The Acer Aspire One has certainly taken the world by storm, proving itself to be the first viable competitor to the dominance established by Asus and their Eee PC. The so called “netbook” market has also exploded, less than year after Asus introduced the first Eee PCs. Netbooks, also known as subnotebooks, are low-cost laptops designed primarly for Internet usage and other tasks that don’t require lots of power.
It’s been some time since I first unboxed the Aspire One and then got a 6-cell version to test and compare with. The 6-cell version will be the one I am reviewing since it’s the one I’m currently using.
The Aspire One is slouch when it comes to hardware. Like most current-generation netbooks it uses the Intel Atom N270 CPU.
- Processor: Intel Atom processor N270 (1.60 GHz, 533 MHz FSB, 512 KB L2 cache)
- Chipset: Mobile Intel 945GSE Express Chipset (DDR2 400/533 MHz)/Mobile Intel 82801GBM Chipset
- Operating System: Windows XP Home
- RAM: 1 GB DDR2 533 MHz SDRAM Single Channel (512 MB onboard, 512 MB in SODIMM slot)
- HDD: 2.5″ 9.5mm 120 GB 5400 RPM
- Expansion: SD™ Card reader, Multi-in-1 card reader: Supporting Secure Digital™ (SD) Card, MultiMediaCard (MMC), Reduced-Size Multimedia Card (RS-MMC), Memory Stick® (MS), Memory Stick PRO™ (MS PRO), xD-Picture Card™ (xD)
- Display: 8.9″ WSVGA high-brightness (typical 180-nit) Acer CrystalBrite™ TFT LCD, 1024 x 600 resolution, LED backlight, 262K colours
- Audio: Two built-in stereo speakers, built-in digital microphone
- Webcam: Integrated Acer Crystal Eye webcam, supporting 0.3 megapixel resolution
- Networking: Acer InviLink™ 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, 10/100 Mbps Ethernet
- Ports: 3xUSB 2.0, VGA, Headphone/Microphone, RJ-45, SD Card and Multi-in-1 card reader
- Battery: 5200 mAh 6-cell Li-Ion
- Power Supply: 30 W adapter with separate power cord
- Keyboard: 84-key (US version?) keyboard with 1.6 mm (minimum) key travel
- Weight: 1.26 kg (2.78 lbs.) for SKUs with hard disk drive and 6-cell battery pack
- Dimensions: 249 (W) x 195 (D) x 36 (H) mm (9.8 x 6.7 x 1.42 inches) for SKUs with hard disk drive and 6-cell battery pack
Reference: Acer Aspire One User Forums
What’s nice is that the Acer Aspire One (AAO) comes with a level of hardware that has typically been reserved for netbooks costing $500+. I paid $430 for my version several weeks ago, and the price drops coupled with the introduction of a new 160 GB/6-cell model will push the price down even further. In my opinion, this simply makes the AAO the best value for the money.
I’ve put question marks (?) beside specifications that I could not confirm. For example, the 3-cell battery is listed at 2200 mAh everywhere, but the 6-cell has been rated differently based on my searches. Assuming double the capacity would not be a bad approximation. Additionally, I’m fairly certain that the 84-key keyboard applies only to versions with US-keyboards, since the Canadian versions come with a bilingual/international keyboard.
Update: 6-cell capacity is 5200 mAh
My 6-cell battery is indeed a 5200 mAh unit, but I’ve seen other 6-cell batteries available online, possibly from third-party suppliers, that offer the higher capacity of 6600 mAh.
The weight of the AAO is very acceptable. The 3-cell weighs about 995 g (2.19 lbs) and the 6-cell version about 1.26 kg. (2.78 lbs) While that represents a weight increase of close to 27% for the 6-cell version, it did not feel like it was that much more. Keep in mind the absolute increase in weight of the 6-cell over the 3-cell is only 265 g, which is less than a can of pop. Thus, either version was easy to carry and you won’t need a huge weight-bearing rucksack to carry it around. In fact, I use a MEC Small Carry All to port it around and have found it fits everything, including the AC adapter/power cord and my Logitech VX Revolution mouse, quite nicely.
