The inherent give and take of choosing a new laptop, especially when constrained by a budget, is no fun. With the notebook market increasingly centering around the 13-inch mark, those who need or want a larger display are increasingly getting hung out to dry.
With that in mind, the latest entry into Acer's Aspire line of laptops, the E15, is worth taking notice of. It sports a 15.6-inch display, is priced to sell at $469 (about £308, AU$601), and lands with a 15 x 10.1 x 1.2-inch (381 x 257 x 30 mm) (W x D x H) footprint big enough to replace your seatback tray.
Armed with a number pad and a touchscreen, the E15 aims to serve the needs of multimedia viewers as well as number crunching office workers. But in order to be even slightly multifaceted at this price, sacrifices were made that have led to drawbacks.
When you go big on a budget, it's almost impossible to avoid setbacks. Lenovo's 14-inch Z40 turned out to be an unadvisable purchase even for just $599 (£399, AU $799). The E15's price, though, may be enough to entice shoppers away from another 15.6-inch laptop from Acer, the Aspire E5, which sells for around $626 (£399, AU $766).
For this price, I wasn't expecting anything newsworthy in terms of form. This laptop is big, plasticky and heavy at 5.95 pounds (or 2.69 kg). One of the biggest sins of the E15 is a trackpad that's well below standard. Clicking "no" through a series of set-up windows upon start up was a struggle, as it repeatedly refused to process my clicks.
The trackpad is so wide that I experienced a few accidental right-clicks. Also, unfortunately, the E15 will not allow you to turn off tap-to-click. This may not be a problem for you, but it's personal gripe that's always led to accidental clicks for me.
The actual keys on the keyboard are decent, with enough feedback to allow for a functional typing experience. The E15's full keyboard will appeal to the spreadsheets crowd, but there is a learning curve, because the keyboard is shifted to the left to make way for the numpad.
If you're used to touch typing with your fingers resting on the F and J keys, using the E15 on your lap can be difficult. While I'm used to having my hands rest symmetrically on the width of the notebook's keyboard, this is an awkward proposition with the E15 because your right arm is either stretching across the right side of the computer or the right fifth of the laptop is hanging off your lap.
One thing I liked about the design is that there are USB ports (one is 3.0, the others 2.0) located on the left and right sides of the laptop. This makes it very easy to connect a cable on either side and avoid mousing into any tangled wires.
While the E15 is marketed as having an HD resolution display, it's still clearly and obviously not as pixel dense as other laptops on the market. For viewing photos and watching video the machine performed admirably, but did not truly impress. No matter which coffee shop I took the the E15 to, I would also have to take some time to make sure I sat somewhere I could avoid getting too much light bounced back into my eyes, thanks to a very glossy screen. Also, while the touchscreen was good and functional, there is still no great case to be made for it.
Choosing the E15 also means going without a DVD drive, albeit a sacrifice that most laptops have already made. Those in need of an optical drive should consider the Aspire E5 as price difference between the two models is about $160 (about £105, AU$ 206).
Specifications and performance
Despite the fact that the Aspire E5 (in this case, the E5-551) carries that on-board DVD drive, it's still lighter than the E15. Sure, the E15 is only 5.95 pounds to the E5-551's 5.5 pounds, but seeing as they have the exact same footprint of 15 x 10.1 x 1.2 inches (381 mm x 257 mm x 30 mm) (W x D x H), it's an odd difference in weight that I would have expected to swing in the direction of the E15.
If I had to bet on it, I'd say that the E15 is heavier because of the battery. The E5 only managed to last a meager 3 hours, 12 minutes. The E15 lasted more than two hours longer in our tests, and I'd argue that is more than enough to make up for that extra half pound.
The Lenovo Z40 also suffered from a weak 3-ish hour battery life, and while it's is lighter and smaller at 4.62 pounds and 13.74 x 9.6 x 0.97 inches (W x D x H), it's hardly worth the trade off.
Here is the Acer Aspire E15 configuration given to TechRadar:
CPU: 1.9GHz Intel Core i3-4030U (3MB cache)
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 4400
RAM: 4GB DDR3L RAM
Screen: 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768, Glossy Active Matrix TFT Color LCD Multi-touch screen
Storage: 500GB (5400 rpm with a 16GB SSD cache)
Ports: HDMI, 2 USB 2.0, 1 USB 3.0, Gigabit Ethernet, VGA, SD card reader, combination mic/headphone jack
Connectivity: 802.11b/g/n Wireless LAN, Bluetooth 4.0
Camera: HD Webcam
Weight: 5.95 pounds
Size: 15 x 10.1 x 1.2 inches (W x D x H)
Since the E15 comes in at under $500 and runs Windows 8.1, I wasn't exactly expecting the quality experience I was greeted with. Aside from the aforementioned rarely buggy trackpad, all that I had to get used to were some slight load times for applications. The axiom reads you get what you pay for, but somehow it feels like you're getting a little more than that with the Aspire E15.
