Portable Multimedia Station: Acer Aspire 5654WLMi Notebook Review

Today we are going to talk about a powerful multimedia configuration within a regular 15” notebook case from Acer. This solution built using high-performance components allows playing today’s 3D games and using any 3D applications on the road, offers great battery life even in heavy modes and provides excellent TV-tuner functionality. Read more about it in our review!

by Alexander Britvin
11/14/2006 | 09:11 PM

Notebooks used to be all alike at first and defined as being other than stationary PCs, but the current division of portable computers into several classes has already become established and known to every user. And multimedia notebooks make up the most wanted and high-performance subgroup. We’ve got accustomed to expect such notebooks to be heavy and large, with a screen diagonal of at least 17”. This kills the very idea of portability or, at the very least, makes it difficult to work with such a computer on the run.

 

Perhaps the notebook I am going to test today, the Aspire 5654WLMi model from Acer, will change our notions about multimedia notebooks. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder to carry it around as it weighs just a little more than average at 2.92kg. Its 15.4” matrix size is typical of a large share of portable computers. Traditionally for multimedia notebooks, but not only for them now, the display has a widescreen aspect ratio. The dimensions of the notebook are moderate, typical of ordinary 15” models: 358mm x 265mm x 36mm. Added to that, this powerful multimedia station, built according to the latest trends in notebook making, can make a handy traveling companion, which is a surprising exception to the rule because notebooks of that class are usually considered as stationary or pseudo-portable at least.

The manufacturer includes a remote control with the notebook for the laziest and most tired of users so that you could control the integrated TV-tuner without coming up to the computer.

I will first describe the exterior of the notebook and its accessories and then will check it out in tests in comparison with the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR whose specification is similar to the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi’s (for details on the Sony notebook see our review called Sony VAIO AR Series Notebook Review: Blu-Ray Going Mass?).

Package and Accessories

The box of the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi has a peculiar design. It is painted “the color of life” but with an acid hue. The manufacturer name, the name of the series, and the Acer website address are scattered around the box surface.

Being a multimedia notebook, the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi comes with a lot of accessories. The manufacturer put into the box almost everything you may want to work at the computer. So, besides the notebook proper, the green-colored box contains:

 

 

Unfortunately, Acer doesn’t include system restore discs into the box, but suggests that you make them yourself (I strongly advise you to do this right after you turn the notebook on for the first time).

Design and Ergonomics

The notebook has the typical design of Acer’s latest models. Its case is light gray with a manufacturer’s logo in a corner of the lid. The edges are all rounded off to add the feeling of visual lightness to the notebook. You can see colors alternating in this “hamburger”: the silver lid is followed by a black screen bezel. Next goes the silver body of the computer with a black bottom and feet.

Rather loud stereo speakers are placed symmetrically on the left and right sides of the notebook’s bottom. The only disadvantage of this placement is that you’ll cover them with your hands as you’re typing text on the notebook’s keyboard. Well, you’ll get some sound anyway whereas the speakers are nearer to you if you are using the notebook from a distance with a remote control to watch a movie or a TV program.

Without opening the notebook up, you can see a large group of ports, indicators and connectors between the two stereo speakers (from left to right):

You can see a two-color picture, too, as you open the notebook up. The silvery bottom surface with a jet black square of the touchpad changes into a black keyboard framed within a black bezel. The screen bezel is black and glossy, making dust and dirty fingerprints immediately conspicuous. The manufacturer’s name is centered below the screen. The series and model names are on the right.

The hinges stick out of the notebook’s bottom half. The display can be unfolded to an angle of nearly 180 degrees as the next photograph shows.

The Acer Aspire 5654WLMi is equipped with a 15.4” matrix with a max resolution of 1280x800 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA). The viewing angles seem good enough both vertically and horizontally. The LCD display features the exclusive Acer CrystalBrite technology that improves color saturation and image quality. However, the glassiness of the display creates certain problems because you’ll see every well-lit object reflected in the screen as in a mirror. So, you have to take care about proper lighting to avoid seeing flares and silhouettes on the screen during work.

I measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. I selected the highest brightness setting before this test. When I changed the power source, the display brightness remained almost the same, while the contrast grew up a little.

