User Interface, Display and Audio Quality

User Interface

Press one of the Extensa’s keys and be prepared for a surprise. Damn! There’s a lot of key travel available here, far more than you’ll find on almost any modern laptop besides a few enterprise-oriented models. Rebound is light, as well, which makes long typing sessions more manageable. Of all the 15-some inch laptops I’ve looked at recently, this one without a doubt has the best keyboard of the group.

Another difference from many modern laptops is the lack of a numpad. This probably is more of a choice on Acer’s point than something representative of the past, but it’s the right choice. I wish more 15-some-inch laptops would lose the numpad, because its inclusion usually does nothing but restrict the size of all keys.

Less impressive is the touchpad. Back in the days before Apple began offering gigantic glass surfaces, most were small, and the Acer’s is woefully tiny – on par with most modern netbooks. Multi-touch support isn’t available, so a weird center button that operates a bit like a d-pad handles scrolling. This is an area where modern laptops are leaps and bounds better than their grandparents. 

Display and Audio Quality

If I had a dime for every time a reviewer (including myself) complained about the quality of a new laptop’s display, I’d at least have enough to buy myself a few nice dinners. And as tiring as those complaints may be to frequent readers, they’re true and must be pointed out. Most laptops sold today do have very poor display quality, and those that different really stand out from the crowd.

The Acer Extensa 5420 immediately sets itself apart from today’s laptops by offering a resolution of 1280×800, which is a 16:10 aspect ratio. Today’s laptops usually rely on a resolution of 1366×768, which is a 16:9 aspect ratio. I prefer 16:10, but the difference in this case isn’t much to worry about. You’d have to be a geeky kind of anal to care about an additional 32 vertical pixels. 

What about quality? Well, I’m sorry to say there’s no evidence here that laptop displays were better in the past than they are now – but there hasn’t been serious improvement, either. Black levels aren’t great, contrast is so-so, viewing angles are poor, and the display itself is glossy. All that’s changed over the past five years is where your pixels are located. We’ve given up 32 vertical pixels for an extra 86 horizontal pixels. Does it really matter? Nah. 

Audio quality, on the other hand, does appear to have improved. The speakers on the Acer are extremely poor, and experience that is similar to other older laptops I’ve owned throughout the years. Laptops will never be able to provide amazing audio performance because they’re not large enough to provide room for a subwoofer that can deliver significant bass, and they also can’t provide proper stereo staging. Yet today’s laptops are often at least capable of providing enough volume to fill a small room with music, something older laptops couldn’t always do. 

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