An Unlikely Ultraportable Contender

Acer can't boast the same level of enterprise notebook penetration as a Compaq or IBM, but the company's ultraportable series, the TravelMate 350 is definitely a worth a look. Acer manages to offer some nice features you won't see on any of the mainstream ultraportable contenders.

The current crop of ultraportables for the enterprise includes the Dell L400, Compaq M300, HP OmniBook 500, IBM X20, and Toshiba Portege 3490. All offer 11.2-inch or 12.1-inch XGA displays. But somehow Acer found a way to squeeze a 13.3-inch TFT XGA display into the 350. This generous display size makes a huge difference in user satisfaction, which gives Acer a nice edge on the big boys.

"From a design point of view, the 13-inch display is very close to a 12-inch," says David Lee, product manager for Acer. "If you do a compact design...and just make the 12-inch body slightly larger, you can fit the 13-inch in, and that's really the challenge."

Another challenge for all ultraportable manufacturers is keeping the size and weight down, but even with the larger screen Acer has managed to keep the weight at about 4 pounds and at 1-inch thick, the specs are still within the ultraportable domain.

As for the processor, the Acer employs Pentium IIIs from 650 MHz to 750 MHz with Speedstep technology, which beats the current leaders that offer 700 MHz processors. But Acer doesn't use Intel's low-voltage processors, as do competing models, which might lead users to worry about battery life. But Lee says Acer boosts battery life in other ways.

"For Acer, the focus is always to put in the normal (non-low-voltage) design with a good thermal solution to keep the heat controlled," he explains. "If [the notebook] runs hot, the battery doesn't perform. So we do pretty well with heat dissipation."

The TravelMate incorporates a 6-cell lithium-ion battery to get about 2.5 hours of life, placing it on the low end, as some competing notebooks claim a little above 3 hours of battery life.

The 350 series employs a stacked floppy/CD-ROM (or DVD) external drive, which differentiates it from other ultraportables, most of which employ individual drives, or docking units. Having both drives in one unit is definitely handy, and the stacked form factor is only a little thicker than individual drives.

In connectivity, Acer one-ups the competition by offering two USB ports and a 1394 Firewire port. No other ultraportable we saw offered this. The 350 has all the connectors you'd expect: PS/2, VGA, Audio in/out, infrared, Ethernet 10/100 and V.90 56K modem, and one type II PCMCIA. In addition it houses a built-in SmartCard reader and is Bluetooth ready. Users also have an 802.11 wireless option.

Acer again diverges from the norm with its keyboard, employing a 5-degree curve to make it more ergonomically pleasing. We haven't tried this out yet, but it sounds nice. A touchpad is onboard, as well as three user-programmable keys. The 350 series comes with a one-year warranty, and pricing starts at $2,000.

So if you're looking to take the road less traveled in ultraportables, check out the TravelMate 350 from Acer, You might be glad you did.

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