Everything But the Keyboard

When I unboxed the Acer TravelMate 8481T I was actually pretty impressed. Acer's notebooks admittedly tend to err more towards the bargain basement set, and build quality and design have often suffered for it. Even the TimelineX 3830TG initially seems interesting and even like quite a bargain, right up until you realize how much the hardware has to throttle performance due to Acer cramming too much in a small space.

So imagine my surprise at discovering a sleek ultraportable with an almost entirely brushed aluminum shell. It's frankly both incredibly attractive and incredibly sturdy, and there are only two giveaways that it's an Acer notebook: the discreet silver logo on the cover (along with their "Signal Up" logo), and the keyboard forged from the hottest fires of hell itself, damned to endlessly roam the earth bringing woe and misery to typists everywhere. But we'll get to the keyboard soon enough.

Acer's more industrial-style design is a welcome change of pace on the TravelMate 8481T, with plastics seldom employed and the only gloss being the silver screen hinges and the logo on the lid. Acer has produced a notebook that's attractive and functional, and it feels remarkably sturdy to boot. The body doesn't bend or flex, and there's even a 2.5" drive bay (although in our review unit it's unoccupied and lacks the proper connectors due to the onboard SSD). Some people may not like the way the battery bulges out of the bottom, but that kind of design has honestly never bothered me that much (I prefer the incline it creates for the keyboard) and as I said before, it pays off elsewhere.

Unfortunately, despite having produced an attractive and understated notebook, and even managing to produce an excellent touchpad with discrete buttons instead of a single rocker, Acer has gone and fouled things up by using their old "floating island" style keyboard. It's been a long time since I've had an opportunity to rant about this design, but know that my hatred for it runs deep. The flat, mushy keys absolutely ruin the user experience, and it's worlds away from the improved chiclet-style keyboard you'll find on modern Acer consumer notebooks. Even without the flex commonly seen on their consumer models, the keys feel cheap and they can easily pop off; travel is limited and the flat tops don't give a clear delineation between the keys. While Acer's keyboard layout is excellent, typing on it is a joyless experience and for me it actually sinks the entire thing (though to be fair I'm very particular about keyboards).

This is the first Acer notebook I've had in for testing where I felt like I wouldn't mind owning it...and then I tried typing on it. There isn't enough hyperbole in the world to adequately describe my contempt for this keyboard design. Some people might not be as demanding, but those same people probably don't write lengthy articles on a regular basis. If you're a student doing term papers, it's difficult to imagine this being a comfortable keyboard; you can use it if you have to, but try a Dell Latitude, ThinkPad, or even a MacBook Pro and I defy you to come away thinking this is better in any way.

That's a shame, too, because as I said, this is otherwise a pretty ideal little road warrior of a notebook and would be perfect for users like me who need something thin and light to write on, take notes, and so on. This should be excellent for business users and word processors, but what good is it if it's irritating to type on? If you don't want to use your notebook, you'll do anything you can to make sure you don't have to. I'm not personally an Apple fan, but they understand one vital tenet of design: user experience is everything, and if nobody wants to actually use your product they aren't going to buy it.

What's really weird is that so many of Acer's products are built to hit the lowest price point possible, and so we can sort of shrug and say, "Yeah, but at least it's inexpensive." The TravelMate is an upscale laptop in every other way, but it keeps with the tried and false keyboard style. When you're building a business-class laptop and improving the chassis and overall build quality, how does the keyboard get left out? Okay, enough about the keyboard; let's see how the TravelMate 8481T otherwise performs.

Introducing the Acer TravelMate 8481T-6873 Application and Futuremark Performance
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  • ilyon - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I don't agree.

    I HATE, really, these new appe-like chiclet keyboards. With my 3820 TimelineX, I prefer largely this chocolate type. Hopefully, Alienware still gives us some true keyboards, but with a price.
  • Chapbass - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I totally agree with you. It looks like this laptop has a similar keyboard to the Sony SZ650? If so, then I love that style of keyboard. The Chiclet style I really can't stand, I cant exactly put my finger on it, but typing on them just feels....forced... to me I guess.

    I guess its all opinion, but option is a good thing to have.
  • KingstonU - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I also love the keyboard on my 5820 TimelineX. I did not like the keyboard on the Apple notebooks that I tried.
  • RussianSensation - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I am gonna jump on your guys bandwagon. I hate chiclet keyboards myself. I find that often the backspace key is too far out (esp. on the Mac laptops), which makes it less comfortable to use. Also, the keys just aren't as springy and don't deliver that nice feedback that conventional/traditional laptop keyboard has.

    While I much prefer the construction quality and form factor and 2.8-2.9 lbs of Ultrabooks over this laptop in the review, and I'd much rather have a glossy screen over matter for better color/contrast ratio, I'd take this old school style keyboard.
  • RussianSensation - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    But ya, to add, thsi laptop should be $799-899, tops. For $1,300, Acer is otu to lunch on this one. You can get the Asus X31 or the MBA which weigh more than 1lbs less, have superior screens, and construction/design too, plus faster SSDs to boot.
  • snuuggles - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    Just to reiterate: the Asus UX31's keyboard is an utter failure. I've tried both the UX31 and the MBA 13. The MBA was fine overall--no significant issues besides the price. The UX31 had *horrible* trackpad issues and an utterly useless keyboard (see my other comments).

    Most reviewers of the UX31 mention how horrible the keyboard is, but they still tend to give the machine high marks. I'm utterly baffled by this: if the keyboard was not a vital part of the machine, I'd get a tablet. To "put aside" the horrible keyboard is insane.

    The UX31 is not a MBA competitor. It's not worth buying due to it's malfunctioning keyboard.
  • DanNeely - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I mostly agree; however the acer spanks the MBA/X31 on battery life. The bigger battery shoudn't cost anywhere near as much more as it does though.
  • ph0masta - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I am currently using an Acer Keyboard myself, and I don't see what is wrong with it. The keys are very sturdy and also very springy, which allows for fast typing. At least on this model there isn't any flex. The key themselves are made with glossy plastic though which appears a bit cheap.
  • Old_Fogie_Late_Bloomer - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I feel like I need to jump in here in defense of Acer. While this keyboard may be too cheap for a premium laptop, (and for the price this computer really needs a higher-resolution screen), it is not anywhere near as bad as this review makes it out to be, and that's coming from someone who works as a typist. I've been using the original ULV Core 2 Solo for school for well over two years, and I've typed a LOT on it. Is it a Lenovo keyboard? No. Have I lost any of the keys? Also no. Have I taken notes in dozens of classes, written programs and lab reports, and generally been fine with it? Yup.
  • dcollins - Monday, December 12, 2011 - link

    I have a Lenovo E420, which combines the tried and true action of the Thinkpad keyboards with "chiclet" style keys. I bought the laptop mostly for the keyboard, which is my favorite keyboard I have ever used, laptop or desktop.

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