AC power source:

DC power source:

The Acer Aspire 5654WLMi is equipped with a black 88-key keyboard, strangely without Acer’s traditional “smiling” design. The arrow buttons are shifted a little below the keyboard baseline to reduce the risk of your pressing them unintentionally. The designers put the euro and dollar signs right above the Arrow Right and Arrow Left buttons. The Fn button is located in the bottom left corner, next to the Control button, which should be convenient for people who use shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V. There is a numeric pad and two special Windows keys available. The Context Menu button is to the right of the spacebar. The Windows button is to the left of the spacebar. The functional buttons have a reduced size. Home, PgUp, PgDn and End make up a vertical column on the left. Pause, Print Screen, Insert and Delete are placed in the same row with the functional buttons. The letters are painted in white, the functional buttons are blue (you can access their additional functions by pressing them together with Fn).

The notebook’s touchpad is typical of Acer’s latest models. It is large and handy. The touch-sensitive panel is sunken a little into the case and is colored jet black which is different from the color of the surrounding bezel. Below the panel there are two buttons that serve instead of the mouse’s ones. The four-position joystick for scrolling text is colored light silver.

The Aspire 5654WLMi being a multimedia machine and considering that it is not always appropriate to use the remote control, the manufacturer put a block of multimedia buttons on the right of the keyboard (the picture below is turned by 90 degrees for better readability). This block includes:

Above the right edge of the keyboard, and adjoining the block of multimedia buttons, there are quick-launch buttons along with more system indicators and a Turn On button (from left to right):

Each of the quick-launch buttons can be reprogrammed by the user by means of the Acer Startup Manager.

Although the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi is positioned as a multimedia computer, it offers a standard selection of ports and connectors which are quite conveniently placed around the case. The following is located on the notebook’s left panel (from left to right):

There’s only a slot-loaded optical drive on the right panel of the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi. You cannot use mini-discs in it. There are an activity indicator and an eject button on the drive.

The rear panel is all dotted with ports and connectors (from left to right):

The notebook’s 4800mAh battery is almost square rather than elongated as in other notebooks. It is fastened at the bottom of the case, closer to the user, thus leaving some cool space under the user’s right hand.

Besides the battery, the bottom panel has a battery lock, stickers with the model specs and the OS serial number, a HDD compartment and a memory compartment (it gives access to almost all of the computer’s innards, though).

There are two slots in the memory compartment each occupied with a 1024MB module. You can add up more memory to the maximum supported amount of 4096MB.

Configuration

The Acer Aspire 5654WLMi is based on the Napa platform, an Intel Core Duo T2500 processor with a clock rate of 2.00GHz being its heart.

Besides Intel’s traditional Enhanced SpeedStep technology that gives the notebook’s software and BIOS control over the CPU frequency multiplier (to reduce it under low loads), this CPU supports Dynamic Power Coordination (the power consumption of the cores can be independently adjusted depending on the current load) and Dynamic Cache Sizing (unused cache segments can be turned off to reduce power consumption). For more information refer to our Centrino Duo Mobile Platform Review.

The Napa platform also incorporates an Intel PRO/Wireless 3945ABG adapter and an Intel Calistoga 945PM chipset. This chipset supports DDR2 SO-DIMMs, thus offering more memory bandwidth at lower power consumption, and a PCI Express x16 interface for an external graphics card. The ICH7-M chip is used as the chipset’s South Bridge and is connected to the North Bridge via a special-purpose Direct Media Interface. The South Bridge supports one Parallel ATA port, two Serial ATA ports, eight USB 2.0 ports and Intel High Definition Audio. It also offers six PCI Express x1 lanes to connect external devices. Follow this link for a detailed description of the Intel Calistoga 945PM chipset.

Being a multimedia solution, the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi is equipped a powerful discrete graphics core Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 with 256MB of dedicated graphics memory. This 0.09-micron core has low power consumption, supports Shader Model 3.0 and HDR. So, it is quite capable of running new and advanced 3D games and applications. The GeForce Go 7600 features Nvidia PureVideo technology for high-quality HD video playback whereas PowerMizer 6.0 technology helps it use power in the most optimal way and thus generate less heat. I already tested the GeForce Go 7600 GT in my review of the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR and these two letters in the name make a big difference. The GeForce Go 7600 GT supports SLI technology and has better parameters than the basic, GT-less model. You’ll see in the tests section how the two mobile solutions from Nvidia differ in performance. Here’s a table that shows the differences in their specs:

Yet another indication of the multimedia nature of the tested notebook is its integrated TV-tuner. The following pictures help appreciate its image quality:

The Acer Aspire 5654WLMi employs a 2.5” Seagate ST9120821AS hard disk drive (5400 spindle rotation speed, 120GB capacity, and SATA interface). It also has a slot-loaded Matshita UJ-845S DVD-burner with the following speed formula:

Reading:

Writing:

The notebook is equipped with two 1GB modules of 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM that work in dual-channel mode as the following screenshot shows. The maximum amount of memory supported is 4096MB, but I guess 2GB is already quite enough for most applications.