Design and Build Quality
While look does not matter much in the long run, many people would still like a device that looks stylish rather than looking like it came through a time machine from the past. The AAO manages to look fairly decent. Closed, both the white and blue versions look very sleek with their glossy finish. Being less than 1.5″ thick also helps.
When open, there is a gap between the screen and the body that may bother some, but overall it’s not a big deal. Both the the white and blue versions have screens with big black glossy borders. (about 1″ thick borders) For the blue version, this colour fits in nicely, but for the white version it is too much of a contrast and doesn’t improve the look. Overall, the AAO does a good job of not looking like a toy, though there’s some definite room for improvement.
One slight problem is that it’s tricky to open the screen of the AAO using only one hand. There is no latch; instead the hinge is spring-loaded and snaps shut. To open the screen you must wedge your fingers into the small gap between the screen and body, then hold the body down with one hand while you push the screen back with the other. This is because the AAO is so light (or the hinge so tight) that it’ll simply lift off the surface its resting on if you try to open the screen without holding the base down. I usually ended up having to grip the screen from both the top and bottom (near the gap between the hinges) to open it.
The AAO does feel solid and the build quality is definitely top-notch. I didn’t have any worry about thinks breaking, snapping or coming loose on the AAO.
With one of the distinguishing features of a netbook/subnotebook being its small size the usability of the keyboard/trackpad becomes a major issue. Many people do not even like regular-size laptops because of the differences in layout. With the small size of netbooks, a full-sized normal laptop keyboard is just not possible. With this in mind, it’s important to look for a keyboard that makes the right tradeoffs, sacrificing in areas that you can afford to lose out on, while keeping the major pieces intact.
For a keyboard, this means preserving the size of the most-used keys and most importantly, keeping a normal/traditional layout. I simply cannot deal with a non-standard layout as having to re-learn and switch between layouts is just a pain.
In this respect, the AAO succeeds as the keyboard is decently sized and keeps a fairly sane/normal layout. I’ve seen the key size specified as either 89% or 95% of “full-size”, but I never bothered to pull out the calipers to confirm or deny either of these. I will say that typing on the AAO was very easy to do, as I didn’t have any sort of “adjustment period” or initial awkwardness. Typing felt very natural and did not feel cramped. I’ve tried the original Asus Eee PC (now known as the 700-series) and found the keyboard to be just too tiny – it felt bad right away, and I was constantly hitting more than one key while typing. I had no such issues with the Aspire One. Furthermore, the keyboard was firm and responsive; it did not feel squishy or have too much flex to it and was on-par with other laptop keyboards in this respect.
One other thing to note that only applies to the Canadian version of the AAO is the bilingual keyboard layout, as you’ll no doubt notice in the keyboard pictures. As I noted during my initial unboxing, the “bilingual” layout makes two alterations: The Left-Shift key is halved to make room for the Backslash/Pipe key and the Enter key is an inverted L-shape that takes up two rows. (There is also another Backslash/Pipe key next to it)
I’m not exactly sure why Acer decided to cripple the Canadian version with this weird keyboard layout. It might have something to do with language laws and having to support both English and French in the market, but even that doesn’t make sense to me since it doesn’t appear to be easier to type French characters on this weird layout. In my opinion, Acer should’ve given the customer the option between a regular (US) keyboard layout and a bilingual one. This layout took a little time getting used to, and initially I was mistyping, especially with the shorter Left-Shift and Enter key being further away from the “home” position. Typing Windows-style paths is still a pain thanks to the weird location of the Backslash key. However, some of these problems can be solved by remapping keys using software like SharpKeys.
This is a fairly major issue with the Canadian Aspire One, as many people have expression discontent on retailer websites like NCIX; I almost did not get my AAO because of this. However, in Acer’s defence, most laptops in Canada are now unfortunately being sold with this weird layout.
Overall, I was very impressed with the keyboard, especially since I knew that other netbooks had done so poorly before. As a testament to its usability, a majority of this review was written on my Aspire One’s keyboard.
