Acer Aspire M3400: How Much Does $649 Buy?

Reviewing the Dell Studio XPS 7100 recently was very interesting and even enlightening. Our audience may chiefly be people who build their own machines (and indeed we certainly review enough hardware), but it was refreshing to see the oft-maligned "factory build" put in a good showing and justify its existence in our world of enthusiasts and builders. If you didn't feel like putting together your own machine for high-performance gaming and computing and didn't want to pay through the nose for a custom enthusiast build, the XPS 7100 was a fine choice.

But we're not talking about a twelve-hundred-dollar mean machine here. We're talking about a $649 budget build, and in this author's opinion those waters are substantially more fraught than the consumer market for machines north of a large. A reliable budget build is the kind of thing a good enthusiast can specialize in, so the question for Acer becomes...is the M3400 worth the trade-offs? We lose name brand components and the individual warranties that go along with them, but we gain something that's been built and tested from the factory and at least guaranteed to work as is, and we potentially gain more computer than we could've gotten for the price had we built it ourselves.

Acer Aspire M3400-U2052 Specifications
Processor AMD Phenom II X4 820
(4x2.8GHz, 45nm, 2MB L2, 4MB L3, 95W)
Chipset AMD RS880 Northbridge, AMD SB850 Southbridge
Memory 2x2GB and 2x1GB DDR3-1333 (Total 6GB, Max 4x4GB)
Graphics ATI Radeon HD 5450 512MB GDDR3
(80 Stream Processors, 650MHz Core, 1.6GHz Memory, 64-bit memory bus)
Hard Drive(s) 640GB 7200 RPM (Western Digital Caviar Blue)
Optical Drive(s) DVD+-RW combo drive
Networking Realtek Gigabit Ethernet
Audio Realtek ALC662 HD Audio
speaker, mic, and line-in jacks doubling as 5.1 jacks
Front Side Optical Drive
Open 5.25” Bay
MMC/SD/CF/MS reader
Top 4x USB 2.0
Headphone and mic jack
Power button
Back Side AC Power
2x PS/2
8x USB 2.0
Gigabit Ethernet jack
Mic, speaker, and line-in jacks
DVI-D
HDMI
VGA
Operating System Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
Dimensions 16.5" x 15" x 7.1" (WxDxH)
Weight 37 lbs shipped
Extras 300W Power Supply
Wired keyboard and mouse
Flash reader (MMC/MS/CF/SD)
Warranty 1-year basic warranty
Pricing Priced as configured: $635 online

The Acer Aspire M3400-U2052 (gotta love those catchy Acer names) is the top end of the M3400 line. Starting at the top, we have the heretofore-thought-to-be-defunct AMD Phenom II X4 820; the 800 series Phenom IIs had a very brief tenure in the marketplace but apparently live on in OEM circles. The only difference between an 800 and 900 series Phenom II X4 is in the amount of L3 cache: the 820 sports only 4MB while the 900s have the full 6MB. Given the middling performance differences in most circumstances between the entirely cacheless Athlon II X4 and the Phenom II X4, the lost 2MB of L3 probably isn't worth losing any sleep over. At 2.8 GHz, the 820 should provide plenty of performance for the price.

There are two extremely pleasant surprises in the Aspire M3400's build. The first is the use of the modern AMD 800 series chipset, which brings 6Gbps SATA support along with generally improved storage performance. If nothing else, the motherboard has legs that it may very well be able to stretch as prices on SSDs continue to fall while performance continues to rise. The other is the inclusion of a Western Digital Caviar Blue 640GB drive. These drives have been excellent and reliable performers since their introduction years ago and have remained near the top of the performance heap for mechanical hard drives; I might just be biased, though, I've been running four in my own tower for years and have been consistently pleased with their performance along with their low acoustics and power consumption.

Everything else in the Aspire M3400 seems bog standard, but there is an odd bird in this configuration: the Radeon HD 5450. In Ryan's review of it he wasn't particularly impressed and it's not hard to see why: the 5450 offers virtually no practical improvement on its predecessors. The inclusion here is even more questionable, because while a Radeon HD 5450 on the shelf can at least be justified as a potential HD playback performance upgrade, the M3400's motherboard has capped HDMI and VGA ports that suggest an 880G integrated graphics part on board. The 880G already has enough horsepower to handle decoding HD, and the 5450 isn't going to bring enough of an improvement in image quality or gaming performance to justify its inclusion. Okay, it's roughly twice as fast as the integrated HD 4290 and it has DX11 support, but it's a $40 entry-level GPU when $65 gets four times as many Stream Processors in the HD 5550. All things being equal, we'd rather have gone up to the full 8GB of DDR3 or the HD 5550 rather than get the 5450.

