Motile M142 review: Ryzen finds a home in this surprisingly good budget notebook
- 29 January, 2020 22:00
The Motile M142 14-inch notebook PC may be the best budget laptop you’ve never heard of, by a company that understands low prices. That’s because the Motile M142 is Walmart’s house brand, and it’s one that the retailer itself often passes over to promote brand-name PCs.
Yes, the M142 cuts some corners. At about 6.5 hours, its battery life is comparatively poor. The screen is somewhat dim, and lacks touchscreen capabilities. Given the price, however, it’s a laptop we wouldn’t mind recommending to friends and family with tight budgets.
The M142 has one notable thing going for it: AMD’s mobile Ryzen 3000-series chips. For years, seeing an older AMD A-series chip among the listed specifications meant a lackluster experience. With AMD’s mobile Ryzen, that’s changed. The M142 generally outperforms our current best budget laptop, the Acer Aspire 5 A515-54-51DJ, and for a price that’s about $100 less.
Walmart Motile M142 basic specs
- Display: 14-inch (1920x1080) non-touch IPS
- Processor: AMD Ryzen 5 3500U
- Graphics: Radeon Vega 8
- Memory: 8GB
- Storage: 256GB BiWIN SSD
- Ports: 1 USB-C, 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0, HDMI, ethernet
- Camera: 720p front-facing, IR camera (Windows Hello)
- Battery: 46.7Wh (reported)
- Wireless: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0
- Operating system: Windows 10 Home
- Dimensions (inches): 12.6 inches x 8.4 inches x 0.75 inches
- Weight: 2.48 pounds, 2.92 pounds with charger
- Color: Rose Gold, Silver, Black
Price: $699 MSRP, $399 at Walmart
Motile M142 chassis: sturdy, lightweight
Don’t let the price tag or the Walmart brand turn you off: The Motile M142 (also known as the M142-RG) looks and feels like a laptop that costs several hundred dollars more than it does. From the bold, brand-forward box to the simple, metallic construction, you’ll be pretty impressed initially. (Note that Walmart tends to adjust its pricing frequently. While the M142 dropped as low as $329 for the holidays, it varied between $349 and $399 just over the course of this review.)
At well under 3 pounds, the M142 is surprisingly light. The chassis felt completely sturdy under my fingers, with no flex and a solid hinge. There’s venting throughout, though you should expect the M142’s fan to turn on frequently and somewhat loudly, with a faint high-pitched undertone that some might find irritating, though I didn’t.
Though a traditional clamshell design, the M142’s display folds a bit farther back than most, to about 30 degrees off the horizontal. If you’re exceedingly tall or sit upright, the M142’s deep recline may feel more comfortable.
Though it’s a consumer notebook through and through, the M142 retains the business notebook’s predilection for ports, with a smorgasbord of USB-A, USB-C, HDMI, and even the fold-out “dropjaw” ethernet port.
In any low-cost notebook, you will find some shortcuts made here and there to save cost. Two stand out immediately: Walmart saved a few pennies with USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports, rather than the more common USB 3.1. This means that external hard drives, especially, will transfer data a bit more slowly than normal. Pay attention to what port you’re using if you’re connecting an external hard drive, as the USB 2.0 port won’t transfer data as quickly. The ports are marked to tell the difference.
The other shortcut is the display. Motile’s 1080p IPS screen has a maximum brightness of only 210 nits, when we consider 250 to 260 nits to be an appropriate baseline for everyday, prolonged use. A second unit we received generated only 190 nits, which will look pretty murky except in a dimly lit office. Under bright light, the M142’s display will begin to wash out, even though it preserves viewing angles.
You can always connect to an external display, and the Motile M142 supported an external 4K monitor with no issues. I was also able to configure that display in HDR mode.
Another issue is that the display lacks touchscreen capabilities. Again, this may or may not matter for different users. Personally, not being able to reach up and tap an on-screen option feels a bit weird.
We always appreciate the security and convenience of Windows Hello, which is present in the 720p front-facing camera. It was a bit slow to recognize me, and the visual quality of the camera is pretty lousy. But the basics are there.
Motile M142’s keyboard: Not crummy, but crumby
Typing on the Motile M142’s keyboard was quite comfortable, although the action might not be quite as springy as you’d like. The large keys provide an acceptable amount of travel, though they seem to offer a bit less resistance than other keyboards I’ve tried, meaning that my fingers bottomed out with less effort.
