Acer also includes a standard aerial input lead and AV leads, so using the 9504WSMi as an entertainment centre at home is a viable option.
Then there's the Bluetooth VoIP phone that charges in the Type II PC Card slot. We were disappointed when it came to testing, though. The microphone wasn't sensitive enough to pick up our voice clearly even in the setup tests; we found ourselves reverting to the built-in dual microphones and stereo speakers.
Two remote controls are provided. The smaller one controls the Acer Arcade media management application and has all the basic functions, such as volume control. The larger remote has buttons for Teletext, the electronic programming guide - this can't match the EPG of Windows Media Center for sleekness, but still provides two weeks worth of programmes - and other advanced functions.
Once into the Media Center-like interface, you have everything you need: music, video, DVD and TV. While the options aren't as extensive as MCE, it's easy to understand and looks good. There are even shortcut buttons on the front of the chassis; by pressing the Arcade button (on the chassis or remote), you can quickly boot into a Linux version without waiting for Windows to load.
Powering the 17in widescreen panel is the capable Mobility Radeon X700 from ATi. It may not be the fastest GPU around - the Evesham Voyager beats it hands-down with its GeForce Go 7800 GTX graphics - but it's plenty for most people. The standard test scores of 26 and 23fps in Half-Life 2 and Far Cry are at extremely tough settings, including 4x anti-aliasing and 8x anisotropic filtering. Turning off AA and AF, and running Far Cry at the native 1,440 x 900, produced a very playable frame rate of 40fps.
The TFT uses Acer's CrystalBrite glossy screen technology. In the office, we weren't overly distracted by reflections from the lights, unlike the more reflective screen of the Gateway. In fact, the Desktop benefits from the vividness of the CrystalBrite screen as much as DVD and videos do, partially helped by the dual lamps - these provide 500cd/m2 of brightness, which compares well even to a desktop TFT screen, which typically produces 400cd/m2.
We also appreciate Acer's GridVista application, which splits the screen into defined areas. For example, you could split it into three, and have your Word document consuming the left half of the screen, while Outlook and your web browser take the top and bottom positions on the right side. Alternatively, you could use either the DVI-D or D-SUB outputs for a second display device.