Introduction and design
Affordable computing hit the headlines in 2014 thanks to laptops and tablets like the HP Stream and Linx 7. At the opposite end of the market, Intel’s new Broadwell chip began to pave the way for lighter, thinner and more desirable, wallet-intimidating Ultrabooks.
These developments have made it difficult for mid-range laptops like the Acer E5-551 to stand out from the crowd, but its Taiwan-based maker is giving it a good go. The Windows 8.1-powered E5-551 is one of the first notebooks with an APU based on AMD’s Kaveri architecture, which combines CPU and GPU power into a single package.
Launching at £399 (around $US626/AUS$766), the E5-551 has a large 15.6-inch display and is being billed as a machine fit for everyday tasks – from general productivity work to browsing the web, streaming music and light gaming thanks to its Radeon-branded graphics (Acer was keen to stress that high-end gaming is off the menu).
There’s no shortage of alternatives to the E5-551 in its price bracket, including the Toshiba Satellite C50, which also uses an AMD APU. Other similarly-priced laptops include the Lenovo G505, Lenovo IdeaPad S405 and the 14-inch Lenovo Flex 2 convertible.
In terms of appearances, the E5-551 is pretty much what you would expect from a mid-range laptop. It’s one big black slab of plastic with a subtle brushed metal finish on the lid and base. But while it won’t win any design awards, Acer has at least kept appearances tidy by positioning a sole AMD sticker and power button around the keyboard.
The E5-551′s display is nothing to shout about. Its 1,366 x 768 pixel-resolution is low by modern laptop standards and looks particularly stretched here. You can fit two windows side-by-side in Windows 8.1, but only just. Zooming out while viewing web pages and documents becomes necessary just to fit more content on the screen.
The display uses is a TFT panel that provides poor horizontal viewing angles and narrow vertical viewing angles. The large screen is fine for watching movies and other content when viewed head-on, but it’s less than ideal for sharing content with a friend.
It also suffers from low brightness and dull colour reproduction. It’s not a problem if you only plan to browse the web, shop online or type documents, but professional image editors will want to look for something a little brighter and more vibrant. The E5-551′s display is not touch compatible, meaning you’ll have to stick to keyboard and mouse when using Windows 8.1 apps. Boo.
The E5-551 is a big and fairly heavy laptop, measuring 381.6mm x 256mm x 30.3mm (W x D x H) and weighing 2.5kg (versus the Toshiba C50′s 2.3kg). While its weight doesn’t prevent it from being portable, you’re going to be aware of that added weight when slipping it into a backpack.
Its hefty nature has the advantage of making it sturdier. Build quality is good; there’s is very little flex in the base, where it depresses slightly when force is applied to the right of the trackpad. There is far more flex in the E5-551′s lid, which bends easily when force is applied at the left and right-hand edges.
The lid is rigid and stays still at whatever angle you position it with very little wobble. It can fold back almost 180-degrees, which would allow you to share content with a friend if it wasn’t for the display’s awful vertical viewing angles.
The E5-551 has a DVD writer which makes it a suitable option for those who watch movies or work in fields that still use optical media. That said, the low price of the many USB-powered DVD drives on the market means that it’s no longer essential to purchase laptops with built-in optical drives if such functionality is vital.
Inside of the E5-551 is a 1TB hard disk drive for storing plenty of programs, apps, media, games and other files. Of that, around 840GB is usable out of the box.
Acer has equipped the E5-551 with a massive trackpad that’s smooth and registers satisfying clicks from its left and right buttons. The clickpad is very sensitive out of the box, which is fine for desktop use but way too fast when used for controlling a mouse.
Located above the clickpad is a chiclet-style keyboard with decent-sized keys and a number pad on the right-hand side. Its keys have relatively low travel and feel a little mushy to type on, but it’s nothing that will stop you from bashing out lengthy documents with a little practice.
There’s no light to indicate when the Caps Lock is activated, which is a small annoyance, but overall I found the E5-551 offers a more pleasant typing experience than the Toshiba C50′s tightly-packed keyboard layout.
Connectivity and Wi-Fi
In terms of connectivity, ports on the left-hand edge include VGA, LAN, HDMI, one USB 3.0 port and a headphone connector. On the right-hand edge is two USB 2.0 ports, a DVD writer and power connector. Along the front of the E5-551 is a conveniently located SD card reader.
For communication, the E5-551 is disappointingly limited to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, rather than 802.11ac, meaning you’ll be limited to last-generation speeds even if you own a faster AC compatible router. There’s also a LAN port if you’re in close proximity of a wired connection.
