Friday, April 17, 2015

Acer V3-572 Review - Budget Laptop with Upgrades

Acer V3-572 Review and SSD Upgrade


If you've ever tried shopping for a new budget laptop, it can be a bit maddening. Nearly every one will come with one or two serious compromises, either to the build quality, battery life, display, keyboard, touchpad, or storage -- or in some cases many of these areas. With new models now coming out, the questions of which budget laptop is best can be a bit difficult to answer. More than anything however, laptops can live or die by their storage subsystem; finding a decent budget laptop that doesn't completely botch the storage system is virtually impossible.



Given that Broadwell-U processors (Intel 5th Generation Core, Ultra-Low Voltage) are now available in a variety of laptops, ruling out all of the older 4th Generation parts and earlier. Looking for decent budget options, the requirements are quite simple: at least a 1080p display on something 13.3" to 15.6" in size, with at least 8GB RAM if possible. And getting all of this with a lower price is obviously desirable.

Go look for something like that on Amazon or Newegg or wherever and what do you find? About three different models priced at $700 or less. So pickings are slim, though we should see additional options coming out in the near future (e.g. an update to Lenovo's Flex 2 14"). You have the Acer V3-572/572G, the Toshiba Satellite S55t-B5152, and the ASUS X555LB-NS51 -- and the Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E450 if you're willing to go a bit above $700. All are viable options, and it's worth pointing out that the Acer V3-572G and ASUS X555LB both include discrete GPUs, which is worth going after if you want to do more than very light gaming. But today we're going to be looking at the Acer V3-572-51TR.

The biggest drawback to any of the above laptops is pretty simple: they all use hard drives rather than solid state drives. But if you're willing to put in a bit of time and effort, you can easily fix that omission but upgrading to an SSD on your own. Less than $100 will get you a 250/256GB SSD like the Crucial BX100 250GB or Samsung 850 EVO 250GB, while $190 will buy the BX100 500GB or Samsung 850 EVO 500GB. That means that less than $800 will give you a shiny new laptop with good performance and specifications. Which is precisely what we did with the Acer V3-572, and what follows is a review of the system and general performance -- before and after the storage upgrade.

Let's start with the overview of system features and components.

Acer Aspire V15 V3-572-51TR Specifications
Processor Core i5-5200U (Dual-core, 2.2-2.7GHz, 3MB L3, 15W)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 5500
(24 EUs, 300-900MHz)
Memory 16GB (2x4GB) DDR3L-1600
(Two SO-DIMM slots available)
Storage Stock: 1TB Toshiba 5400RPM
Upgraded: Crucial BX100 500GB SSD
Optical N/A
Display 15.6" Anti-Glare 1080p (1920x1080) TN
Networking Intel AC-7265 Combo (2x2 802.11ac + BT 4.0)
Realtek Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek HD Audio
Stereo speakers
Headset jack
Front Flash Reader (SDXC/SDHC)
Left 1 x Headset
1 x USB 3.0
HDMI
Ethernet
VGA
Exhaust
Kensington Lock
Right 2 x USB 2.0
AC Power
Rear N/A
Input 103-Key Keyboard
Multi-touch Touchpad
Power 6-cell ~56Wh battery
40W AC adapter
Extras HD webcam
OS Windows 8.1 64-bit
Dimensions 15.0" x 10.1"x 1.0-1.2"
(381mm x 256.5mm x 25.4-30.5mm)
Weight 5.62 lbs. (2.55kg)
Pricing $579 online

The core specs are what you would expect of a budget laptop, though the price is actually quite competitive. The plastic chassis is certainly part of the equation, and it's not an Ultrabook so that makes it easier and less expensive to create the laptop. Otherwise this is pretty much the same sort of hardware you'd get from a Broadwell-U Ultrabook only without the SSD and in a thicker chassis. Of course the 15.6" screen contributes to the low price -- it's easier to make a larger laptop than a smaller one, generally speaking.




What's nice is that the size of the chassis means you get features you won't find on smaller laptops. For one, you get a full-size keyboard with a dedicated 10-key. You also get Gigabit Ethernet, VGA port, a removable battery, three USB ports (though only one USB 3.0 port, oddly), a 2.5" drive bay, and upgradeable RAM. (Note that swapping RAM would require fully disassembling the laptop as the SO-DIMM slots are on the reverse side of the motherboard, so this would be a bit of a pain.) Things that are missing include DisplayPort, optical drive, and dedicated headphone and microphone jacks. None of these are a really big omission, though some would happily give up the VGA port for DisplayPort.

