Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Acer Extensa 5630EZ Review

After almost 5 years of service I decided it was time to move on from my trusty Acer Aspire 3003NLMi and get myself a new laptop. But first of all, like a good geek, I must pay homage. The Aspire was my main machine and it took everything I threw at it. And then some. All Linux Mint Fluxbox CEs that I was responsible for were built on it. But the AMD Sempron 3000+, 768MB RAM and 40GB HD just weren't cutting it. Not to mention the Broadcom wireless card that required a proprietary driver, the SiS integrated graphics chip that has poor support in Linux and many ailing components.

This time around I was determined to choose wisely. I did my research and armed with my new found knowledge I set out on my hunt. For almost two months I scoured websites and brochures looking for that perfect deal. I settled for the Acer Extensa 5630EZ and here is my review after about a week of tinkering.

Acer Extensa 5630EZ

Let's get to the juicy stuff.

The Specs.

  • CPU: Intel Dual Core T4300 running at 2.1GHz with 1MB L2 Cache and an Intel Chipset

  • Memory: 3GB (2+1) DDR2 @ 667MHz

  • Graphics: Mobile Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 4500M with 64MB dedicated memory

  • Storage: 320GB Western Digital drive spinning @ 5200rpm

  • Display: 15.4" WXGA Acer CrystalBrite 1280x800 display (8ms/220nit)

  • Audio: Intel 82801I HD Audio Controller

  • Ethernet: NetXtreme BCM5764M Gigabit Ethernet PCIe

  • Wireless: Atheros AR928X 802.11b/g/Draft-N Wireless Network Adapter

  • Bluetooth 2.1+EDR

  • Integrated Acer Crystal Eye webcam with 640x480 resolution

  • Multi layer DVD-RW optical drive

  • PCMCIA card slot

  • 6 cell Li-ion Battery with a claimed 3 hours of juice

  • 3 USB ports

  • 1 VGA port

  • 2 Stereo speakers

  • Weighs about 3kgs

What I like

First of all, there is the price. I bought this machine for a few Lei shy of 1,800RON. I think that is quite a bargain for a new laptop! Most other laptops in the price range where Intel Celeron based and most netbooks were only 100-300RON cheaper! Also, I made it a point to buy a laptop either with Linux or no OS preinstalled. This one came with Linpus Linux. Plus 1 for Linux sales!

The laptop seems of a good build quality. The exterior is sturdy black plastic with a textured matte finish which looks simple but very good. The display hinges are wide and feel like they will survive my torture. The full size keyboard has a curved layout and the keys have good travel and feel. The touchpad is a decent size and has a metal bezel that adds a nice touch to the otherwise understated look. The display is very clear and bright (sometimes too bright) with a glossy finish. The speakers are loud enough (they are average laptop speakers).

This Acer machine runs cool and quiet. The fan only occasionally spins into action and even then it is quiet. Under normal use temperatures hover around 45°C. The underside is never too hot for comfort.

So far everything works out of the box in Linux! It is such a boon to have full support for your hardware. Just a little research goes a long way to enhancing your user experience. Running Linux Mint 8, CPU frequency scaling, 3D accelerated desktop effects, wireless (using the ath9k driver), bluetooth, the webcam and the hotkeys (some required configuring) all worked fine. I also installed and am using Arch Linux without any closed drivers.

It is no slouch. OK, it is no speed demon by today's standards either, but I am very pleased with the performance. Benchmarks are mostly academic, though I might put it through its paces at a later time. Nowadays, when 3GB of RAM doesn't seem all that much it is a real joy to be using Linux. Even with a lot of applications running (during normal use), I have never seen my RAM usage go over 2GB. Also many 3D games work e.g. Warzone 2100, Tuxkart, Neverball, Neverputt, World of Goo and Globulation 2. After 5 years of Sudoku and Solitaire, I was like a kid on Christmas morning!

What I don't like

The synaptics touchpad doesn't seem to recognize two or more finger actions. Thus things like two-finger scrolling are not possible. My not knowing how to configure it is also a possibility. The touchpad buttons are a bit too plasticky. They have some play, the travel is very little and the clicking action gives a cheap plastic sound. My biggest issue with this that my old Acer laptop had the same kind of touchpad buttons. And after repeated use they started getting stuck on the down click, thus becoming mostly useless. Preemptively, I have configured my touchpad to handle all clicking actions, so hopefully they'll last longer.

Another issue, which is more a matter of personal preference, is that the audio I/Os are located in the front of the laptop. This means that if you're using headphones, the jack is prone to getting bumped and skewed if the machine is placed on the lap and from hands moving around the touchpad. It's not a big deal if your headphones get messed up but eventually the headphone socket develops some play and causes contacts inside to become loose. That is annoying and will require sending the laptop for repairs. Manufacturers, please put the audio I/Os on the side!

The ath9k driver in the 2.6.31 kernel is not the best around. Quite frequently (2-3 times a day under heavy traffic e.g. file transfers), it would lose the signal and refuse to reconnect. The only way to get it working again was to reboot. Thankfully, upgrading to the 2.6.32 kernel solves this problem.

The glossy LCD display can be quite reflective but setting the brightness to maximum counters this for the most part.

What I haven't tried

I haven't tested the battery life yet. The battery requires formatting which means a 16 hour charge with the laptop off. I'm not bored of fiddling with it just yet to leave it off that long.

The ethernet card hasn't been used yet simply because wireless works. Anyway, I haven't yet come across an ethernet card that doesn't work in Linux. Then there is the PCMCIA card slot, because I don't have anything to put in it.

What I would have liked

The only thing that I really wanted that is not in this machine is a card reader. I just wanted the freedom to not worry about compatibility of various devices with Linux. But if I really need it, a card reader is not an expensive purchase.

That about wraps up my review. Once again, Acer has won me over with their product. At this price point there is almost no competition, even if it was on a Christmas sale. I am very pleased with my purchase. I would definitely recommend it, and more especially to Linux users.

Here is a Google Wave invitation. First come, first serve! If you do get it, drop me a line so that I know it works.