Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Laptop Review: Acer Aspire One

Go buy my WII on ebay, it is cheap and has lots of stuff
Note, this is not a paid review, this review is entirely of my own choosing

As you walk around town you can't help but notice a horde of people using tiny book-sized laptops. They are using them for surfing the Interwebs, typing up OO.o documents, and e-mailing clients. 'Netbooks', 'ultra-portables', 'mini-laptops', whatever you call them, they seem to be here to stay.

It all started with the Asus Eee PC, followed quick by MCI Wind, the Cloud Book, and a whole slew of other netbook offerings. Just yesterday (9/4/08) Dell released a netbook. Recently, Acer entered the fray with its Acer Aspire One models. They offer two different styles, one with XP and one with Linux Linpus, with two different color options, white and sapphire blue. Let's see if the Aspire One is the leader of the pack or if it is just another lemming.

Here are the specs of the reviewed model:
Built In Devices: Wi-fi antenna, LAN port, stereo speakers, 3 USB ports, VGA output, 1 SD slot, 15-in-1 slot, mic input, headset output, built-in mic, built-in Web cam
Width: 9.8 inches
Depth: 6.7 inches
Height: 1.1 inches
Weight: 2.19lbs (with battery), 3lbs (with cord)
Color: Sapphire Blue
Processor: Intel Atom N270, 1.6GHz
RAM: 512 MB (1.5 GB max)
Hard Disk: 8GB SSD
Display: 1024 * 600; widescreen; 18-bit color; LED backlit
GPU: Intel GMA 950; Technology 3.0
Battery: 3-cell; 3hrs (Mfr estimate)
Operating System: Linux Linpus Lite
Software: OO.o 2.3, Acer Aspire One Mail, IM-client, games, Firefox, Media Manager
Price: $324.99 (at Micro Center)

The Body – 4/5
When you first pull Aspire One out of the box you are captivated by the beauty of the actual casing. With rounded edges, a ocean-blue color, chrome (both red and silver) highlights, and a shiny gleam; this netbook appears sexy. Quickly, though, you will realize that fingerprints show up very noticeably and distract from the otherwise attractive casing. While this casing is nice, the gloss on it serves as a mirror which, in a well-lit room, causes light to reflect into your eyes.

The overall layout of the build seems easy to learn and use. The buttons are in the right spots (with the exception of the mouse) and it is easy to tell what is going on. The plastic body feels slightly unsteady and unstable, but it held up to a lot of abuse. The only change to the otherwise smooth layout and look is a small bump for the SSD HD and a cutaway section for replacing the RAM. The overall feel of the netbook in your hand, while closed, feels almost identical to that of a novel, so it should work well with the coffee-sipping crowd.

The Screen – 3/5
Loaded with what seems to be the norm for netbooks, the Acer Aspire One has a small 8.9in screen that is surrounded by a glossy black body. The screen also has a glossy cover on it. Similar to the problems with the rest of the body, this serves to bounce light into your eyes in a well-lit environment. The backlighting of the Acer reacted quickly and produced a bright outlook that had several customizable levels of brightness. It is easy to read text and view images on this screen. When watching videos or photos, one notices a slight lag on quick or high-def sections, but it is only noticeable briefly. Additionally, it is hard to view some wide Web sites using this screen, but most fit easily onto it and are quite readable. The biggest issue with the screen is its viewing angles. You need to be looking almost dead on vertically to see the screen well; however, the horizontal angles seem to have a much wider allowance than normal laptops. The screen is perfect for watching Flash movies, Youtube videos, and working on your e-mails.

Operating System – 5/5
On my normal laptop (Acer Aspire 7720), I dual boot Ubuntu and Vista; this might cause me to have a different reaction to the included OS (Linux Linpus) than you. I found the OS of this model to be amazingly quick and useful. It boots up in roughly 10-15 seconds, launches applications in about the same time, and is quite user-friendly. All tasks needed are grouped into four sections (Web, productivity, entertainment, and files) and you can quickly find what you need. There is also a handy search bar located at the top of the screen. Users who are not used to Linux will quickly find this OS to be quite user-friendly.

For those users who happen to be Linux fans, or wish to customize their netbook in any way, the OS becomes much less user-friendly. Acer has made it idiot-proof which means that they removed the library (kinda), hid the right-click, and even hid the terminal. Once you activate the terminal (ALT+F2), it is easy to run this like any other Linux OS. You can add, remove, or use the Fedora library of programs. There still is some limitation to the OS, but you can always install a custom one if you would like.

