- Great combination of performance and battery life
- attractive design, solid build quality
- extensive feature set, including built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, plus a SmartCard reader
- good security and manageability for corporate customers.
- Full desktop replacement functionality may require the purchase of the optional port replicator.
Intel's new integrated mobile solution, which is called Centrino, comprises the Pentium M processor (formerly codenamed Banias), the 855 chipset and Intel's PRO/Wireless 2100 Mini-PCI card (the latter providing built-in 802.11b connectivity). The Pentium M chip is a brand-new design aimed at optimising the mix of performance and battery life for mobile computing, while the Centrino brand covers the combination of Pentium M, 855 chipset and Intel's wireless networking solution.Whenever a new mobile technology is developed, Acer is usually at the front of the queue to introduce it -- for example, the company was the first to circulate a pre-production Tablet PC before the launch last year. True to recent form, our first sight of a Centrino notebook came in the shape of Acer's TravelMate 800, a slim and reasonably lightweight 15in.-screen system based on the flagship 1.6GHz version of the Pentium M/Banias processor.
Acer's notebooks have earned a good reputation for thoughtful design and solid build quality, and the elegant TravelMate 800 does that reputation no harm at all. Although it's distinctly slim, measuring just 2.95cm at its thickest and weighing a luggable 2.76kg, the TravelMate 800's sizeable 15in. display and extensive feature set place it firmly in desktop replacement territory. It's not the heftiest of desktop replacements because it's a two-spindle device, with a 40GB hard disk and a modular media bay that accepts a variety of options. If you want a floppy drive, though, you'll have to go for the external USB option. In terms of looks, the TravelMate 800 has a professional demeanour: clad in a smart sliver and grey finish, it backs up those boardroom looks with a solid construction that includes an aluminium alloy back panel and fibreglass chassis reinforcements. This system should be able to take the knocks handed out by everyday mobile life. Apart from the screen, which is a good-quality 15in. TFT unit with a native resolution of 1,400 by 1,050 pixels (SXGA+), the key ergonomic aspects of a notebook are the keyboard and the mouse pointer. Acer's FineTouch keyboard is notable for its layout, which features a comfortable 5-degree curve; on the downside, though, the Home and End keys are doubled up with the PgUp and PgDn keys, requiring the Fn key to be depressed at the same time. Still, the keys are a good size and have a positive action; there are four quick-launch keys, two of which are user-programmable. The pointer is a two-button trackpad that incorporates a handheld-style four-way scroll key.
As mentioned above, the TravelMate 800 is based around Intel's Centrino solution, which combines the Pentium M processor (a 1.6GHz chip in this case), the 855PM chipset and a PRO Wireless 2100 Network Connection that delivers Wi-Fi (802.11b) wireless connectivity – the system features dual 2.4GHz/5GHz antennas, and so will accommodate future dual 802.11a/b modules. Our review sample came with a reasonable 256MB of DDR SDRAM, but the system will support up to 2GB of main memory via its dual SODIMM slots. But Acer has delivered much more than a basic off-the-shelf Centrino kit in the TravelMate 800. For a start, you get built-in Bluetooth connectivity as well as Wi-Fi -- a pair of buttons on the front fascia allows you to turn both wireless options on and off as required, in order to save power. Another welcome feature is a SmartCard reader, located beneath the single Type II CardBus PC Card slot on the left-hand side. Using the PlatinumSecret software suite, you can configure the system to check if a particular SmartCard is registered (if not, the notebook is locked at the BIOS level), to provide user authentication at the OS level, and to extend the card's memory via a local or Web server. More generally, the TravelMate 800 is a good corporate citizen, supporting boot-from-LAN, wake-on-LAN, multiple passwords and asset tag storage, and featuring a DMI-compliant BIOS. The 15in. SXGA+ display is driven by ATI's flagship Mobility Radeon 9000 graphics chip, which benefits from 64MB of dedicated DDR video memory. The result is a graphics subsystem as good as any you'll find on a notebook. The media bay on the right-hand side housed a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive from QSI in our review sample, but other options include a rewritable DVD-RW drive, a second hard disk or a second battery. The primary hard disk is a 40GB Hitachi drive with a rotational speed of 4,200rpm, while the primary battery is a hefty 14.8V, 4,400mAh Li-ion unit. The TravelMate 800 provides a mixture of legacy and modern ports. There's a parallel port, but no serial or PS/2 ports (for those, and more, you'll need to buy the optional EasyPort docking station). A generous four USB 2.0 ports are provided on the left-hand side, along with a FireWire (IEEE 1394) connector and a single Type II PC Card slot. At the back, alongside the parallel port, you'll find the external VGA connector, an S-Video out port, RJ-11 and RJ-45 ports servicing the integrated V.90 modem and 10/100 Ethernet hardware and a 100-pin docking connector.
Most of the interest around the Pentium-M/Centrino platform concerns its promised combination of performance and battery life, which is supposed to take portable computing to a new level. Until now, we've only had Intel's word for it, so we were excited to get our hands on Acer's system and give it a thorough benchmarking. Intel has claimed that a 1.6GHz Pentium-M notebook delivers slightly better performance than a system built around the previous-generation 2.4GHz Mobile Pentium 4-M. The 1.6GHz TravelMate 800 certainly acquits itself well: its mainstream application performance is 20.5 percent better than Sony's 2.4GHz VAIO PCG-GRX616SP (Business Winstone 2001 scores of 58.7 and 48.7 respectively). The TravelMate 800's advantage narrows to 10.9 percent when running high-end applications, but the difference is still significant (Content Creation Winstone scores of 35.5 and 32 respectively); however, neither of the latter scores can touch the fastest notebook we've tested – Dell's 2.8GHz desktop Pentium 4-based Inspiron 5100, which scores 42.4 in the Content Creation 2002 test. When we used BAPCo's MobileMark 2002 (which runs a mix of mainstream applications in a similar manner to Business Winstone), it put the TravelMate 800 ahead of the Inspiron 5100 by 6.4 per cent (productivity scores of 184 and 173 respectively). MobileMark 2002 also provides a battery life rating, and this is where the Pentium-M platform really shines: 4 hours and 40 minutes, combined with excellent desktop-mode (1600MHz) performance, really is a new departure for portable computing. Our usual BatteryMark 4.01 test came up with an almost identical result -- 4 hours 42 minutes in desktop mode. The TravelMate 800 is equipped with a reasonably hefty 14.8V, 4,400mAh battery (65.1Wh), and we found that tweaking the power management settings allowed us to get well over 5 hours' life from the system. However, with the CPU clocked down to its minimum 600MHz, performance does take a big hit. Finally, as you'd expect from its leading-edge 64MB ATI Mobility Radeon 9700 graphics chip, 3D performance is excellent. In fact, the TravelMate 800's 3DMark 2001 score of 7,285 is the best we've recorded on any notebook to date.
Service & support
The TravelMate 800 comes with a two-year warranty, which includes one year of international cover. Acer's service and support Web site provides the usual mix of driver and utility downloads, FAQs and technical documents. Telephone support is also available at national rates, although you'll pay 50 per minute if your system is out of warranty.