Review: Acer Aspire 5733Z

Last Saturday I bought a new laptop, a purchase made necessary by the fact that my old laptop had given up the ghost after just over four years. I had been using that for a mixture of web browsing, blogging and software development, with the occasional bit of Word document writing. I had replaced the hard drive after a drop on the floor corrupted part of the old one (which was after bigger drives had become cheaper and before the Thai floods made them much more expensive) and, only a few months ago, upgraded Windows from Vista to 7, which has proved to be an enormous waste of money given how short a time the computer lasted afterwards. I like having a laptop because it means I can sit downstairs with my family and use the computer at the same time, rather than sitting on my own in my room for that purpose, but I also wanted a new laptop because I plan to sell my Dell mini-tower, which is the only other computer I have which runs Windows, and I need Windows not only to run software which isn’t available for the Mac or Linux, but also to produce packages of QTM for distribution. The laptop I bought was the Acer Aspire 5733Z, which I bought from PC World (the same company as Curry’s).

The laptop cost £309, which is a web-exclusive price at PC World (the in-store price is £319), but you can reserve it and pick it up at the local PC World shop. Although an old price doesn’t appear on the website anymore, there are similar units which cost a bit more and had been reduced by £150-£200 from a few months ago. I had been planning to buy an Advent with a similar specification (indeed, more memory — 8Gb rather than this computer’s 6Gb), but I needed to be able to use the wifi with Linux and a look online about the Linux usability of that computer’s wifi revealed that you could just about get it to work by jumping through all manner of hoops. Furthermore, with some computers from PC World, you only know what chipset it has by going into the shop and looking on the Windows control panel. However, the website tells you what chipset this one has — the Acer InviLink Nplify — and a Google search reveals that you could get it to work by using the Ubuntu “additional drivers” program. These details should be available in the specification — after all, they are meant to be factual technical specifications rather than part of a sales pitch.

It does, of course, come with Windows 7 and getting that set up took only a few minutes. It also comes with a lot of promotional “freebies” including a limited version of McAfee’s anti-virus. I should add that the PC World salesman tried to get me to sign up for a whole load of other things while processing my payment, including a “club” which costs £10 a month (if I could afford that, I would not have been buying such a cheap laptop!) and some kind of cloud data storage. This was pretty annoying as all I had come to do was get my laptop, pay for it and go home and I had read about the available extra warranties and so on online and had not chosen any of them. What is not so quick is getting Windows set up for development: there is still no repository of open-source development software for Windows of the sort that exists for every Linux distribution (though even the repository that used to exist for the Mac has stopped producing binaries). So, to set up a Qt development environment for Windows, you have to download the Qt libraries, CMake, Nullsoft Installer, MinGW, Vim and Cygwin (for Mercurial or Git and SSH) separately. On Linux, you could do all that with one or two commands in the terminal.

Later on in the day, I got down to installing Ubuntu and was pleasantly surprised to find that you didn’t need the additional drivers to get the wifi to work — it just does, even in the live CD. I had been using Ubuntu’s Precise Pangolin (12.04) release since beta stage on my Mac mini and, as with previous releases, had not stuck with the Unity environment which is standard on Ubuntu because it does not suit a narrower screen such as the one on my desktop (because the “launcher” or dock takes a vertical strip at the side and thus narrows the screen), but on a wide screen such as is standard on laptops, it works fine and so far, I have not looked at other options such as Cinnamon, GNOME Shell or KDE. I find that applications are not as easy to find on Unity as on other Unix desktop environments; I miss having the menu structure, but you can search for them although you have to know what to search for (the name of the program is your best bet, rather than any descriptive term, like ‘web’ for a web browser — that brings up Firefox, but not Chrome). Some of the bugs that affected earlier versions of Unity, such as crippling the system tray so that only certain apps could use it, and showing multiple launcher icons if an application opened more than one window, have been squashed. It’s a much more mature environment than it was at the previous release.

There are two issues I have with the hardware itself. One is the keyboard, which is a rather noisy affair with a separate numeric keypad — it seems this is now standard (it wasn’t when I got my Dell in 2006) and it means the main keypad, where you do most typing, is off-centre. The trackpad is centred on the alphabetic part of the keyboard, which means it, too, is off-centre. I have hardly ever used the numeric keypad on the desktop computer and although you could use the “Fn” button to use part of the main keyboard as a numeric keyboard, I never did on the Dell. There are much larger gaps between the keys than on the Dell, presumably to make it easier to shake crumbs out. The second is that the monitor is not very well calibrated, a common problem with flat screens (which, of course, includes all laptops) where the graphics card has VGA rather than DVI output (I’ve never had this problem when I use a machine with a DVI output). That was a problem I first noticed with my Dell monitor on my Mac a few years ago, and the most noticeable sign was that some subtle colour distinctions were invisible and greys showed as a kind of dusty pink. This monitor is not as bad as that, but the grey-as-pink problem is still there and the cheapest calibration tool costs about £50 (the Pantone Huey Pro); the Windows calibration tool doesn’t do much good. Probably many people don’t notice or just accept the limitations, but it reduces my enjoyment of my computer especially as I know the display could be better. This really should be taken care of before the machine is distributed, but they should also stop using VGA graphics chips as they just don’t work well with flat panel screens.

So, in general, I’d recommend this machine if you need an inexpensive laptop, although I don’t know how long the deal lasts for — the memory and hard drive are great for a laptop, but if I had to pay £500, I’d want a better screen and a normal laptop keyboard in a smaller case. I have heard people say the speakers are not that good, but I have my own speakers in case I want to use it for watching videos or anything that needs sound, and external speakers are inexpensive. I would recommend looking in your local computer stores, if you live in a big town, rather than on the Dell website, because you can get machines with better specification (such as memory and hard drive) for the same price from PC World than from Dell right now.

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