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A cute, light and utterly potent travel mate

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Review: The Acer Travelmate 312T subnotebook

By Roy Blumenthal (roy.blumenthal@pixie.co.za)

Here I am, sitting at McDaid’s in Dublin, Ireland, the pub that was “home” in the fifties to the tempestuous and brilliant Irish writer, Brendan Behan. In front of me is one of the cutest and most stylish notebook computers I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing: the Acer Travelmate 312T. It’s warm in here, a pleasant contrast to the 1-degree rain outside, and I’ve been playing around on this machine for the last half hour or so. Trish, a gorgeous, blue-eyed Irish lass is sitting nearby, talking to her friends. I’m so inspired by my surroundings that I think I’ll put the Acer to the “Poetic Generation Test”. In other words, can I use it to generate a suitably poetic love poem? You’ll see the results below.

But before I get into that, I’ll mention here that the Acer Travelmate 312T is a full-featured notebook computer that’s smaller than a filofax. We’re talking about a Pentium 233 MHz MMX machine with 32 Meg RAM and a 3.2 gigabyte hard drive, all for R14 000.

  1. Is it ready to use? Outta the box and into operation. It comes with Windows 95 or 98, whichever you prefer. It’s almost ready for you to head for the real world. There are two battery packs (smaller than the size of my palm), which take about three hours each to charge. Do that, and you can hit the turf running. Make a beeline straight for McDaid’s, with this thing tucked under your arm, or sneaked into your handbag if you’re a woman or a man in drag, and start pumping out poetry. All right, so give me some time, all right?
  2. Is it easy to use? There are no quirks to navigate your head around with this notebook. You open the lid (which is simple), you press the on-off switch, and it powers up. And then you’re using it for whatever you normally use computers for. I habitually try and use mine to impress lithe strangers with blue eyes and blonde hair, and the Travelmate makes this suspiciously easy. As I furrow my brow in concentration, getting ready to extract a masterpiece, I overhear someone sniggering, “It’s so small!!!” And yes, she’s talking about the laptop.One thing that wasn’t so easy to do was to switch the machine off after I had forced a crash. I wanted to see how it handled crashing, so I unplugged the battery and then plugged it in quickly again. The machine hung, and there was nothing I could do to get it to turn off. The power button seems to be software-linked. So the only way I could figure to do it was to close the lid, pull the battery out all the way, and then restart it. This worked, but there was nothing to indicate what I ought to do in this kind of emergency. I had these horrible fears of letting the battery go flat before I could do anything.Plugging the cdrom and stiffy drives in was simplicity itself. The machine recognised their presence immediately, and everything worked smoothly from there. (I played some U2 and Pogues cds through the cdrom drive, making use of the built-in soundcard. Perfect, even though the unit only has a mono speaker. Worked for me.)
  3. Does it operate as advertised? The main advantage this machine has over any other notebook is its size. It really is smaller than a small filofax. Well, let me rephrase that… the Travelmate 312T is MUCH smaller than my filofax. See, my filofax is crammed with enough loose pages to make it hazardous to be around me in airport terminals — guards stop me for having a dangerous explosive device. The Travelmate is basically the same size as an A5 sheet of paper, only thicker. 3,6 cm thick, to be precise.It’s also pretty darn light. Weighing in at 1,3 kg, it was almost unnoticeable to me as I carried it through the streets of Dublin under my borrowed umbrella. And that’s another powerful feature, especially if you carry your machine in any city where crime is rife (we won’t mention Johannesburg by name, will we?)… the Travelmate is virtually invisible to the prying eyes of pavement wealth-redistributors. It’s not as light as the traditional poet’s arsenal — a pencil and a piece of paper, but heck, it’s so much more impressive.Of course, it’s not as small as a palmtop, but we’re talking about a major pentium machine here, not the semi-functional simulation of a computer most palmtops offer. This thing is a high-end production machine, if you want it to be. It comes standard with a Pentium 233 MHz MMX chip (unfortunately, because of size constraints, it cannot house the more powerful Pentium II chip, but it’s fast enough for me thank you very much). You get 32 Megs of RAM, which you can upgrade to 80 Megs if you like. The hard drive is a respectable 3,2 gigs, leaving you plenty of space for all the software I can think of installing. (The laptop I use