Acer 5551G: AMD's Budget Gaming Laptop

A couple months ago, we looked at AMD's quad-core P920 processor and HD 5650 GPU combination (with HD 4250 switchable graphics) courtesy of the Toshiba A660D/A665D. The combination wasn't without promise, but we walked away with a few concerns. First, we didn't think the Toshiba notebook was the best-built system on the block, with its glossy textured plastic. Then there's the issue with the CPU: the Phenom II P920 may be a quad-core processor, but the slow 1.6GHz maximum clock speed can be a serious bottleneck. And while we like the idea of switchable graphics, Toshiba garners two more marks against their offering: first, they don't participate in AMD's mobile driver program (you can get around this by downloading the drivers on a different laptop from a vendor that does participate, interestingly enough); second, they take the Radeon HD 5650 and clock it at 450MHz instead of 550MHz. Combine all of the above with a minimum price of $800 and we walked away without a clear winner. Here's our wish list from the conclusion of the A660D review:

Frankly, it just doesn't seem like anyone has yet come up with an ideal AMD-based laptop—not that they can't, but more like they won't. So to help, here's what we want. First, give us more than a 48Wh battery—look at ASUS' U-series laptops with 84Wh batteries for inspiration here. Second, keep the CPU clock speed above 2.0GHz, because when Intel's i3-330M beats a quad-core 1.6GHz part in virtually every benchmark you know there's a problem. Third, give us a decent GPU (5650 or faster), but don't force us into 16" and larger notebooks; P520, 5650, and a 63Wh battery (at least) should all fit in a 14" chassis. Bonus points for the first laptop to provide all of the above and not use a cheap LCD (and we'd even pay an extra $50-$100 for such a display). Considering the competition on the Intel side of the fence, realistically all of this needs to fit into a budget of under $800, since an extra $100 brings Core i5 parts into direct competition.

Besides the above, we also had to question whether P920 made sense with the 5650—a higher clocked dual-core processor seemed like a better overall gaming solution, given the dearth of games that truly benefit from having more than two cores. Not long after that review, AMD contacted us and asked if we'd like to look at the Acer 5551G-4591, a laptop that at least meets several of the above wish list bullet points. Now, we haven't been particularly kind in our comments on some of the Acer/Gateway laptops of late, but that doesn't mean they can't fill a niche. We still think the keyboard is one of the least desirable options for a notebook (which is putting it kindly), and they're not likely to ever win an industrial design competition, but one thing Acer tends to do better than anyone else is to pack some decent performance options into very affordable offerings. So just what does the 5551G-4591 bring to bear? Here's the spec rundown.

Acer Aspire 5551G-4591 Specifications
Processor AMD Turion II P520 (2x2.3GHz, 45nm, 2x1MB L2, 25W)
Chipset AMD RS880M + SB850
Memory 2x2GB DDR3-1066 (Max 2x4GB)
Graphics AMD Radeon Mobility HD 5650 1GB DDR3
(400 Shaders, 550MHz core clock, 1540MHz effective memory clock)
Display 15.6" LED Glossy 16:9 768p (1366x768)
AU Optronics B156XW02-V2 Panel
Hard Drive(s) 500GB 5400RPM (Seagate Momentus 5400.6 ST9500325AS)
Optical Drive DVD+/-RW Drive (Matshita DVD-RAM UK890AS)
Networking Gigabit Ethernet (Broadcom BCM57780)
Wireless 802.11n (Atheros AR928X, 300Mb capable)
Audio Realtek ALC272 HD Audio
Stereo speakers, headphone and microphone jacks
Battery 6-Cell, 10.8V, 4400mAh, 48Wh battery
Front Side Flash reader
Left Side Headphone and microphone jacks
1 x USB 2.0
Ethernet jack
Exhaust vent
AC plug
Right Side 2 x USB 2.0
Optical drive
Kensington lock
Back Side None
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 15.0" x 10.0" x 1.0"-1.3" (WxDxH)
Weight 5.7 lbs
Extras 1.3MP Webcam
103-Key Keyboard with dedicated 10-key
Flash reader (MMC, SD/Mini SD, MS/Duo/Pro/Pro Duo, xD)
Warranty 1-year standard warranty
Pricing Estimated price of $649
[Possibly discontinued]