The trackpad offers a stark contrast to the keyboard as it’s not that great. Because the AAO is wider than the Eee PC 901 it was able to fit a larger, more usable keyboard. However, the AAO is about the same depth as the the Eee PC 901, so this results in much less area for the trackpad. (Thanks to CNET UK for the comparison photos)
Acer thus had to compromise. With space at a premium, the right and left buttons were relocated to flank the touchpad area instead of being below as is the norm. This results in a weird layout that most won’t find to be natural. I did not find the trackpad to be that bad compared to other laptop trackpads, though this may be because I despise trackpads so much that it’s hard to dislike this one even more. I will admit that the button placement was quite an unfortunate trade-off, however this doesn’t affect me that much since I almost always use a mouse when I can.
Acer chose to use a fairly standard 8.9″ LED-backlit 1024×600 screen. This type of screen is featured on most other current netbooks and is a huge improvement over the 800×480 resolution of first-generation netbooks. At 1024×600, it’s a step down from my old Inspiron 5100, which had a 15″ non-widescreen at 1024×768. However, it’s also much more vibrant thanks to the LED backlighting, which also reduces power consumption.
The screen has a glossy finish, which extends to the rather large black border around it, which is around 1″ thick at the top and sides. Glossy screens tend to make colours more vibrant but can also cause problems with glare if there are bright lights directly behind you. However, the screen was very sharp and attractive and I did not have any readability problems.
Like most laptop screens, the AAO’s offered good readability at different horizontal angles, but did not fair as well at vertical angles. With the screen tilted too far forward, colours got washed out, while tilting the screen back dramatically increased the contrast.
A slightly larger screen would’ve been nice since the border around it is so large, but 8.9″ is probably a pretty common size OEMs and the next common size up was probably too large.
The Aspire One I bought came with a Hitachi 120 GB 2.5″ SATA 3 Gb/s HDD. (Model number HTS543212L9A300) The full specifications of this drive can be found at Hitachi’s site. Some other reports have stated the AAO may also come with a Seagate 120 GB HDD; it’s likely Acer is using multiple suppliers, as is the norm.
Initially, Acer had said the AAO would come with an 80 GB HDD, but this changed just before release to the current 120 GB model likely because of price drops; you may still see references to the old 80 GB drive floating around, but I believe these to be erroneous. Since then, a 160 GB version has been announced.
Some Linux versions come with an 8 GB SSD; this SSD proved to be problematic with Windows XP, as many users have noticed when trying to install Windows XP onto this version of the AAO. For this reason, Acer has decided not to release a SSD version with Windows XP. (Though there are Linux HDD versions)
The drive performed fairly well as far as laptop drives go, posting a 47.0 MB/s average transfer rate and a 17.3 ms access time. These obviously cannot compare to a desktop drive, but keep in mind for most uses of the AAO this sort of performance is more than enough. A cold boot usually took between 1:15-1:20 (mins:secs), but this was after most “bloatware” had been removed. (More on that soon)
The AAO includes two memory card readers. One is a multi-card reader typical of most laptops (supporting most any memory card type on the planet) and the other is strictly for SD cards. The latter drive was intended to be used for the 8 GB SSD Linux version, where space was at a premium; by inserting an SD card one could increase the storage space as then the SD card’s capacity would be transparently added to the overall system storage space. This obviously isn’t necessary for the HDD version.
Beyond that, you get a generous three USB ports; two are on the right and the third is on the left side. Also on the right side are the speaker/mic mini-stereo jacks and a lock slot. The left side also features the DC power in, VGA out and a 10/100 Ethernet (RJ45) jack. A small vent for internal airflow can also be seen here.
Included Software (Windows XP version)
The AAO comes without Windows XP installed; when you first boot up you’ll be prompted to select either the French or English version to install. (This is Canada, after all) Since the AAO has no optical drive, you may be wondering where the OS is installed from. The answer is that the 120 GB HDD has been partitioned so that there is a ~6 GB hidden “Recovery” partition that the AAO uses during installation or a reset to factory defaults. The bootloader copies over the installation/recovery files from here onto the main partition and runs the usual Windows setup automatically; there’s very little you have to do.
