Acer TravelMate 8100
At a Glance
Acer TravelMate 8100
Chic and pricey wide-screen model has a DVI port and a five-in-one media card reader.
Wider screen. Sleeker case. Easier upgrades. The Acer TravelMate 8100 offers several advantages over its predecessor, last year's impressive TravelMate 8000, which the company is still selling. The 8100 weighs about the same--6.4 pounds including an integrated DVD burner--yet boasts an impressively large 15.4-inch wide-aspect screen for working on documents side by side more easily. (The native 1680-by-1050-pixel resolution renders screen elements slightly small but crisp and perfectly readable.)
The unit slopes to a slim 1.3 inches in front, and the lower case is slightly deeper than the closed screen to protect it from bumps and to leave exposed the front ports. Those connections include microphone and headphone jacks in addition to a five-in-one card reader and handy Bluetooth and Wi-Fi buttons that both control wireless communications and serve as glowing status indicators. Three of the four USB 2.0 ports now sit on the right side of the case instead of the left, a welcome change for right-handed folks like me.
The 8100 is fully user upgradable: You can access both RAM slots, and although the hard drive does not slide out of the side (as it does on the 8000), it's still easy to reach in a compartment on the bottom. Also, the 8100's battery pops off the rear, not out of a bottom bay--another small improvement.
The 8100 isn't superior to the 8000 in every way: For example, its battery life was actually slightly lower than that of its older sibling: The 8100 lasted a little over 4 hours on one charge in our tests, about a half hour shorter than the TravelMate 8000 we tested last year. Still, that's well above average.
On our test bench, the 8100 performed well, doing better than its sibling. It pulled down a WorldBench 5 score of 94 (compared with the 8000's score of 89), about what I would expect from a 2-GHz Pentium M 760-equipped laptop loaded with 1GB of RAM. (A Toshiba Port
Although Acer advertises the 8100 as its mainstream laptop, it's loaded, with a capital L. It has a removable right-side double-layer DVD burner that swaps out for a second hard drive or a second battery, it has a FireWire port, and it offers three ways to connect an external monitor (via VGA, S-Video, and DVI-D). Those who prefer key cards to fingerprint readers for thwarting break-ins at the BIOS, password, and file levels will appreciate the 8100's smart card slot, stacked atop a standard PC Card slot on the left side of the case. You get two cards with your purchase, including one that can be set up as a one-time-use emergency card. (After that, you have to return the laptop to a dealer for resetting, which is one reason I slightly favor a biometric security solution.)
The TravelMate's ergonomic keyboard curves 5 degrees upward on the ends so you end up positioning your elbows in a way that experts say helps prevent carpal tunnel syndrome. It's an acquired taste. Besides that, I like everything else about the keyboard, including its short, hard 2.7-millimeter key depression (rather than the standard 3mm) and handy set of four user-programmable shortcut buttons.
Acer includes some nice software extras. For instance, the proprietary power management utility makes it extremely easy to specify customized power schemes, including whether the FireWire port and wireless scanning are enabled. Acer's GridVista, based on Dritek System's utility for dragging and dropping applications into preset windows on the extrawide screen, looked worthwhile, but I couldn't get it to work on our unit.
The only area in which the 8100 stumbles is entertainment. Letterboxed DVD movies looked fine on the wide-aspect screen, but sound from the front-mounted stereo speakers was too faint. Hardware volume control is limited to annoying combination keystrokes. Looking up information in the user manuals could be simpler, too. The Acrobat manual preinstalled on the hard drive is more detailed than the basic printed manual, but it has no index. At first, I thought that it also lacked a contents page, but that page simply turned out not to be bookmarked.
Except for slightly shorter battery life, the TravelMate 8100 is a better machine than the 8000, which translates into sleek, powerful, well-equipped portable computing for a commensurate $2299.