Let's get the have-nots out of the way first: no switchable graphics; a small 48Wh battery; no USB3.0, FireWire, or ExpressCard; no high quality LCD. There aren't any surprises in that list, but the haves are a bit more compelling: a 2.3GHz Turion II P520 processor, a 550MHz HD 5650, a modified design that isn't quite as bad as the last-gen Aspire "bulbous cover", and a price starting at just $630 online. We can throw sticks and stones at the keyboard and chassis all day, but the fact is many users aren't nearly as demanding as we are. If you want a great keyboard experience, we would look elsewhere, but if you're willing to live with the "floating island" keyboard—or perhaps you even like it?—then a price that's only slightly more than the better netbooks and the cheapest ultraportables will help you get your game on.

Before we move on to the actual user experience with the 5551G, let's make sure we set expectations appropriately low. The Toshiba A660D managed battery life of nearly four hours, but it included switchable graphics. With the same size battery but discrete-only graphics, the 5551G will be hard pressed to break the three-hour mark in our best-case scenario. It's a shame Acer doesn't toss in something like the 84Wh ASUS U-series battery, because the difference between three hours and five hours could easily mean leaving the power adapter behind while you head out to a day of classes. Also, the LCD is another 768p model, and like so many others it utterly fails to impress. It will show you content as well as the speakers will play music (which is to say, not that well). But again, the price lets us excuse quite a few complaints…if only we could still buy it!

In typical Acer fashion, a notebook that is less than two months old is no longer available online at the time of writing. Perhaps the price was too good, or maybe Acer is counting on unsuspecting users buying the 5551G-4280 thinking it's the same as the 5551G-4591. Well, it's not, because the 4591 comes with a 5650 while the 4280 drops to a 5470, and the standard 5551 (no G) only uses integrated HD 4250 graphics. Arrrgh! But all is not lost, as the 5551G-4591 might still be found on store shelves at Costco, Walmart, Best Buy, Sears, Office Depot, or Office Max—try giving your local store a call. Or you can look at alternatives from other companies; the only Athlon II dual-core + 5650 we know of right now is the HP Pavilion dv6z (which will start at $700 with the 5650).

The Acer 5551G Experience
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  • guilmon14 - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    Gateway NV53A36u has a triple core phenom n830 2.1ghz radeon hd 5650
    and i looked up the prices and it sells for about 600
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    Hmmm... interesting, particularly on sale:

    $550 for tri-core and HD 5650, but who knows for how long?
  • danielt - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    You've been critical of Acer's recent notebooks because you haven't tried any of the timelineX notebooks, what a shame...
    AS4820TG is a gem with incredible performance (better than Envy 14) and very long battery life, which is something hard to find given its price point.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    No, we've been mostly critical of Acer's laptops for their sub-par build quality, mediocre displays, and horrible keyboards. Looking at the TimelineX, the only area where it's clearly better than other Acer laptops is that there are a few aluminum panels (or at least it looks like aluminum). The keyboard is the same lousy "floating island" design, and I've read enough reviews to know that the build quality is still questionable at best and the keyboard shows plenty of flex. $800 for the 4820TG is still reasonable, given the overall feature set, but unlike Optimus there's a bit issue with AMD switchable graphics: you can't update the AMD drivers unless you get a driver from Acer with both Intel and AMD graphics rolled into one. So in short...

    Intel Core i3/i5 CPU
    Light weight
    Switchable graphics gives...
    -Great battery life
    -Good graphics performance

    Build quality
    Switchable graphics driver updates

    I'd like to see a TimelineX update with Optimus GT 425M (or higher) and a backlit keyboard -- the latter mostly because it would make it impossible to use the floating island keys that feel loose and have terrible travel, and hopefully address the flex issue as well.
  • rocky12345 - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    So what your saying is now days if a company does not use aluminum panels their build quality is sub standard. get real not everyone wants a piece of metal sitting on their desk that will get scratched or dented & look ugly after 6 months. Plastic has been the main building point of laptips for many years & I guess we can thank Apple for making people think we need to use aluminum panels for a laptop to be good.