This process took about 10 minutes, after which the AAO is booted up into a normal “fresh” Windows installation. I say “fresh” because there is some “bloatware” installed that you’ll want to remove to optimize performance, especially with the somewhat limited resources of the AAO.
Acer included the following software that I removed: MS Office 2007 Trial, MS Works, McAfee SecurityCenter (Antivirus and Personal Firewall) 60-day trial and WinDVD. All of these are completely unnecessary but many laptop manufacturers include this nowadays so I cannot uniquely fault Acer.
There’s no need for MS Office 2007 and certainly not MS Works when older versions of Office work fine; and, of course, there’s the free OpenOffice which should work well for 95% of what most people do. The McAfee software felt slow, so I switched over to AVG Free 7.5. (Kaspersky is a good paid solution as well) I have no idea why WinDVD was installed, as not only is there no optical drive to use it with, but the version was extremely old and dated to something like 2003.
There may be some other software that you can remove if you want, but rest assured you’ll spending at least a few minutes removing the unnecessary software that comes preinstalled.
Wireless and Networking
The AAO comes with a fairly standard 802.11b/g adapter based on a Atheros chipset. It would’ve been nice to see a draft 802.11n adapter included, as this is proving to be quite a revolutionary improvement over previous standards. However, I can’t really complain since the price of the AAO is so low.
There have unfortunately been some issues reported with this wireless card. It appears that sometimes it mysteriously “disappears” from the Device Manager, usually after coming out of hibernate or standby mode. The solution to reboot to get the device to show up again, but that’s far from ideal. This may be a hardware or BIOS-related issue and there is a substantial discussion on this issue at the (unofficial) Acer Aspire One User Forums.
I have only experienced this issue once, but it was very annoying nonetheless. Hopefully Acer will release a BIOS update to correct it, as it appears to be somewhat widespread.
Webcam and Audio/Speakers
The speakers on the AAO are nothing to write home about. They don’t get very loud and even so, when maxed out there is noticeable distortion. This may be because they are on the underside. If you listen to music you’ll definitely want to use a pair of headphones or external speakers with the AAO, as the built-in ones leave much to be desired. They should be good enough for something like VoIP, though. The speaker-out and mic-in mini-stereo ports were acceptable. With a decent microphone you shouldn’t have any problems.
The webcam is only a 0.3 MP unit (640×480 resolution), but it performed very well in low-light/room-light conditions. It’ll be good for videochat using a program like Skype. There is also a built-in microphone positioned just to the left of the webcam. It does a decent job of picking up sound directly in front, but there was still some background noise. It’s obviously not as good as using a headset but should be decent enough for quick chats.
I had no trouble with the performance of the Aspire One during Internet use or general multimedia use. Launching browsers, including an extension-heavy Firefox 3.01, was fairly quick and browsing did not seem slow. Watching YouTube or using other Flash-based video players was very smooth and I did not notice any problems or stuttering. The 1.6 GHz Intel Atom N270 CPU and 1 GB of RAM was more than enough for these actions.
Additionally, watching DivX/Xvid videos at common resolutions presented no problems, even when the video was being streamed/played back from over the wireless connection. Watching DVDs (after making an image and mounting using virtual drive software) also worked great. (For a complete codec package, I suggest the latest-and-greatest ffdshow package. This has been the only set of codecs I’ve ever needed)
With this in mind, the Aspire One makes a great general-purpose machine, useful for 90% of what 90% of the people will do on a regular basis. To push the limits, I tried a few games, such as one of my old time favourites, Guild Wars. (Original debuted in 2005 – and I have all the expansions/campaigns since) Guild Wars worked fine even at the native resolution of 1024×600, albeit with most of the graphical settings turned down. This was necessary to preserve a decent frame rate during the action-sequences with lots of mobs and effects. Peggle, the great arcade game from PopCap Games, worked flawlessly, as did most old-school emulators such as ZSNES.
