If there's one thing Acer's laptop line-up isn't short of, it's budget models. The latest one to grace our laboratory is the Aspire 5552. It can be snapped up for the paltry sum of £300 from Laptops Direct. That's as cheap as most netbooks, yet the 15.6-inch 5552 offers a larger screen, faster processor and DVD writer.
Solid as a rock
The 5552 is virtually indistinguishable from Acer's other budget laptops, such as the Aspire 5336. You get none of the fancy chrome touches or glossy finishes that you'll find on the company's higher-end models. Instead, the chassis is made entirely from matte black plastic. On the plus side, the matte finish should be more scratch-resistant than the glossy paint jobs on more expensive laptops, and a hint of interest is added by the dimpled pattern stamped into the lid and wrist rest.
Thankfully, this model also manages to avoid the flimsy feel that often affects budget machines. While it doesn't exactly look a million dollars, it feels like it's been built to last and that's perhaps more important in a budget machine such as this.
Perhaps understandably, given the laptop's low price tag, it doesn't offer a plethora of ports. There's no PC Card slot or Bluetooth support and it also lacks eSATA and FireWire ports. Nevertheless, the basics are covered off by three USB sockets, as well as both VGA and HDMI outputs. The laptop also offers 802.11n Wi-Fi, and an Ethernet socket if you'd prefer to use a wired connection.
The hard drive isn't massive, but the 250GB of storage that it offers should be enough for most users. There's also a dual-layer DVD writer, tucked into the right-hand side of the chassis, that can always be used to back up files from the hard drive, should you run low on space.
The screen is fairly disappointing. Its resolution of 1,366x768 pixels is to be expected at this price point, but its vertical viewing angles are rather tight, so you'll often find yourself adjusting the screen to try to get colours to look more even. Nevertheless, LED backlighting ensures that the screen looks quite bright.
Annoyingly, the 5552 makes do with a single speaker on the top left of the chassis. Its audio is very tinny and, because it's on its lonesome, you won't get stereo sound unless you use headphones or connect the laptop to an external set of PC speakers.
The keyboard uses the same isolated-key design found on Acer's cheaper models. The keys seem to float above the surface of the chassis. But the 5552's keyboard has more flex than we'd like, so the typing action doesn't feel as solid as it should.
Relatively restrained performance
Rather than opting for one of Intel's processors, Acer has instead gone with a chip from that company's arch rival, AMD. But the 2.1GHz, dual-core Athlon II X2 processor won't blow your sock off in terms of performance. In tandem with 3GB of RAM, it scored 3,889 in the PCMark05 benchmark test.
That's more than twice the performance of the similarly priced Samsung N350 netbook, which also has a dual-core chip. Still, compared to most laptops, it's a fairly modest showing. There's still enough power for day-to-day tasks like watching videos on iPlayer -- even in full-screen HD, which is something most netbooks can't cope with -- but the laptop's likely to buckle under the strain of more complex tasks.
The 5552 can't cope with 3D gaming, for example. That's not just because the processor isn't up to the task, but also because its ATI Radeon HD 4250 graphics card lacks grunt. In the 3DMark06 benchmark test, it struggled to a score of 1,788, which is a long way off what's needed to be able to play today's first-person shooters at a decent frame rate.
For a 15.6-inch laptop, its battery life isn't actually too bad. In the Battery Eater Classic test, which runs the processor at full whack to simulate the worst-case scenario in terms of battery life, the machine managed to keep running for 1 hour and 34 minutes. You'll get much longer battery life from a netbook, but then a netbook is a much less powerful option than the 5552.
We didn't expect very much from the Aspire 5552 given its price, but it's actually a well-built machine that offers reasonably good performance. If you're on a tight budget and spend most of your time sending emails, editing documents and stalking people on Facebook, it's a pretty good option.
Edited by Charles Kloet