as my production machine has a 2,1 gig drive, and I’ve got all sorts of space-munching applications on there.)The keyboard is a fully functional Windows keyboard. While the keys are a lot smaller than any laptop I’ve played on, I am still able to touch-type as fast as I normally do. (Gimme a break. Poems don’t come quickly, you know!) The key-size took a bit of getting used to, but I reckon that any notebook keyboard takes getting used to, since things are in different places. The only REAL frustration I have with this keyboard is the positioning of the “Del” key, but this has to do with habit, rather than intrinsic design faults. If anything, the key movement is a little on the soft side — I could do with a more meaty “click” as I type, but again, this is a matter of taste, and I’m doing fine right now.The screen is an 8,4″ Active TFT screen. A lot smaller than you’re used to, I reckon, but everything is perfectly legible. It’s a crisp screen, and I was happy enough with it. Of course, if you’re at your desktop, it’s a simple matter to plug in an external monitor.If there are downsides, these have to do with the peripherals. The battery life is not really all that it should be, though I found that I could easily get two hours off each battery. With a quick “Standby” mode, I could simply swap batteries and carry on working with only a minute or so downtime. We’re talking about 4 hours of continuous battery use. You’ll need to take the small power unit with you if you have more work to do than that.The external cdrom and stiffy drives are kinda large and clumpy when you compare them to the machine itself. Also, the cdrom needs an external power supply of its own, so you’re going to be packing your stuff into something the size of a normal notebook’s carry bag if you want all the goodies that go with it. (I’m truly surprised at the size of these drives. Technology has succeeded in delivering MUCH smaller devices, much neater ones. It would be nice if Acer could investigate getting those as the standard components, rather than these ones.)One thing that disappointed me was the touch pad. The buttons did not click when I pressed them — they simply sponged down, with no feedback to let me know that I’d clicked. Also, the touchpad software was archaic — it didn’t have any acceleration. A big problem if you’re trying to get around the screen easily.However, I have to make it very clear that the stripped-down size of the Acer Travelmate is its big selling point. The reason it is so small is to allow you to do real work away from your standard desk. This normally does not require you to have a cdrom or stiffy drive on hand with you. We’re talking about nose-to-the-grindstone productiveness here, not about installing the latest version of Quake in the pubs of Ireland. We’re talking about romance, about sitting in the same seat Brendan Behan sat in when he hurled his typewriter through the window in a fit of drunken frustration. We’re talking about exercising our right to poetic self-expression.Regular readers of Gadget will know that I am a widely published poet. You will also know that I take every opportunity to publicise this fact. So, to those who are anti-poetry or those who find love poems hard to stomach, please skip this next paragraph. Cos I’m on a roll. The muse is with me. Trish is beside me. Almost…
      Well, sometimes poetry is about wishful thinking, hmm? And if you’re wondering, my attempt at romance was entirely successful. I fell in love with the place. And I got a poem out. Other than that, well, this is Ireland, and the presence of people writing love poems in pubs is kinda expected here.Talking of love, the Travelmate 312T is cute. Really really cute. This is the kind of machine I would have no qualms about having in my bed with me. I could do some late night writing on a machine that looks this good.
    • Is it value for money? There are more powerful pentium notebooks on the market that cost less, but none that do what this cat can do: fit into a small handbag or sling bag for thoroughly devastating computing power wherever you happen to be. Heck, this thing isn’t a laptop or a notebook — it’s a kneetop. Yup. For a laugh, I used it by balancing it on my knee and doing a full-speed typing flurry in that position. It’s small enough to just sit there, taking all the abuse I can hurl at it.So yeah, I would say this is one of those essential festive-season treats. At R14 000, you’re buying a machine that’s small enough to take where you need it, yet powerful enough to handle almost any task you care to present it with.While the keyboard takes a little getting used to, once you’re in the flow, there’s no looking back. If you’re serious about being mobile, get yourself an Acer Travelmate 312T. It might not make you into a good poet, but somebody might buy you a Guinness for your efforts.

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