Dual-Core Turion in Action: Acer Aspire 9300 Notebook Series

We would like to introduce to you a full-size 17-inch notebook family from Acer built around the dual-core AMD Turion 64 X2 processor. It is a pretty inexpensive notebook, but offers good performance and a rather long battery life. Read more in our review!

by Alexander Britvin
03/05/2007 | 10:28 AM

When you are choosing for a portable computer, you have to consider a lot of various factors. If you are spending most of your life traveling, you will surely want a small and light sub-notebook, but for other applications such parameters as the size of the display and overall performance may be more important, making you choose from among larger models. Large notebooks are also “colder” because it is easier to take heat away from the components in a large case. And what’s very important about full-size notebooks is that they are still portable. As opposed to desktop computers, you can carry them about, even though spending more effort than with ultra-portable models.

 

Our today’s guest is the Acer Aspire 9303WSMi notebook, a sturdy 17-incher that offers both high performance and mobility. This model’s special feature we haven’t yet met with in our tests is the dual-core processor for notebooks from AMD.

The AMD Turion 64 X2 is the first mobile dual-core CPU that supports both 32-bit and 64-bit computing and is compatible with Microsoft’s 64-bit Windows Vista operating system (Intel’s new processors on the Merom core have the same features, but were announced a few months later).

Socket 754, utilized for the single-core Turion 64, is now replaced with Socket S1:

The following table shows the differences between AMD’s mobile solutions:

The crucial thing is that the new CPU has two execution cores. This is implemented in AMD’s classic way: each core has its own L2 cache and communicates with the other core via an internal bus. In this respect the Turion 64 X2 design seems to be inferior to Intel’s Core Duo in which the cores have a larger and shared L2 cache that simplifies communication between the cores and disables unused cache blocks to save power. The Turion 64 X2 allows its cores to be managed independently. This technology is called Multi-core Power Management. AMD Digital Media XPress technology means that this CPU supports MMX, 3DNow!, SSE, SSE2 and SSE3 instruction sets (the same sets as are supported by Intel’s CPUs except for AMD’s proprietary 3DNow!). The memory controller has been taught to work with DDR2 SDRAM with clock rates from 400MHz to 667MHz. It now also supports dual-channel mode, thus providing a peak memory bandwidth of 10.7GB/s.

The model nomenclature hasn’t changed much. The letter T stands for two cores and the rest is the same: the numbers denote the CPU frequency and the letter indicates the TDP. We’ve got the TL52 model in which the letter L means a heat dissipation of no higher than 35W (and the power dissipation this particular model is only 31W). AMD prices its products somewhat lower than Intel does, but Intel offers a whole platform while AMD, only the CPU.

And this CPU demands a special chipset. It is Nvidia’s GeForce Go 6100 in our notebook and we’ll talk about it below. Right now we will examine the notebook from all sides and will then test it in comparison with the ASUS V6J, which is based on Intel’s Yonah-core 1.66GHz Core Duo processor, has a little less of system memory, and is equipped with a similar graphics subsystem (for details see our article called ASUS V6J Notebook on Intel Dual-Core Processor).

Package and Accessories

The packaging of the Aspire 9303WSMi has all the specific traces of the entire Aspire line-up. The main difference is the size of the box which corresponds to the dimensions of the notebook. The manufacturer’s name is printed on the acid-green fields at the bottom of the box. The sides are decorated with the product series name and package-handling instructions. The address of the international Acer website is in the center of the box.

The accessories to the notebook are rather scanty. Besides the notebook, the box contains a 4800mAh battery, a power adapter, a modem cable, and documentation (a Just for Starters brochure, 1-year warranty, user manual, a list of authorized service centers, and a Windows XP Media Center Edition TV brochure).

