The Acer TravelMate gets all the basics right, with decent battery life, good application performance and a sturdy, robust feeling chassis. For under £500 it would be a good choice for home or business users looking for a simple Windows machine that can be carried around.
The TravelMate 256-M is a no-nonsense 15-inch laptop aimed at business users. It may be low in frills but it packs the essentials to get jobs done – and costs under £500. Be aware of the many confusing names that Acer applies to the same laptop – this model is billed as the TravelMate P2, the TravelMate P256-M, by a model name of TMP256-M-55EG, or Acer’s preferred hieroglyphic SKU of NX.V9MEK.005. See also: 38 best laptops for 2015: The best laptop you can buy in the UK.
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Acer TravelMate 256-M review: Build and Design
To earn its keep as a business tool, a laptop needs to have a certain durability, and here the TravelMate feels like its up to the job. The chassis is tough black plastic lid back and top deck – smooth and fingerprint wipeable – and a matt textured plastic underside. There’s no give in the body although the lid/display assembly will flex a little when twisted.
Crucially there’s practically no bending across the top deck and wrist-rest area, giving a firm foundation to mount the excellent keyboard. This has rough textured key tops, likely to polish smooth after use, but when new is eminently easy to work with, helped by the smooth, consistent action of the medium-travel Scrabble-tile keys with number keypad to the right.
There’s no complaint with the buttonless trackpad either, which is unusually easy to steer accurately for a budget laptop. We did find that cursor speed was too slow though, even with Windows and Synaptics adjustments set to maximum.
On the left side are two video ports, HDMI and VGA, plus gigabit ethernet, one USB 3.0 and a 3.5 mm headset jack. Over on the right are two more USB, only USB 2.0 spec though, the DC power inlet, and an increasingly rare sight on any computer – a DVD drive. This Matshita multi-format optical drive can read and write to various discs, including dual-layer and DVD-RAM. We did find the tray would pop out unexpectedly when picking up the laptop sometimes.
From below you can easily remove the 55 Wh lithium-ion battery, even if the usual trapdoors to access memory and hard disk are absent. The TravelMate 256-M is fitted with 4 GB of memory and a 500 GB hard disk, and these should be upgradable after removing the entire bottom plate. (See also: 11 best ultraportable laptops of 2015 UK: Best Ultrabooks you can buy.)
Acer TravelMate 256-M review: Performance
Our sample of TravelMate had a 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-4210U dual-core processor, a processor that includes Hyper Threading Technology to work like a quad-core, and Turbo Boost up to 2.7 GHz; although we found some online retailers selling under the same product code with the previous Core i5-4200U processor clocked at 1.6 GHz. We suspect in actual use there will be little appreciable difference in performance.
Geekbench 3 scored the processor and memory with 2517 points running single-core, and 4863 points for multi-core mode. The professional Cinebench 15 test returned similar decent results of 104 and 241 points, well below those of a professional workstation notebook but suggesting ample raw power for crunching through office programs and some creative media work. In the OpenGL rendering test, the Acer average just under 21 fps.
PCMark 7 scored the Acer with 2443 points, and PCMark 8’s various sub-tests also gave middle-of-the road results: the Home Conventional test showed 2159 points, rising to 2229 when accelerated by the Intel chip’s integrated graphics processor. The Work section showed clear advantages to using OpenCL-optimised programs though, rising from 2692 points to 3305. These results were compromised specifically by the relatively slow storage technology, since PCMark gives an all-round system speed check that also evaluates drive speed.
Turning to the hard disk, Acer has installed the traditional 2.5-inch SATA hard disk, a Seagate drive spinning at 5400 rpm. While slow you do at least get the advantage of a sizable volume to store data. In our tests it could read and write at around 108 MB/s, falling to 22 and 41 MB/s with 512 kB files; and then tumbling to just 0.41 and 0.76 MB/s with small 4 kB random files. This will be the principal reason why Windows feels more sluggish than normal on this laptop.
As a quick measure of the capability of the Intel HD Graphics 4400, we tested with Batman: Arkham City, where the TravelMate averaged just 22 fps at its native low 1366 x 768-pixel resolution and Medium detail. By dropping resolution to 1280 x 720 and detail to Low, it mustered an almost playable 28 fps, albeit with 15 fps minimum.
Display quality is typically one area where laptop makers cut corners, and the TravelMate P2 was no exception. It takes a budget twisted-nematic (TN) technology screen, with legendary poor viewing angles, restricted colour gamut and low contrast ratio. Tilting the screen back a few degrees beyond optimum and the image quickly disappears into a dark mess.
Contrast ratio was a low 90:1, leading to milky colours and light-grey blacks, while colour gamut incorporated just 65 percent of the basic sRGB colour space. Colour accuracy measured 2.28 Delta E, where better quality screens hit 1.0 or less deviation.
All that said, the display was usable enough and benefitted from calibration to bring its colours out of the washed-out blue to slightly more natural tones.
Such basic low-res TN panels are more frugal in power requirements, and probably helped the TravelMate last for a useful 8 hr 26 min in our standard looped-video rundown test. At 2.3 kg the Acer is not quite a featherweight but combined with the good battery life it should make a much better travelling tool than other short-lived laptops. (See also: Best budget laptops of 2015 UK: 37 best cheap laptops.)
Acer TravelMate 256-M: Specs
- 15.6-inch (1366 x 768) TN matt anti-glare (‘ComfyView’)
- 1.7 GHz Intel Core i5-4210U (2.7 GHz Turbo) 2C,4T
- Intel HD Graphics 4400
- 4 GB (1x 4 GB) 1600 MHz DDR3L
- 500 GB 5400 rpm SATA HDD (ST500LT012-1DG142)
- gigabit ethernet
- Intel Wireless-N 7260
- Bluetooth 4.0
- DVD-RAM (Matshita UJ8E2Q)
- 1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0
- HDMI, VGA D-Sub
- SD card slot
- stereo speakers
- 0.9 Mp webcam
- 3.5 mm headset jack
- UK tiled keyboard with number keypad
- buttonless multi-touch trackpad
- 55 Wh lithium-ion, removable battery
- 40 W mains charger with C5 inlet
- 380 x 254 x 25.2 mm (29.8 mm with battery)
- 2301 g