Acer's Aspire 5 series covers quite a few price tiers, but to the consumer they'd never be able to tell the difference just by looking at them. Without the stickers on the side pointing out that the internals are different, you'd not be able to tell them apart.
They all have a rubberised plastic feel, pocked with a kick-plate-style pattern. They all feature Acer's attractive "floating" keys, an island-style set-up that does indeed make the keys look like they're floating. They all have 15.6-inch, glossy, 1366x768 screens, multi-touch touch pads (along with their infuriating inaccuracies), and have cheapened out by providing only mono sound, which is hidden by a speaker-grille facade that runns along the full length of the laptop.
There are VGA and HDMI out, gigabit Ethernet, three USB ports, headphone and microphone jacks, a DVD+-RW drive and an SD card reader. There is no Bluetooth, and although different models use different chipsets, the 802.11n supports only 2.4GHz, not 5GHz. These are mainstream models, folks. They're even all kitted out with 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive.
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit is the platform of choice, paired with McAfee, Norton Online Backup, CyberLink PowerDVD 9, NTI Media Maker, Skype, a bunch of game demos (which you can install thanks to the annoying Oberon Media), an RSS reader called eSobi and Shredder (which is a trial secure file deletion program).
Thankfully, things do differ somewhere — the processor, motherboard and graphics.
The Aspire 5742G, for example, runs a Core i5 460M @ 2.53GHz with an Nvidia GeForce GT 420M. This gives access to Optimus technology — that is, when the Nvidia card is not needed for hefty 3D or movie work, it switches to Intel graphics to save on battery life.
The Core i5 version of this laptop allows it to lift above the AMD-powered Aspire 5552G in PCMark05, returning a score of 6404, making this an excellent choice for office and productivity work. 3DMark still lagged a little at 6867, but the laptop should still be fine for some modern games at modest settings.
Once again the Nvidia/Intel solution excels at battery life. With all power-saving features turned off, screen brightness and volume set to maximum and an XviD file played back, the laptop lasted two hours, 25 minutes and 23 seconds before going into hibernation.
While the lack of 5GHz radio is a little concerning, we doubt many people would care at this price point. For general use the Acer Aspire 5742G excels, and its excellent battery life makes it a top choice.