 

There are no system recovery discs – you are supposed to create them yourself. Instead, the Aspire 9303WSMi offers Acer Empowering Technology for quick access to the most frequently used functions of the notebook. It is a panel, by default located in the top right corner of the screen (you can minimize it into a tiny window if necessary), which provides access to the following utilities:

Design and Ergonomics

One look at the Aspire 9303WSMi is enough to identify the family traits of the series. It has a light-silver case with a manufacturer logo in the lid’s left corner closest to the user.

The edges are rounded, making this not-very-small notebook seem light visually. You can see a color sandwich typical of Acer notebooks here. The black display bezel goes out onto the exterior part of the lid, dividing it in two halves almost. The notebook’s body is black with small silver inserts.

Traditionally for Acer, there are frequently used connectors and status indicators (visible irrespective of the position of the lid) in the center of the notebook’s front part (from left to right):

The display lock consists of two sliders that move as one. So, it’s not a problem to open the lid with one hand only.

The color scheme changes inside. The exterior is all light and silver, but here it is only the area under your hands, from the keyboard to the notebook’s front edge, that is painted that color. The rest is black. There are rubber pads on the screen bezel for softer contact with the notebook’s body.

Centered at the top of the bezel is a 0.31-megapixel web-camera Acer Orbicam. Its ergonomic design allows turning it around by 225 degrees. The camera can capture images at an angle up to 45 degrees.

The display hinges rise up from the notebook’s body. The display can thus be unfolded by a little short of 180 degrees.

The Acer Aspire 9303WSMi is equipped with a 17” display that has a maximum resolution of 1440x900 pixels and an aspect ratio of 16:10 (WXGA+). The viewing angles are quite wide, judging subjectively, both horizontally and vertically. The display is manufactured using Acer CrystalBrite technology that improves saturation and image quality. The only downside is the glassy coating that is going to reflect every brightly lit object behind your back. So, you have to take care about proper lighting when you sit down to work with this notebook.

We measured the brightness and contrast of the notebook’s display using a Pantone ColorVision Spyder with OptiCAL version 3.7.8 software. We selected the highest possible brightness setting before this test and it didn’t change much when the notebook switched to another power source, as you can see.

AC power source:

DC power source:

Another family trait, the Aspire 9303WSMi is equipped with a full-size black keyboard with 105 keys. It’s the same keyboard as on the Aspire 9804WKMi model. The numeric pad is placed on the right, just like on ordinary desktop keyboards, and the Num Lock key doesn’t belong with the functional buttons anymore. The Arrow keys are lowered below the keyboard’s baseline to reduce the risk of your pressing them unintentionally. There are dollar and euro sign buttons above Arrow Right and Arrow Left, respectively. The Fn button is located at the bottom left of the keyboard, next to the Ctrl key, which is in the corner. This is convenient for people who are used to shortcuts like Ctrl+C or Ctrl+V. Two Windows keys are available: the Windows Logo is over one key to the left of the spacebar and the Context Menu key is over one key to the right of the spacebar. The functional buttons are smaller than others. PgUp, PgDn, Home and End are placed in a row above the numeric pad. Print Screen, Pause, Insert and Delete are in the same row with the functional buttons (you should press them along with Fn to access their additional functions). The letters are painted in white; the functional keys are blue.

The notebook’s touchpad is painted black. The touch-sensitive panel is sunken down and is even darker than the bezel around it. Below it there are two buttons and a four-position joystick for scrolling text. The joystick is silvery, as opposed to the rest of the touchpad.

There is a block of instant-launch buttons (and the Power button) above the keyboard on the right (from left to right):

Each of the buttons can be reprogrammed using the Acer Startup Manager.

Occupying the narrow stretch on the left of the keyboard, there are the rest of system indicators and two buttons responsible for wireless connections (from top to bottom):

The notebook’s left panel offers only two components (from left to right):

The notebook’s right panel carries the following:

The following connectors are located on the notebook’s rear panel:

The Aspire 9303WSMi is equipped with a 4800mAh battery of an elongated shape, not usual for Acer notebooks.

