I’m writing to you on a mistake of a computer.
I had every opportunity to not buy this computer.
Yet somehow I still did. And I regret it.
Welcome back to the Vault.
My memory doesn’t serve me the way it used to so I hope you’ll humor me as I bumble through this tale. I believe it must have been Black Friday of 2018 when it came across my newsfeed. While it wasn’t the first, and it wouldn’t be the last, there it was at that time: a laptop that cost $100 (probably plus tax). I wondered: What could you possibly buy for $100? And the inevitable answer was: Not much.
I wish I still knew the exact model number because I studied the device so many times, willing myself to not buy the thing out of sheer curiosity, that I knew it quite by heart. Now I don’t even recall who manufactured it. (For transparency, I was able to locate it via a YouTube search for N4000 emulation so now I am reminded: Asus Vivo Book E203MA).
I do remember the CPU was the Pentium N4000. While not part of the much maligned Atom series of Intel CPUs, when you’re faced with the Pentium name, you aren’t necessarily expecting too much nowadays. The best promise any honest soul could give you is probably “usable”. The lowly, budget class CPU was paired with a scant 2 GB of system RAM and a 32 GB eMMC storage device. This is the lowest of the low you could buy at the time. I don’t even think you can buy something this low end anymore without it just being a Kindle Fire 8 tablet or something. Unlike a Fire 8, the screen on the laptop was a whopping 11.6 inches diagonal with a 1366×768 resolution which I’d sworn to myself I would never buy again, even on a sub 12 inch laptop.
I was so curious though. Much in the same way creativity came to developers for stone-age video game consoles like the Atari 2600 through the Nintendo, I wondered just what could be done with such a dog of a computer. As the holiday season wore on, reviewers got their hands on these devices and reviews were expectedly grim, except for one odd bright spot when it came to one man’s tests of video game emulation. Briefly: the thing appeared to be a surprise powerhouse when it came to emulation of retro game consoles, provided they were appropriately ancient.
As writing in general comes to me in waves, I happened to have concocted a project or two for myself at the time and would have been satisfied with the “Writer’s Room” laptop I still had back then, especially for its excellent keyboard, except it was heavy and had terrible battery life, even with restored cells. The E203MA promised long battery life with its small screen and low power CPU (spoiler: turns out it has terrible battery life anyway) and neither the small screen nor the low power CPU would bother me if I was setting out to have a dedicated device to write on (spoiler: screens of this class absolutely bother me).
I managed to talk myself out of buying the E203MA. I overspent on my friends and family and the laptop was too expensive to receive as a gift from anyone I knew. It was fine. When you freely admit a computer is probably garbage, it’s better to not buy it. Even if it posed some kind of magical value, being so cheap after all, it still makes more sense to wait for something truly right to come along.
Or you do what I did.
I always kept the 100 dollar laptop in the back of my mind, even after holiday sales ended and the laptop first jumped back to around 140 dollars, which is honestly much less appealing, and then was quickly discontinued in favor of its elder sibling, which was the same computer but with double the RAM and double the (still eMMC) storage which rolled in at around double the cost as well. With such similar performance specifications, a 250-300 dollar laptop is suddenly much less appealing. Further obsessive research turned up other points of interest such as the surprisingly poor battery life and rubbish keyboard which would, of course, be a bane to anyone intending to write with it as its primary usage.
But the concept nagged on.
A 100 dollar laptop.
So close to an impulse buy.
For a fool such as myself anyway.
It took until around June or July. A deal came across my newsfeed. There was a laptop rolling in for about 130 dollars.
Oh? That’s cheap enough to catch my attention. Was this the second coming of absurdity?
This is where things got extra dumb.
I knew I had credit at the particular vendor, so I could, depending on how you’re willing to justify things in your own mind, get the laptop for around $100.
Also, it had significantly higher specifications than the 100 dollar laptop of Black Friday. This one had the same size screen, but a much nicer (looking) keyboard AND it was a convertible device, the screen could flip 180 degrees to make the thing into a sort of a bulky tablet device.
