Acer Aspire 5 review: Coffee Lake upgrade offers buckets of energy
What else can the new processor bring to this mid-range notebook?
It's easy to be distracted by expensive and extravagant laptops, but machines that cost the earth aren't always practical - or affordable. That's where laptops like the 485 Acer Aspire 5 come in.
Acer Aspire 5 review: Design
The middling price means understated design. The lid is coated with plastic that's got a modest slatted pattern, and the area around the keyboard has a thin layer of brushed aluminium. There's a bit of chrome around the trackpad, but that's it when it comes to eye-catching aesthetics.
The Acer's approach is similar to the Dell Vostro 14 5468. That machine looked similarly generic, with a mix of plastic and metal, and understated colours.
The Acer might look similar to the Dell, but it's noticeably larger due to its 15.6in screen - the Dell only had a 14in panel. The Acer weighs 2.1kg and it's 22mm thick, while the Dell tipped the scales at 1.59kg and was 18.5mm thick. Unsurprisingly, you'll have to pay more to get anything slimmer: the Acer VivoBook S510UA costs 666 exc VAT and it weighs 1.5kg and is just 17.9mm thin.
Acer's laptop certainly isn't the slimmest or lightest notebook we've seen, but those figures aren't disastrous and the Aspire won't prove too cumbersome.
The build quality is similarly middling. The area around the trackpad and keyboard is sturdy enough, but the plastic base panel feels a little bouncy and there's a tad too much flex in the screen. This is not a weak laptop, but it'll need careful handling on the road.
The port selection is a mixed bag: the Acer only has one USB 3 port and no fingerprint scanner, but it does have a Type-C connection - something many laptops don't include. We're pleased to see that the Acer offers some internal access though. One panel can be removed to reveal one of the memory sticks, while another has a vacant 2.5in drive bay.
Acer's machine isn't the strongest or the best-looking laptop, but it's perfectly adequate, especially for its price - and it's a bit more versatile than some rivals in the same bracket.
Acer Aspire 5 review: Keyboard & Trackpad
The Acer's increased width means that it has a numberpad, unlike the Vostro. That bodes well for work, and the layout is fine - the Return key is double-height and the space bar and shift keys are big enough.
The only minor issue is the power button, which is installed on the keyboard. That could be tricky if you're flying around the buttons and accidentally tap it.
The keyboard itself is a quiet and delicate affair. The buttons don't have a huge amount of travel, they're very light - so the keys almost feel like they're not moving as you type. That's great if you prefer a lighter touch, and it's not a million miles away from the latest MacBooks, which hardly need any pressure to register key-presses. However, the Dell machine has firmer buttons with more travel.
The Acer has a great trackpad. The pad's in-built buttons are light and fast, with a rapid response that easily beats the spongy and soft pad on the Vostro.
Acer Aspire 5 review: Display
The Acer has a 15.6in 1080p IPS matte panel - so it's an entirely conventional mid-range notebook screen.
The 1,920 x 1,080 resolution is fine, but the Dell has been upgraded with a 1080p panel since we reviewed it, and its smaller diagonal means that it'll be slightly sharper.
The Aspire's resolution is ample for work, but the Acer's lack of quality means that this screen is only good enough for modest productivity tasks. Its brightness level of 231cd/m2, for instance, is low - fine for most occasions, but it'll struggle outdoors and perhaps under bright office lights. The black level of 0.72cd/m2 isn't great, either, and they create a contrast ratio of 321:1. That's poor, and it creates underwhelming dark areas and a lack of vibrancy across the entire visual range.
It's a shame that the contrast is poor, because the Aspire has decent colour reproduction. Its average Delta E of 1.35 is solid, and so is the colour temperature of 6,846K. Uniformity is reasonable, with the backlight not varying by more than 10% in any area of the panel.
Those latter results are better, but the poor contrast ratio and black measurements restrict the Acer to work tasks that aren't colour sensitive - and its sRGB coverage level of 52.6% is also deeply mediocre. It's fine for web browsing, writing and spreadsheets, but don't edit your pictures on this notebook.
Acer Aspire 5 review: Hardware & Performance
Acer has slotted an upgraded Kaby Lake processor into this machine. The Core i5-8250U is a low-power chip, just like the i5-7200U in the Dell and the Core i7-7500U in the Asus, but a closer look reveals that Intel's newer part is very impressive.