Besides the battery module, the bottom panel offers the following: memory, HDD, mini-PCI, and PCI Express Mini Card compartments; two battery latches (one to lock the battery in its bay and another to extract it); and stickers with model information and the OS serial number.

 

There are two slots in the memory compartment, occupied with 512MB modules. The maximum amount of memory supported is 4096MB.

Configuration

As we said in the Introduction, the Acer Aspire 9303WSMi is based on a dual-core AMD Turion 64 X2 TL52 processor with a clock rate of 1.60GHz. This CPU is built on the 90nm Taylor core with two independent L2 caches, 512MB each. In all these parameters the AMD processor is inferior to Intel’s Core Duo and Core 2 Duo that are manufactured on 65nm tech process and have up to 4096MB of shared L2 cache. Like the single-core Turion 64, the Turion 64 X2 supports PowerNow! technology that allows adjusting the clock rate (by changing the frequency multiplier) and voltage of the CPU to save power. This technology also provides an additional power-saving mode called Deeper Sleep. For more information about the technical features of the AMD Turion 64 X2 processor, visit the manufacturer’s website.

Turion 64 is the general name of the whole platform, like Intel’s Napa, and this particular implementation of the Turion 64 platform also includes a wireless Nvidia nForce Networking Controller and an Nvidia GeForce Go 6100 chipset.

Nvidia’s chipsets for notebooks ensure realistic gameplay in gaming applications and support PureVideo technology for high-quality video playback. They are the first chipsets for notebooks to support Microsoft DirectX 9.0 Shader Model 3.0 and thus allow running modern 3D games with advanced visual effects. Coupled with the Nvidia nForce Go 430 MCP, the GeForce Go 6100 chipset, along with the more advanced 6150, forms an ideal solution for entry-level notebooks designed for a longest battery life possible. Here’s what the GeForce Go 6100 and 6150 have and can do:

You can learn more about the chipset on the manufacturer’s website.

The Acer Aspire 9303WSMi is equipped with one more solution from Nvidia, a GeForce Go 7600 SE graphics processor with 128 megabytes of dedicated video memory. The letters SE indicate a “value” version of the product. This 0.09-micron GPU consumes little power and supports Shader Model 3.0 together with HDR lighting. It can thus run all modern 3D games. The GPU also features Nvidia PureVideo technology for high-quality HD video playback and PowerMizer 6.0 technology for optimal power management. For more information on the Nvidia GeForce Go 7600, visit the manufacturer’s website. Here’s a brief summary of its characteristics:

The Acer Aspire 9303WSMi comes with a Hitachi HTS541612J9AT00 hard disk drive (2.5” form-factor, 5400rpm spindle rotation speed, 120GB capacity, Parallel ATA interface) and a TSST TS-L632D DVD-burner with the following speed characteristics:

CD:

DVD:

The notebook has two 512MB DDR2-533 memory modules working in dual-channel mode. The maximum amount of memory supported is 4096MB, so you’ve got some upgrade opportunities here.

We 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 22°C during this test) and got the following numbers:

The following table lists the specification of the Acer Aspire 9303WSMi in comparison with the ASUS V6J that’s going to oppose it in our tests:

Testbed and Methods

The notebook’s hard drive was formatted in NTFS before the tests. Then we installed Microsoft Windows XP Professional SP2 with DirectX 9.0c, system drivers (downloaded from the manufacturer’s website), and Windows Media Encoder 9.0 with Windows Media Player 9.0. We also installed Windows Media Player 10.0 for such tests as PCMark 2005 and SYSMark 2004 SE.

The following settings were used for the tests:

There were two exceptions: we returned to the Windows XP desktop theme for PCMark 2005 since the program required that. And for SYSMark 2004 SE to work normally, we had to roll each parameter back to its default (as they are set right after you install Windows).