“Ooh,” said the moron who already owned an iPad Air. “That’s fancy.”
The device in question goes by the designation Acer Spin 1, and it came well reviewed. It was applauded for its fair performance provided by the Pentium (wait for it) N5000 CPU, which was actually a legit big deal because it doubles the count of physical CPU cores from 2 of the N4000 to 4 while consuming approximately the same amount of energy which is, frankly, a wonder of progress in technology. Plus it paired this promising CPU with the 4 gigabytes of RAM and 64 gigabytes of eMMC storage of the previously out of the question 250-300 dollar laptop while rolling in around the 130 dollar mark.
Then came the part where I literally just started making mistakes. I don’t know how. I think it was simply crossed wires in my brain. I believed it possessed a USB-C port. I believed it came with an IPS display, promising at least fair to middling color fidelity, unheard of at this price point.
The fool wonders: “How can I not jump on this deal?”
The answer came: “You can’t not.”
I bought one that day.
The first thing that happened was that work was busy. So I didn’t even get to open it for a day or two. While I was still within the return window by the time I did, I had somehow mentally committed to the thing and decided that, even as things unfolded as they did, I could not return the thing even though I could have.
It was my mistake, right off the bat.
It’s surprisingly heavy. That is to say, it isn’t heavy, but it is for its size.
The keyboard is serviceable but has an odd feeling to it. It has plenty of key travel, and isn’t particularly flexy, but it just feels incredibly cheap somehow. Probably on account of that it is.
It doesn’t have a USB-C port. I don’t know where I got that from.
And while it does have an IPS display, you’d never know from looking at it.
This is one of the worst displays I’ve ever seen on a portable device.
Or attached to a desktop for that matter.
It isn’t a matter of the color reproduction, exactly. It’s more of a matter of, for some reason I cannot discern – perhaps the touch digitizer – the vertical viewing angle is incredibly narrow. Maybe 90 degrees. So narrow that if you look at the bottom of the screen in proper focus, the top of the screen has a sickly sepia tone. If you adjust your viewing for the top of the screen, the bottom of the screen washes out. Astonishingly bad. How do they sell this bad. This also translates supremely poorly to when it is switched to tablet mode, where the same issue exists in landscape view, but if you hold it in portrait view, then one of your eyes is seeing the display in sepia and the other is seeing it, ostensibly, in color.
It’s worse than wearing old 3D anaglyph red/blue glasses.
Touch works fine.
Runs cool and quiet. Not sure if it even has a fan or needs one.
As long as Windows isn’t up to any of it’s bullcrap, which it is a lot of the time, performance is actually perfectly fine. The HTPC Gemini is technologically inferior to this laptop (which is saying something) and while the NUC Gemini is literally the lowest tolerable hardware spec I can think of, this computer is easily better. Usable to say the least.
And battery life, at least when writing, in spite of writing in Google Docs within the Chrome browser (a notorious battery hog) is very long. The laptop, which has been primarily off, informs me I could probably write for another ten hours before the cells are exhausted.
Considering I’m in Chrome and didn’t debase myself by switching to Edge for its promised battery improvements, that is impressive to me.
But wuhhhhhhhhf this screen.
Holy crackers is this a garbage screen. And the garbage screen basically removes the feature of it being a convertible, since the converted mode is literally unusable due to your eyes seeing different colored images when you hold this single display up to your face. Literally unusable.
Screens are important. Don’t let yourself tell… yourself otherwise. You have to stare at the thing in order to take advantage of the impressively long battery life. You’d do well to not hate it.
If you assume I basically wrote this article at the speed of thought, with the only potential bottlenecks being me pausing to check on specifications and to double check that the screen in tablet mode is as bad as I thought (it turned out to actually be worse), then the 45-ish minutes I’ve spent on this brain-dump constitute the longest period of time I’ve bothered to use this thing since I bought it. The course of this article saw me get as used to the unaccountably odd keyboard as I’m going to get. It saw me lose faith in the display all over again, twice. And it saw me nod in approval of all of these compromises resulting in the battery life I dream of while enacting the tasks I intend. In fact, as I’ve pressed on in the dark of my bedroom, I’ve remembered I can comfortably lower the screen brightness, which I’ve done twice and have actually watched the battery counter tick upward in Time Remaining.