Subjective Evaluation and Display Quality


Initial impressions of the Acer V3-572 are fairly positive. No one will mistake an Acer laptop for something made by Apple, but despite a lot of hyperbole and hand wringing there aren't too many major issues with many of Acer's products. One major issue with budget laptops is the low resolution and low quality displays, but we've already intentionally selected to avoid that. The biggest remaining problem is going to be the performance out of the box, as the hard drive is a horribly slow Toshiba 5400RPM model and there's quite a bit of bloatware (unwanted programs and utilities) installed from the factory. Cleaning up the installation and removing unwanted programs might take an hour or so, and then you're free and clear.


Over the years, Acer has had some really poor keyboards and touchpads, but thankfully that isn't a problem with the V3-572. The keyboard is a fairly mundane chiclet style keyboard, but typing on it works well enough that only keyboard snobs would really take issue. It won't compete with a MacBook or ThinkPad keyboard, but it's not horrible by any means and Acer amazingly is still one of the few companies that does the number keypad properly. Dedicated document navigation keys are also present, and in short there are no real complaints.

The touchpad is of the clickpad variety, which some people like and others hate. It's similarly decent though not perfect, and at least Acer uses Synaptics rather than a lesser brand. The touchpad area is quite large, which is great for multi-touch gestures, though I'm personally not really keen on the Windows 8 specific gestures (which can thankfully be disabled). The touchpad also does a good job of rejecting inadvertent touches, e.g. while typing.


While one of the initial requirements was at least a 1080p display, and while we have that this is the one area where the V3-572 definitely comes up a bit short. It's doubtful you could find anything better at this price without making some other compromises, but the display is a TN panel so viewing angles are quite limited, especially from above/below.

The display does use an anti-glare coating, which is preferable for anything that might end up being used around bright lights (or windows that might let in sunlight), but it doesn't get very bright even at the maximum setting -- only around 230 cd/m2. Contrast is okay at nearly 500:1, but clearly not in the same league as the 1000:1 displays that are commonly found on higher quality laptops.


Just as bad as the viewing angles and contrast is the color quality. Simply put, without calibration the colors are very inaccurate, with very poor grayscale and color results. The gamut also falls far short of sRGB, making this display something not at all suited to imaging professionals. But then, we don't expect most imaging professionals would be looking at budget laptops, and if you're not an imaging professional there's a very real chance you won't care too much about the inaccuracy of the display. Calibration helps, but it doesn't totally correct all errors and the gamut falls short of sRGB:


The speakers on the other hand are decent -- not great, but they'll get the job done at least. Even at maximum volume there wasn't any distortion, though as usual there's a definite lack of bass response and the speakers aren't loud enough to do much more than play movies/music for someone sitting near the laptop. If you need better audio, that's what the headset hack is for (or HDMI output).

Upgrading to an SSD


While there's nothing particularly bad with the Acer V3-572-51TR in it's default configuration the storage will be a pretty major bottleneck for regular use. Anyone that has used an SSD (solid state drive) knows the benefits, but in short it makes booting Windows and loading applications much faster. Even after cleaning things up and running Windows 8.1 (which is generally faster at booting than Windows 7), the V3-572 takes over a minute to boot up and log in, and on a laptop booting Windows (or resuming from hibernation) is a fairly regular occurrence. So we upgraded the SSD.

Since this is a budget notebook, there's no sense in going out and buying the best/fastest SSD currently on the market. If we could choose any SSD without too much concern for price right now, the choice would be the Samsung 850 Pro -- that's assuming you don't have a PCIe M.2 slot, which the V3-572 doesn't, of course. $140 would get the 256GB drive or $270 would get the 512GB drive. The thing is, we're looking at a budget laptop with a 15W processor, so maximum performance shouldn't really be a concern.

The Acer V3-572 doesn't like the MX100 512GB on battery power.
Looking at more economical options, the decision to go with the Crucial MX100 512GB drive made sense, but the drive ended up having some serious problems with the Acer V3-572. The short summary is that the laptop worked fine while plugged in, but as soon as it was unplugged there was a problem that would cause the system to lock up within 10-20 seconds. It's not clear if it's a problem with this particular laptop and all MX100 drives or just the 512GB model, but the MX100 512GB didn't work -- and this apparently isn't an isolated incident.

The good news is that the MX100 is basically fading away now, and Crucial has a newer drive called the BX100 available (or the MX200 if you want encryption support). They use a different controller, and even better the 500GB BX100 can be had for under $190 and performance for most workloads is very good. Samsung's 850 EVO trades blows with the BX100, depending on the task, and the price is pretty much the same, but the issues with 840 EVO and concerns about TLC NAND make me a bit more cautious, so the BX100 ended up getting the vote. (Obviously, if you don't need a lot of storage, the 250GB BX100 is equally viable and only costs $99.)


Upgrading the storage to an SSD is a multi-part process. The first thing is to get the old hard drive out, which means removing all of the screws on the bottom of the case. There are eighteen in total, which is a bit excessive perhaps, but it also means that once you replace all the screws the chassis feels pretty solid even though it's primarily made of plastic.