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

Our tests:

  1. Performance benchmarks: synthetic (SiSoftware Sandra 2005, SiSoftware Sandra 2007, PCMark 2004 1.3.0, PCMark 2005 1.2.0), office and multimedia (SYSMark 2004 SE, Business Winstone 2004, Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004), and games (3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0, 3DMark 2006 1.0.2, Quake 3, Quake 4, Unreal Tournament 2003)
  2. Battery life tests (Battery Eater Pro 2.60)

There are three test modes in Battery Eater:

We 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) we played a DVD movie.

Performance

As usual, we will first run synthetic benchmarks.

The SiSoftware 2007 suite features an updated enhanced-functionality interface, runs on three platforms (Win32 x86, Win64 x64, WinCE ARM), contains 13 tests, 34 informational modules, and supports a large range of devices thanks to the developer’s collaboration with Intel, AMD, ATI, SiS and VIA. The program is supported in six languages and has a free Lite version for personal and educational purposes.

PCMark 2005 carries on the tradition of complex benchmarks of the series and uses fragments of real-life applications as tests. This makes it somewhat more relevant for end-users as opposed to fully synthetic benchmarks. After running a series of 11 tests on the different components of the system, the program calculates an overall performance score in units called PCMarks. PCMark 2005 can check out a computer at processing HD video and encoding audio, and offers enhanced tests of the CPU and hard disk under multi-threaded load. The overall score is calculated by the formula: PCMark Score = 87 x (the geometric mean of the basic tests), where the geometric mean is calculated as (Result 1 x Result 2 x…)/the number of results.

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

The CPU tests from SiSoftware Sandra and PCMark produce predictable results that correspond to the CPU clock rates of the notebooks. In the battery mode the Acer reduced the frequency of its Turion 64 X2 TL52 to 0.8GHz, while the ASUS lowered the frequency of its Intel Core Duo to 1GHz. Their results decreased accordingly. The Turion 64 X2’s performance diminished roughly in two times after that.

The notebooks have similar results in the disk subsystem tests because they have hard drives with similar characteristics. And then the Acer Aspire 9303WSMi wins the system memory test as it has more memory, which also works in dual-channel mode. This notebook also features a more advanced graphics subsystem and wins the appropriate test.

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 evaluates 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 following table and diagrams show the outcome of these tests:

PC Magazine ’s benchmarks put a stress on CPU performance, but the Aspire 9303WSMi has more system memory, which also works in dual-channel mode. That’s the reason why it is ahead of the ASUS V6J when both are powered from the mains. In the battery mode the CPU frequencies of the notebooks from Acer and ASUS are lowered to 0.8GHz and 1GHz, respectively, and the former notebook begins to lag behind.

SYSMark 2004 SE is intended to reveal a system’s performance under different types of load. It simulates a user who is solving practical tasks in a few popular applications. Multi-threading is taken into account. The benchmark issues a few ratings that are indicative of the system performance under different loads. SYSMark 2004 SE is mainly positioned as a tool for testing desktop systems and includes applications that are not often run on mobile computers. That’s why the results for each test load are shown separately:

The 3D Creation script simulates a user who is rendering an image into a BMP-file in 3ds max 5.1 and is also working on web-pages in Dreamweaver MX. After these operations are done, a 3D animation is created in a vector graphics format.

This benchmark is all about CPU performance, and the results of the AMD Turion 64 X2 TL52 are not high. It doesn’t have an advanced micro-architecture and its clock rate is a modest 1.6GHz. The result is two times lower when the notebook works on its battery, which is normal.

The 2D Creation script simulates a user creating a video out of a few RAW-format fragments and audio tracks in Premier 6.5. Waiting for the operation to complete, the user is also modifying an image in Photoshop 7.01 and then saves it to the hard disk. When the video clip is ready, the user edits it and adds special effects in After Effects 5.5.

This result is similar to what we’ve seen in the previous test. The Turion 64 X2 is surely less fast than the Intel Core Duo.

