Acer recently introduced a series of affordable, portable Windows notebooks with low-power processors aimed at balancing performance and battery life. The Acer Aspire E 11 line of notebooks feature 11.6 inch displays, Intel Bay Trail processors, and starting prices as low as $250.
The company also sells a similar laptop called the Aspire V11. The key difference is that the V series models have touchscreen displays and prices that start at $350.
While none of these machines are speed demons, they’re portable notebooks that weigh around 3 pounds, offer reasonably long battery life, decent performance for basic tasks, and low enough power consumption to support a fanless design: Neither the Acer Aspire E11 or Aspire V11 have vents or fans. That makes them quieter than most laptops.
Acer loaned me an Aspire V11 touchscreen notebook to review recently, and while this isn’t necessarily the best choice for everyone, it’s a solid notebook that could make a great device for use on the go. And unlike cheap portable notebooks of the past, the Aspire V11 might not just be a companion to your desktop or full-powered notebook. This sub-$400 laptop might be the only PC you really need.
The laptop featured in this review is the top-of-the-line Acer Aspire V11 with a 2.16 GHz Intel Pentium N3530 quad-core processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive. It’s available from the Microsoft Store for $369.
It has a 1366 x 768 pixel touchscreen display with support for 10-finger touch input. It has 1 USB 3.0 port, 2 USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, Gigabit Ethernet, and a 3220mAh, 48Whr battery.
The Aspire V11 features stereo speakers, 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, and Windows 8.1 64-bit software. Unlike the Acer Aspire Switch 10, this laptop ships with relatively little bloatware: aside from a user manual, recovery utility, and update tool, there’s not much Acer-specific software loaded on this Windows notebook.
Similar, but cheaper models include:
- $250 Aspire E11 w/Celeron N2830 dual-core CPU , 2GB RAM and 320GB HDD (Amazon)
- $330 Aspire E11 w/Pentium N3530 quad-core CPU, 4GB RAM, and 500GB HDD (Amazon)
- $350 Aspire V11 w/Celeron N2930 quad-core CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD (Amazon)
Some of those models also have smaller batteries, but they all have 7.5 watt Intel processors and fanless cases.
Acer’s been making notebooks with 11.6 inch displays for ages, but this is one of the first models to feature a fanless design. Interestingly it’s still a rather compact system, measuring just about 0.85 inches thick and weighing less than 3.1 pounds.
Since there’s no fan, there are no vents on the case. In fact, there’s nothing at all on the right side. You’ll find a USB 2.0 port, SD card reader, and headset jack on the left.
The rest of the ports are on the back, which is a little higher than the sides of the laptop. That allows Acer to fit a full-sized Ethernet jack, as well as power, USB, and HDMI ports.
The glossy display reflects a bit of glare in direct sunlight — if you have a choice, you might not want to use this laptop while sitting with your back to a bright window — it can make the screen look a bit like a mirror. But that’s true of most touchscreen laptops these days.
What’s a bit unusual about this model is that there’s a black border around the viewable area of the touchscreen display and a second, thin plastic bezel around the entire screen.
Since Windows 8.1 relies on touchscreen gestures such as swiping from the edge of the screen, you need a bit of an on-screen bezel on Windows devices with touch panels. But since this model doesn’t have an edge-to-edge glass display, it looks a little odd.
The non-touchscreen Acer E11 models simply have a larger plastic bezel surrounding the display. You get the same amount of viewable screen space either way, but the upshot is that the V11 sort of looks like it has two screen bezels while the E11 has just one.
While the 1366 x 768 pixel display might not win any pixel density awards, it offers decent viewing angles and I had no problems watching a video while tilting the screen back and forth and side to side (you know, as one is likely to do while watching a video on a laptop).
The keyboard features chiclet or island-style keys which are reasonably well spaced.
While I’m not in love with the way Acer crams the arrow keys, volume, screen brightness, and Page, Home, and End buttons into a tiny space in the lower-right corner on its 11.6 inch laptops. But I was able to type comfortably at my normal typing speed while testing this laptop.
There’s a bit of flex in the keyboard, and it’s not backlit. But I wouldn’t expect any different from a laptop that sells for under $400.
Below the keyboard is a wide touchpad which supports multitouch gestures including two-finger scrolling and tapping.
Flip over the laptop and you’ll find the bottom panel is held in place by 13 screws. Remove then and you can pop off the cover pretty easily to get at the insides.