With the screws removed, you can use an old credit card or similar object to carefully pry apart the top and bottom pieces around the edge. The two pieces eventually come apart without too much force -- if you feel like something is stuck, double check as usually it means you missed a screw.

Other than the screws, there are three ribbon cables that go between the top and bottom halves (for the keyboard, touchpad, and power button). Disconnecting these is relatively simple, though they're a bit more difficult to get back together when it comes time to reassemble the chassis. With the keyboard/palm rest removed, this is what the internals of the V3-572 look like (with the bottom of the keyboard showing as well):



The hard drive is in a small cage in the bottom-right corner, with the cable for the two USB ports on the right side crossing over it. You'll need to disconnect the left part of the USB ribbon cable and remove the two screws holding the cage in place to slide the hard drive out. The drive has four more screws securing it to the cage that will also need to be removed.


Here's where we run into the first and only real problem with the HDD to SSD upgrade: cloning the drive. Crucial includes a key for a copy of Acronis True Image HD with their retail MX100/MX200 SSDs, but not with the "budget friendly" BX100 series. So you might just go ahead and spring for the MX200 instead, as Acronis True Image is a $25 value. It's not particularly useful on the laptop as there's no way to connect the two drives (and Acronis didn't support cloning to a USB enclosure when we tried it), but you'll need some form of cloning software that can shrink partitions.

If you want to try going the free software route, you can also true Clonezilla. It can't normally shrink partitions, so you'd need to resize the partitions within Windows first. Depending on the layout of the partitions, Clonezilla still may not work, but worst-case you lose time as the software at least is free. (Has anyone successfully used advanced mode and the "-icds" option to shrink a non-full NTFS partition using Clonezilla? I need to give that a shot one of these days....) Clonezilla also supports cloning to an external USB enclosure, which is a nice feature.

For our purposes, we installed Acronis True Image on a desktop. Then we connected the hard drive and SSD and cloned the drives that way. The good news is that Acronis supports resizing of partitions, so cloning the 1TB HDD to a 500GB or 250GB SSD doesn't cause any trouble. Once the cloning is done, put the SSD into the drive cage, put the cage into the laptop, reconnect the USB cable, then carefully reconnect the keyboard, touchpad, and power button cables between the keyboard/palm rest and the bottom of the chassis.

At this point, we recommend plugging in the laptop and powering it up, just to ensure everything works properly. With 18 screws plus plastic clips, you definitely don't want to reassemble everything only to find that one of the ribbon cables came loose (or that the drive cloning failed for whatever reason) -- better safe than sorry. If all goes well, you might need to enter the BIOS once to confirm the change in primary storage but otherwise Windows should boot right up -- and it will do so much faster than before, around 10-15 seconds at most. [Excellent, Smithers....]

Performance - with and without an SSD


With the upgrade complete, let's talk about performance. Since the V3-572 uses a Broadwell-U Core i5-5200U, performance should be basically the same as any other i5-5200U laptop (or i5-5250U, i5-5300U, or i5-5350U -- a bit slower than the 5300U, but nothing worthy of concern). Or put another way, we should now have the performance equivalent of a modern Ultrabook, plenty of solid state storage, and several hundred dollars saved -- but with a bulkier laptop of course. For comparison, we'll look at the performance of the Acer V3-572 compared with Dell's ultra-sexy XPS 13, in both 1080p and QHD+ variants.

Keep in mind that the Dell XPS 13 comes in two different configurations. The higher resolution model not only has to deal with more pixels but it also has a dual-channel memory configuration and a larger SSD. Depending on the test, it should be slightly faster or slightly slower than the base configuration. As for the Acer V3-572, it's also a single-channel memory configuration so it should perform closer to the base model XPS 13.

Laptop Benchmarks
Acer V3-572 HDDAcer V3-572 SSDDell XPS 13 FHDDell XPS 13 QHD+
PCMark 8 Home2825303430262682
PCMark 8 Creative3139356335343408
PCMark 8 Work3475376438403345
PCMark 8 Storage1944497748764925
PCMark 72811490748684932
Battery Life - Light (Hours)7.578.8815.339.23
Battery Life - Heavy (Hours)5.195.768.045.42

Non-SSD Laptop Benchmarks
Acer V3-572 HDDDell XPS 13 FHDDell XPS 13 QHD+
3DMark Fire Strike719720756
3DMark Sky Diver260727212730
3DMark Cloud Gate468249915075
3DMark Ice Storm526725403256742
3DMark 11 Performance113311591206
x264 HD 5.0 1st Pass23.2429.7229.76
x264 HD 5.0 2nd Pass4.835.745.76
Cinebench R15
Single-core
76109110
Cinebench R15
Multi-core
229259260

The above tables provide the raw data, mostly because posting a ton of graphs, one for each benchmark, gets messy. Also note we didn't retest anything other than PCMark and battery life with the SSD installed, so only the HDD scores for the Acer are in the second table.

