Product Type: Acer laptops
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Not bad for an old-timer, but...
Acer Travelmate 8204WLMi
Member Name: grahamt
Acer Travelmate 8204WLMi
Advantages: Great screen ; excellent performance ; comprehensive facilities
Disadvantages: Expensive ; poor reliability ; some poorly thought-out design features
I was very much in two minds as to whether or not to bother to write a review of this machine as it is now no longer a current Acer model. However, it is the one I have been using for well over two years and you can still pick them up on places like eBay. Based on my experiences you can decide for yourself whether you want to.
When I bought the TravelMate I was still working in my former job as a Computer Consultant with a very large American software company. As a part of my job I had a laptop provided (Toshiba M100) and generally I used it both for work and, at home, for personal use. It was quite an old model even then and with just a 1.0Ghz Intel processor and 512Mbs of RAM, it wasn't exactly greased lightning. As I had decided that I would seriously consider retiring early I set out to get myself a laptop that would keep me happy in my old age!
It was about this time that the new Vista Windows operating system was starting to emerge so, whilst I had no particular intention to leap into the deep end there, I did at least want a model with a high enough specification that it could run Vista if I chose to adopt it. So, with various computer magazines at my elbow and the vastness of the Internet below my fingers I started the search for the "perfect machine". Eventually I settled in the Acer TravelMate 8204WLMi, and this is why.
Firstly, the TravelMate was not a cheap machine. At just over £1,700 pounds it was definitely top-of-the-range, in spec and in price. It was a price I was prepared to pay for a machine that was hopefully going to deliver top performance for more than just a couple of years. Most machines are out-of-date very quickly and unable to run new software. I can say that so far it has lived up to expectations on that front.
It was also at this time that Intel first started releasing the new Dual Core processors that promised superior performance, especially in multi-tasking so my first choice of features was a machine that offered such a processor. The TravelMate has the T2500 2.0Ghz Dual Core processor and it still seems, even today, to deliver good performance even when running as many applications concurrently as I do. The Frontside Bus (FSB) runs at 667Mhz and there is 2MB of L2 cache.
My System Tray is stuffed full of tasks sitting there doing everything under the sun. You will probably have gathered this from the various software reviews I have written. At no time does the machine stutter or freeze.
Next I wanted a machine with good graphics performance. I'm not a gamer so great gaming action performance is not important to me. However, I did plan to use it as a multi-media machine and good DVD and video performance was important. The TravelMate has a superb 15.4" WSXGA+ widescreen monitor which enables screen resolutions up to 1680x1050, which is what I have been running at since day one. The picture quality is unparalleled and even small type faces are easily readable.
The screen is driven by the ubiquitous ATI Mobility Radeon X1600, which has 256MBs of on-board memory and which also shares up to 256MBs of system memory. The X1600 seems to be a competent performer although I haven't, as I said, tried it on any action games.
If there is a criticism it is that the screen surface is quite shiny, which makes it somewhat difficult to read in strong light situations, such as outdoors. The back-lighting brightness is controllable, especially so as to reduce battery load when running unplugged.
In addition to the built-in screen, on the back of the machine there is also a DVI output socket for accessing the screen via a monitor or the TV. There is also an S-Video socket although through this output the screen resolution is limited to 1024x768 pixels. Just around the corner at the top of the right-hand side there is also a standard 15 pin D socket for standard external monitor leads. I have never used the machine with an external monitor but resolutions up to 2048x1536 are supported.
I wanted a machine with a decent amount of memory. Although the CPU speed has a large influence on the performance of a machine, the amount of memory is of even greater significance. The TravelMate comes with 2GBs of DDR2 memory, supporting dual-channeling, as standard. This was definitely the top end of specifications three years ago and should assure a certain future-proofing.
The hard drive is a Toshiba 120GBs SATA drive, spinning at a fairly standard 5,400rpm. As delivered it is partitioned into a 53GBs C drive containing the Windows system and a 53 GBs D drive for data. That suits me as I always keep my data separate from the system so that if I lose the system and have to reinstall, I don't lose the data with it. Each is configured FAT32 rather than NTFS. I haven't bothered to reconfigure either.
So, where did the rest go? Well, Acer deliver their machine pretty much as most manufacturers do, without Windows installation CDs. Reinstalling the system is done from a hidden partition and this is where the rest of the 120GBs of disk space disappears. I have had to reinstall the systems twice, once from the CD that Acer recommend you cut in order to use for recovery should the system get so corrupted that it will not even boot, and once from the recovery system that you run once you have logged on to Windows. Both approaches worked perfectly.
The machine has a CD/DVD Reader/Writer capable of supporting double layer disks. The drive works perfectly well and I have not had any problems reading or writing disks or just about any format. It is manufactured by Matshita. Write speed seems perfectly adequate.
Other ports on the machine include 4 USB 2.0 ports. Two of these are located above each other on the left-hand side towards the back. These two ports are adequate so long as no devices of greater than normal thickness are attached, otherwise they get in each in others way. The other two USB ports are very inconveniently located, if you are right-handed and want to use a regular mouse. They are situated on the right, just in the middle, exactly where they would get in the way of an external mouse. This is probably the worst design feature of the machine.