Once you’re in there you can remove a few more screws and lift the motherboard a bit to slide out the laptop’s slim 2.5 inch hard drive. It’d be pretty easy to replace the drive with a SSD or other storage.
You can also easily swap out the wireless card or remove the battery — although it’s pretty clear Acer didn’t really intend for the battery to be user replaceable, or it wouldn’t be protected by more than a dozen screws and hidden away inside the case.
If you want to upgrade the RAM you’ll have to go a bit further and detach a number of cables holding the motherboard in place, lift it entirely out of the case, and flip it over to access the single memory DDR3 memory slot. It’s doable, but a bit tricky.
The lid has a brushed metal look and a small Acer logo.
Intel’s Bay Trail processors are low-power chips based on the company’s Silvermont technology and Intel HD graphics. That means the Intel Pentium processor powering the Acer Aspire V11 has the same as the Atom chips in Windows and Android tablets like the Acer Aspire Switch 10 Windows tablet and Asus MeMO Pad 8 Android tablet.
But the Celeron and Pentium chips in this family use a little more power, run at higher clock speeds, and offer better all-around performance. While Intel Atom chips of yesteryear were clearly low-power processors, you could easily spend hours with the Acer Aspire V11 without realizing it has a chip that’s related to an Atom processor.
The laptop never felt sluggish while surfing the web with a dozen or more browser tabs open. I had no problems streaming HD videos from the internet. And it’s reasonably fast at CPU-intensive tasks including transcoding audio and video files.
Sure, a computer with a 7.5 watt Bay Trail CPU isn’t going to be as fast as a model with a Haswell processor — but the difference isn’t as great as you might expect. I ran a series of benchmarks on the laptop and compared the results with other systems including a Dell XPS 11 system with an 11.5 watt Core i5-4210y Haswell processor, the Acer Aspire Switch 10 with an Atom Z3745 Bay Trail CPU and an HP Envy X2 Windows tablet with an older Intel Atom Z2760 Clover Trail chip.
The Aspire V11 was more than twice as fast as the Clover Trail-powered system in most tests, significantly faster than the Atom Z3745 model, and not-quite-competitive with the Dell XPS 11… but the Acer laptop sells for a third of the price of the Dell tablet.
Note that the Aspire V11 also supports Intel’s QuickSync video encoding, so I was able to transcode the same video test file using a nightly build of Handbrake with QSV H.264 encoding in about 41 seconds.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind with the Acer Aspire V11 when it comes to sheer performance. First, the notebook has a 5400RPM hard drive instead of a faster solid state drive. This means that some tasks might not run as quickly as they would on a system with an SSD.
For instance, it takes longer to create a large ZIP file on this laptop than on most of the other systems I’ve tested recently because those other systems have solid state drives. It also takes longer for Windows to boot or resume from sleep or hibernation.
Another thing to keep in mind about the hard drive is that it is the only component of the computer with moving parts (unless you count the keyboard and screen hinge). That means that while you won’t hear any fan noise while the system is running, you may occasionally hear a little whirring or clicking from the hard drive — although I rarely heard any noises at all during the week or so that I spent using this laptop.
Note that you can replace the hard drive with a solid state drive by opening up the case, but you’ll need to clone your disk image if you want to keep your Windows 8.1 setup. Otherwise you’ll need to install an operating system from scratch on your new drive.
In order to keep the notebook from overheating during use, Acer uses a passive heat sink rather than a fan. Most of the time it seems to work pretty well.
During average use, the CPU temperature of the Acer Aspire V11 seems to hover between 56 and 60 degrees Celcius. The bottom of the laptop gets moderately warm during extended use, but it’s not uncomfortable. You might also notice a little warmth in the keyboard, but most of the heat goes out through the bottom of the laptop.
When running my video transcoding tests with the CPU running full blast, the temperature rose to 70 degrees Celcius for a little while before returning to a more comfortable 60 degrees. While both temperatures are well within Intel’s safety guidelines, the warmer the CPU gets the warmer the bottom of the laptop gets.
I was sitting in a coffee shop with the laptop on a table during these tests, so I had to pick it up to check the bottom — but it was uncomfortably hot to the touch. It might not get quite as hot when resting on an uneven surface with no airflow… like your lap. But it’s worth noting that the bottom of the Acer Aspire V11 can get pretty warm when running resource-intensive tasks.
While the Aspire V11 isn’t exactly a speed demon, and it doesn’t really have the graphics chops for playing bleeding edge games, it has more than enough power for editing documents, surfing the web, watching videos, or playing casual games.
