Hold the front page -- it's a netbook without an Intel Atom CPU! The Packard Bell dot m/a, also known in some circles as the Gateway LT3100, does away with the Intel norm in favour of an AMD Athlon L110 CPU. It also plumps for a larger-than-usual 11.6-inch screen and a slightly wider chassis, pushing it dangerously near laptop territory.
The dot m/a is available with a variety of hard-drive sizes, including 160GB, 250GB and 320GB. The 160GB version that we review here, the dot m/a UK/050, is available to buy now for around £350. Intel fans shouldn't feel left out, though, as Packard Bell will sell you an Atom Z250-equipped version, known as the dot m, for a similar price.
Pretty but unadventurous
The dot m/a is a pretty-enough laptop, but its creators haven't tried anything too extravagant with its design. The fetching silver hasp-style strip housing the Packard Bell logo is notable, but the matte black keyboard area and glossy black lid are all standard fare. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though. Although it's unadventurous, it should appeal to a relatively wide audience. The one complaint some may have is the fact that its 288 by 25 by 199mm chassis is relatively large by netbook standards. It is, however, fairly light, tipping the scales at 1.25kg.
The dot m/a's keyboard is a breath of fresh air. Unlike many netbook keyboards we've encountered, its keys are large, have attractive, rounded edges and have a decent amount of space between them, which reduces the likelihood of typos. The most important keys -- return, backspace and shift -- are all relatively chunky, although the left shift key is a little too small for our liking. The mouse trackpad is also relatively teeny, but it feels responsive and is sensitive to multitouch gestures, so documents can be navigated by pinching, stretching or stroking fingers across its surface.
The dot m/a's connectivity is what we've come to expect from this class of machine. The right side houses a five-in-one memory card reader, mic and headphone jacks, two USB ports and a VGA video output for connecting to an external monitor. The front edge has two switches for toggling the Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios, while the left is home to a third USB port, as well as an Ethernet port. Given the machine's size, it would probably have been possible to squeeze in an extra USB or an eSATA port (around six times faster than USB), but perhaps we're being greedy.
The dot m/a spits in the face of Intel's Atom CPU and embraces a little-known chip from AMD called the Athlon L110. This CPU is clocked at 1.2GHz, which doesn't sound like much, admittedly, but it has an 800MHz front-side bus, which compares favourably to the standard Atom N270's 533MHz FSB. This means it should, in theory, be able to transfer data to and from the accompanying 2GB of DDR2 memory quicker than an Atom system would, giving it a potential performance advantage.
By choosing an AMD CPU, the dot m/a's maker has forgone the traditional Intel integrated graphics solution popular in most netbooks. Instead, the dot m/a features an ATI Radeon X1270 GPU, which, you'll be pleased to know, is capable of running 3D games and, in theory, some low-bit-rate, high-definition video content. Unfortunately, as you'll see in from its performance results later, theory doesn't always become reality.