July 21, 2005

Review: Acer TravelMate 2300 notebook computer

Author: Jem Matzan

Laptop computers embody a series of compromises. You sacrifice speed and comfort for size; power and technology for price; and durability for weight. GNU/Linux and *BSD users often make another sacrifice: compatibility for portability. Running a free operating system on your computer means that parts of it may not work. Somehow, Acer managed to hit all of these compromises squarely in the center with its TravelMate 2300. For less than $700, you'll have a hard time finding a better Linux laptop computer than this.

The TravelMate 2300 is solidly built. It's made of plastic, not magnesium or some other metal, so the chassis is light and flexible.

Those who are used to older laptops will marvel at the size and quality
of the LCD screen -- 15-inch viewable, which is only a little less viewing area than some 17-inch CRT monitors. You would think that the wider design would encourage a wider keyboard with bigger keys, but other than a five degree upward curve, the 88-key keyboard is pretty standard.

Removing the access panel that covers the RAM slots on the bottom of the machine was harder than it should have been. Disassembly was tougher than with most other laptops, but far from the worst I've seen.

Features

The TravelMate 2300 can vary slightly from market to market, and has a few
similar configurations. I tested model 2304, which was configured
as follows:

  • 24x24x24x8 CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive
  • 40GB hard drive
  • 256MB PC2100 SODIMM memory
  • 1.3GHz Celeron M CPU with 1MB cache
  • One type II 32-bit PC Card slot
  • 15-inch XGA 1024x768 LCD screen
  • Intel Extreme Graphics 2
  • Conexant 56Kbps modem
  • Intel PRO 10/100 LAN
  • 802.11b/g wireless LAN (Inprocomm IPN2220)
  • Touchpad with scroll button

Two PC Card slots would be better than one. Since the onboard wireless LAN chip doesn't work natively in Linux, you have to use a PC Card for wireless connectivity. According to a Google search, some people have had success using ndiswrapper to get the onboard wireless working. I could get the module to compile and recognize the hardware, but I couldn't connect to my wireless access
point. It's possible that a newer version of ndiswrapper would solve this issue; I used version 1.1 because I couldn't get more recent releases to compile.

256MB of RAM is not enough for most purposes. The system includes an empty RAM slot, though, so you can easily upgrade, and PC2100 SODIMM modules are not expensive. The system I tested was a package deal from Newegg.com, which included the computer and a free 256MB RAM module to upgrade it with.

I couldn't figure out the speed of the hard drive (it wasn't in the specs, the manual, or anything else I could read on the TravelMate 2300), but since it seems slow to me, I'd guess that it's 4800RPM. More expensive drives are 5400RPM, while some laptop hard drives now reach 7200RPM. The rotational speed of the hard drive has a profound effect on overall system performance.

The manufacturer's warranty is one year, which is the industry standard for laptop computers. Ordinarily, I would demand a longer warranty on a complete system, but considering the sub-$700 price tag, I could buy a new laptop every year if I had to. In fact, if I get more than a year's worth of heavy-duty use out of this machine, I'll feel I've gotten my money's worth. Considering its construction and my experience with the TravelMate 2300 so far, I expect it to last well beyond that, however.

Linux compatibility

From reading reviews and articles, I knew that I was likely to have trouble with the onboard wireless LAN in nearly any laptop. This wasn't a problem for me because I had a good wireless network card from my previous laptop. I did make an unsuccessful effort, however, to get the onboard Inprocomm 802.11b/g chip to work with Linux.

If I enabled the modem driver (which is in the sound section of the kernel configuration), the sound cut out. The driver is, as of Linux kernel 2.6.11, marked "Experimental," so I didn't expect it to work perfectly. To get the sound working again, I disabled the modem in the kernel. I thought about getting a PC Card modem, but it made more sense to add data connect functionality to my cellular phone plan instead. I'm surprised Acer included a modem at all.

When I tried to compile the OSS sound driver for the intel8x0 chip, the kernel would panic at boot time. The ALSA driver worked perfectly, though.

Although the standard X.org mouse settings will enable the touchpad, I found that installing the Synaptics touchpad drivers for X.org gave me a more configurable solution.

Conclusion

The Acer TravelMate 2300 is inexpensive, well-made, and works reasonably well with GNU/Linux. It used to be that inexpensive laptops were cheaply made, unreliable, and an overall waste of money. With the 2300, Acer has proven that laptops don't have to be expensive to be good.

Device Laptop computer
Manufacturer Acer
OS Support Windows 2000/XP, GNU/Linux, may also work to a limited degree with *BSD (untested)
Market Budget laptop users
Price (retail) $650-$700
Previous version N/A
Product Web site Click here
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