The machine has a Touchpad built into the front of the keyboard. I admit I'm not a fan of these devices and always use an external mouse wherever possible. However, it is adequate and operates as expected from these devices, with the addition of a 4-way scroll button between the right and left buttons, which mimics the operation of the up/down/left/right cursor keys on the keyboard.
The machine has both wired and wireless Ethernet networking capabilities. The wired network card supports Gigabit network speeds but I cannot comment on the capability of the Gigabit capacity as my network is all wired with Cat5e cabling rather than Cat6 and all of the network switches, routers and network attached storage devices only support up to 100 Base-T data rates.
The wireless networking supports 802.11a, b and g data rates. I have used it successfully with my TrendNet broadband router although my preference is for wired networking wherever possible. Wireless security up to WPA2 is supported. I only use WPA as that is the maximum supported by my router.
The machine also supports Bluetooth 2.0+EDR and I have used this successfully in order to communicate with my Nokia 6288 mobile phone. Also provided with the machine is a Bluetooth Handset for use with application such as Voice over IP. This neat little device is just larger than a PCMCIA card and plugs into the PCMCIA slot for recharging. However, it is somewhat less than successful as the built-in rechargeable battery is not very good and it wasn't too long before it refused to hold any sort of decent charge. I use a plug in headset instead now.
Just below the PCMCIA slot there is also an ExpressCard/34 slot. I haven't yet used this but I am planning to get the ExpressCard version of the Yoggie Pico Gatekeeper security device and this will then fit here.
The TravelMate also has a card slot at the front which will accept SD, xD and Memory Stick cards. This is good as I can plug the card out of my digital camera directly into the laptop and extract the pictures without having to connect it by cable.
One of the other features I wanted was a built-in webcam. The TravelMate has one of these in the frame above the screen. It's only a 1.3mp device but it's quite adequate. It is housed in a swiveling mounting which enables the camera to focus on subjects in front of or behind the machine.
The sound is supplied via a Realtex HD system and two fairly small speakers on the front edge of the machine. It would be fair to say that the sound quality is adequate. Alternatively, sound output and input can be achieved via a line S/PDIF socket or via Mic and Headphone sockets.
Lastly, one unusual feature is the built-in security. On the right-hand side of the machine is a Smartcard reader. This is provided so that a security smart card supplied with the machine can be used to secure it against unauthorised use. Without the card in place the machine simply will not work. So, so long as you remove the card from the machine when not in use, no one else can use it.
The battery demonstrates less than impressive performance. Although the machine has energy saving features when running on battery, less than two hours can be expected with normal usage. Mostly I use it with the mains adapter, where I use everything turned up to maximum.
So, what has the TravelMate been like to use?
I am using it with WindowsXP Pro SP3 and it is has performed entirely satisfactorily, when it's been working. That's the main issue. I haven't found the machine to be totally reliable and I bless the day that I decided to take out the 3 year extended Acer Advantage warranty for just under £100. It has delivered full value for money.
The first problem I noticed was that the webcam stuttered badly. The video stream would halt and jump, almost as though it was only operating at a very low frame rate. I didn't do anything about it immediately as I wasn't using video conferencing a lot. On capturing individual pictures though, it worked OK.
In also noticed that the sound level output to the speakers and especially to the headphone socket wasn't very high. I suspect that this is "as designed" rather than an actual fault It's something the TravelMate has in common with other machines I have used.
Apart from this though, the machine has performed well. Response is good and the only time it can hang is when it is waiting for network activity to complete, a characteristic that is shared by most machines. The display screen is one of the best I've seen on any machine. The keyboard layout is a bit unusual though and you may find keys are not where you expect them to be. However, it doesn't take long to get used to it.
The first real problem I had with it was after about two years. At the time I was trying to upgrade WindowsXP from SP2 to SP3. All sorts of weird things started happening and they did seem to be symptomatic of some sort of software corruption. Eventually I tried reinstalling the system and things then went from bad to worse. I contacted Acer and they suggested sending the machine back to them. This I did under warranty and they sent it back with a complete new motherboard! I wasn't expecting that but at least it hadn't cost me anything.
I was then able to reinstall the system and recover my backups and get the machine back into use again. Everything seemed back to normal. Then, a couple of months later, with a screeching and clattering sound, the hard drive failed. The machine wouldn't even boot. Once again it went back to Acer under warranty and this time I also told them about the problems with the webcam.
Once again the machine came back, with a new hard drive and this time a new webcam as well. This time I needed not only to reinstall the system but also restore my data drive (D:) from backup. Fortunately I keep all my data backed up in real-time so I had lost nothing when the hard drive failed. Again, the repairs had cost me nothing.
Since then, so far everything seems to be OK. The machine is working as good as new. In general I have been satisfied with it and it has delivered all the functionality I need. It isn't perfect, not by a long way. Some of the design features are badly thought out. It was also, at the time, quite expensive. Similar specification machines can now be obtained for a fifth of the price but then I've now had nearly three years use out of the TravelMate so I suppose I can't complain. I certainly don't have any plans to replace it, not until the warranty runs out that is.
I would have complete confidence in it being capable of supporting Windows Vista or Windows 8, as and when it is delivered so I suppose it has demonstrated it's ability to defy the aging process better than most.
However, the reliability has been poor and had I not had the foresight to buy the Acer Advantage extended warranty I would probably now be tearing my hair out.
Not that I have much to tear out you understand!
Summary: A fully featured laptop let down by poor reliability
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