Performance and benchmarks
PC Mark 8
- Home (High Performance) – 1,784
- Battery life – 3 hour 12 mins and 19 seconds
3D Mark 11
- Ice Storm – 21,834
- Sky Diver – 2,320
- Cloud Gate – 2,178
- Fire Strike – 597
- OpenGL (GPU): 17.88 FPS
- CPU – 148cb
As mentioned previously, the Acer Aspire E5-55 is one of the first notebooks to house an AMD APU inside based on the company’s Kaveri architecture. It’s an A10-7300, which has two multi-threaded clocks cocked to 1.9GHz that can Turbo Boost to 3.2GHz on demand when more computing power is needed. The E5-55 runs the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 and comes with a healthy 8GB of RAM, although only 6.95GB of that is indicated as usable in the OS.
There’s sufficient power under the hood to handle most tasks on the desktop. You can glide through Windows 8′s Start screen without any stutter and Windows 8.1 apps open and close without a hitch. Similarly, image editing programs such as GIMP perform smoothly, even with a 1080p video running in the background. However, the Acer’s APU begins to slow when multiple apps are opened, resulting in the odd sticking moment where the OS fails to respond.
The main factor for any slowness is the Acer’s hard disk drive. Although capacious, spinning disks lack the speed of nippier solid state drives (SSDs), and even with (on paper) impressive specs such as 8GB of RAM and the latest processing technology, the E5-551 simply does not feel as fast as machines that house SSDs inside – from opening and installing apps to copying and transfering files.
The graphics module is an AMD Radeon R6, which shares its name with the graphics cards of the same name. However, this turned out some fairly disappointing numbers in 3DMark’s tests, which were bested by the Toshiba C50′s in all by the more demanding Fire Strike test. The E5-551′s low pixel-resolution display will help the performance of some games, but those numbers indicate that only lesser-demanding games will be playable.
The E5-551 managed just over three hours in our battery tests, which was conducted on its High Performance setting with screen brightness set to maximum. There’s a chance that the machine may go for longer set to Windows 8.1′s Power Saver setting, but there’s little chance that even then the E5-551 would allow for true all-day productivity.
You can maximise hard disk space by erasing some of the boatware apps that come with the E5-551, which include aDocs, Booking.com, Cyberlink Photo Direct (and Power Direct), eBay and others.
The Acer Aspire E5-551 is a fair attempt at a mid-range laptop that has its fair share of features wrapped in a sturdy chassis with a no-frill (some may call it minimal) design. While it offers sufficient computing power to chew through everyday tasks and doesn’t put a huge foot wrong anywhere, it doesn’t excel at anything either.
When it comes to the basics, the E5-551 delivers. It has a serviceable keyboard and a roomy trackpad that’s responsive and satisfying to use. If you absolutely must have a DVD writer in the machine, an increasing rarity in itself, the E5-551 offers one.
There’s a healthy selection of connectivity options, whether you need onboard LAN, HDMI-out for hooking up to a monitor or VGA for connecting a projector. It’s a shame that only one USB 3.0 port has been included in the mix.
The E5-551 is solidly build and capable of taking a bit of tough and tumble around the house. You probably wouldn’t want to lug it about too often because of its size and weight, but if it’s going to be sat on a desk then you can be confident it could take a knock or two.
The E5-551′s biggest weakness is its display’s miserly 1,366 x 768 resolution, which makes it difficult to be productive. Snapping apps and documents is awkward, and while its 15.6-inch display is big, you’ll be limited to watching videos in HD (720p) rather than full-HD (1080p). That display also suffers from narrow viewing angles, washed out colours and dull brightness. There’s plenty of screen to view your videos and images, but they’re not going to look great.
While it’s not workstation chunky, the E5-551 is a bit of a beast. It’s too thick to be comfortably portable and if you’re seeking a 15-inch laptop that’s a bit lighter, getting one that doesn’t have a DVD drive and buying a USB-powered one separately would be the way to go.
The disappointment doesn’t stop there: the E5-551′s speakers are poor, it only offers last-gen 802.11n Wi-Fi, and at the three-hour mark, its battery life isn’t going to allow you to get much done away from a plug socket for any serious amount of time.
The Acer Aspire E5-551 isn’t a disaster, but for a machine that costs what it does, that’s the biggest compliment it can be paid. It really boils down to what you need from a laptop. Its 1TB hard disk drive is capacious, but slow. The display is big, but suffers from a low pixel-resolution. Windows 8.1 apps run smoothly, but the display has no touch operation.
It’s pipped to the post by the Lenovo G505, which scored similarly in CPU and CPU benchmark tests but comes with two USB 3.0 ports and slightly better battery life.
If you’re prepared to sacrifice the DVD drive, a smaller option such as the Lenovo Flex 2 14-inch convertible would offer more for your money. While it comes with half the E5-551′s storage capacity, that laptop uses a 500GB SSHD drive that combines fast solid-state speeds with the capacity of hard disk.