By Eric Grevstad
September 03, 2008
Windows XP and a 120GB hard disk give Acer’s 2.3-pound compact netbook PC an edge over Linux lightweights when it comes to adding software (though there’s a Linux version, too). The Atom-powered ultraportable also boasts an 8.9-inch screen, a nearly full-sized keyboard, a great price ($349)–and Wi-Fi, of course.
Acer Aspire One
$349 as tested
Pros: great value, good features, Wi-Fi, lightweight
Cons: performance is underwhelming, weak battery life
We have a winner, if not in the sales competition at least in the nomenclature contest: The low-priced, lightweight laptops inspired by last fall’s Asus Eee PC and since described as everything from mini-notebooks to kneetops to Microsoft’s catchy acronym ULCPCs (ultra-low-cost PCs) are now universally called “netbooks”, after their primary purpose of simple Web and e-mail access.
They’re also selling like mad to students and traveling professionals who don’t want to carry a heavy full-sized laptop just for going online or doing some word processing or presentation work — and who don’t want to pay big bucks for an upscale ultralight such as Apple’s MacBook Air or Lenovo’s ThinkPad X301. That’s why Asus has been joined by HP, Acer, MSI, and (soon) Dell and Lenovo, all trying to find the sweet spot of reduced-but-not-too-reduced features and performance versus price.Trouble is, the plunging prices of full-fledged notebooks are screwing with the sweet spot. HP offers a bare-bones, Linux-based configuration of its 2133 Mini-Note for $499, but the top-of-the-line Windows Vista Business model is a hefty $829.
And while the original 7-inch-screened Eee flew off the shelves at $400, Asus’ current 10-inch Eee PC 1000 costs $700. That’s not even mentioning the online buzz about an Asus presentation last month that outlined a confusing crop of more than 20 Eee-branded PCs at prices up to $900. Can you say “losing sight of simple and affordable”?
That’s why we’re impressed with Acer’s entry in the netbook wars, the Aspire One. True, “impressed” doesn’t mean “enraptured”; Intel’s new Atom processor’s performance is underwhelming, and our test unit delivered disappointingly brief battery life.
But the Acer is a handsome and classy ultraportable with a high-quality 8.9-inch display, a remarkably usable keyboard, and the familiar environment of Windows XP Home Edition with an ample 120GB hard disk for installing applications and storing data, music, and image files. Considering that it cost the same $399 as the 7-inch, keyboard- and storage-cramped Eee PC 4G we cheered last November, we decided fairly quickly to give it a thumbs up.
And that was before the other day, when Acer lowered the price to $349.
Go get your own, kid
Actually, Acer has introduced what it calls back-to-school savings on two Aspire One models. Our review system, model AOA150-1570, combines Windows XP with 1GB of memory and the abovementioned 120GB hard disk.
For $329, the Aspire One AOA110-1722 stays closer to the first Eee recipe with the Linpus Linux Lite operating system, 512MB of RAM, and an 8GB solid-state drive (SSD) instead of a hard disk. Like the Eee 4G’s variation on Xandros Linux, the Linpus platform hides the open-source OS’ complexity behind point-and-click icons in categories such as Connect (browser, instant messenger, e-mail), Fun (media player, photo manager), and Work (the OpenOffice.org word processor, spreadsheet, and so on).
Both of the above Aspires come with a three-cell battery pack that fits flush with the back of the case. Acer has assigned the $399 price point to a new Win XP configuration (AOA150-1447) with a 160GB hard drive and six-cell battery.
We’d like to get our hands on the six-pack, because we rarely got the One to run for more than two hours unplugged — maybe two hours and ten minutes doing light productivity work with the WiFi radio turned off, but that proved the best-case scenario. Two hours is all right for a luggable desktop replacement, but a toss-it-into-your-briefcase-or-backpack netbook should last much longer.
At least Acer’s advertised lifespan for the three-cell pack — a maximum two and a half hours with the hard disk, three hours with SSD — is less exaggerated than most notebook vendors’ battery claims. So when the company estimates six hours for the six-cell, we can hope for an honest five.
Am I blue?
The Aspire One measures 6.7 by 9.8 by 1.1 inches and weighs 2.3 pounds — an even three pounds with its AC adapter.
It’s also available in white, but we vote for the Aspire in our test unit’s deep blue, which manages to be both one of the best-looking and best fingerprint- and smudge-collecting shades we’ve seen. There’s no polishing cloth in the box for buffing the netbook’s lid and palm rest, but there’s a soft, snug-fitting carrying pouch.
A tiny slider switch on the Acer’s front edge turns the 802.11b/g wireless on and off. Microphone and headphone jacks, two USB 2.0 ports, and an SD/MMC/xD/Memory Stick flash-card slot are on the system’s right side, with a third USB port, VGA and Ethernet ports, and an additional SD card slot along the left.
On the Linux model, this slot performs the nifty trick of merging a memory card with the SSD as seamless main storage, rather than appearing as an additional drive.
