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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  • strikeback03 - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    My wife had a friend build her current desktop for her before I met her, one day last winter I upgraded her graphics drivers and was greeted by a message saying the 6-pin cable to her 8600GTS was not connected and graphics performance could be degraded until it was. The PSU had a 6-pin cable, the guy just didn't use it for some reason, but in everything she did with the system that configuration still worked. Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    I don't think your particular example of a power supply is a good one, though. Corsair's power supplies are notorious for being underrated and handling power draw well over spec.

    The power supply will age, and continuing to run it at an extreme load can substantially reduce its useful life. A 300W cheapo power supply like the unit used in the Acer doesn't have a whole lot of room to grow, is probably horribly inefficient, and with too much load placed on it will be liable to burn out...right after the warranty is up.
    Reply
  • Dustin Sklavos - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    And as a sidenote, while it's true that I think hardware enthusiasts tend to grossly overshoot their recommendations for power supplies, decent power supplies for home machines pretty much start at 380W anymore. The power supply should have a little breathing room, room to grow. The 300W - again, not a decent power supply but a bargain bin one that couldn't hope to actually produce that much power under actual usage conditions - in the Acer is starting out bad and just going worse from there. Reply
  • cjb110 - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    We all like to rag on the bloatware installed, and I've yet to find any one that's actually had a use for any of it. But does it actually harm? Is the performance actually degraded?

    Could be a basis for an article? esp if you can get the manufactures input as to why they bother? Do they actually recieve anything? Are their machines better recieved by the public? Does Norton/McAfee pay them? Does ebay pay just for an icon?
    Reply
  • awaken688 - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    They did run a recent RAM used at startup. A clean Win 7 used like 750MB, but the other OEM machines were running 1GB+ from Dell, etc... It would be nice to see a benchmark though. Reply
  • 7Enigma - Monday, August 09, 2010 - link

    One of the often overlooked things with systems that have a lot of bloat is the effect on power consumption of the system. Idle power consumption can be dramatically higher which can add to electricity/cooling costs while making the system more sluggish in general. Reply
  • ImSpartacus - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    This is impressive, but the enthusiast can not be beaten.

    I got a similar build for under $500 (after rebates and shipping) with no OS, keyboard or mouse. I used Newegg to do it. It has 3 combos, 2 coupons and 4 rebates.

    Antec Nine Hundred (-$15 coupon) (-$20 rebate)
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    WD 640GB Caviar Black (-$20 coupon)
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    EVGA GTX 460 768MB
    OCZ 2x2GB 1600MHz DDR3 (-$20 rebate) (-$17 combo)
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/ComboDealDetails.asp...

    OCZ Gamerstream 500W PSU (-$15 rebate)
    LITE-ON DVD Burner (-$20 combo)
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/ComboDealDetails.asp...

    Intel i3 530
    Biostar TH55B HD H55 Motherboard (-$10 rebate) (-$49.98 combo)
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/ComboDealDetails.asp...

    Yes, that's a brand new GTX 460 768MB. You could save quite a bit if you cut that out, but I'm a gamer. If you desired, you could probably get a quad core CPU in there if you got a cheaper graphics card.

    And I understand this is an incredible hassle for such a deal. I know first hand. I purchased a Dell 7100 for my parents (before it was reviewed here) for $700 on sale just because it was convenient.

    Hurray for affordable computing!
    Reply
  • silverblue - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    Nice build, but I'd go for the 1GB flavour of the GTX 460 - better chip, more memory. :) Reply
  • ImSpartacus - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    LOL!

    You have to draw the line somewhere, eh?

    Oh and the build is under $600, not $500. Typo on my part.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, August 06, 2010 - link

    But you really do have to include OS for sure, and probably keyboard and mouse, if you want to be fair in the comparison. Sure, lots of people "have an OS lying around" (code for pirated software usually), but even if you really have a legit spare copy, that copy cost you money at some point. That's like saying, "Oh, I have a good case and PSU, so I can get the cost down to $400."

    Anyway, we'll see about getting a new budget guide up some time in the near future. I just need to ping a few cohorts and see who wants to write it. Maybe Dustin can do it.... :-)
    Reply

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