- Adds Tablet PC functionality while keeping the price reasonable
- extensive set of features and options
- Bulky and heavy
- moderate performance and battery life
- moderate-sized screen
- integrated graphics
- lacks a home for the stylus
Tablet PCs have yet to achieve the kind of popularity that Microsoft -- developer of the Tablet PC version of Windows XP -- and its OEMs might like. But hardware manufacturers remain committed to the idea. Acer proves the point with the TravelMate 250PE, a take on the tablet format that's different from any other we've seen to date.
This Tablet PC's chassis is based around the standard notebook design used in the rest of the TravelMate 250 range, and it is large, solid and sturdy. Indeed, with a weight of 3.8kg and overall dimensions of 33.2cm wide by 29.4cm deep by 4.97cm high, we can’t imagine anybody wanting to carry this three-spindle system very far at all. This seems, at first glance, to defeat the whole object of the Tablet PC format, whose standard operational mode is crook-of-the-arm usage. The TravelMate 250PE's screen does not swivel and lay flat on top of the keyboard, as in conventional 'convertible' notebook/tablets. Instead, there is an arm hinged onto the left and right sides of the lid, which rotates downwards to provide support behind the screen, enabling you to prod at it with the digitiser in ordinary notebook mode without pushing it back. The idea is that you have access to both keyboard and tablet functions at the same time. Acer calls this the Tablet Input Panel Support (TIPS). The lid’s clean silver finish is hampered by a sticker offering warnings about misuse of the TIPS: it is not a carrying handle; it must be used to keep the screen at an angle between 125 and 150 degrees only; it must not stand on the power supply wire. The relatively large size of the TravelMate 250PE could accommodate a larger screen than the 14.1in. unit provided. But at least there's room below the keyboard for a comfortable wrist rest and a good-sized touchpad.
The processor behind our review unit is a 2.6GHz Pentium 4; alternatives range from 2.2 to 2.8GHz. Because it uses a desktop-class CPU, the TravelMate 250PE needs more cooling than a mobile processor, and this isn't the quietest notebook we've tested. Our review system came with 512MB of RAM, of which 16MB was configured for use by the 852GME chipset's integrated Intel Extreme Graphics module; the system can support up to 2GB in total via its dual DIMM slots. The large case houses a floppy drive on the right-hand side as well as a DVD/CD-RW drive and a pair of Type II PC Card slots on the left-hand side. At the back there are no less than four USB 2.0 connectors. This is generous, but unfortunately they are arranged vertically and next to each other. It's possible to connect four devices at once if they have standard-sized wired leads, but bring a device like a pen drive into the equation and you may find it difficult to access to all the ports at once. You'll also find parallel, monitor, Ethernet, modem and audio in and out connectors at the back; there are no PS/2 or serial ports though. Connectivity is provided by a 56Kbps fax/modem, plus wired (10/100Mbps) and wireless (11Mbps 802.11b) networking -- 802.11g (54Mbps) and Bluetooth are also options. Our review unit had a 40GB hard drive.
Performance and battery life
A key feature of the TravelMate 250PE is how well it functions in Tablet PC format. Using the keyboard and tablet features at the same time is a little irritating for three main reasons. First, every time you want to work direct to the screen, you have to cease typing and reach for the stylus. This process is more irritating than it should be due to the lack of a convenient place to park the stylus when it's not in use. This in turn makes the stylus easier to mislay – and if you do lose the stylus, the tablet functionality becomes useless as the touchscreen is an active unit (you can't use a fingertip to point and click as on a passive-screen handheld). Second, it's necessary to lean forwards to tap at the screen -- something notebook users are not accustomed to doing, and which we found somewhat uncomfortable. Finally, the range of angles at which the screen can reside is relatively narrow due to the need for the TIPS stand to be in position. We found that in our own office situation, sitting precisely where we would normally do if using a notebook, we were unable to get close enough to an upright screen position to avoid reflection impeding our view. Despite its desktop-class 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor, the TravelMate 250PE turned in fairly mediocre benchmarks: a MobileMark 2002 productivity score of 125 is behind most of the current crop of Pentium M-powered notebooks, and a long way short of our top MobileMark 2002 score of 184 (from Acer's popular TravelMate 800). That said, you'll have no trouble running mainstream business applications on this system; however, its use of integrated graphics probably rules out gaming and other graphically demanding applications. Given its desktop CPU and 3.8kg weight, this isn't a notebook you're likely to carry far. But if you do want to work on move, you can expect it to last for less than 2.5 hours on battery power.
Service & support
Acer backs the TravelMate 250 series with a one-year local warranty and one-year international traveller's warranty, plus free phone support for the duration of the warranty. After that, support calls cost 50p per minute. For more extensive warranty options, you'll need to investigate the paid-for Acer Advantage service. Acer's Web site also offers free technical support via email, along with driver downloads, user manuals, a short list of FAQs and some technical papers.
Acer has taken the Tablet PC concept and played with its implementation, producing hardware that works on the desktop but not in mobile mode. However, it's a relatively affordable desktop replacement system, and some users may find the addition of Tablet PC functionality useful.