Don’t expect to play the latest or even last-generation games on it. You’ll likely have to go back to 2004/2005 to find 3D games that have a chance of running decently on the integrated GMA 950 graphics. There is a great discussion at the Aspire One User Forums about games on the AAO.
To further test the AAO beyond its boundaries I installed the latest version of Eclipse (Ganymede), my favourite IDE, on to the AAO. Eclipse is a great IDE with an awesome plugin system (similar to how extensions make Firefox great) but is notorious for being a resource hog. Eclipse took quite a while to load up, but once this was finished working in it was acceptable. Compiling Java source into bytecode was a little slow as well as this was most likely due to having only 1 GB of RAM and a single-core CPU. Again, the AAO is most definitely not designed for this but the fact that it’s possible is a testament to the amount of power you get for a $400 compact machine.
With the 3-cell version I was getting around between 2:30-2:40 (hrs:mins) of run time. This is unfortunately quite low and hampers the usefulness of the AAO when taking advantage of its mobility. With the 6-cell version, I was consistently getting more than 5 hours of run time, making this version one of the longest-lasting laptops I’ve ever owned.
Is the 6-cell worth it?
This is the question on everyone’s mind: Is it worth the extra weight/bulk (and to a lesser extent, the slighly higher price) for the 6-cell battery version
of the Aspire One? From my experience, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” The extra weight (about 265 g) is not that much and I hardly noticed it even when doing a side-by-side comparison and trying to detect the difference. In day-to-day usage, it definitely won’t be a big problem. The extra bulk may look somewhat ugly, but in reality it’s not that noticeable, especially if you’re parked in front of the laptop doing work, which is where you’ll be 95% of the time.
For a more details, see my full comparison of the 3-cell and 6-cell versions of the Aspire One.
Acer original shipped all Aspire Ones with the same sleeve/protective case. This case is a simple pleather-exterior/fabric interio cover that doesn’t add any padding but prevents scratches if you’re putting your AAO into a bag/pack with other items. Because the 6-cell version’s battery sticks out, it did not fit properly in this original sleeve/case. Acer has since said they would offer the proper sleeves to those who bought the 6-cell version and got the old case.
However, my 6-cell version did come with the new, proper sleeve. You can see some pictures of the two sleeves below. The original sleeve is the one that opens on the short side, while the new 6-cell sleeve is the one that opens on the longer side. You can see the two sleeves are slightly different in dimensions. The original sleeve is longer but less wide. Both fit the respective models quite well, but you’ll likely want to invest in properly-padded protection for your AAO.
Another issue is the fan noise from the Aspire One. It’s somewhat of a high-pitched whine, though not noticeable unless your room is completely quiet. Some may be more sensitive than others. I didn’t find it to be that much of a problem, but if possible try to listen to one before buying just to make sure. Thankfully, some people have been working on a utility to lower the fan noise/turn the fan off based on the CPU temperature.
I’ve been using my Aspire One for close to a month and I have to admit that I’m in love with it. It’s stylish, functional and was surprisingly cheap. Other netbooks/subnotebooks manage to excel in one or two of these categories, but in my opinion the Aspire One offers the best combination, doing well in all areas. In my opinion, it’s the strongest netbook currently out there.
It should be noted that Dell has recently released their much-awaited Inspiron Mini 9. Though I had high hopes for it, it appears that Dell has dropped the ball on this one. While it’s attractive and comes in a nice form-factor, Dell completely butchered the keyboard, removing the entire row of Function keys as well as moving quite a few other keys around, resulting in a layout that I am sure I could not get used to. There’s also no options for HDDs either, only SSDs up to 16 GB.
I welcome any comments or feedback, please post them in the comments below!
Update: AC Adapter Compatibility
I’ve gotten quite a few questions about the voltage compatibility of the AC adapter, something I should have addressed in the review. To sum it up, the the AC adapter is indeed compatible with 100-240V, so buying one in NA will not preclude its use over in the EU/UK or elsewhere. You’ll just have to change the cable/plug that goes to the wall outlet. Click the photo below to see a larger picture of the AC adapter’s specifications.
The rest of the Aspire One photos can be seen over at my Zooomr account