That’s my idea of a fun Tuesday night…
I don’t know what I’ll do with the Spin 1.
I just can’t see myself using it with a display this bad.
I don’t know how much I can expect to realistically reclaim by selling it gently used on any online marketplace.
And it’s a waste to leave it sitting dormant on my desk.
One mistake I’ve made in the past is trying to replace a laptop display panel. I don’t care what anyone tells me about how doable it might be. It’s not. And they break. And it’s bad.
If I use it during the day, which is an absurd statement if you think about what it really means, I won’t have the now 11 hours of battery life to play with since it will be absolutely necessary to increase the screen brightness. I’d estimate half of that time being possible when compensating for any kind of ambient light. Still, six hours would be far more than the old Lenovo X230 can offer, even with its ridiculous nine cell restored battery connected.
That thing is… thick.
I don’t know.
I’m very indecisive.
What’s the take away?
Research your purchases before you make them. Exhaustively. Obsessively. Test things. Don’t be afraid to utilize standing return policies.
I just… I wanted this thing to be great. I wanted it to be just what I was looking for. But there’s compromises all the way up the line.
Arguably, for a writer, the ideal was the briefly lived 2017 MacBook (wait, I know I know don’t cut me off) which had a razor thin footprint, power sipping m-class Intel CPU, and real solid state storage unlike this eMMC rubbish. The device was far more powerful than the Spin 1 while being thinner, with a larger screen, and one you could actually stand to look at.
But even that MacBook, which I’d still love to have, was intensely over priced and had, all together now, one of the worst keyboards in modern laptop history.
What were they thinking with those butterfly switches. Almost no key travel. Basically like tapping on glass, except tapping on glass is somehow better because you’re not expecting to feel any action. And yet, those weird, fragile keys were somehow LOUD. Probably because your reflexes dictate that you whack each one with every finger tap just to try to feel something. And those laptops were well over 1,200 dollars new! Even while so deeply flawed.
The Surface Book 3 or 2020 MacBook Air seem ideal, luxury, comfortable writing companions but of course they are priced straight out of possibility priced as low as 800 dollars for their strictly upsell configurations.
The old MacBook Air, Lea, has awful battery life and shuts down unexpectedly. I also think it really wants to catch on fire while it charges. It really wants to.
As mentioned, the X230 has awful battery life and it’s actually heavy. Plus its fan whines all the time.
Looking over the current market options as well as the current Vault offerings…
Maybe I should keep this thing around.
Things are bad all over.
Got an old computer or a new computer you like or hate or are indifferent to and want to talk about it? Ever made an absurd purchase but found your regret slowly faded away?
I’m @geekadematt on Twitter and this has been
Into the Vault – Acer Spin 1
The Acer Spin 1 is a 11.6 inch (12 inch class) convertible laptop if you’re a glutton for punishment. It sports the Intel Pentium N5000 CPU with 4 physical cores clocked from 1.10 to 2.7 GHz depending on workload while sipping approximately six watts of power. The N5000 is supported with 4 gigabytes of LPDDR4 RAM and utilizes a 64 gigabyte eMMC storage device (probably second generation since the promises of third generation eMMC devices are sky high compared to budget second gen offerings). All of these things are frankly fine by me. What isn’t fine is the quality of the 11.6 inch IPS (???) display with a 1366×768 display resolution and ten point touch responsiveness. It handles network connectivity through single band 802.11AC (Wifi 5 for those in the know) and has an HDMI output in addition to two USB 3.0 type A ports with no type C port on board. Other than a headphone jack, the only other port is a MicroSD card slot which I’ve populated with a 256 GB UHS-II class card for reasons I can only attempt to recall. I guess I thought I was going to really be storing stuff on this thing.