We were concerned that the keyboard keys are surrounded by wide, deep gaps that could allow crumbs, dust, and other grit to drop directly into the housings. Granted, no keyboard with moving parts is immune to dirt. Chiclet keys that you’ll find on other keyboards, for instance, are like vertical pillars that emerge from a floor, with tiny gaps that can allow access to dust and other microdebris.
With the Motile M142, the keyboard is more like a series of raised platforms. If nothing else, they look like channels which could accumulate crumbs and other junk rather easily over time—and they did, over the days I tested it. You may want to re-invest some of the Motile M142’s savings into a can of compressed air.
Otherwise, the layout is mostly straightforward, with the standard navigation arrow keys in the lower right. An unusual “speedometer” key in the function row (F5) toggles between the normal or “basic” mode and the “quiet” mode, which turns off the somewhat omnipresent fan. The keyboard also includes a pair of buttons for adjusting the backlight brightness up or down. There are three modes from which to choose, including off and two brightness levels.
The M142’s Windows precision trackpad rates as pretty good, taking up the entirety of the space between the space bar and the bottom of the laptop. I found it comfortable to use and responsive, though it’s only clickable across half of the surface or so. Interestingly, the button to turn off the trackpad is found on the trackpad itself: Two quick taps on the upper right-hand corner toggles it on and off. A green indicator light on the keyboard itself (as well as a pop-up message on the display) lets you know that the touchpad has been disabled.
Motile M142 audio: THX helps a little
We’re used to dismissing laptop audio, but the Motile M142’s array is powered by THX, the company that made its name with surround sound and other audio technologies for cinema. It was THX, not Walmart, that shipped us this review unit. THX actually tuned the audio and the display of the Motile M142.
THX’s intervention did seem to help in some ways. Our first review unit, oddly enough, had three audio apps: the THX app itself, the Realtek Audio Console that ships with or is downloadable for most Windows PCs, and an app governing the Creative SoundBlaster chip—which isn’t included. THX called the latter a glitch and gave us a second machine for testing. (The second machine worked acceptably, though the “speedometer” function seemed to be disabled.)
It’s rare to find a laptop that sounds great when playing back audio from the default speakers. The Motile M142 isn’t that laptop, nor is it especially designed to be. By default, the speakers sound serviceable enough, though a bit faint. Really, the audio experience is optimized for headphones, and the THX Spatial Audio for Headphones app communicates that pretty well.
THX tells us that the software is a virtual audio driver, which should provide the same audio enhancement benefits via the 3.5mm jack as well as through Bluetooth or even USB headphones. That seems to hold true.
In our experience, the THX audio enhancements certainly lend themselves to a richer soundscape overall, including the option to turn on THX Spatial Audio in addition to the basic Stereo. THX provides different presets for games and movies, as well as audio, but doesn’t differentiate between rap and classical, for example. The app also offers an equalizer, though with no presets—a bizarrely common trait on Windows PCs, though a rarity on smartphones. Bass enhancement and a dialogue booster are also available.
Audio enhancements are definitely something to consider when buying a laptop. Should you buy the Motile M142 strictly for THX alone? No, not to my ears. Even the spatial audio demos available on THX’s page didn’t sound especially “positional”—just sort of a “wall of sound” ambient expression. Let’s just say it was reasonably competitive with other enhancements we’ve experienced, such as the Dolby Audio offered by a Microsoft Surface.
Keep reading to hear about the surprising performance ups and downs.
Motile M142 performance: Feast or famine
We grade notebook PCs and other products’ performance as objectively as we can, using scripted benchmarks and other tools. Our evaluations become more subjective as we factor in how the device operates on a daily basis, how comfortable it is to use, and so on. What we would call “value” falls somewhere in between: If a device costs $2,000, for example, we expect its performance to justify the price tag. But we’re more forgiving of poorer performance if you’re not spending as much.
That preamble explains what we think of as one of the Motile M142’s key strengths: value. AMD’s older mobile Ryzen chip doesn’t need to overpower the competition to justify buying it—it just needs to compete, remaining above a “good enough” threshold of performance. It does, and therefore Motile M142 does, too.
We’ve compared the Motile M142 against a variety of notebook PCs, some priced significantly higher than the M142’s $699 list price. (As noted above, Walmart has dropped the price to as low as $399 or even less, over the course of this review.)
