Wednesday, 26 November 2008

I've been using the Acer Advent 4211 for a couple of months now and it's time to see if this little subnotebook is worth the money.
Acer Advent 4211
It's common knowledge that this is the exact same hardware as the MSI Wind U100 but in the UK the Dixons Sales Group (which includes PC World outlets) have lowered the retail price from £350 rrp for the MSI badged version to £279 rrp. I got lucky on a managers deal and managed to buy mine for £218.
So what did I get for my money ? A decent subnote with a 10" screen, 1GB RAM, 80GB hard drive (NOT flash), an Atom N270 CPU and a workable keyboard. There's much to love about this little critter. The CPU proved suprisingly efficient at crunching and rendering videos, the most CPU intensive task I do on a regular basis. The display is crisp and the backlight powerful, it's very light and its small formfactor makes it emminently portable, I could almost fit this into a large coat pocket, almost but not quite. The battery life is decent too, I've gotten two and a half hours out of it before now and I wasn't going easy on it either.
It's a tricky little machine though. The memory, drive space, keyboard and the supplied O/S (Win XP) often fool you into thinking you've got a fullblown laptop on your hands, but you keep banging into various brickwalls that remind you that this is a subnote at the end of the day. There's no optical drive, okay I can live without that but it has presented a few challenges in the past two months. There's only three USB ports which are often filled with an MP3 device, a memory stick and an external mouse. The big bugbear for me though was the display, and it's my own stupid fault. The screen's max resolution is 1024x600, it's mentioned in just about every place that reviews this machine but I kinda overlooked it. It's a handicap of unexpected signifigance.
A lot of my favourite apps and games (I know it's not a gaming rig but I figured turn based strategy games should be okay) won't run on this non-standard resolution, expecting 1024x768 as a minimum. I can bump up the rez on the graphics card to that no problem, but the screen itself won't run higher than 1024x600 which means I've got to drag the desktop around the viewing area to run these apps. Of course it makes gameplaying a huge hassle unless I can find something that'll run at 800x600 and say hello to 1995 again.
So why is the screen so small ? Take a look at the picture above, see that round dot in the middle of the top bezel ? That's a webcam, not a very good one either, but I reckon housing that crappy little camera caused a designer to shrink the screen size to accomodate it. That's my missing 168 pixels right there, that's what stopping this machine running at a standard resolution.
There's a few other gripes too; it runs pretty hot at times, the cooling fans take care of it but why would they kick in when I'm just browsing a single static web page in Firefox ? There's nothing exotic or power hungry running in the backround, indexing's been disabled as has system restore and yet the fans they do still whir and whizz.
The speaker output is incredibly puny, even with a battery powered external speaker you can struggle to catch all the dialogue from a TV show or movie. The keyboard controls for the speaker volume act oddly, when there's no AV apps running they'll control the system volume, but fire up Media Player Classic or (god forbid) WMP and they'll adjust the applications volume, not the systems. Odd and annoying.
It's a subnote so maybe I shouldn't bitch about this, but the only way to use Pg Up / Down, Home and End functions is by holding down the Fn key along with the appropriate arrow keys. It results in some quite contorted finger gymnastics when browsiing or editing, SHIFT-CTRL-END becomes Fn-SHIFT-CTRL-END as an example.
The 4211 comes with 1GB RAM on board and a single memory expansion slot, it only supports a max of 2GB RAM and in order to fit an upgrade you have to remove the entire backplate, which according to Acer invalidates your warranty. In their defense though, I've read a few blogs where customers have had to do this, something's gone pear shaped and they've had to return the unit to Acer, who to their credit haven't been anal about it.

Pros & Cons time

Very light and small form factor, ideal travelling companion in that respect
Decent battery life
Reasonable keyboard
80GB drive and 1GB RAM
Bright and crisp display
CPU performance well above expectations

Lousy screen resolution, apparently sacrificed in favour of a VGA webcam.....
Runs a litte hot
Needs a couple more USB ports
Pathetic speakers
Touchpad is overly sensitive at default settings