Based in Taiwan, Acer ranks among the world's top five branded PC vendors selling a broad spectrum of products, including desktops, monitors, and notebooks. In Europe, Acer commands the notebook market, ranked as the number 1 brand in 2004. Brand recognition in the U.S. market has not reached such ranks, but Acer is certainly on track. As one of the first notebooks to utilize Intel's third-generation Centrino platform ' Sonoma ', the Acer Travelmate 8100 series is designed to impress. Business pros, home users, and even the average gamer will appreciate its sleek design, functionality, and cutting-edge technology. Composed of Acer's Folio design theme, the Travelmate 8100 series is aesthetically stunning, consisting of smooth curves around the edges and leather-like surface constructed of metallic gray graphite polycarbonate, exemplifying elegance and originality.
Inside, the Acer Travelmate 8103 is filled with a robust set of features, including the Pentium M 750 (1.86 GHz with 533 MHz bus) , that runs on the Intel 915PM chipset completed with an Intel dual-band tri-mode 802.11a/b/g wireless LAN solution. Other prominent features include a widescreen 15.4-inch with 1680 x 1050 resolution, modular DVD + RW drive, 100GB storage capacity, 512MB DDR2 533 RAM, and Bluetooth wireless. Users can opt to the more faster but more expensive Acer Travelmate 8104 model, which offers a Pentium M 760 (2.0 GHz Dothan) and 1GB DDR2 533 SDRAM. Avid gamers will be satisfied with the performance from the mid-range ATI MOBILITY RADEON X700 graphics with 128MB DDR VRAM. Although the Acer Travelmate 8103 possesses some desktop alternative characteristics, it measures only 1.2 inches thin and weighs 6.3 pounds with its 8-cell battery. While not the most ideal computer for intensive travel, it's still a well-balanced machine suited for moderate toting and actually more portable than other notebooks in the same class. Business professionals will like the smart card access, providing extra security from unauthorized access. For around $1900 the almost perfect Acer Travelmate 8103 is an attractive package: it's powerful, combines a myriad of functions, and is just darn sexy. The matte display could be better, because even the high resolution doesn't make up for the lack of a transreflective screen.
Although the Acer Travelmate 8100 possesses some similar attributes to a desktop alternative notebook, this is a performance laptop that won't break your back. Measuring 14.3-inches wide, 10.5-inches long and only 1.2-inches thick at the front section and extending 1.4-inches thick towards the back, the Travelmate 8103 is ideal for large sized cases and backpacks. I had difficulty slipping this computer in most of the mid-sized carrying cases, but I found the lightweight Samsonite L35 carrying case to be the perfect companion. I even managed to squeeze the computer on my flight to Europe with just enough room to be used on the reclining table attached to the seat in front of me in economy coach. At 6.3 pounds with the 8-cell battery, the Travelmate 8103 is not intended to accompany you everywhere you go, but rather suited for occasional travel. Unlike the Fujitsu N3510, which weighs a pound more and is .4-inches thicker, the Travelmate 8103 is a well-balanced machine that is feasible for travel while offering a spacious viewing area. The thought of being able to watch a DVD movie on such a large display anywhere I go makes it more appealing to take out and about, where typically laptops with a screen of this caliber are made to be used on the desk and nowhere else.
Case and Design
Acer put together an aesthetically impressive notebook that illustrates originality and style. The instant appeal of the Travelmate 8100 lies in its Folio design theme, which is Acers name for its unique design found in a number of their laptops. The two tone inverted color scheme keeps it clean and simple, with metallic graphite gray constructed from polycarbonate plastic (which is the same material found in bullet-proof glass) wrapping around from the top lid and bottom chassis to the surface around the palm rest and keyboard area, while matte black trim covers around the screen and extends to the sides. The polycarbonate plastic chassis gives the computer extra durability and a more solid build than notebooks with basic plastic. The edges are curvaceous and the clean surface is smooth, resembling the leather-like texture found in a portfolio that gives off a touch of elegance and refines the Travelmate 8100.
Sleek and durable chassis gives it an original style.
Similar to the rest of the Folio series, the shiny metallic Acer logo is emblazoned on the top right of the lid.
Two stiff hinges hold the LCD panel together, located near each corner of the display. The LCD panel contains dual latches that assist in keeping the lid securely closed, preventing any type of movement when shuffling the laptop around. When shut, the screen hovers slightly over the keyboard and palm rest area reinforced by eight rubber pads to prevent the screen from touching the keyboard and wrist area.
There are two sets of status indicators found on the computer, the first is located on the upper-left corner above the keyboard (below the display screen) and the second set is on the front of the computer. The upper-left corner below the display contains indicators for power (power button), hard disk, caps lock, and num lock. All indicators emit a green glow when activated.
