Small Computing

The review: Acer Aspire One (AOA110-1722) Netbook

The Acer Aspire One

So I’ve already done a preview and unboxing of this little netbook, but it’s time to get a little more in-depth with things now that I’ve had a chance to spend some time with it. For those who want the the general consensus and don’t want to wait until the end, here it is: it’s good! For the rest, I’ve spent the last week and a half using and evaluating the One and have some observations and numbers to share.

Design

The Acer Aspire One AOA110-1722 netbook is the blue model, otherwise known as the fingerprint magnet. While it’s a very nice deep blue (it looks black in some lightning), the lid is a very high gloss. Now that I’ve had it for a week, it has fingerprints all over it. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear someone fried up some bacon and used their hands to take it out of the pan and then grabbed the netbook right after that. However, a microfiber cloth will clean the fingerprints right off.

They keyboard is a flat black and looks a little odd against the dark matte blue of the case, but is not unattractive. What does stand out, however, is the high gloss black bezel around the LCD. Also, I was a little disappointed at the bezel size. There’s about an inch on the sides and top around the screen, but this is a necessary evil to include the “large” keyboard.

Much like the bezel and the lid, the screen itself is also a glossy display. Turning the brightness up on the display makes it visible in every situation I’ve tried, including direct sunlight. However, under more normal conditions, setting the brightness at roughly half is very readable and usable and a good way to eek out a little more battery life from the One.

Book and netbook

The underside of the Acer Aspire One netbook includes a small access panel that leads to nothing, for the time being. It’s believed that Acer will be releasing a 3G module that’ll plug into that access panel, but that’s all it’s good for right now.

The overall size of the netbook is a bit larger than the Asus Eee PC 701, and slightly larger than a standard hardcover novel. It definitely weighs more than a book, but at a little over two pounds, it’s not going to add a lot of bulk to your bag.

The power adapter is a standard notebook variety with two cords — one connecting to the adapter and one connecting to the Acer Aspire One netbook. The adapter is small and only weighs a few ounces, so taking it with you still gets you out at under three pounds for everything.

As I mentioned in the preview, the Acer Aspire One netbook does come with a synthetic leather sleeve. Compared to the sleeve/bag the Eee comes with, this is highly inferior. Aside from it having cuts outs in the corner, because it’s literally a sleeve, as in you pull it over the One, it’s nowhere near as easy to get the netbook in/out of it as the bag/sleeve the Asus Eee PC netbook comes with. Also, if you’re lazy like me and leave the SD card in the right slot, you run the danger of pushing against it while putting the netbook in its sleeve. However, for the basic purpose of preventing most scratches and light dings from slamming it into things, the sleeve is adequate, but just barely so.

Hardware

For those wanting the nitty gritty specifics, skip to the end where you’ll find all of the specs. For the uninitiated, this is an 8.9″ netbook that runs Linpus Linux Lite, a Fedora based distribution. There are other variations on the model that run Windows, but for those wanting a truly portable machine, going the linux route with the SSD is perhaps the best choice.

Sporting the same 1.6ghz Intel Atom CPU that so many netbooks have these days and 512 mb of RAM, the little machine boots up in about 15 seconds from pressing the power button to seeing the Linpus custom desktop. A few additional seconds may be required for it to continue loading everything (in the same way that just because you see your desktop in Windows doesn’t mean it’s not still loading). Thinking you’ll add more RAM to help that out? Think again: the RAM slot is not accessible via the door on the bottom of the machine. Instead, you have to disassemble the Acer Aspire One netbook and remove the motherboard to access the slot. Kiss your warranty goodbye if you do this. However, for those who want to know how, here’s how to upgrade the RAM.

Because the One has a SSD, the only moving part in the machine should be the fan. That means you can swing this thing around and throw it and it should be fine, aside from any damage you do by throwing it (don’t throw it). It’s been said by other reviews that the SSD is slow, however, for the average user and for my uses thus far, it has proven to mostly be a non-issue. However, if you’re moving around a lot of small files, it may prove to be a sore spot for you, in which case I’d suggest you use a fast SDHC card for those tasks.

You can also add an SD (or SDHC) card to increase the system’s overall storage. Popping a card in the left side results in the system announcing via a pop-up that it has increased your system’s storage to X. You don’t have to do anything, and if you open the file manager and look at My Disk, you’ll see the files on your SD(HC) card have been seamlessly integrated into your home directory. It’s a little disconcerting for those of us who are used to managing files ourselves, but it is a pretty neat trick just the same and something no other netbook has done yet.

Continuing the hardware tour, it has the standard array of USB ports (3 — 1 more than a 15″ MacBook Pro), audio ports, a slot for a laptop lock, 2 SD(HC) slots (1 a standard slot, the other the storage expansion slot), Ethernet, and VGA adapter ports. It also has a few helpful indicator lights (caps lock, num lock, disk activity, battery) and a small hardware switch in the front that you slide to the right to enable or disable the wireless card.

The touchpad, as said in the preview and as others have said in their reviews, is really the low point of the One. It’s small, hyper sensitive, and has slim mouse buttons on the side of the pad instead of the bottom. This is done to save space, of course, but it’s awkward and takes considerable getting used to when we’ve had years and years of using “normal” touchpads. Also, because of the limited space on the netbook in general, the touchpad can get in the way when you’re typing, resulting in your cursor moving to some spot in the middle of a paragraph somewhere because the tip/side of your thumb brushed the touchpad.

