As I wrote in my previous post, I’d write about why I bought this notebook and my experiences with it so far. I’ll also write about the choice of a Linux distribution for the notebook, and about battery life, in two future posts.
Let me start with my criteria. I have already written about my old notebook in the past, and after that I wrote what my requirements were for a new notebook. I wanted a portable notebook which is thin and light, with 13,3 inch as maximum screen size. I wanted long battery life, more than three hours. Performance was less important, I didn’t intend to use it for gaming or anything else which is resource intensive. I also wanted Intel hardware because Intel supports Linux very well. The material choice for the notebook should be modest and sober, a lot of notebooks aimed at consumers pretend to be expensive mirrors because they use ugly shiny plastic in abundance and have glossy displays. The materials used for those notebooks are often easily damaged or scratched as I experienced firsthand with my Fujitsu-Siemens notebook. That was a piece of expensive junk, so I wanted to avoid that for my next notebook. And I didn’t want to spend much money.
Until recently there wasn’t anything on the market which could meet these criteria. There has always been a class of notebooks which could meet them partially, like the X-series Lenovo ThinkPad notebooks for example, but these were far too expensive, much more than € 1000. When the Intel Atom processor was introduced it was cheap and consumed little energy, but it was mostly restricted to netbooks not larger than 10 inch. VIA’s Nano processor, meant to compete with the Atom, didn’t show up much in interesting notebooks. So far ARM’s plans to enter the netbook market haven’t been realized either. It finally got interesting for me when Intel decided to introduce the Consumer Ultra Low Voltage (CULV) platform, aimed at notebooks which are thin and light with a relatively long battery life and a low price, positioned between netbooks and normal notebooks. Despite the negativity in the last link I provided, fact is that Intel now provides an alternative for those who don’t need the performance and don’t want to pay the high price for the high end ultraportables. AMD launched the Athlon Neo processor to compete, but laptops utilizing those processors fell dramatically short on battery life for me.
The Acer TravelMate Timeline 8371 met all my requirements. According to the specifications it weighs 1,65 kilograms, delivers over eight hours of battery life and it has a 13,3 inch monitor with LED-backlight and a 1366 x 768 resolution. It doesn’t have an optical drive, which is an advantage for me, I don’t need one. I got the 353G32N model, which is the most basic, it uses the SU3500 processor. It’s a single core processor, but that’s fine with me, a dual core processor would consume more energy and I wouldn’t need the extra performance. It comes with 3 GB RAM and a 320 GB hard disk drive. It cost € 531,50 which is great value and only slightly more expensive than most netbooks, if you substract the € 70 you can get with a Windows refund it’s even less.
The TravelMate Timeline 8371 is a business version of the consumer-oriented Acer Timeline 3810T notebook. The consumer version is already unassuming in it’s usage of materials, unlike other consumer notebooks, but the TravelMate version is a real business notebook, and it’s also cheaper than the cheapest consumer-oriented Timeline which sells for € 622,68 at the cheapest. I like the materials and sober black look of the 8371, but I haven’t used it enough to say anything about how durable the materials are. The dimensions of the notebook are exactly right for my backpack, which has a compartment with thicker ‘edges’ offering more protection, probably meant to transport more delicate stuff like notebooks. This compartment has a very small zipper opening and I was worried that my notebook wouldn’t fit through the opening, but fortunately it does.
I don’t have much to say about the touchpad and keyboard, they’re fine. I’m reasonably fast with the touchpad, but it’s still not as convenient as using a mouse. That’s why I intend to learn how to use more keyboard key combinations to issue commands instead of using the touchpad. I’m less positive about the monitor, the vertical viewing angle is very shallow. That might not be obvious at first, but if you don’t look at it exactly straight, colors will be different. I noticed because I use a Dell 2007WFP 20 inch monitor on my desktop PC, which uses an IPS panel. IPS has excellent viewing angles, so the difference in color of the background on my weblog for example quickly caught my eye. If you’re not to picky you won’t notice though. A more serious complaint is that the monitor’s backlighting seems to be flickering sometimes, sometimes I observe the lighting intensity change when it’s displaying a static image. Most of the time I can’t hear the fan when the notebook is in operation, it’s very quiet. But when you start working while the battery is charging, the fan inexplicably starts turning very fast even though the CPU isn’t being stressed. I upgraded the BIOS (I had to use these instructions on Linux) from version 1.13 to the most recent 1.18 to see if it changed anything, but it didn’t. Same goes for suspend which doesn’t work with 1.13 or 1.18 yet. But maybe that should be fixed in the Linux kernel or somewhere else in the software stack?
One of the first things I did after receiving the notebook was replacing the hard disk drive (HDD) with a solid-state drive (SSD), the 80 GB Intel X25-M. The second generation, the ‘Postville’ to be exact, which is an improved version of the first generation. It carries a hefty price tag for 80 GB, € 187. But it is an SSD, which means that it is dead silent, consumes less energy, is more reliable and has a longer life expectancy, but most of all, that it’s fast. The X25-M is the fastest SSD you can get, so it definitely makes a HDD bite the dust. At the moment, a beta version of Kubuntu 9.10 which is not updated to the final release is installed on my 8371, from the moment the splash screen appears after GRUB to the moment KDM appears takes no longer than 2 seconds. My desktop which is equipped with a decent HDD (a Western Digital WD6400AAKS 640 GB for those who’d like to know) and the latest Ubuntu 9.10 takes 15 seconds to do this. I don’t do much data-intensive work with my notebook so the advantage isn’t great, certainly compared to the price, but it’s one of those little things like an extremely fast startup which makes the difference. It would certainly be more useful to replace the HDD in my game PC with an SSD, but then the relatively small amount of storage space would be a problem. Nevertheless, it’s certainly worth it’s money in my notebook.
The process of removing the HDD from the 8371 and replacing it with the SSD was easy, you just turn the notebook upside down and open the hatch on the lower right side. Take out the HDD, attach the SSD to the same mounting mechanism as the HDD, and you’re done. I didn’t go so smooth for me, I wanted to verify if the SSD worked first so I didn’t put the hatch cover back in it’s place before I checked. To my dismay it wasn’t detected by the notebook, and neither was the HDD if I put it back in. I started to panic and put it in and out many times, to no avail. I decided to ask in a forum topic of fellow Timeline owners if they had any problems with replacing the HDD, I was answered that it could not go wrong with a description of the procedure to follow. I had already followed the described procedure, with the exception of closing the hatch with the cover. Apparently the hatch cover was necessary to fix the HDD or SSD in it’s position. Once that was done everything worked fine.
I’ve included a few photo’s which aren’t very good due to my dSLR. Some reviews can be read here and here. Here is the page on Ubuntu’s wiki dedicated to the Acer Timeline series. There are also a few bug reports, one concerning the internal microphone which doesn’t work (never tried to use it myself) which is bug #445614 and bug #429456 concerning the failure to suspend.