The updated Core i5 has four cores rather than the two that were included in last year's part, and Intel has taken a different approach with clock speed. The Dell's i5-7200U had a 2.5GHz stock speed with a modest Turbo peak of 3.1GHz - while the new part has a lower base clock of 1.6GHz and a mighty Turbo pace of 3.4GHz across all four cores.The new chip also has more cache than last year's Core i5 parts and faster graphics than older Core i5 and Core i7 silicon.
Those changes bring the Core i5 chip into the same ballpark as the i7-7500U, which was inside the Asus machine. That part had two Hyper-Threaded cores rather than four native cores, and it reached a Turbo peak of 3.5GHz.
Impressively, Intel has done this without raising the power requirements of the chip when compared to older parts.
Intel reckons that the huge Turbo leap gives the Core i5 chip more control over its power delivery - so there's more grunt when it's needed, and less electricity being consumed when the chip isn't in demand. That bodes well for performance and for battery life.
The new Core i5 chip returned a score of 85 in our application benchmarks, which is far better than the 48 scored by the Dell and the 55 scored by the Asus - in fact, it's beating far more expensive machines, and coming up on the figures we'd expect from a high-end workstation. That's a surprise, but when Intel claimed that its Coffee Lake refresh chips deliver vast performance improvements due to better Turbo control and more cores, the firm clearly wasn't joking.
The Acer machine then scored 4,106 and 12,935 in Geekbench - figures that are only a few hundred points shy of last year's Core i7 chips.
The Micron 1100 SSD doesn't have much to shout about, though, with middling read and write results of 533MB/sec and 496MB/sec - better than a hard disk but a long way behind NVMe silicon. The installed 8GB of memory is enough, and it's dual-channel, so it'll be faster than the 8GB of single-channel DDR4 in the Dell Vostro.
There's no room in the Acer's budget for a discrete graphics core, though, which means graphical applications won't run too well - this laptop will handle Photoshop, but not much more. Its result of 41fps in the 720p Dirt Showdown benchmark indicates the GPU's modest performance.
We have no thermal issues with this laptop, with near-silent operation in all scenarios and a fine peak temperature of 83C. With all the CPU cores engaged at 100% the chip throttled to 2.3GHz and reduced its temperature to 61C, and with one core at load the full Turbo might of the i5-8250U was deployed.
Acer has packed a 61Wh battery into this machine. That's much larger than the 42Wh power pack installed in the Dell machine. When combined with the new Kaby Lake processor, the difference is stark: the Acer lasted for 9hrs 46mins in our test, while the Dell could only manage 5hrs 51mins and the Asus managed 5hrs 26mins.
That's enough longevity to deliver a whole day away from the mains, which is crucial for a business machine.
Acer Aspire 5 review: Verdict
Intel's updated Kaby Lake architecture has turbo-charged the Acer Aspire 5's mid-range processor. Its extra cores and more robust boosting abilities deliver an improvement to performance and contribute to excellent battery life - so this Core i5 chip delivers pace that even manages to beat the last generation's Core i7 silicon.
Elsewhere, the Acer is more ordinary. Its screen is underwhelming, the keyboard requires a light touch, and its exterior design is middling. It doesn't have any particular business features, like vPro or a fingerprint reader.
If you're after a huge performance boost and good battery life without spending loads of cash, though, the Acer is an excellent machine without any major problems - and a better option than basically anything else at this price.
Intel’s new processors deliver a big boost to performance and battery life, although this machine is more mediocre elsewhere
Processor: 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-8250U
RAM: 8GB 2,400MHz DDR4
Graphics: Intel UHD Graphics 620
Storage: 256GB Micron 1100 SSD
Display: 15.6in 1,920 x 1,080 IPS
Operating system: Windows 10 Home 64-bit
Connectivity: Gigabit Ethernet, dual-band 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
Ports: 1 x USB 3, 1 x USB 3.1 Type-C, 2 x USB 2, 1 x HDMI, 1 x Gigabit Ethernet, 1 x SDXC, 1 x audio
Dimensions: 386 x 263 x 22mm
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