I measured the temperature of the hottest spots on the notebook’s surfaces with an infrared thermometer after it had worked for half an hour in the Classic test mode of Battery Eater Pro 2.60 (the ambient temperature remained constant at 24°C during this test) and got the following numbers:

The table below lists the technical specs of the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi and compares them with those of the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR:

Testbed and Methods

The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then I installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (from the system recovery disc I had created myself), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0.

The following settings were used for the tests:

Two power modes were used. First, I selected the Always On power mode for the maximum performance and the shortest battery life. Then I switched to the Max Battery mode for the maximum battery run-down time.

Our tests:

  1. Performance benchmarks: synthetic (SiSoftware Sandra 2005, PCMark 2004), office and multimedia (Business Winstone 2004, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004), and games (3DMark 2003 3.60, Quake 3, Unreal Tournament 2003)
  2. Battery life tests (Battery Eater Pro 2.60)

There are three test modes in Battery Eater:

I used the first two modes as they are in Battery Eater, but in the Idle mode (when the test utility doesn’t put any load of its own on the notebook) I played a DVD movie.

Performance

I’m going to compare two high-performance multimedia computers today. Their configurations are even closer than in our Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR review: the notebooks have identical CPUs and their graphics cores differ only in the suffix. I’ll start with the synthetic benchmarks SiSoftware Sandra 2004 and PCMark 2004.

SiSoftware Sandra 2004 measures the overall performance of the system as well as that of each of its subsystems, while PCMark 2004 benchmarks the computer performance in office and multimedia applications and also produces performance scores for the main subsystems (CPU, memory, graphical, and disk subsystem).

As might have been expected, the CPU test produces similar results, with minor variations due to measurement errors. When the notebooks switch to their batteries and to the Max Battery power scheme, the frequency of the Intel Core Duo T2500 processors is reduced to the minimum of 1.00GHz, which leads to a proportional reduction in the test results. You can also note that the Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 GT looks preferable to the GT-less GPU. Well, the graphics solution installed in the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR has better specifications indeed.

The Business Winstone 2004 test runs scripts of the following real-life office applications, several scripts at a time to simulate multi-tasking: Internet Explorer, Outlook, Word, Excel, Access, Project, PowerPoint, FrontPage, WinZip, and Norton AntiVirus Professional Edition.

The Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 test determines the performance of a computer in the following multimedia applications: Windows Media Encoder, Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Premiere, NewTek LightWave 3D, Steinberg WaveLab, Micromedia Dreamweaver MX, and Micromedia Director MX.

The results are listed and diagrammed below:

Although it is the CPU that bears the biggest load in the benchmarks from PC Magazine, the Sony has to cede the victory to the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi that has much more of system memory.

Next I tested the notebooks’ graphics subsystems in 3DMark 2003 3.60.

The GT-suffixed graphics core proves its superiority over its junior mate. The high operating frequency of this chip contributes to this result, and the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR looks much better than the Acer here.

Next, I tested the notebooks in two modes in Quake 3 :

The Nvidia GeForce Go 7600 beats its more advanced opponent in this test. The resolutions are low here, so the overall system performance means more than the performance of the graphics card alone.

And again, the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi looks preferable due to the same reasons. Summarizing the graphics tests, I can say that this notebook is quite a gaming machine, even when powered by its battery. Nvidia’s power-saving technologies do not reduce the performance of the graphics core too aggressively when the notebook switches to the battery.

The notebook’s battery life was measured with Battery Eater Pro 2.60. The test was performed at the maximum screen brightness in the following modes:

The battery of the Sony VAIO VGN-AR11SR may be considered just as a good uninterruptible power supply, but the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi allows you to watch a movie or read from the screen for a good three hours.

Here are the battery discharge diagrams for the different operation modes:

Conclusion

There’s little to find fault with here. Acer’s engineers and designers have produced a very well-made product. They managed to stuff an ordinary 15” case with a powerful multimedia configuration while providing the opportunity to use that configuration on the run. Moreover, the Acer Aspire 5654WLMi, with all its high-performance components, can last about 2.5 hours on its battery running heavy applications. Its graphics subsystem allows to play today’s 3D games and use any 3D applications whereas the remote control and the integrated TV-tuner allow you to finish your busy day by using the notebook as a portable TV-set.

Highs:

Lows: