Thanks to its large, high-resolution, 11.6-inch screen and excellent keyboard, the dot m/a netbook would make a good choice for those seeking a portable machine on which to type lengthy documents. It's also interesting purely because it packs an AMD CPU rather than the ubiquitous Intel Atom
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.
The 160GB hard drive on our review sample provides ample room for storing a wide assortment of files. It'll easily accommodate a couple of hundred standard-definition movies, or -- if you're obsessed with music -- around 40,000 average-sized MP3 files.
The dot m/a generally provides a pleasant media experience. Its built-in speakers aren't quite loud enough to fill a room, but they're adequate for enjoying audio in a relatively quiet area. The 11.6-inch display is of a fairly good standard. It has a relatively high resolution of 1,366x768 pixels -- more than you get on the vast majority of 10-inch netbooks. Our only complaint is that the vertical viewing angle is slightly limited, which means you may need to do some fiddling with the screen angle to get the picture just right.
The dot m/a includes 802.11b/g wireless and Bluetooth connectivity, but, unfortunately, lacks the faster and longer-reaching 802.11n standard. This is a shame for those looking for machines with future-proof networking capabilities, but most people won't mind, as the netbook still connects to networks used in the vast majority of public hotspots. Similarly, the dot m/a has an ordinary 10/100Mbps wired networking Ethernet adaptor and not the faster Gigabit Ethernet alternative.
The dot m/a comes with a good amount of software. Most notably, it ships with the Adobe Photoshop Elements 6 photo-editing software, Microsoft Works SE 9, Magic Desktop (it protects your kids from Internet nasties), Norton Internet Security 2009, PowerDVD 9 and Nero 8 Essentials. The last two are rather out of place, since they require an optical drive to get the most out of them, but it's always possible to connect an external DVD drive to the dot m/a via USB.
Despite its slow-sounding 1.2GHz AMD CPU, the dot m/a is actually a decent performer. It feels far more responsive than netbooks that use the 1.33GHz Intel Atom Z520 chip and it's capable of running apps like BBC iPlayer without breaking a sweat. It wasn't quite up to the task of running HD movies -- playback was choppy, and the video and sound weren't quite synchronised -- but it scored an adequate, if not outstanding, PCMark05 score of 1,611, which is on a par with most 1.6GHz Atom N270-based netbooks.
The dot m/a's battery life isn't particularly impressive, however. The battery lasted 2 hours and 25 minutes in Battery Eater's intensive Classic test. We've certainly seen worse, and it's on a par with the 12-inch Dell Inspiron Mini 12 netbook, but we usually don't get excited by a netbook unless it lasts in excess of 5 hours in the same test. The Asus Eee PC 1000HE, for example, lasted a whopping 5 hours and 48 minutes.
The Packard Bell dot m/a is a good netbook, particularly for anyone seeking a larger screen than normal. It's slightly bigger than many of its rivals and its battery life is merely average, but it has an excellent keyboard and would make for a great second computer.
Edited by Charles Kloet