But, speaking of typing, it’s mostly good news for this netbook. I really have to underscore the good choices Acer has made with the keyboard because it seems like some other reviews are glossing over this. First, it doesn’t have the best feel (I love my Apple keyboards, though the chiclet one took getting used to), but because the keys are mostly full-sized, it has a much better user experience. Also, the inclusion of a normal right shift key means that users no longer need to be constantly frustrated when they hit the up arrow key while trying to capitalize something. This alone is a huge plus and Acer is one of few manufacturers who’ve opted to go this route on a netbook, and I hope to see more follow their path. The keyboard, otherwise, has the standard array of keys and function commands available to it. My only other real complaint is the location of the page up and page down keys (to the left and right, respectively, of the up arrow key), but this is a small thing.

Battery life will vary depending upon your uses, obviously. With the wireless off and just using OpenOffice writer, I can get almost three hours of use out of the Acer Aspire One netbook (remarkably close to Acer’s claim of 3 hours). However, once you turn wireless on and do some web browsing and other work, the battery life will suffer. Gaming and video will bring this down more, however, there are indications that Acer will be releasing a larger battery (6 cell vs. the standard 3 cell) in the future. For general use, expect somewhere around 2-2.5 hours of battery life.

Performance

So to put all of the hardware to use, Acer has included a variety of software with the machine. You have your standard line-up of OpenOffice’s suite, Firefox for web browsing, an instant messenger client (it supports AIM, MSN, Google Talk, and Yahoo messenger to varying degrees), email, calendar, media player, and a couple of games. If you find the included software to be incomplete, you can enable the advanced user mode and install other software (or update the horribly out of date Firefox 2 to Firefox 3 as a suggestion).

Performance of the One is quite good for most things. OpenOffice programs open in 4-5 seconds and are ready to be used. I’ve had different experiences with Firefox taking 20 seconds to open, and also only taking 4 seconds to open. Subsequent opens of programs are generally quick and Firefox is quite usable. I still maintain that, contrary to other reviews, Flash video is not something that is handled well by the Acer Aspire One.

In the default window size on YouTube or Hulu, videos play smoothly. As soon as you go full screen, you can see that the One is dropping frames and there’s a slight stutter to the video. Also, it seems to be a linux problem, but Flash videos are prone to audio desync that makes watching the videos far, far less enjoyable.

The speakers on the Acer Aspire One are tinny and pretty much what you’d expect on such a small, low-priced netbook. However, they do get reasonably loud, but don’t expect them to provide the music for a party. Also, they’re located on the bottom of the machine, so sound projects down, not out to you.

The webcam, while functional, is wimpy. Picture clarity is reasonably good, but it has poor focus and even small movements result in a blur.

So hopping out of the standard review for a moment, I decided to install Freeciv (a free and excellent Civilization II like game) and see how it plays. Unfortunately, Freeciv isn’t designed to be run at a vertical resolution of 600 pixels and requires alt-dragging to see the entire window. Installing the SDL client should allow one to change the resolution to something more One friendly.

Firefox on One

In the same vein but going a different direction, I decided to install Quake 3 Arena (it’s in the add/remove programs listing under “q3″) and see how that runs since the Atom and the X3100 ought to be more than capable of driving it. Once you install it, the client will download the demo files to allow you to play (or you can copy the files off of your CD for a full installation — it tells you how) and install them itself. Expect it to grab somewhere around 70+mb of files while it’s doing this. After it installs them, the game fires right up. Maps load very quickly (DM1 takes about a second). Running it at 800×600 is playable, though the framerate does drop under 30 FPS with some action and certain maps, but overall, very playable.

Other performance quibbles come from the long to-sleep and recover from sleep times. Putting the netbook to sleep dims the display right away, but it takes almost 15 seconds for it to actually shut down. Bringing it back up takes almost as long at around 13 seconds. Aside from a couple of instances, wireless works after coming out of sleep or from powering off and connects right away. If it doesn’t, simply slide the wireless button off and back on and that usually does the trick.

I don’t have any way to measure heat and noise, but both are minimal from the One. Assuming you allow the netbook to breathe, the fan is rarely loud enough to hear under light work. However, once the fan does spin up, you will notice it. It’s not a particularly obnoxious or whiny fan, at least, but for those who want a truly silent solution, they may be disappointed.

Miscellaneous stuff

I have a lot of positive things to say about the Acer Aspire One netbook and I hope you’ve seen that. The keyboard on the whole is very good and was enough to justify the $380 price tag (now a whole heck of a lot cheaper!) when compared to the minuscule and oddly designed Asus Eee PC 701 keyboard I’d been previously using.

Speaking of the Eee PC 701, I ran a few quick tests to compare performance and here’s how the two stacked up:

Bootup:

One: ~15 seconds

701: ~15 seconds

To-sleep time:

One: ~15 seconds

701: ~4 seconds

Wake from sleep:

One: ~13 seconds

701: ~7 seconds

OpenOffice Writer load time:

One: ~4 seconds

701: ~10 seconds

Firefox load time:

One: ~4 seconds

701: ~10 seconds

Obviously, the Acer Aspire One netbook has a more powerful processor than the Eee PC 701 and it’s not an entirely fair comparison, but it was still interesting to note the distinct differences despite the similar form factor. It’s amazing what a new CPU can do for a machine.

Verdict

If you’re looking for a netbook and don’t mind that it’s not easy to upgrade the hardware, the One would be an excellent choice. If you’re the type that’s going to be doing a lot of writing on a netbook, I highly suggest the One and I think you’d be happy with the decision.

Here’s a few extra pictures taken for comparison for those curious how the One stacks up against the Eee 701 and other devices, namely a 15″ MacBook Pro (and the slightly large 28″ monitor in the background).

Eee on top, One on bottom

One and Eee 701 side by side

One and Eee 701

Acer Aspire One’s SSD really, REALLY slow? →