Acer now sells more laptops in Europe than any other company. Its reputation has been built on putting together PCs that look stylish, but don't cost the earth. Both of those characteristics are strongly in evidence here. Despite its low price tag of just £349.97, the Aspire 3693WLMi still manages to be appealing to the eye, while also boasting a decent specification. The big question is whether it has enough grunt to stand out among its budget rivals.
Looking at this model, it's not difficult to see why Acer's laptops have proven so popular. Despite the bargain price it has a quality look and feel. The black and silver colour scheme exudes a professional air and the chassis doesn't creak when you pick it up -- unlike some other budget models we've seen recently.
The keyboard layout is also very good. Everything is sensibly placed and in perfect proportion. For example, although it has both media keys and quick-launch buttons, they're small, narrow and neatly placed, so as not to cramp the space available for the main keyboard. As a result, the keyboard feels quite spacious and as it hardly flexes in the middle it has none of the sponginess often associated with budget machines. We also like the four-way D-pad, which has been added underneath the touchpad and acts rather like a scroll wheel on a mouse.
However, there is one oddity that highlights the fact this is a generic chassis. At the front edge of the case there's an on/off switch for Bluetooth, even though this version of the laptop doesn't actually have a Bluetooth receiver inside.
As with most budget machines these days, the Apsire is loaded with Windows Vista Home Basic, the entry-level version of Vista. This means you don't get to experience the fancy new Aero interface or use Windows Media Center for playing music, videos or slideshows of digital snaps. It's a shame, because both would really show off the laptop's excellent 15.4-inch display. It has an X-Black-style coating, so colours really leap from the screen and movies and pictures look pin-sharp, thanks to its 1,280x800-pixel resolution.
For storing your media files and documents there's an 80GB hard drive, which is pretty much par for the course on a laptop in this price range. You also get a dual-layer, multi-format DVD burner for backing up data or making DVD movies.
However, despite the small 1.3-megapixel webcam perched on a rotating barrel at the top of the screen, this isn't really a laptop for amateur auteurs -- there's no FireWire port. Still, you do get four USB ports, a VGA socket, an S-Video output and a multi-format memory card reader to make it easy to transfer photos on to the hard drive.
When it comes to performance, this model suffers from the same problem as many of its budget rivals -- it only has a stingy 512MB helping of memory. Half a gigabyte of RAM is fine for Windows XP, but Vista is very memory-hungry and as a result, the laptop's performance suffers.