It also gets reasonably good battery life, thanks in part to the same low-power processor that allowed Acer to create a fanless laptop.
Acer promises up to 7 hours of run time, and based on my tests, that seems just about right. You’ll probably run down the battery more quickly if you’re watching a lot of videos or doing other heavy duty tasks. But with the screen brightness set to around 50 or 60 percent, WiFi on, and an awful lot of web surfing, I regularly got around 6 or 7 hours of battery life from this laptop.
That’s not quite all-day battery life, but it might be close enough for many people — and it means you can probably leave the laptop’s charger at home some of the time. That helps make this 3.1 pound laptop truly portable.
A few years ago I was skeptical of the idea of slapping touchscreen displays on laptops. Sure, a touch panel makes sense for a 2-in-1 system that transforms into a tablet, but why would you need a touchscreen on a normal laptop?
Well, most of the time you don’t. But it’s actually a pretty nice feature to have if you’re using the notebook on your lap since you can reach up to the screen and tap the icons, links, or other items you’re looking for. Sometimes this is faster and easier than reaching down to the touchpad, dragging a cursor to the correct spot, and then tapping.
If you use an external mouse with this system, you might never need the touchscreen. But laptops with touchscreens don’t cost much more than non-touch models these days and the only down side is that you almost never see touchscreen notebooks with matte displays. But most non-touch laptops on the market have glossy displays too.
Anyway, aside from the strange double-bezel design of the Aspire V11, the touchscreen works pretty much as you’d expect. It support tapping, dragging, and swiping as well as multi-touch gestures. And the hinge is pretty sturdy, allowing you to tap the screen without causing it to wobble too much.
Linux notes (Updated)
An earlier version of this review stated that there was no USB boot option in the bootloader, which was a reasonable assumption since that’s the error message you get when you use the Advanced Startup options in Windows to try to boot from a USB drive.
It turns out you can boot from removable USB device like a CD/DVD drive and that lets you run Ubuntu or other operating systems. But you’ll need to use the Advanced Startup options to enter the UEFI Firmware settings, and do one of two things:
1. You can enable legacy boot mode, make sure to plug your removable storage device into the USB 2.0 port on the left side of the laptop (the USB ports on the back won’t work), and make sure to either adjust the boot order so the laptop checks for a USB drive before booting from the hard drive or enable the F12 boot menu option so that you can hit F12 when the PC is loading and manually choose the device you want to boot from.
Note that when legacy boot mode is enabled, Windows 8.1 doesn’t seem to load. So you may have to re-enabled UEFI boot in order to return to Windows.
2. You can leave UEFI enabled, but make sure to enable support for the F12 boot menu from the UEFI firmware settings. You might also want to disable quick boot so that you’ll know when to hit the F12 button during boot.
Now you can plug in a USB drive to the left-side USB port and choose it from the boot menu after hitting F12 during startup. Note that if you simply use the Windows 8.1 Advanced Startup options to try to boot from a USB drive, you’ll get a message stating that the system “doesn’t have any USB boot option,” so you’ll need to use the F12 boot menu.
Once legacy boot was turned on, I was able to boot into an Xubuntu 14.04 liveCD and take Linux for a spin on the notebook. Just about everything seems to work, including WiFi, the webcam, the keyboard, touchscreen, touchpad, and two-finger scrolling.
Some keyboard shortcuts seem to work — I was able to mute the laptop by pressing Fn + F8, for instance. But when I tried to use the shortcuts to adjust screen brightness I saw a pop-up notification suggesting that I was dimming and brightening the display, but it didn’t actually get any brighter or dimmer.
If you’re looking for a laptop with a blazing fast CPU, a high-resolution display, an all-metal case, or a backlit keyboard, the Acer Aspire V11 isn’t it. But this little laptop does offer an awful lot for $369.
It’s reasonably fast, gets reasonably good battery life, has a quiet, fanless design, features a touchscreen display, and it’s rather compact.
There are cheaper models in this series with slower processors (and smaller batteries), but when a top-of-the-line model costs just $369, I can’t think of many reasons to opt for the lower-priced models (unless you really don’t need a touchscreen, in which case the $330 Aspire E3-111-P8DW model looks like a great deal).
If you’re looking for a truly silent system and one that offers a little more performance, you might want to consider replacing the hard drive with an SSD. But with the prices of solid state storage falling, it’d be easy to do that by spending an extra $100 or less.
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