We’ve just had a chance to play with a TimelineX AS4820TG from Acer, which is an interesting creature; a discreet 14-inch budget-friendly laptop that wouldn’t raise any eyebrows at the office. However, under the hood it hides a bit of gaming muscle in the form of a Mobility Radeon HD 5650 (or a HD 6550 in the latest version, which is more or less a renamed HD 5650 with slightly higher clock speeds) and a Core i5 CPU.
So, how much performance can you squeeze out of a budget laptop with a few modifications? Equipping this specimen with an SSD and 8GB of RAM instead of the original 4GB is a start. Although this doesn’t affect gaming framerates (we will do that by other means), it certainly has an effect on overall system performance.
Upgrades: SSD & RAM
With a Corsair Force series SSD instead of the generic 5,400rpm hard drive that came with the laptop, it boots to a fully functional desktop in just over 20 seconds. All applications and games load considerably faster and the system feels extremely responsive overall. In terms of overall system performance a fast SSD is the best upgrade you can get, whether it’s a budget or high-end laptop. Most of them come in the 2.5-inch (laptop) form factor, too, so you won’t have any trouble finding one that fits. Unfortunately they are still quite expensive, but well worth the investment.
The SSD boosts the Primary hard disk score in the Windows 7 Experience Index from 5.9 to 7.5, which is an understatement for the actual difference in performance. On the other hand, doubling the RAM (DDR3 1066MHz) also results in an increase from 5.9 to 6.7, which is arguably an exaggeration since you will only notice any difference once you run out of physical RAM and the system starts swapping to the drive. For that reason, calling it a Windows Experience Index is misleading; neither is it a useful synthetic benchmark. SiSoftware Sandra is more indicative of the actual difference:
Of course, even if it works wonders for your system as a whole, swapping your hard drive with an SSD or adding more RAM will not do much – if anything – for your gaming frame rates. This is where a budget laptop will always and invariably fail if it’s not equipped with at least a decent graphics card. Acer’s TimelineX series is focused on battery life and often ship with just integrated Intel graphics, but there are a few exceptions that come with switchable graphics–combining both an Intel GMA and a dedicated Mobility Radeon GPU.
The GPU in this 4820TG is a Mobility Radeon HD 5650, which is an OK middle-of-the-road solution that plays most new games with the graphics settings on medium or high. This GPU can be found in lots of laptops today, but it is less common in the budget segment and especially in thin and light models such as this one. It has 400 Stream Processing Units; the core runs at 550MHz and memory (GDDR3) at 800MHz. With the AMD GPU Clock Tool we managed to take the core and memory speeds to 650MHz and 950MHz without any stability issues whatsoever. At 675MHz the core started to cause problems and the memory was also troublesome at more than 960MHz, but the improvements beyond that were negligible anyway. 650MHz/950MHz is still an excellent result, and more importantly completely stable.
As usual with inexpensive laptops, the 4820TG is equipped with a TN panel with 1366×768 resolution. The rather low resolution and low-end panel makes it somewhat less appealing, but for gaming in combination with the HD 5650 it sort of works to your advantage. You can run virtually all games on the display’s native resolution and it looks just fine without antialiasing. Turning on antialiasing results in significantly slower frame rates, so it’s a good thing that you can leave it off in this case. The low resolution also meant that we couldn’t run 3DMark 06 with default settings (1,280×1,024), so we had to use an external monitor. Here is a sample of the differences between stock vs. overclocked GPU:
This may not seem like much, but 3DMark also includes CPU-related results in the total score, so a 14% increase is probably right on the mark. The result is enough to (almost) put it on par with more powerful mobile GPUs like the Mobility Radeon HD 5830 in the HP Envy 15. Now of course you can probably overclock a 5830 just as easily, and there are lots of other factors to take into consideration such as build quality. Still, not too shabby for a $799 laptop!