Conveniently located on the front panel are a set of highly useful indicator lights which provide a quick glance at the power, battery charge, Bluetooth, and Wireless LAN. Both the power and battery status indicators emit a green glow when active (or amber for the battery when it's charging) while the Bluetooth and Wireless LAN buttons light up a dazzling blue and amber glow, respectively. The Bluetooth and Wireless LAN are buttons used to enable or disable its associated function.
The line-out with SPDIF support emits a red glow.
Located on the upper right hand corner are four launch keys to instantly launch your frequently used applications. Each button has symbols designated for Email, web browser, Acer eManager, and a user programmable option. The Email button is used to launch your E-mail client, such as Microsoft's Outlook; however it is also user programmable to designate other applications. The web browser key is used to launch your favorite web browser, but is also user programmable. The Acer Empowering key ('e' symbol) is used to launch the Acer eManager application (more on this in the software section). Lastly the user programmable button is available for you to assign your favorite application via the Launch Manager software. Unfortunately there are no multimedia hot keys despite the available room around the top section of the keyboard.
The black, full-sized 88-key ergonomic keyboard contains all the essential keys, particularly the Windows and Ctrl keys at the bottom left of the keyboard, where normally some laptops contain only the Fn key. The PgDn, PgUp, Home and End cursor keys are also present and are placed vertically on the right side of the keyboard. The Caps Lock, Shift, Alt, Tab, Backspace, and Enter keys are of appropriate size. Like most laptop keyboards, the numeric keypad is embedded within the keys located near the center of the keyboard and is activated with the num lock key. In addition, there are function keys to adjust the audio volume, alter the screen brightness, put the system to sleep, disable or enable touchpad, and for switching to an external monitor when connected. When toggling one of these function keys, such as the audio for example, it will activate an on-screen volume indicator. This helps you identify exactly which volume settings you want to select. The on-screen indicator applies to other function access as well with the exception to the screen brightness, which is not available.
With respect to usage, the 'Acer FineTouch' keyboard offers decent key travel distance and excellent response. You will notice from the picture the keyboard employs a five-degree curve for a more ergonomic placement, which I find neither an advantage nor disadvantage compared to the straight-laced arrangement keyboards. Some users may need to be accustomed to this unusual layout while others will pick it up immediately. With that note, I can type quickly, accurately, and comfortably with this keyboard. The keys are soft and feel light when depressing them (not as stiff as the ThinkPad T42 but not as soft as the PowerBooks) with a minimal spring to it, allowing it to be quite responsive and exhibiting little noise. The keys depress at a comfortable 2.5mm of depth which feels good to type with. The keyboard is centered nicely with 1.2-inches of room on each side due to the laptop's wide design and there is sufficient room around the palm rest area to ensure a comfortable typing experience on your wrists. This is certainly a solid keyboard that comes close in comparison to the likes of the IBM ThinkPads and even Apple Powerbooks.
To match the laptop's overall wide-aspect design the touchpad is also wide, offering sufficient amount of surface area, measuring 3-inches wide and 1.5-inches in length to comfortably glide your finger. Like the palm rest area, the black flush surface is clean and smooth, accurately sensitive to touch and responds well to movement. As with most touch pads, it also allows for tapping to execute an action if you prefer not to use the click buttons. To the right and bottom edge of the surface area, the touchpad has a function to scroll vertically or horizontally. This allows you to scroll in applications like Internet Explorer when sliding your finger in the appropriate direction. For added convenience, there is a useful center click button that serves as a four-way scroll button to scroll up or down and move left or right within a page. The left and right click buttons are also brushed in gray metallic to match the entire wrist area.
Thanks to its wide frame, the Travelmate 8103 is loaded with a multitude of connectivity options, surrounding all sides of the computer. Since the cables are spread out on all sides of the machine, there are no protruding parts that can accidentally break off during transit and helps reduce cable clutter. The computer offers a whopping four USB 2.0 ports instead of the common two ports found in most laptops. For users that prefer to connect their laptop to an external monitor, television or projector, the Travelmate 8103 supplies all available video outputs, including DVI-D, VGA, and S-Video. DVI is an option not commonly found in your average consumer notebooks. This is a must for anyone planning to use an LCD monitor or digital projector.