Heat and Noise –5/5
The primary concern of any laptop, and especially a netbook, is battery life, shortly followed by the heat and noise produced by the machine. While I am sure that the XP version of this netbook is louder and hotter (due to the rotating drive and the temperature needed to keep it running), my version was surprisingly quiet. With most laptops, the fan and HD noises usually cancel out the typing, on this, my typing was the loudest. Heat was virtually nonexistent. Except in the small bump where the HD is, and the front fan vents, the laptop was roughly room-temperature. Even at those two points, my Acer was probably barely over 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Keyboard and Mouse – 2.5/5
Sporting an 85% size keyboard, the Acer Aspire One is much easier to use than most other netbooks. The keyboard, though hard to use for the first 15 minutes or so, grows on you quickly as you memorize the slightly smaller movements needed to type. The trackpad on the mouse works well, though it is too easy to touch it when typing, which causes it to jump around (hit Fn+F7 to turn it on or off). The biggest problem with this layout is the mouse buttons. The right button is on the right of the pad, the left on the left. This is far different than any normal laptop or netbook where the buttons are on the bottom. It is very hard to remember where the buttons are, and they are not user-friendly.

Speakers and Headphones – 4/5
The speakers on the Acer Aspire One are exactly what you would expect from any small laptop. They sound small, but work well enough for most applications. When you plug the headphones in, however, the sound quality improves to what you would get from any decent desktop computer.

Microphone and Web cam – 2/5
The microphone on this system works remarkably well and isolates noise better than any other that I have seen recently. It does get spotty at times, but usually is a decent mic. The Web cam, on the other hand, is one of the lowest quality Web cams i have ever used. While it is good enough for a brief videochat, it lags a fair bit and only focuses well on your face. If you videochat often, or need to conference call your office from Starbucks, I would suggest investing in a USB Web cam (which, interestingly, is roughly have the size of your computer).

Performance – 4/5
The biggest perk of this system is that it runs Linux, which, as mentioned earlier, means that the computer is up and running in less than 15 seconds. Opening applications is also a breeze. However, once you get about three to five separate windows open, the limited 512MB RAM greatly slows down the laptop. Trying to run over 10 tabs in Firefox, having more than three OO.o documents open, or playing a game and doing anything else at the same time slows the system down. Thankfully you can upgrade the RAM with little effort.

Battery – 3.5/5
Battery life being the primary concern with laptops and netbooks, this is the area that most people complain about. On this particular netbook, typing a OO.o document while running music and Pidgen, and doing a little Firefox browsing, I was able to get roughly three hours of usage on 75% brightness. At 100%, it was two-and-a-half. At 50% I was able to get about three hours and fifteen minutes. When just browsing the Internet or just typing, add about thirty minutes on to those totals. I know that it is not a lot of time on the computer, but at the battery size, it seems about right.

Extras bundled – 4/5
The Acer Aspire One comes with a leather carrying pouch, the adapter/charger, and a screen protector. These are in good quality, work well, and are light/small which fits the computer perfectly. The only issue is that the backup restore comes as CD-ROM. Seeing as the Acer does not have a CD drive, this makes little sense to me. Acer, had they been thinking, should have included the restore on a SD card.

Software – 3/5
To be honest, the only good bundled software is the OS, Firefox, and OO.o. The messenger client, IM client, and the entertainment system all are fairly useless. Most of the games are actually demo versions that make you pay for the full version. I would recommend removing most of these programs and replacing them with Pidgen, any other games you want, and Thunderbird.

Linux Library – 5/5
Seeing as the Linpus Lite OS is a derivative of Fedora, the Linux library that is searchable is vast and user-friendly. You can replace any program on your Acer, add anything you want, and get support online easily. Plus, like with most Linuxes, everything is free.

Support – 5/5
Acer issues standard computer company support to their Aspire One product. What gave this a 5/5, however, is the fact that there is a large online community of support for this product. Ranging from people using Linux all the time to people who just got their Acer Aspire One, many Web sites have sprung up with forums for help, step-by-step guides, and even videos to tell you what to do. Head over to for more info.

Expandability – 4/5
While you can not easily upgrade the components of this system, the fact that you can add HD space without opening it up is a plus. By placing a SD card in the SD slot, you can incorporate its memory (up to 16GB) right into your HD, with no separate drive shown. Basically, for $30, you can triple your HD space. Add the fact that you can install other versions of Linux or even Windows means that the expandability of the Acer is nice.

Small design
Nice layout
Good OS
Decent Battery

Mouse problems
Cramped Keyboard

Overall - 3.5/5
While there are some problems with the layout and mouse of this device, the overall usability of it prevails. If you are shopping for a netbook, give this one a test drive at your local stores.

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