The next test simulates the work routines of a professional web-master. The user unzips the content of a website while using Flash MX to open an exported 3D vector graphics clip. Then the user modifies it by including more pictures and optimizes it for faster animation. The resulting clip with special effects is compressed with Windows Media Encoder 9 to be broadcast via the Internet. Next, the website is compiled in Dreamweaver MX while the system is being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0 in the background.

The Turion 64 micro-architecture clocked at 1.6GHz can’t show record-breaking performance again.

The next script simulates an ordinary user who’s receiving a letter with a .zip attachment in Outlook 2002. While the received files are being scanned for viruses with VirusScan 7.0, the user looks through his e-mail, enters some comments into the Outlook calendar, and then opens a corporate website and some documents with Internet Explorer 6.0.

This test is not directly tied to the CPU. The difference in the results depends on overall system performance and on the efficiency of power management with respect to every system component.

In the Document Creation script the user is editing text in Word 2002 and is also using Dragon NaturallySpeaking to convert an audio file into a text document. This text document is then converted into PDF format with Acrobat 5.0.5. And finally, the document is employed in a PowerPower 2002 presentation.

The results are again proportional to the CPU frequency.

The final script from SYSMark 2004 SE includes the following: the user opens a database in Access 2002 and creates a few queries. Documents are archived with WinZip 8.1. The results of the queries are exported into Excel 2002 and are used to construct a diagram.

This is almost the same picture as we’ve seen in the previous tests.

The notebooks both have discrete graphics solutions on board, so we tested them in three versions of 3DMark: 3DMark 2003 3.6.0, 3DMark 2005 1.2.0 and 3DMark 2006 1.0.2.

Compared with the previous version, 3DMark 2005 uses Shader Model 2.0x/3.0 instead of Shader Model 1.x, provides full compatibility with Shader Model 2.0, includes more complex tests (over a million polygons per each frame), and employs normal maps. 3DMark 2006 brings support for HDR, Uniform Shadow Maps, and multi-core CPUs. It is overall oriented at Shader Model 3.0, but two out of its four graphics tests work within the Shader Model 2.0 framework.

3DMark uses a set of 3D scenes rendered by its own graphics engine to load the graphics subsystem in various ways.

The weakness of the SE version of the GeForce Go 7600 SE shows up here. It is not much better than the GeForce Go 7400 (but the latter can take an additional 128 megabytes from system memory using its TurboCache technology). Performance doesn’t fall too much in the battery mode because most graphics cards from Nvidia come with rather mild power management settings, and this GeForce Go 7600 SE is not an exception.

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

And in one mode in Quake 4 :

There was no standard demo record in Quake 4 , so we had to create it by ourselves and will use it in every following review of notebooks on our site so that different notebooks could be compared under identical conditions.

The notebooks have very low results in Quake 3 , probably due to the frequency and micro-architecture of their CPUs, which are both quite important for this benchmark, and to TurboCache technology the GeForce Go 7400 has to use. In Quake 4 the results are quite high and do not decline much in the battery mode. It means that the speed of this application depends on the graphics subsystem rather than on the CPU.

Here, the graphics subsystem and the CPU of the Aspire 9303WSMi both contribute to the end result. The final graphics test agrees with the previous ones: notwithstanding its modest components, the Acer Aspire 9303WSMi can be used as a gaming notebook with good enough performance.

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 Turion 64 platform consumes more power than the Napa in the Classic mode, although they are equals in the Reader’s mode. Well, two hours with something under high load is quite a good result for this modestly priced Turion 64-based solution.

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

Conclusion

Of course, this notebook is not absolutely perfect. There is always something you can be unhappy about, after all. So, it’s all about the price-quality-performance ratio. The Acer Aspire 9303WSMi is an inexpensive notebook, but offers good performance and a rather long battery life. Acer took some risks installing the AMD Turion 64 X2 processor into this model, but that was right. AMD’s dual-core solution is quite competitive against its direct rival from Intel, the minor difference in power consumption and performance being compensated by AMD’s price policy. It’s now up to you to agree with Acer’s choice or not!

Highs:

Lows: