Apple’s competitors have clearly got a bit of an obsession with the MacBook Air. Following the ASUS ZenBook UX330UA, which blatantly copied the fruity ultraportable’s design, Acer has now released the TravelMate X349-M, a more affordable alternative with a similarly familiar look about it.
With prices starting at less than £600 (inc. VAT), the TravelMate X349 inevitably lacks some of the finer features and superior performance of the ZenBook, but it could still find a niche as an affordable ultraportable laptop for business users on a tight budget.
As soon as you open the box, the tear-drop profile and gently curved edges of the TravelMate X349 make its Apple influence obvious. Even so, the smart and sturdy aluminium chassis provides very good build quality, considering that our Core i3-based review unit costs just £582 inc. VAT (£485 ex. VAT, or $649.99 in the US). We wouldn’t have any worries about slipping it into a briefcase or even a backpack when travelling. The keyboard feels firm and responsive too, so you can certainly type up a storm when you need to get some work done.
Somewhat surprisingly, Acer has opted to give the X349 a 14-inch display, which means that it’s a little larger and heavier than the many 12-inch and 13-inch ultraportables that it hopes to compete with. It’s certainly larger than my veteran MacBook Air, measuring a full 340mm wide, 237mm deep and a more modest 18mm thick. But, to be fair, its weight of 1.53kg is actually quite good for a laptop of this size, and you can still pick up the X349 with one hand and carry it around with very little effort.
Unfortunately, that 14-inch display also turns out to be X349’s one real weak spot. Its 1,366-by-768-pixel resolution (112ppi) is disappointing even at this price, although the image it produces is quite bright and with good viewing angles in case you need to give an impromptu presentation in a coffee shop, for example. The limited resolution is a problem, though, and often leaves you feeling cramped when juggling multiple open windows or documents. Acer also seems quite proud of the flexible hinge, which allows you to fold the screen right back to 180-degrees (although I confess I can’t think of an obvious use for that).
A Core i3 laptop isn’t going to break any speed records, but the X349 can certainly handle mainstream productivity workloads without any problems. Our review unit included a Core i3-6100U processor running at 2.3GHz, along with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. The X349 is sold with a licence for Windows 10 Pro but, for business users, this also includes downgrade rights for Windows 7 Pro.
That combination delivered scores of 3170 (single-core) and 6000 (multi-core) when running the Geekbench 4 test suite. That’s obviously not in the same league as ASUS’s Core i7-based ZenBook UX330UA (at 3800 and 7200 respectively), but it’s neck-and-neck with the Core i5 processor in the MacBook Air, which is far more expensive at £949 inc. VAT (£790.83 ex. VAT, or $999).
You can’t buy direct from Acer in the UK, so there aren’t any build-to-order options available, but a number of other fixed configurations are available that provide extra performance and a higher-resolution display. Another £50 inc. VAT (£41.66 ex. VAT) steps you up to a Core i5 processor, or you could go all out with a Core i7, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a 1,920-by-1,080 display for around £1,020 inc. VAT (£850 ex. VAT or $1049.99 in the US).
The one area where the MacBook Air still holds sway, though, is battery life. The TravelMate X349 managed 6.5 hours of streaming video when using the BBC iPlayer, and you might be able to stretch that close to eight hours for less intensive use. Even so, that’s still well short of Acer’s claimed 10 hours. By contrast, the MacBook Air, for all its faults, breezes along for almost 11 hours at a time.
Our review unit’s low-resolution screen seems like a false economy, even at this price, and may well deter some potential users. Even so, the TravelMate X349-M still delivers good value for money, with modest but still perfectly usable performance and battery life, wrapped up in an attractive, lightweight design. It’s very much a budget option, but it could well earn its keep if you need a basic travelling laptop that doesn’t cost a fortune.
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