Like all netbooks’, the Acer’s keyboard reflects some downsizing — the A through apostrophe keys span 7.25 inches, compared to 8 inches for a desktop keyboard and 7.5 inches for the category-leading HP 2133.
But it’s considerably more comfortable than the 6.5 inches of the original Eee PC 4G, with a sturdy, first-class typing feel that encourages almost-full-speed touch typing after just an hour or so of practice or consciously precise fingerwork.
Considering that we could come up with only one minor gripe about the layout — the lack of dedicated PgUp and PgDn keys (they’re Fn-key combinations with the Home and End keys) — you’re left with a keyboard that ranks near the top of the netbook category.
Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the cursor-control touchpad below the space bar — it’s awfully small, with stiff and noisy mouse buttons mounted on either side rather than beneath the pad’s perimeter.
Tinkering with the controls enables handy features such as virtual scrolling (moving your finger either up and down along the right edge of the pad, or in counter- or clockwise circles next to the edge), but these reduce the already cramped room to maneuver. Overall, the touchpad is tolerable, but a notebook mouse would make a good holiday gift for an Aspire One owner.
Speaking of scrolling, the Acer’s screen’s 1,024 by 600 resolution will oblige you to do a bit more vertical scrolling than you’re used to, but at least spare you the chore of having to move horizontally to see a whole Web page as the 7-inch Eee’s 800 by 680-pixel panel did.
The 8.9-inch Aspire One display is crisp and bright, at least with the LED backlight on the top three or four of its ten brightness settings. Colors looked great, albeit sensitive to nudging the screen tilt a few degrees forward or back, with less of the shaving-mirror effect we’ve seen with other glossy LCDs. If you do want to look at your reflection, there’s a bare-bones 640 by 480 webcam above the screen.
Under the hood, you’ll find 1GB of DDR2/667 memory and a 120GB, 5,400 rpm Hitachi SATA hard drive, as well as Intel’s Atom N270 — a single-core, 1.6GHz processor with 512K of Level 2 cache and a 533MHz front-side bus.
The watt-saving CPU revives the Hyper-Threading Technology that Intel touted before it had true dual-core processors, giving at least a modest boost for multithreaded applications or multitasking — the Acer rendered Cinebench 10’s sample scene in a bit over 27 minutes without Hyper-Threading, but less than 18 minutes with the feature enabled.
To be sure, 18 minutes for Cinebench 10 — or 1 minute and 15 seconds to boot XP and load the preinstalled utilities and taskbar icons, or four seconds’ wait after right-clicking the desktop and clicking Properties to see the Display Properties dialog box — is not dazzling performance. Overall, the Aspire One is clearly faster than the VIA C7-based HP 2133, and perfectly adequate for everyday applications, but occasionally feels a bit sluggish.
Plugged into an external monitor for the sake of our benchmark tests’ XGA resolution — the system can either clone its LCD display on an attached monitor or work at higher resolution with the LCD switched off — the Acer posted a PCMark05 score of 1,501 (CPU 1,478; memory 2,350; hard disk 3,872; graphics 549).
And we cry “Oh noooo!” like Mr. Bill whenever we discover that a PC has the old Intel 945GME chipset’s GMA 950 integrated graphics. The Acer upheld the video platform’s molasses reputation by meandering to 3DMark06 and 3DMark05 scores of 109 and 248, respectively, and stumbling through the DirectX 9.0 game simulation AquaMark3 at 4 frames per second.
A real deal
While the netbook has 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, neither Bluetooth nor 3G wireless broadband are included. The former can be had by plugging in a USB dongle; Acer has mentioned an internal upgrade for the latter, but there’s no hard news as of yet. It’s 3G we’re thinking of when we say we wish the Aspire One had an ExpressCard slot like Lenovo’s forthcoming IdeaPad S10.
Acer’s software bundle is modest. Sixty-day trial versions of Microsoft Office 2007 Home and Student and McAfee Security Center are preinstalled, as are Microsoft Works, Yahoo Toolbar, and InterVideo WinDVD, presumably for users who’ll buy a USB external DVD drive. The day we registered our McAfee trial, we were amused to get an e-mail offering the full version of the security suite for 29 percent off the list price, followed a few hours later by an offer for 36 percent off. We figure if we wait another day or two we’ll get a better offer.
By contrast, we doubt that netbook shoppers will see a better offer than the Win XP Aspire One for $349 (though we’re equally tempted by the six-cell model for $399). Right now, the Acer saves you at least $100 and in some cases over $200 compared to competitors from HP, Asus, and MSI. It also seems likely to undercut the latecomers from Lenovo and Dell, unless those vendors come in significantly below their announced or anticipated prices.
Along the way, it turns the “Since a netbook nowadays costs the same or more, why not get a real notebook?” argument upside down: If you can settle for a plug-in optical drive and slightly subpar touchpad, why should you spend more than $400 or carry more than three pounds? This may be the year’s best PC value.