- Excellent performance
- reasonable battery life
- good range of add-on applications from Acer
- smartcard-based security system and hard disk anti-shock protection
- built-in video conferencing camera
- PC Card-format Bluetooth VoIP phone
Following the early January announcement of Intel's new Centrino Duo mobile computing platform, dual-core notebooks are beginning to hit the market. The first to reach ZDNet UK for review is Acer’s impressive, if somewhat pricey, TravelMate 8204WLMi.
Outwardly the TravelMate 8204WLMi gives no clue that it is Acer's first dual-core Centrino Duo notebook. It's a desktop replacement-style notebook with a 15.4in. screen that somehow manages to appear rather sleeker than its dimensions (36.4cm wide by 27.1cm deep by 3.8cm high) and weight (3kg) might suggest.
The outer casing is made of strong yet lightweight carbon fibre (as used in the aerospace industry and Formula 1 racing). Although there was some flex in the lid, the case does seem to offer more protection for the screen than usual. The lid's shiny, patterned grey-and-black design looks smart and businesslike.
Open the lid and you're faced with a stylish interior to match the outer casing. Acer’s usual curved keyboard is the star attraction visually. The five-degree curve is not enough to make it difficult to type, but does lend a distinctive look to the system.
We did encounter a keyboard problem that's unrelated to its curvature. The key arrangement includes a vertical strip on the far right, offering (among other things) page up, page down, delete, home and end keys. This pushes the QWERTY section off centre. Now our touch-typing style involves laying the balls of the thumbs on the wrist-rest; in this case, the right thumb rests on the touchpad, and occasionally depresses the right mouse button by mistake. No doubt we -- and anyone else similarly affected -- would learn to cope with this design over time, but it was irritating at first.
Handy keys for the euro and dollar signs take up space around the inverted-T cursor controls. The touchpad incorporates a four-way scroll button, and the keyboard itself is responsive and comfortable to use.
The 15.4in. screen is absolutely superb. With a resolution of 1,680 by 1,050 pixels, it's easily possible to have two documents open at the same time and work effectively on each one without continually resizing windows.
Above the screen sits a 1.3-megapixel OrbiCam CMOS camera that can be used for capturing still images, video recording and video conferencing. Acer provides software to use with the OrbiCam, which can be swivelled through 225 degrees.
The TravelMate 8204WLMi has plenty of ports and connectors. The front edge houses a pair of stereo speakers, a multi-format (SD, Multimedia Card, Memory Stick, Memory Stick Pro and xD) flash card reader, microphone and headphone sockets (the latter with S/PDIF line out support), separate on/off controls for the integrated Bluetooth and 802.11a/b/g wireless modules, infrared and IEEE 1394 (FireWire) ports.
On the left edge there are two USB 2.0 ports, an RJ-11 modem port and a rewritable DVD drive, along with Type II a PC Card slot. The right edge houses an RJ-45 Ethernet connector, an analogue VGA port and two further USB 2.0 ports, plus a smartcard slot (Acer provides two smartcards that you can configure to secure your system). On the back edge there's a DVI-D port, an S-Video connector and a 124-pin connector for Acer’s optional ezDock docking unit.
The Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi is powered by Intel's new Core Duo T2500 processor. This 65nm dual-core CPU runs at 2GHz, has a 667MHz frontside bus and includes 2MB of Level 2 cache, which is dynamically allocated between the two cores (for more details, see here). The TravelMate 8204WLMi comes with a generous 2GB of system RAM as standard, expandable to 4GB. The chipset is Intel's 945PM Express, while 802.11a/b/g wireless networking comes courtesy of the Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG PCI Express MiniCard module. A Broadcom module provides short-range Bluetooth 2.0+EDR connectivity. A powerful system like this naturally has discrete rather than integrated graphics, in the shape of ATI’s Mobility Radeon X1600 GPU with 512MB of memory -- 256MB dedicated and 256MB shared with system RAM.
The 120GB Serial ATA hard drive is not only capacious, but also has a fast 5,400rpm spin speed. The drive is protected with Acer’s Disk Anti-Shock Protection (DASP), which automatically retracts the disk heads if sudden motion changes are detected.
Acer includes a range of applications under its Empowering Technology banner. The applications can be accessed quickly by tapping one of four user-configurable buttons that sit between the keyboard and the screen. Between them the seven Empowering Technology applications provide access to a wide range of system settings, optimisation and security features. The programs are: eLock (password protection management), ePerformance (hard drive and system optimisation), eRecovery (data backup), eSettings (security, system info and boot options), eNet (wireless network management), ePower (power management schemes) and ePresentation (switch to 800 by 600 or 1,024 by 768 resolution when delivering presentations).
Acer bundles its innovative Bluetooth VoIP Phone with the TravelMate 8204WLMi. This has not been included with a TravelMate before, although it does come with some of the Aspire 9500 models. This slimline phone has the size and dimensions of a PC Card, and its internal battery is charged via the PC Card slot. The microphone section flips out from the main body of the unit, distancing it from the tiny speaker and making it possible to hold the device to your ear. Alternatively the microphone section can be raised at right angles from the main body, so that when the VoIP phone is placed on a desk you can make conference VoIP calls.
Performance & battery life
Although two cores do not equal twice the computing power, we had high expectations for the performance of the TravelMate 8204WLMi. This was as much for its 2GB of system memory, fast hard disk and ATI graphics as for its 2GHz Core Duo T2500 processor. As for battery life, we were hoping that the large screen and high-end specification didn't take too big a toll on mains-free uptime. We weren't disappointed. Using the standard MobileMark 2002, which runs nine real-world programs (Microsoft Word 2002, Excel 2002, PowerPoint 2002, Outlook 2002, Netscape Communicator, McAfee VirusScan 5.13, WinZip 8, Macromedia Flash 5 and Adobe Photoshop 6.0.1), we got a record score of 281. For comparison, our previous highest score, from Acer's TravelMate 3004WTMi, was 256 -- some 10 per cent lower. However, the TravelMate 3004WTMi's score was exceptional, and the dual-core system's score is actually some 30 per cent ahead of the average 'performance' notebook that we tested in 2005. With the wireless networking and Bluetooth modules disabled and the screen set to a middling brightness level, the TravelMate 8204WLMi ran for 3 hours and 34 minutes under MobileMark 2002. This is pretty impressive given that CPU speed was set to maximum, and you could easily boost the battery life by tweaking the power management settings in Acer's bundled ePower Management utility. It's worth noting, though that to get this level of battery life, Acer has had to use a hefty 9-cell 7,800mAh Li-ion battery.
Service & support
Acer provides a moderate one-year warranty on the TravelMate 8204WLMi, which is extendable -- at a price -- via the AcerAdvantage program. Free phone support is available for within-warranty products; if it's out of warranty you'll have to pay 50p per minute. Email support is available, and Acer's support pages host a good selection of downloads, utilities and guides.