Introduction and Design

Are New Laptops Really Better?

As a writer and laptop reviewer, I am constantly bombarded with the chance to look at new laptops. These are the latest and supposedly greatest the industry has to offer. Comparing these modern laptops with each other provides you, the reader, with information about what you should buy today. But it doesn’t provide a wider perspective throughout the years. 

There’s a long line of common complaints that are leveled at modern laptops including poor display quality, underwhelming build quality, and crappy keyboards. Certainly, there seem to be room for improvement in these areas on many laptops. Yet nostalgia has a tendency to obscure our view of the past. Was that laptop you used to own really superior to anything on the market today? Or is your memory clouded by the good times you had using it at a friend’s LAN party or writing an important paper twelve hours before it was due?

To find out, we’re going to step into the past and do a review of a nearly five-year-old laptop, the Acer Extensa 5420. This 15.4” laptop was not a top-of-the-line model when it was put on sale in 2007. It was the very picture of mainstream computing, a completely average dual-core laptop with discrete graphics that typically sold for between $500 and $600, depending on the configuration.

Speaking of which, let’s have a look at the relics powering this laptop.

Yep, that’s some old-school hardware. Minus the AMD processor, it’s very similar to a Lenovo ThinkPad that I owned during the same time period. I don’t expect this laptop to offer much in terms of performance, but we will be benchmarking it as part of this retro-review. 


The Acer Extensa 5420 appears to be made of discarded tupperware. This is not entirely an insult. While the gray plastics are dull and attractive in a way that even the most basic of today’s laptop can’t match, they also seem to have held up well over the years. Everything has remained intact, and the thick palmrest and display lid plastics appear as if they could survive another five years of use without worry. 

You might think that this, combined with a chassis that is about 1.4 inches thick, would provide plenty of rigidity. You’d be wrong. Picking up the Extensa from any corner elicits a wide variety of groans, and the plastics are the optical drive bay are positively floppy. This is an area of design where laptops have obviously improved over the years, as it’s rare to see such a sloppy chassis in even today’s cheapest products. 

Connectivity is every bit as impressive as the chassis isn’t. Along the left side of the laptop you’ll find FireWire, one USB port, VGA, S-Video (remember that?) and Ethernet. You might think that’s not much, but then you’d look at the back and discover three more USB ports as well as a hook-up for a dial-up modem. At the front there’s not only a microphone and headphone jack but also a line-in jack and a card reader. 

Such an array of connectivity is hard to find even on today’s most expensive laptops, and the connectivity is arranged in convenient locations. Even the power plug is at the rear, the best location, and one too rarely used. 

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