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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  • Dainas - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    Granted you admit its opinion based, but i find these Acer keyboards far nicer than chiclets.

    Those goddamn Apple keyboards and the legion of laptops trying to emulate them bare no tactile feedback. Their stiff ungiving action is actually very damaging to the fingers, as an author it is extremely important to me to be able to write dozens of pages in a sitting.

    Let alone to not get premature Osteoarthritis; as the harsh hard action these apple and wannabe Keyboards will surely cause after a decade of typing on what has all the give of steel slats.
  • snuuggles - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I'm surprised you hate the apple keyboards. I tried the MacBook air 13" for a couple weeks and found it pretty ok for typing lengthy missives on anandtech :) action was fairly forgiving and I hardly missed any letters while touch typIng

    No, the real enemy is the asus ux31. I'm goin to go out on a limb and say justin never tried that particular heap of shit. Action: INCREDIBLY stiff and short, and several of the larger keys didn't register when hit in particular places--including the enter key

    Horrible, just horrible. I suppose I could just be finding the apple keyboard better *relative* to that monster, but I tested out the MBA for quite a while and didn't find the issues you listed, personally

    Though I did end up returning it. Just slightly too expensive for me. I just slapped a ssd in my old laptop and am gtg for 2012 :)
  • Lifted - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I was also thrown by the "keyboard snob" attitude followed by how much he likes the Apple chicklet keyboards. WTF?

    You'll pry my Thinkpad keyboard from my cold dead hands!
  • Bluestealth - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    Seconded!, I did try out my friends Mac Book Pro 13.3"... I was about to go insane. On the other hand my Lenovo X220 is just about perfect.
  • ThomasA - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I 'm a new X220 owner and agree the great keyboard being a strong asset. The whole unit is a pleasure to use/carry, and especially the IPS screen.
  • drwho9437 - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I currently have a X200 and yes I am a keyboard snob all my desktops have MX blue mechanical boards... While I find my X200 keyboard okay, I must say I got a T60 used off ebay. Keyboard is if anything even better. May well be an NMP or whatever. The feel is just that much more deep and thumpy than my X200 even. Regular laptop keyboards make me cry.
  • Death666Angel - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I have a Travelmate 8172T with the same style keyboard and like it very much as well. Acer Travelmates are pretty decent in my opinion. Only drawback here for me would be the sub-par resolution. If I go to 13/14" I want at least 900 vertical pixel.
  • Samus - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    I think its amazing that even in 2011, most manufactures can't get a simple keyboard right. What the hell is up with that?

    I couldn't agree more. Thinkpads, Latitudes and Macbooks have the best keyboards hands-down. Some HP laptops, like the DM1, DM4 and various Chicklet-packing Elitebook and Probook models have decent keyboards, but basically the two most important things about laptops are the keyboard and the screen, because if either (or both) have a single flaw, there isn't anything you can do about it because they are obviously integral components that can not be replaced.

    Manufactures: stop focusing on battery life, performance, duability, and price, and get the keyboard and screen sorted first!
  • MrSpadge - Sunday, December 11, 2011 - link

    A while ago I wandered through a popular electronics market and tried out ALL their laptop keyboards. They were so horrible and sluggish. The only ones "OK" were actually the Macs.
    However, still worlds between them and my trusty old Thinkpad T61!

  • Stuka87 - Monday, December 12, 2011 - link

    I actually find the Apple keyboards to have pretty good feedback. They have a nice solid feel when they are down, and I never hit two keys at the same time.

    Although my current favorite keyboard is on my Precision M4600. I can type faster on that keyboard than most of my desktop keyboards even. But I dont find myself being annoyed or complaining when typing on my MacBook.

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