DVI-D & S-Video
On the front panel, you'll immediately notice the left and right speaker grilles made up of tiny hole-punches that gives the notebook a very distinctive look. The 5-in-1 card reader is capable of reading SD, MMC, Memory Stick, Memory Stick PRO, and xD-Picture cards, allowing to transfer files from a majority of digital cameras. Next to the 5-in-1 card reader slot is a built-in mono microphone that is stationed inside a tiny hole-punch. An Infrared port is available for short range wireless IR devices such as PDAs and printers. The Speaker/Line-out/Headphone jack connects to audio line-out devices such as speakers and headphones and has SPDIF support. Next to it is the Line-in/Mic-in port that accepts microphones, and line-in devices like an audio CD player. As mentioned in the preceding section, there are two backlit buttons for activating Bluetooth and Wireless LAN and to disable them when not in use to conserve battery.
On the rear, there is a DVI-D port that supports digital video connections like modern LCD flat panel monitors. There is also the requisite S-Video port to connect to a television or display device with S-Video input. Lastly we have the huge 124-pin Acer ezDock connector that connects to the Acer ezDocking station for expandability.
The battery pack fits nicely without protruding and is made to offer hand grip when carrying the notebook.
On the left-side: VGA port, ventilation slots, Ethernet 10/100/1000 jack, phone port, one of the four USB 2.0 port, IEEE 1394 FireWire port, Smart Card slot (more on this in the features section of this review) and PC Card slot. Although the Acer Travelmate 8100 is based on the new Intel Centrino ' Sonoma ' platform, it does not include the new ExpressCard format. The IEEE 1394 FireWire port is similar to Sony's S400, which is a six-pin port that provides power to the device.
On the right-side: the remaining three USB 2.0 ports are found positioned horizontally, the Super-Multi DVD+/-RW drive that is hot swappable, power connector and security keylock to connect a Kensington-compatible security lock.
Heat and Noise
Components such as the hard drive and the cooling fan are responsible for generating noise in a laptop. Fortunately, the cooling fan (located on the bottom section) operates quietly during moderate use; however it does remain spinning regardless if the processor throttles down. During general use, like web browsing, E-mail, word processing and with the AC power plugged in, the fan continuously spins but does not emit any pitching or whining noise. With the system plugged in the AC power and during heavier use, such as playing games or using it for extended periods, noise generated from the fan is substantially more noticeable since it spins faster but it is still tolerable. Thankfully, the cooling fan settles down for a bit when running the laptop off the battery for a virtually quiet operation. The fan re-activates again within 5-10 minutes depending on usage but it does not generate as loud as if the system was plugged in the AC power. Mobile meter reported the computer to run around 46-55 degrees Celsius varying on processor clock speed. With the ventilation slots located on the left-side, heat build up is minimal. The system becomes warm, but never reaching discomfort levels. In some areas, like the touchpad and palm rest can become lukewarm. The bottom of the case however can get quite warm during extensive use, but never reaching hot levels like the Fujitsu N3510.
Upgrading and Expansion
Upgrading the Acer Travelmate 8100 is fairly simple, thanks to the accessible compartments located on the bottom side which include the Wi-Fi mini-PCI adapter, memory, and hard drive. There is one RAM module pre-installed in the computer, which is a 512MB stick of 533MHz (PC2-4200) DDR2 made by Micron. CAS latency is rated 4-4-4-12. Upgradeable to 2GB of DDR2, the Travelmate 8100 also has dual-channel memory support. Replacing the hard drive is also incredibly simple with the removal of the hard drive access panel. The AcerMedia Bay that currently houses the optical drive module , allows the option to swap another drive bay, such as secondary battery or hard disc drive. Simply release the latch located at the bottom to detach the optical drive. Although the Travelmate 8100 series contains a wide-array of connectivity options, the optional Acer ezDock is available to transform the notebook to a true desktop computer, with extra connectivity options.
The optical drive bay can be swapped out for another drive bay.
Using the fundamental components of a modern Centrino notebook, the Acer Travelmate 8103 is powered by the new mid-range Pentium M 750 processor clocked at 1.86 GHz and the Intel 915PM Express chipset (code-named Alviso). Compared to the previous generation Dothan models, the new CPU's front side bus, which controls the speed of data flow between memory and CPU, jumps from 400 MHz to 533 MHz; a 33% increase. This also raises the peak bandwidth of the CPU to 4.2 GB/second. The Sonoma platform supports 533MHz DDR2, but a lot of manufacturers choose to use 400MHz DDR2 to save money. It is good to see Acer joining Asus, IBM, and a few others in using the higher speed RAM. Systems in general perform better when the memory and FSB clock speeds are the same. As mentioned in the preceding section, the Travelmate 8103 comes with a single stick of DDR2-SDRAM modules rated at 533MHz (PC2-4200) with a max theoretical bandwidth of 4.2 GB per second. It should also be mentioned that DDR2 modules consumes less power, thus conserving battery life and minimizing heat since they're rated at 1.8 volts, which is about 30% lower than that of regular DDR.