    As for the keyboards yea Acer keyboards can be soft but that is common among most laptop these days. I fixed mine by lifting it out & putting a thin layer of one sided sticky tape to take up the space & now the keyboard is very solid. If all you have to worry about is the keyboard being a bit soft then count yourself lucky that these keyboards are not like a lot of other companies that actually have the keys falling off a lot fo the time.

    LCD screens again this is common of most LCD's these days they all pretty much suck on a laptop unless you spend bigger bucks for the unit to begin with. We can only blame our selves for companies like acer & others for putting out sub standard screens in laptops to keep costs down. Most people these days think of computers as an appliance & as such do not want to spend much on them I am talking about the every day joe or someones grandma & grandpa. They want something good but do not want to pay much for it so we get laptops with lower quality screens & smaller batteries.

    Speaking of battery life & switchable graphics who actually needs to have 10 hors of battery life these days. Not to many people do & with so many ways to charge up these units these days whether it be the wall plug or a portable car charger most can get by with a laptop that can get 3 or 4 hours only. it is Apple that would lead you to believe that we all need 10 to 15 hours of battery life between charges & it looks like you agree with that somewhat.

    I personally believe that in the near future that companies should release laptops with built in charging features that would allow them to take a charge while in direct sunlight or any kind of room light that would activate the charging system. Maybe I should patent the idea before someone like Apple does & hordes the idea for only themselves. lol

    My point is if you want a high quality laptop you have to pay the price these units are at a low price point & as such are built at a lower build quality. Maybe in the future if you want to see better screens & build quality review each companies high end product lines not these low priced units that the average joe six pack will pick up at Wal-Mart. Most of your readers here not your average computer user it is ok we can handle the sticker price shock most of us know you have to pay to get quality.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, November 27, 2010 - link

    You don't have to have aluminum or whatever to have better build quality, but certainly it can help. I also don't expect budget laptops to have the build quality of, say, a ThinkPad. Slapping aluminum panels on top of plastic still won't give good build quality, though I do think the end result is a bit nicer looking than straight glossy plastic.

    My point is that you get what you pay for, and when someone says that "you've been critical of Acer's recent notebooks because you haven't tried any of the timelineX notebooks", I want to set the stage. I'd *still* be critical of the TimelineX in areas that warrant criticism. I don't think it's asking too much to get a better keyboard into Acer's laptop -- and I'm not talking about the flex issue; the keys are terrible! Use any chiclet and it should be better, and something like a ThinkPad or a Latitude is worlds better. The TimelineX is decent, but it has plenty of flaws and problems; that's all I said above.
  • danielt - Sunday, November 28, 2010 - link

    OK so you're talking about the apparent build quality and keyboard.
    I'm more interested in performance relative to price factor. In a core i5 setup of 4820TG, its graphics and gaming performances are better than the new Dell XPS and even Envy (with i5), while at the same time cheaper than them.
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, November 28, 2010 - link

    Exactly, which is what I was trying to get at in this review. The 5551G isn't the world's greatest laptop, but priced at $650 or less it's an amazing deal for the performance. I've known quite a few people with Acer, Dell, and HP (and other budget) laptops where they've started to fall apart after a couple years, but then I know others where the laptops lasted several years without problems. It all comes down to how you treat it.

    From the price/performance perspective, the TimelineX also has a really nice feature set. I'd love to see another $50 put towards addressing build quality and the keyboard, but $800 for the 4820TG is a very good price.
  • Samus - Monday, November 29, 2010 - link

    I can't believe it! Acer has a fanboi?
  • DanNeely - Sunday, November 28, 2010 - link

    It doesn't need to be aluminum/magnesium, especially on a budget laptop; simple matte plastic that doesn't turn into a fingerprinty smeary greasy disgusting mess will due.

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