Intel's Optane Memory perks up the 1TB hard drive of Acer's $500 Aspire 5 laptop, but a dim screen and tepid performance will keep it off budget buyers' short lists.
It's an eye-catching claim on the box and palm-rest sticker of the Acer Aspire 5 (A515-51-58HD): "20GB Memory." Can a $499.99 laptop really come with that much RAM? A second glance reveals the catch: There's only 4GB of system memory. The other 16GB is Intel Optane Memory, which serves as an intelligent cache to speed up the 1TB hard drive. (The system has no solid-state drive.) It works all right; the Acer feels perkier than other PCs we've tried with 5,400rpm SATA hard drives, though never as swift as one with an SSD. But Optane can't do anything about the Aspire 5's murky screen or other shortcomings. Our Editors' Choice recommendation for a budget desktop replacement is still that you spend $100 more for Acer's Aspire E 15 (E5-576G-5762), or $200 more for the Asus VivoBook S15 S530UA.
The Aspire 5 is a 15.6-inch notebook styled in generic black plastic with chrome accents around the edges and a pattern of fine lines on the lid. It's slightly overweight but not an impossible burden at 4.63 pounds. (Compare that to 4 pounds for the non-touch-screen Dell XPS 15, or 5.27 pounds for the Aspire E 15, which has an optical drive.) And it's almost as bulky as the latter, at 0.85 by 15 by 10.4 inches (HWD).
Except for missing Thunderbolt 3, which you shouldn't expect to find in an inexpensive laptop, anyway, the Aspire 5 has a good selection of ports. On the system's left side are a security lock, an Ethernet jack, a USB-C 3.1 Gen 1 port, a USB 3.0 Type-A port with device charging, an HDMI video output, and an SD card slot. On the right are two USB 2.0 ports, an audio jack, and the connector for the AC adapter.
Open the lid, and you'll see the near-full-width silver hinge, etched with the word "Aspire" and able to open a full 180 degrees. Medium-thick bezels surround the screen, while a chrome strip borders the touchpad. There's neither a face-recognition camera nor a fingerprint reader, so owners can't use Windows Hello to skip sign-ins. The webcam above the display renders washed-out, slightly noisy images; I found my image improved considerably if I sat further back from the laptop, but that put me out of arm's length or typing range.
Acer touts the machine's TrueHarmony sound system, but music from the bottom-mounted speakers sounded flat to me, though it does get more than loud enough to fill a room. There's enough bass to give some kick to drums, and vocals are clear, but the overall effect felt canned.
Speaking of bottom-mounted, however, the Aspire earns points for easy-to-remove panels that give you interior access to upgrade the RAM and storage.
Sadly, the Aspire's worst feature is its screen. Considering the system's low price, it's definitely nice to get a full HD (1,920-by-1,080-pixel) native resolution instead of lowly 1,366 by 768, but in my first minutes with the Aspire I kept mashing the keys to turn up the backlight, though it was already at its max—the screen is just plain dim, with even slightly shaded parts of images swallowed by the gloom.
Colors are muddy, and contrast is weak. Details are reasonably clear thanks to the 1080p resolution, but it isn't an in-plane switching (IPS) panel, so viewing angles are poor, especially along the vertical axis.
While the display isn't backlit enough, the keyboard's not backlit at all. That's bearable at this price point, however, and the keys offer adequate travel and a soft, plasticky typing feel. The cursor arrows are in an unfortunate HP-style row—half-size up and down arrows sandwiched between full-size left and right—instead of the proper inverted T, and the Delete key is a tiny thing above the left half of Backspace. But there are dedicated Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys at top right, and the comfortable if somewhat hollow feel lets you move along at a good clip.
Acer backs the Aspire 5 with a one-year warranty and preinstalls a fair amount of bloatware, from Amazon and Ebates to WildTangent games and a December 2017 build of Firefox.
As we wrote in our review of the technology, Intel Optane Memory (not to be confused with the company's Optane SSDs) is a cutting-edge kind of non-volatile memory that monitors program launches and other disk operations to speed up your favorite tasks, giving a hard drive some of the responsiveness of an SSD.
It's the real deal: When I installed and loaded GIMP 2.10, exited and rebooted to make sure the app wasn't still in system memory, and launched it again, load time fell from 27 to 10 seconds. The same treatment trimmed LibreOffice 6.1 from 16 to 3 seconds. In PCMark 8's disk test, which runs each of its workloads three times, the Adobe Photoshop time dropped from 411 to 394 seconds.
On the other hand, 16GB can only do so much. Running the PCMark disk test in its entirety twice caused the score to go down, not up. (The second pass took 12 minutes longer than the first.) Subjectively, the Aspire rarely felt as lively as the many laptops I've tested with SSDs.
And its performance in our standard benchmarks was uninspiring, apart from a fine score of 3,277 in the PCMark Work office productivity test. Hampered by its 4GB instead of 8GB of RAM, the Acer failed to keep up with other laptops that carry the same 1.6GHz Core i5-8250U processor. It was downright slow in our Photoshop CS6 test, which involves loading and applying 11 filters and effects to a sample image.
Like other laptops with Intel integrated graphics, it trailed the Aspire E 15 and its Nvidia GeForce MX150 discrete graphics in our visual benchmarks, landing at the back of the pack in our Heaven and Valley gaming simulations. And it lasted for only six and a half hours of video playback in our battery rundown test, less than half the time of the E 15.
It's easy to tell laptop shoppers to hold out for 8GB of system memory, a solid-state drive, and an IPS screen. It's a little less easy to tell them to cough up the money required for such a machine, so I'm not unsympathetic to what Acer has tried to do with the A515-51-58HD, especially with the addition of Optane Memory, which is a genuine booster to the hard drive. But it's not a magic bullet, and it's no substitute for giving Windows the headroom of 8GB of RAM or giving users a bright display.
Acer offers numerous Aspire 5 models from $399 up. Studying the company's site will reveal some more tempting ones, worth skipping lunches and lattes for. In the meantime, our Acer and Asus Editors' Choice laptops remain worthy targets.
Bottom Line: Intel's Optane Memory perks up the 1TB hard drive of Acer's $500 Aspire 5 laptop, but a dim screen and tepid performance will keep it off budget buyers' short lists.
Formerly editor-in-chief of Home Office Computing, Eric Grevstad is a contributing editor for PCMag and Computer Shopper, where he earlier served as lead laptop analyst and executive editor, respectively. A tech journalist since the TRS-80 and Apple II days, Grevstad specializes in lightweight laptops, all-in-one desktops, and productivity software... See Full Bio
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