As we do with all of the devices we test, we used the M142 as a daily driver, both for writing this review as well as simply our daily work. We had no hiccups while web browsing, working with office apps, and the like. (One exception was occasional judder in playing back 4K videos at 60 fps in YouTube, though Netflix played with no issues.) The M142 was responsive—perhaps not quite as quick to recognize us in the morning using Windows Hello as other, competing devices, but otherwise a pleasure to use.
We test using a variety of “real-world” and purely synthetic benchmarks, pushing laptops like the Motile M142 to their limits. About the only oddity we noticed was a rather pronounced spread in certain benchmark scores, specifically the PCMark 8 scores, where the delta reached 15 percent. We normally test each benchmark at least three times, but on certain tests we ran far more passes, just to make sure we received representative scores. Some sort of power or thermal throttling may be going on here. However, our usual way of checking this, Intel’s XTU software, doesn’t run on AMD processors.
We use UL’s PCMark benchmarks to approximate real-world use, with both the older PCMark 8 benchmarks as well as the modern PCMark 10. PCMark 8 breaks out its tests into separate benchmarks. We use the Work test, which measures word processing, spreadsheet work, video calling, and more, as well as the PCMark Creative test, which pushes the laptop harder on multimedia-specific tasks such as photo editing, light gaming, and the like. We have PCMark 8 Work test scores for all of our low-end laptops, so we’ve used that test here.
The M142 didn’t do well here. One possible explanation for the low scores, however, could be the anemic performance of the internal SSD. CrystalDiskMark measures random and sequential data reads using various metrics, and in the first column, sequential reads using multiple data queues are only 81 megabytes per second. While it’s completely unfair to measure the M142 against the substantially more expensive Surface Laptop 3 for Business, it’s worth pointing out that the SL3 read 2,282 megabytes per second using the same metric—28 times faster! This is a budget SSD inside a budget laptop.
Next, we use Maxon’s Cinebench test to render, as quickly as possible, a complex CGI scene. Although the test supports both single-core and multi-core scores, we only record the result from turning on all of the cores and processor threads and running them at full load. Here, the Motile M142 performs well.
While Cinebench takes a scant few minutes to run, our HandBrake test stresses all of the cores over a prolonged period, sometimes an hour or more, as the PC works to convert a Hollywood movie into a format appropriate for storing and viewing on an Android tablet. More often than not, the test PC will begin to slow down over time to avoid overheating the CPU. In the case of the M142, its fan turned on often, and remained on for most of this test (though it wasn’t particularly loud or oppressive). Apparently that was the right decision, as the Motile posted an impressively fast result.
We use the 3DMark test to evaluate how well a laptop performs in 3D games and other tests of its GPU. The 3DMark Sky Diver test has consistently proven to be a good comparative measure. Here, AMD has traditionally positioned its Radeon integrated GPUs as superior to Intel’s own. Our recent Intel “Ice Lake” tests show that isn’t true—but Intel hasn’t migrated the chip down to the budget PC category yet, either. The Motile’s performance here is fantastic, exceeding the score of the closest competitor by 32 percent!
Finally, there’s battery life. We perform a video rundown test, where we set the laptop screen to 250-260 nits’ brightness (maxed out, in the case of the M142’s dim display), attach earbuds at midrange volume, and loop a 4K video over and over until the battery dies.
Your mileage will vary, but in any scenario, the Motile M142 posted a lackluster score of 6 hours, 38 minutes. The 46.7Wh battery is on the small side, but the display clearly isn’t sucking extra power, so we’re not sure why the Motile M142 quits so soon.
Should you buy the Motile M142? It’s the price
Price weighs heavily in our evaluation of the Motile M142. Acer sells scads of Aspire 5 series laptops, but compared to the M142, the Aspire is superior only in battery life. Lenovo’s IdeaPad S340-15IWL hugs the top of our performance charts as well, but at a current price of $458, it’s somewhat more expensive.
The Motile M142 also may be shooting itself in the foot with its low-end parts. If you’re the adventurous type, break out your screwdriver and consider upgrading the poky SSD—there are screws on the bottom that allow access to its innards.
Walmart’s Motile house brand nevertheless deserves attention because of its potential, assuming it sticks with AMD. We’d like to see how the M142 fares if it’s refreshed with AMD’s mobile Ryzen 4000 chips, which promise some real competition for Intel at last.
If you’re a student considering toting the Motile M142 from class to class, I’d pass it over, and consider something a bit more powerful, and with a longer-lasting battery. But at $350 to $399, I’d definitely recommend that a family member with mainstream needs purchase the Motile M142 as their next budget laptop.