Quick: What's the most popular size notebook? What's the most popular price? If you guessed 15 inches and $500, you'd be right on both counts. The Acer Aspire 5742 hits both of these sweet spots, and while compromises must be made when you're talking about a budget system, this notebook largely satisfies. While its specs (Core i3 CPU, 1366 x 768 display, 320GB hard drive) won't blow anyone away, they're good enough for the vast majority of people who just need a notebook to surf the web, do office work, watch videos, and stay on top of social networking feeds.
Both the lid and the deck of the Aspire 5742 are a matte black that resists fingerprints. It has grid-like indentations patterned to look like diamond plating. Looks-wise, it's on a par with less expensive Toshiba Satellites, such as the L or C series, but not as attractive as the pricier Samsung SF510 ($629), which has a distinctive wave design, ivory lid, and chocolate brown interior.
As with most budget notebooks, the 5742 is otherwise unadorned with stylized accents or special buttons. Above the keyboard is a nondescript speaker grille; on the left are a power button and status lights for the hard drive and Wi-Fi.
Weighing 5 pounds even, the 5742 is fairly portable for a 15-inch notebook. While you probably wouldn't want to lug this laptop on a business trip, it's thin and light enough to carry around the house with ease.
After streaming a Hulu video at full screen for 15 minutes, the Aspire 5742's touchpad was just 89 degrees Fahrenheit, the space between the G and H keys was 90 degrees, and the middle of the underside was a cool 79 degrees. All spots are well below what we consider uncomfortable (95 degrees and higher), although the area by the vent on the left side did reach a hot 103 degrees.
Keyboard and Touchpad
The 5742 uses Acer's now-standard FineTip keyboard, which has flat, island-style keys. While it's not as comfortable as a Lenovo keyboard, we appreciated the large keys, as well as the full-size number pad on the right.
The 3.2 x 1.8-inch touchpad was a decent size and friction-free, but given all the space on the deck, it could have been larger. The mouse buttons are combined into a single bar, which worked fine, but we prefer discrete buttons. Even an indentation in the middle would help.
Display and Audio
The 5742 has a 15.6-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel resolution display. While more than adequate for watching Hulu videos and DVDs, colors didn't exactly pop off the screen. Also, the panel's glossy finish caused reflections.
We wish Acer hadn't cut corners with the Aspire 5742's audio. Sound is provided by a single speaker above the keyboard, which produced loud but harsh and tinny sound.
Ports and Webcam
You won't find anything extravagant on this budget system: Just three USB 2.0 ports, HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, and headphone and mic jacks. An SD Card reader is conveniently located on the left front lip, and a DVD Supermulti drive is on the right side.
The 5742's 1.3-MP webcam records video at resolutions up to 1280 x 1024. When we had the pixel count that high, we could make out the finer details in our face and color tones were very accurate, but any movement--even a slow hand wave--was blurred.
The 2.53-GHz Intel Core i3-380M processor and 4GB of RAM powered the Aspire 5742 to a score of 5,327 in PCMark Vantage. That's about 475 points above the category average, but about even with the HP G62t (5,306), and 200 points below the Samsung SF510 (5,563), which has a 2.4-GHz Intel Core i3-370M and 4GB of RAM. We were able to surf the web, listen to music, and watch movies without any lag.
The Aspire 5742 also fared well with more demanding tasks. It took just 54 seconds to transcode a 114MB MPEG4 to AVI using Oxelon Media Encoder. That's 8 seconds faster than the mainstream average and bests the SF510 and the G62t. Both the Acer 5742 and the SF510 were pretty equally matched when we converted a 5-minute 1080p file to iPod touch format using Cyberlink MediaShow Espresso. The Acer took 1:48 and the Samsung took 1:51.
The 320GB, 5,400-rpm hard drive duplicated a 5GB folder of multimedia in 3 minutes and 13 seconds, a rate of 26.4 MBps. That's about 2MBps faster than the average, about 1MBps faster than the Samsung, but well behind the G62T (31.8 MBps), which has a 7,200-rpm hard drive.
The integrated Intel GMA HD GPU is nothing to write home about. Its score of 1,752 on 3DMark06 is about half the category average (3,496), but still comfortably above the G62t (1,377) and the Samsung SF510 (1,398).
Regardless, in World of Warcraft, the 5742 eked out just 19 frames per second on the recommended settings--fair, in this case--and dropped to just 9 fps when we maxed effects out. As a point of comparison, the mainstream averages are 82 and 29 fps, respectively.
Battery Life and Wi-Fi
For a system with integrated graphics, the Aspire 5742's endurance of 3 hours and 11 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test (web surfing via Wi-Fi) was lacking. That runtime is nearly 50 minutes less than the mainstream average (3:56) and the HP G62t (4:03) and about two and a half hours less than the Samsung SF510 (5:40).
Using an Atheros AR5B97 802.11 Wi-Fi radio, the Aspire 5742 saw throughput of 27.9 Mbps when we were 15 feet away from our access point. That's about 5 Mbps below the category average. However, at 50 feet away, throughput was 22.8 Mbps, slightly higher than the mainstream average.
Software and Warranty
In addition to its own apps--Acer CrystalEye Webcam software, Acer Backup Manager, and Acer Game Console--the Aspire 5742 comes with CyberLink PowerDVD, a 15-day trial of Aupeo (a Pandora-like music service), Barnes & Noble's Nook for PC app, McAfee Internet Security, and a 60-day trial of NTI Media Maker 9.
Acer backs the 5742 with a one-year limited traveler's warranty. To see how the company fared on our annual Tech Support Showdown, click here.
Acer offers lots of configurations for the Aspire 5742, from the $449 As5742Z-P613G32Mnrr, which has a 2-GHz Intel Pentium P6100 processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 250GB hard drive, to the $749 AS5742G-5464G50Mnkk, which has a 2.53-GHz Intel Core i5-460M GPU, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB hard drive.
For $549, the Acer Aspire 5742-6814 is a pretty good value. You get a somewhat plain but fairly portable 15-inch design, a spacious keyboard, and strong dual-core performance, all for just a little bit more than the cost of an iPad. Still, we wish the audio and battery life were better. For just $20 more, you can get a similarly configured HP G62t with ATI Mobility Radeon HD 5740 graphics. And, if you want to splurge a little, the $629 Samsung SF510 has a very distinctive design that makes it look far more expensive. Still, you can't quibble with what the Aspire 5742 offers, which is more than enough power for everyday computing.