The M3400 is rounded out by a DVD+/-RW combo drive, standard media reader, and gigabit ethernet. We'd have liked to see some kind of wireless networking solution included, or a Blu-ray reader (which may have driven costs up, but they're so cheap these days anyhow), but these omissions aren't deal-breakers. As a whole, this review unit seems reasonable for the asking price, but let's take a closer look.

Acer Aspire M3400 Closer Look
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  • Rick83 - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    Never expected to see those on consumer hardware in 2010... Reply
  • KillerInTheRye - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    512GB Video Card? HOLY CRAP. I'll take two. Reply
  • numberoneoppa - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    Thanks, I needed a good laugh to start my day. :) Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    SIC

    It's for doing complex 3D renders. ;)
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    You mentioned the Blu-Ray drive, but I think that might raise the cost too much. I mean, just speaking with NewEgg prices in mind, you'll pay about 3x as much for a good BD-ROM/DVD+RW drive than you would for a simple DVD+/-RW drive. Another problem you hit is the software. Now, I think they typically use older software... I've seen some that I believe are an OEM variant of PowerDVD9. The thing is, this is just another added cost when you can be cheap and just let Windows handle CD and DVD burning with a DVD+/-RW drive :P.

    I definitely understand your sentiment on the Radeon 5450, although I use that drive in my HTPC (a tad bit different than this...) because passive 5450s were a dime a dozen when I bought it! :)
    Reply
  • arnoldra - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    This was an interesting article, and being a new reader to the sight I find it very engaging. After listening to them discuss the possibilities of what you can get if you do a build, I'm eager to know what that would look like. I went through the guides section, and didn't see a "Budget Build Guide". I'm not much of a builder myself, I have friends who have scary towers of power that blaze the latest games in all their glory... but that isn't what I'd be interested in building a tower for. Light gaming, occasional multimedia work (no 3D), and the rest of general web content, watching movies, etc. I'd love to see AnandTech do a guide like that, and even set a price cap. Say 500 bucks? Reply
  • Lunyone - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    I have been waiting for a $500 budget build, but haven't seen one in a while. Another website had one about 3 years ago, but started lifting the budget to "fit" in Intel builds. Not that a Intel build is bad, but they generally are a bit more for similar performance. If your looking for a "Budget" build around $500, your better option is usually an AMD based one (around an AM3 mobo). This will allow you more upgrade paths than current Intel based builds will allow you.

    Now with your $500 budget do you include the OS or without it?
    Do you consider a monitor, keyboard, mouse included or assumed you already have one?

    I generally build "Budget" gaming builds for friends/family when I build. Most budget builds assume that you already have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and sometimes the OS, but it varies.

    I always use a quality PSU (Antec, Seasonic, Corsair, OCZ - most of them) and try to get the best mobo that meets my needs.
    Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    It's been my experience that generally when quoting budget builds, you're talking about JUST the machine proper. As Tech Report puts it, the rest are "matters of religion and taste."

    I will say in recent experience that $500 can buy you an awful lot of machine from AMD.
    Reply
  • anactoraaron - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    I may not be too familiar with Acer's desktops (or others for that matter), but 3 things about these OEM's desktops have never changed.
    1. Poor system case (little to no airflow, everything packed in to the smallest space possible, 37lbs!!)
    2. Power supply is an afterthought (shame especially considering the lack of airflow)
    3. Bloatware- and in some cases no windows disc (gee, thanks. I wanted to have to uninstall all of that crap again...)
    With the PS you really can't do too much for upgrades (already mentioned), and if you do so you will likely fry it (see bad airflow comment). But this thing weighs 37lbs??? I can't remember lifting a pc that was that heavy. IF your grandma wants to edit video she will still call you to cram this thing into her 12 year old computer desk (you know, the tiny little hole that was designed to only fit a tower with no clearance for your hands to plug in all of her cable-shortened peripherals...)
    Budgetwise, AMD has always been a better option for CPU and mobo. And I always add the OS into the cost of a system
    Reply
  • frozentundra123456 - Thursday, August 05, 2010 - link

    I agree with you basically, but at least with the Acer I bought, you do not get a windows disk, but the Acer recovery management system prompts you to make system restore disks the first time the machine is used. I used these disks to restore to factory original configuration when my hard drive failed, and they worked perfectly. Reply

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