3DMark: Cloud Gate: 3,595; Sky Diver: 2,234; Fire Strike: 477
Cinebench Graphics: 19.06 fps, CPU: 191 points
PCMark 8 (Home Test): 1987 points
PCMark 8 Battery Life: 4 hours and 34 minutes
In our benchmarks, the E15 performed well for it's budget-class. In 3DMark's graphics tests (in order of increasing test difficulty) it scored a 3,595 points in Cloud Gate; 2,234 in Sky Diver; and a 477 in the incredibly taxing Fire Strike. The Cinebench video tests results were a CPU score of 191 points and 19.06 fps graphics. As for tests made more for the home and office users, they'll love to see that the PCMark 8 Home benchmark score was a 1987. Businesses should note both that strong PCMark 8 score, as well as the fact that the machine handled video chat at a steady frame rate.
All of these numbers stand above, with some distance in fact, the more expensive Aspire E5-551, which runs on AMD's Kaveri APU. While the Lenovo Z40 does edge out the E15, that can likely be credited to the Z40 packing an Nvidia GeForce 820M graphics chip while the E15 only has integrated graphics to fall back on.
In my personal tests, which featured web surfing and a heavy amount of streaming video, the battery lasted for about 5 hours and 20 minutes. While that's under the E15's advertised 6 hours, it's not too far away to give me concern.
Though the Acer Aspire E15 sells for so cheap, you'll pay a heavy price thanks to the glut of bloatware pre-installed. The bulk of the preloaded software is pockmarked with desktop links to eBay, a cut-rate travel deals site and pre-pinned links to Amazon. Plus, Spotify comes pre-installed and pinned to the Taskbar.
That said, some of what's listed below is worth checking out if you don't have solutions already in place:
Acer Portal: A gateway to all of Acer's cloud based solutions, I unfortunately had to remove and reinstall this buggy software during my first day of using the E15.
abDocs: It might look like Acer's Google Docs competitor, but it's disabled unless you have Microsoft Office, since it's just for syncing your MS Office files in the cloud.
abMedia: A cloud-based media library service, with design aesthetics bred from crossing iTunes with WinAmp.
Private Wifi: a VPN service that Acer has partnered with.
abPhoto: An unlimited and private photo storage solution, again based in Acer's cloud, abPhoto's limited by the fact that you can only share to people, and not to any social network.
Acer Remote Files: Acer's Dropbox competitor, unfortunately it will not start unless you link multiple computers to it.
Cyberlink PhotoDirector & PowerDirector - Free photo and video management software, akin to Apple's iPhoto and iMovie.
Acer Power Management - If you're always reaching low battery, you might find use in this application combining a battery life meter with an activity monitor.
Acer Recovery Management: Here to assist you in restoring the E15 to factory settings.
The Acer E15 is what I'd call a jack of all trades computer. It's not a champ at anything in particular, but it can suffice for most needs. Basically, this is exactly what one should expect when unable to spend more than $500.
This isn't a gaming machine, but it's performance under our tests (except for the incredibly challenging Fire Strike) showed a capability to satisfy casual gamers. This is great for when you're tired of working on spreadsheets and powerpoint documents.
The battery, though, stands out from my own testing. While my personal results were a hair or two shy of the advertised six hours, the vast majority of my battery testing ran with video streaming, mixing live feeds with both TV and movies on Netflix.
Employees handed this computer by their IT departments should feel fortunate. While the Aspire E15 isn't flashy an extreme power machine, it is reliable for day to day activities. That makes this laptop an ideal choice for businesses that can't afford more luxurious options.
I wasn't exactly surprised that the trackpad had issues or that the screen wasn't crystal clear. From the off-center keyboard to a screen that needs to be positioned just right, there will be a few growing pains for owners of this machine. And those who have worked with a Retina (or comparable) display frequently will take a while to adjust to the downgrade.
The materials of the computer, as solid as they are, are incredibly smudge-prone. If you want to keep this laptop clean of signs of handling, you're going to need some cleaning supplies.
The bloatware, something I've now experienced often enough to become jaded, is still something of a problem if you come to this computer with your solutions in hand. I don't think any family or IT department is excited to run their workflows through Acer's family of apps. It's kind of like all the useless services your telecom throws at you. This is especially in regard to the hectoring popups you'll get from McAfee until you use the Add and Remove Programs tool, like I did, to rid yourself of the nuisance.
A perfectly suitable computer for those who want a reliable and modest solution, the E15 sets a respectable mark for the budget end of the spectrum of 15.6-inch notebooks. Sure, a Chromebook may be able to give a better screen and a smaller body, but a lot of offices demand a strict adherence to the Microsoft Office ecosystem, which those cannot help you with.
The E15's competitors each have a standout feature that may swing some users eyes, but unless all you need is the gaming performance from the Lenovo Z40 is or the DVD drive from the Aspire E5, those models are inconsequential to your decision.
This is the kind of computer you purchase not out of desire, but of necessity. It will help you get your work done – without any extra peripherals – and you'll be able to unwind when it's over, all on the same battery charge. As a budget laptop for customers whose work depends on spreadsheets, the Acer Aspire E15 is a strong option.