Finding a decent highly-portable travel laptop.

For about the last year I’ve been pondering a new laptop.  My old machine is still running quite nicely, despite it being nearly six years old.  It’s been upgraded significantly, but it is a massive block of computer compared to some of today’s options.  I’ve been attending a number of conferences and workshops involving air travel, and every ounce and square inch in my carry-on luggage makes a big difference.  The six-plus pound Toshiba was pushing the limits when cramming onto an Embraer RJ145 commuter jet.

I’m comfortable with  linux based operating systems, and by extension not too uncomfortable with the Mac’s Unix-based OSX operating system.  So when I saw a Macbook Air a few years ago, it seemed a very attractive option for travel.  However, when I specced out a decently powerful machine on Apple’s site, I always ended up somewhere between $1200 and $1700…far too much to make an impulse buy on this teacher’s salary.  I looked at the netbook options (dwindling from the marketplace, unfortunately) and low-end laptops, but it seemed that no one wanted to offer small highly-portable computers with good current processors and memory without charging an arm and a leg.  I asked around, looking for the “windows equivalent” of the Macbook Air at a sub-$1000 price.  I want small.  I want power.  I want memory.  I want inexpensive.  Nothing seemed to meet my desired specs.

Enter the Acer V5 171 series.

My new Acer laptop in a lab setting

The Acer V5 171 series is a very affordable (~$500) line of small notebooks with excellent modern processor and memory options. As shown, it is an i5-3337u with six gigs of ram for $499.

Riding the same chassis as Acer’s Chromebook offerings, this is a deceptively small machine considering the available horsepower under the hood.  I bought a mid-range model with an i5 processor, six gigs of ram, and a 500 gig 5400-rpm hard drive that sold directly from Acer for $499 (normally $579).  You can slash the price even further under $500 by opting for an i3 processor model, and for a bit more you can upgrade to an i7 model with eight gigs of ram.

Versus the Macbook Air, it is certainly a cheaper machine–by about $800 in a similar configuration.  The Macbook has advantages, such as a solid state hard drive (faster and more durable than the mechanical drive in the Acer) and a more sturdy metal chassis.  The Acer’s processor has the edge at a 1.8ghz i5-3337u vs. the Mac’s 1.3ghz i5.  The Acer also has more standard memory in the configuration I bought, 6Gb vs. 4Gb.

Either of these machines would have (in my possession) ended up with the Ubuntu linux operating system in a dual-boot configuration.  I looked at native Ubuntu laptops from System76 and ZaReason, but at the time I looked neither had a small 10″-12″ laptop at a comparable price.  If either of them had a ~12″ three-pound laptop for slightly less than the Acer Win8 machine, I would likely be typing on that now.

So far I’m quite happy with my choice.  Time will tell whether this little machine is durable and well built.

It was a little difficulty to get Windows8 and the UEFI to play nicely with Ubuntu, but a couple of hours of research online led me to working solutions.  I anticipate upgrading to a SSD in the reasonably near future, but for now I am enjoying the space available on the 500 gig drive.  There was plenty of room to shrink the Win8 partition to make space for Ubuntu.

In the next few months I’ll travel several times, and I anticipate this little laptop will be my primary computing companion.  Hopefully I’ll have good news to report on its quality and durability.

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