In general, the performance uplift by swapping out the HDD for an SSD is quite noticeable. What's perhaps more surprising is that battery life improved by 10-15% with this upgrade. There are better and worse SSDs when it comes to battery life, so you'll want to be careful, but the Crucial BX100 is definitely one of the better options.

Interestingly, even though the Acer V3-572 and the XPS 13 have the same processor, there are a few odd results -- specifically the x264 and Cinebench R15 are much slower than on the Dell XPS 13. Graphics performance also seems to be a bit sluggish, though the difference is not nearly as notable. None of these workloads are typically influenced by the use of a hard drive or SSD, so it's not clear why there's such a difference between the two laptops. It could be Acer was simply more conservative in their firmware tuning, or there may be some other factor to blame (i.e. drivers).


Normalizing performance to the level of the V3-572 with the stock hard drive gives us the above graph. It's generally expected that an SSD will dramatically improve performance in storage tests, and it does, but PCMark 7 and the "average" of the above tests do help give a sense of why SSDs matter. Even then, benchmarks don't really tell the whole story.

While there's no doubt that the XPS 13 display is better (particularly the QHD+ panel), and battery life is exceptional on the base model, the lack of storage and RAM are both serious issues on the base XPS 13. There's a reason it "only" costs $920 right now: it's woefully under-equipped outside of battery life. Benchmarks don't generally show the impact of 4GB vs. 8GB RAM, or 128GB vs. 500GB of SSD storage, but for $150 less you get both upgrades in the V3-572. And while the XPS 13 is a very nice looking laptop, it has to be noted that the placement of the webcam is questionable at best and almost useless at worst.

Besides the above benchmarks, it's also important to talk about the user experience. Anyone who has used a laptop or desktop with an SSD already knows how much faster it can feel -- simple things like launching applications or booting Windows just happen so much faster. The V3-572 with an SSD boots into Windows in about 10 seconds, and even regular users quickly notice the difference and come to appreciate the benefits of a modern SSD. More importantly, over time there's no degradation in performance as the hard drive becomes increasingly fragmented, which is why most laptops end up feeling so slow after a year or less of use. That doesn't happen with an SSD -- at least not the good ones.

In short, for less than $700 (with a 256GB SSD), the Acer V3-572 can make for an excellent "all day laptop". The only real issues are they you need to do the SSD upgrade (or have someone help you), and the 15.6" chassis is rather bulky -- fine for those that want a numeric keypad, but many would love to see an update to the 14" V3/V5 laptops. (The Aspire R7-371T might work in a pinch, though I'm not sold on the flip screen and the pricing is definitely no longer "budget".)

Closing Thoughts


As noted at the start, there is always the difficult question of where to compromise when it comes time to buy a budget laptop. For many users, the screen quality is the first thing that gets lost, though thankfully the availability of numerous high quality tablets has increased awareness of displays at long last. Materials will always take a hit -- it's unlikely we'll see a machined aluminum chassis in a budget laptop for instance -- but the real problem continues to be the use of painfully slow HDD storage.


As demonstrated here, it's quite possible to upgrade a budget laptop with a solid state drive, and although it doesn't affect the appearance or materials, it makes the overall package much more desirable. Until we finally see HDDs as the primary storage medium go away (hopefully within another year or two, though that's overly optimistic), this is by far the most noticeable upgrade you can make to most laptops and desktops.

In fact, provided there are no other serious problems (like failing hinges, worn out batteries, etc.), any reasonably modern laptop (e.g. less than four years old) equipped with 8GB RAM and an SSD can feel much faster than a brand new laptop with a hard drive. So if your laptop is still running okay but just feeling slower and slower, consider investing in a reasonably inexpensive SSD as the solution to your performance woes.

As for the Acer V3-572-51TR, it's not a perfect laptop by any means, but the price is really quite good. Less than $600 will get you a reasonably built laptop that at least delivers a 1080p display, and around $100 will allow you to upgrade to a 256GB class SSD -- or 512GB class SSDs can now be had for under $200. If you're looking to do any gaming, it's also worth looking at the Acer V3-572G-543S, which adds a GeForce 840M to the mix for about $100 extra. It may not be as sexy or slim as an Ultrabook, but the specs and battery life are quite good.

2 comments:

  1. Any idea how one upgrades the RAM on this laptop? I don't see the RAM slots anywhere, but Crucial Advisor claims they should be present.

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    Replies
    1. Nevermind, I got it. The RAM slots are on the back of the motherboard and involves unscrewing the fan, wifi adapter, and hard drive as well as disconnecting the various cords. Tedious, but doable.

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