Scoping the screen and keyboard
Such a small device requires an equally tiny keyboard, but Acer has managed to cram in keys that are about 85% of full size. All the important keys are large enough to actually use, with smaller function keys a livable compromise that doesn't require relearning key positions.
Our review sample was graciously provided by Canadian retailer NCIX, and it came with the dreaded English/French keyboard layout. This won't be an issue for US consumers (unless you are buying from Canada). English-speaking Canucks will want to ensure they get a system with the US keyboard.
The One's trackpad is tiny, with a wide aspect ratio and buttons that flank the mousing surface rather than sitting below it. Other netbook makers have adopted this layout in order to accommodate larger keyboards, and if you set the trackpad to accept tap inputs, the button placement is easy to adapt to.
Acer cranks the One's trackpad sensitivity by default, which makes sense because the pad area is limited. Circular scrolling is also listed as an option in the trackpad control panel, but with so little space on the pad, it doesn't work very well. The One also has a traditional right-hand side scrolling zone that works just fine.
WSVGA displays with 1024x600 resolution are becoming popular in netbooks, and the One's measures 8.9 inches and features an LED backlight. It's a stunning screen for a notebook in this price rangeevenly lit with excellent contrast and viewing angles. This is a good pixel resolution for a screen this size, too. Unlike the original 700-series Eee PC, there are enough pixels that you won't have to scroll web pages incessantly.
When outdoors, text displayed on the Aspire One's screen is legible at full brightness. The display isn't as clear in daylight as a transflective screen, but it is workablean important consideration for a device that is so easy to carry around with you outside. It's debatable whether the One's use of an LED- rather than CCFL-backlit display saves much battery life, but LEDs are more durable, have longer life spans, and offer better performance than CCFL backlights. Acer also throws in a 0.3-megapixel webcam that sits within the LCD bezel for your Skyping and video conferencing pleasure.
Moving to audio, the One's output is bad enough that I have a hard time distinguishing whether this netbook has one or two speakers. Either way, the pint-sized speakers are mounted on the bottom of the unit. Their output isn't spectacular, but it should be sufficient for basic media playback. Netbooks aren't exactly known for stellar audio output quality.
Most of the netbooks on the market use flavors of Linux, in part to keep costs down, but also because an open-source OS is easier to tailor for a lower resolution display and modest horsepower. Acer also offers Windows XP as an option, and some enterprising One owners have even crammed OS X 10.5 onto the system.
Proving once again that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Acer's Linpus Linux 9.4 Lite interface borrows heavily from that of the Eee PC. A launcher consisting of four quadrants keeps applications sorted in Connect, Work, Fun and Files categories. It's a pretty simple arrangement, and the average user will have no trouble finding the application they want. Users also get a search box integrated directly in the OS launcher that can be toggled between searching local and web data.
Far from a Linux Johnny-come-lately, Linpus has been at it since 1997 and is funded in part by big companies like Acer and Mitac. The distro is most popular in its native Taiwan, but it should gain quite a bit of exposure thanks to the One. Linpus is built off Fedora with the Xfce desktop. The custom application launcher is nice, but Linpus' product page shows a standard desktop and widgets. Some folks, and particularly those already familiar with Linux, may prefer that interface to the default install's simplified launcher.
Acer includes plenty of notable apps with the One, including OpenOffice, Firefox (version 2), Skype, and an instant messaging client compatible with AIM, Yahoo, MSN and Google. The bundled email client, media player, and games are pulled from the open source community, and it's all passable software. An automatic updater fetches patches from Acer's servers, as well. Automatic updates do take a while, though.
Although the One's MPlayer media player automatically downloaded and installed codecs while viewing some streaming HD feeds, the actual playback was hit and miss. I experienced some long delays and the occasional false start when playing back video on the One, and some videos wouldn't play at all. Neither Media Master nor MPlayer (the two media players included with the One) were capable of playing back DRM-free Cinepack AVI and MPEG4 downloadsspecifically A Boy and His Dog from the Internet Archive. That's pretty crummy media support considering that both players were fully updated.
Video codec support isn't an easy thing to get right, and Acer clearly has some work to do to iron out the One's rough edges here. Of course, this problem will only affect Linux-based versions of the One; Windows XP doesn't have great codec support out of the box, but installing new ones is easy. The One's Linpus distro isn't quite so accommodating. Linux vendors may cringe at the thought, but it would make a lot of sense to pool resources and produce a single netbook-optimized distribution. Otherwise it is going to be difficult for netbook Linux installs to ever challenge the degree of fit and finish available with Windows. Imagine that, striving to reach Windows quality levels.
Missing from the One's application payload is some form of marketplace where users can find additional applications. Although most of the bases are covered by bundled software, it is a little optimistic on Acer's part to think they've included everything. Fortunately, it's possible to work your way into an advanced user mode through the One's File Manager program, which has a link to a command line interface. Once in advanced mode, the operating system yields access to almost everything a standard Linux desktop distro offers, including Fedora's application repository (thanks to dbs on the aspireoneuser.com boards). Easy access to application downloads, or at a minimum the ability to quickly toggle the advanced mode should really be included in future One OS revisions.
Unlike the Eee PC, Acer is not emphasizing cloud computing with the One. Rather than having lots of web-based applications and a storage service, Acer has adopted the more traditional approach of full client applications and local storage. The absence of a service strategy seems like a disconnect and a missed opportunity for subscription revenue, though.
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