Acer TravelMate P256-M review: An affordable business workhorse

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  • Editors' rating
    7.5 Very good

Pros

  • Good battery life
  • Optical drive
  • Good array of ports and connectors

Cons

  • Bulky and heavy
  • Low-resolution, average-quality screen

Acer's TravelMate P2 series of business laptops comes in a range of screen sizes from 13.3-inch up to 17.3-inch. Our review unit, the TravelMate P256-M is a 15.6-inch model that, at just £350 (inc. VAT; £292 ex. VAT), is unlikely to be a powerhouse -- but is it good value?

The TravelMate P256-M is a chunky notebook that you probably won't want to carry very often or very far. Its 2.3kg weight will sit heavy in your bag, and will occupy quite a lot of space too: the desktop footprint is 32.7cm wide by 22.8cm deep, and it's 1.97cm thick.

Visually this is a very workaday piece of equipment. Acer's logo sits in shiny silver on the lid, and matte silver inside beneath the screen. These are the only departures from the otherwise black plastic finish. The lid has a matte surface that seems more resistant to fingermarks than many. This is mirrored on the wrist rest. The screen surround is slightly stippled, as is the underside.

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The 15.6-inch TravelMate P256-M weighs 2.3kg and runs on processors ranging from Pentium to Core i5. Images: Acer

The plastic shell is reasonably solid as far as the base section is concerned, and the wrist rest doesn't flex at all. But remarkably little pressure is required on the lid to cause 'clouding' on the LCD. This notebook will probably need a protective case in transit -- and you won't want to stand anything on the lid when it's closed and idling on your desk.

This 15.6-inch system's footprint allows Acer to include a full-size number pad to the right of the keyboard and still have room for a double-width Enter key. However, the four direction keys are half height and so slightly fiddly to use. They double up to offer screen brightness and volume controls in combination with the Fn key.

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There's a very slight roughness to the finish on the keys, which we rather like. How much it aids typing is debatable, but it makes a change. The keyboard isn't backlit, which is disappointing but perhaps inevitable on such an affordable system. Very light-touch typists might have to toughen up their stroke to avoid missing characters, but overall the keyboard feels solid and reliable.

The trackpad is not entirely to our liking. The default setting made it almost unusable -- it was very slow and took almost three full sweeps to get the cursor across the screen. Multitouch gestures were responsive, though, as were the embedded buttons, and once we'd fiddled with the response speed in the Synaptics settings things improved markedly. Seven of the 12 Fn keys have secondary functions -- thankfully one of these disables the trackpad. For anyone with a propensity to activate the trackpad accidentally while typing this is a 'must have' feature.

The 15.6-inch LCD's native resolution is a rather disappointing 1,366 by 768 pixels -- that's just 100 pixels per inch (ppi). The brightness range is not huge, but probably adequate for most office-bound professionals. Acer says it uses 'ComfyView' display screen technology, which essentially means there's a matte finish that helps boost readability in backlit or sidelight situations. That's nice, but viewing angles are not great: the horizontal plane is not too bad, although if you're screensharing with a colleague then one or both of you will almost certainly have a restricted view; the vertical plane is dreadful with just a very narrow 'sweet spot' within which the screen is comfortably readable. Colours aren't great either, and video in particular has a tendency to look somewhat washed out.

Now, if your main work activity is writing, handling email, manipulating spreadsheets and web browsing, then this is unlikely to be a big issue. But if you need a notebook for delivering visually rich presentations, if strong colour rendition is important to you, or if you just like a bit of movie viewing in downtime, then you might want to look elsewhere.

There are several iterations of the TravelMate P256-M available. Our review unit ran on a dual-core 1.9GHz Intel Core i3 4030U processor supported by 4GB of RAM and with discrete graphics courtesy of Intel's HD Graphics 4400. Other options include models based on Core i5 4210U and Pentium 3556U processors.

The setup of our review sample was certainly good enough for mainstream productivity tasks, but if you require more graphics horsepower, then you may need to boost the processor specification, or seek a laptop with discrete rather than integrated graphics.

For connectivity, the TravelMate P256-M has Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11 a/b/g/n wi-fi and Bluetooth. Storage comes in the form of a moderate-speed (5,400rpm) 500GB hard drive, with an SD card slot for adding extra capacity as required.

Some users will be pleased to see an optical drive sitting on the right edge of the chassis, alongside a pair of USB 2.0 ports. There is a third USB (3.0) port on the left edge. The left edge is also home to a HDMI port, the RJ-45 Ethernet port, a legacy VGA connector and, towards the front, a headset jack.

The front edge houses the aforementioned SD card slot and a couple of status LEDs -- there are no indicators on the keyboard surround. There is a serviceable webcam sitting above the screen. This isn't a bad array at all, although we'd prefer all three of the USB ports to be USB 3.0.

It's quite a surprise these days when a review notebook starts running through its setup procedure and installs Windows 7 Professional, but that's what happened with our unit. Windows 7 Pro is a downgrade option from Windows 8 Pro -- and you can opt for a version of this notebook sporting the latter if you wish. Running Windows 7 is not as weird as it might sound, even with Windows 10 now available. Many businesses don't want the tiled UI approach of Windows 8, and don't need a touchscreen. It makes sense for them to take the downgrade option to Windows 7.

Acer includes a security app called Acer ProShield, which may be of interest to smaller businesses lacking dedicated IT personnel. Among its features is the ability to cater for login via face recognition, file encryption and the creation of a secure drive partition.

Another app, Acer Office Manager, might appeal to businesses wishing to manage a fleet of notebooks, as it caters for the deployment of security polices, monitoring of IT assets, and running of scheduled maintenance tasks.

Battery life is impressive. Acer doesn't offer a claimed lifespan, but using the TravelMate P256-M for general productivity workloads we got enough juice out of it for a day's typing and web browsing. On one occasion it was largely idling away on a desk for a morning with minimal use and a few drops into sleep, during which time the battery fell from 97 percent to 82 percent. The battery is easily removable too, so if you need a particularly long spell away from a mains socket, it should be possible to carry a charged spare.

Microsoft's Windows Experience Index (WEI) under Windows 7 Professional ranks components out of 7.9. Not surprisingly, the TravelMate P256-M delivered a crop of moderate scores, the lowest being 4.8 for 2D graphics:

Processor 6.6
Memory (RAM) 5.9
Graphics 4.8
Gaming graphics 6.5
Primary hard disk 5.9

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Image: Acer

Conclusion

The Acer TravelMate P256-M is a hefty 15.6-inch notebook that's let down by a low-resolution, moderate-quality screen. We'd have liked a stronger lid section to protect the screen, while performance -- especially from the graphics subsystem -- is nothing to get excited about.

That said, if money is tight and you're still using legacy tech like VGA monitors and CD/DVD, yet you need to upgrade old equipment, then the TravelMate P256-M's specification and price may fit the bill nicely.

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