The sub-$600 notebook is a rare beast, and the few Windows Vista models we've seen at or around this price have been less-than-stellar performers. For Web surfing, working with office documents, and playing DVDs, however, a budget laptop such as the $549 Acer TravelMate 2480-2153 provides enough power for generally satisfactory computing experience. This 14.1-inch model even manages to add unique design touches such as an ergonomically curved keyboard to help it stand out from other inexpensive systems, like the Gateway NX270S and the Everex Stepnote VA4101M. Though there's a lot to like about the Acer TravelMate 2480-2153, the Gateway NX270S's strong battery life makes it our current favorite for budget laptops.
Measuring 13.4 inches wide, 9.9 inches deep, and 1.25 inches high, the Acer TravelMate 2480 sits firmly in the thin-and-light category of laptops: small enough to carry around without much hassle, but big enough to work on comfortably for long stretches. The system weighs 5 pounds (5.8 pounds with the refreshingly small A/C adapter), which is pretty much what we'd want to have in our shoulder bag for a daily commute or extensive traveling if a ultraportable less than 3 pounds (say, the Fujitsu LifeBook P7230 ) is out of the question due to its small screen or high price.
The basic silver-and-black chassis looks professional and feels sturdy--you wouldn't be able to tell this was a budget laptop at first glance. One surprising design element was the curved keyboard, bowing the spacebar toward you slightly. We found it easy to use--similar to an ergonomic desktop keyboard--and it allowed the generously sized keys to take up a bit less horizontal space on the keyboard tray. Above the keyboard are four customizable quick launch buttons, and the touchpad features a four-way rocker switch between the two mouse buttons, which makes for easy Web page scrolling.
The 14.1-inch LCD wide-screen display offers a 1,280x800 native resolution, which is the same resolution you'll find on 13.3-inch thin-and-light laptops such as the Apple MacBook. Since you won't be playing back Blu-ray movies or playing games on this system, the lower resolution is fine, and keeps Web-based text and onscreen icons from being too tiny. The screen doesn't have the Crystalbrite glossy coating we saw on another recent Acer laptop, the 17-inch Acer Aspire 9300--but many users prefer a less glossy screen, especially on laptops not intended for extensive multimedia use.
The system supplies a somewhat stingy set of connections, including three USB 2.0 jacks, a PC Card slot, a media card reader, and VGA and S-Video outputs for hooking up an external monitor. There are no FireWire jacks--a big minus--but the headphone and mic jacks are joined by a third S/PDIF audio jack, which can act as a second headphone connection. Networking connections include a modem and Gigabit Ethernet jacks, and integrated 802.11b/g wireless.
The components in this nonconfigurable retail system reflect its budget price. You get Windows Vista Basic, a 1.7GHz Intel Celeron M 430 CPU, 512MB of DDR2 RAM (which is barely acceptable, even for Vista Basic), integrated Intel 950 graphics, a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive, and an 80GB hard drive. Acer offers three other nonconfigurable variations on the system, but the differences are minor. The TravelMate 2480-2705 has Windows XP Pro and a slightly slower Celeron M 410; the 2480-2779 drops the CPU to a Celeron M 420 and has a smaller battery, but is otherwise identical to our review unit; and the 2480-2551 has Windows XP Media Center Edition, a smaller 60GB hard drive, and a Celeron M 420. Retailers generally carry one model, but not the others, usually for within $50 of the TravelMate 2480-2153's price. In the end, the specific configuration we reviewed gets the nod above the others for having a slightly faster processor and Vista Home Basic.
Compared to other similarly configured systems, the Acer TravelMate 2480-2153 performed in line with other budget systems, falling slightly behind both the Gateway NX270S, with an identical Celeron M430, and the Everex Stepnote VA4101M, with an Intel Celeron M410, on CNET Labs' iTunes encoding and Photoshop CS tests. Remember that at this low end of the market, any of these systems will feel pokey compared to more expensive dual-core laptops. The TravelMate 2480-2153 is fine for Web surfing, e-mailing, and other basic apps, but clicking around the Windows Vista system menus left us twiddling our thumbs for a few seconds.
The Acer TravelMate 2480-2153 ran for 1 hour and 15 minutes on our DVD battery drain test, using the included six-cell battery. That's pretty disappointing, especially considering the Gateway NX270S ran for nearly twice that time with a standard six-cell battery. A thin-and-light system, even a budget one, is meant for travel and should have enough battery life for at least a couple of hours of work. Bear in mind, however, that our DVD battery drain test is very demanding, and any system will last longer when used for surfing the Web or working on office documents.