Asus created a new category of portable computers last year when it unveiled the Eee PCthe first of the much ballyhooed netbooks. What started as a bit of a cash-in on the hype surrounding the altruistic OLPC project has grown into a pretty attractive little business. Asus has since filled this category to the brim with a variety of Eee models designed to appeal to an ever-wider audience. As Asus seeks to consolidate its position as the netbook market leader, its rivals are crashing the party hoping to get a slice of the pie before Asus hoards it all.
Chief among those rivals is Acer, whose new value-priced Aspire One netbook is springing up at almost every retailer that has an interest in computers. At this rate you’ll probably be able to buy one at your local gas station before long, and it might even be cheaper than a full tank of gas by then. Retailers like a product with buzz, and here the One has the successful Eee PC’s coat tails to ride in on. Unlike some of the more recent entries in the netbook market, the One is quite affordable, allowing retailers to lure in shoppers during the busy back-to-school season.
Acer recently cut its netbook prices, and the One is now turning up at a lot of resellers for as little as $329. To the untrained eye that looks like a heck of a bargain for a system with an Atom processor, a 1024×600 display, and solid-state storage. Read on to find out if it is.
That outfit is just screaming for an accessory!
Perhaps because netbooks are generally seen as accessories to a primary computer, Acer has designed the One with an aesthetic flair that is second only to the HP Mini-Note 2133. A pearl white finish with black trim and metallic orange hinge accents delivers more visual impact than the Eee. The pearl white top is glossy, so expect to spend some time cleaning fingerprints, although oils deposited on the lid do not show as much as on the One’s piano black LCD bezel.
A Blue model is already popping up in retail, with pink and brown flavors planned for later this year. PC makers seem to be learning that budget computers do not have to be ugly, and that’s in line with what appear to be recent efforts from all of them to design systems that are easy on the eyes. When even Dell is making good-looking computers, there is no excuse for putting something blatantly ugly on the market.
The One is light and small, weighing in at less than one kilo (2.2lbs) and measuring 9.8 x 6.7 x 1.1″ (248 x 170 x 28mm). That makes the One smaller than not only the Eee PC 1000 series, but also the MSI Wind U100. The included AC adapter is suitably diminutive, completing the portable package.
Despite its bargain price point, the One doesn’t feel cheap. In fact, the system’s compact nature and light weight make it entirely creak- and flex-free. Picking the One up by a corner and moving it around does not stress the chassis at all; you can easily hold it with one hand while typing with the other.
Working our way around the One starting on the left-hand side, we find the power connector, the VGA port, a 10/100 Ethernet jack, one USB port, and an SD memory slot deep enough to allow cards to sit flush with the system. Interestingly, the memory slot automatically integrates the capacity of whatever SD card you install into system storage. Throw in a 2GB SD card and you’ll see the One’s 8GB solid-state drive plus an additional 2GB as a single volume.
Only a Wi-Fi toggle switch populates the front edge of the One. The right-hand side, however, features headphone and microphone jacks, two more USB ports and a multi-format card reader that can handle MMC, SD, xD, and MemoryStick Pro flash flavors. SD cards protrude from the case when inserted in this slot, but memory cards aren’t automatically integrated into system storage; they show up as separate volumes. You’ll also find a Kensington lock slot towards the rear of the One.
Flipping the One reveals plenty of ventilation and a small panel that provides access to the system’s internals. Unfortunately, the access panel only allows for the installation of a WWAN radio; you can’t get to the One’s vacant SO-DIMM slot, which sits just inches away. Those looking to upgrade the system’s 512MB of memory will need to pull the whole thing apart to access the single user-serviceable slot.
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.
The keyboard is stiff and key action is good. With small enough hands you might even be able to touch-type, as well.
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 1024×600 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.
Hardware and Performance:
With looks, ergonomics, and software out of the way, all that’s left is the One’s hardware. Not that hardware isn’t important, it’s just that nearly the entire current generation of netbooks is based on the same platform, leaving little room for differentiation.
|Processor||Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz|
|Memory||512MB DDR2-533 (1 DIMM)|
|North bridge||Intel 945GSE|
|South bridge||Intel ICH7M|
|Graphics||Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950|
|Display||8.9″ TFT with WSVGA (1024×600) resolution and LED backlight|
|Storage||8GB solid-state drive|
|Ports||3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
|Expansion slots||2 SDHC|
|Input devices||~85% full size keyboard
Trackpad with scroll zone and circular scrolling
|Dimensions||9.8 x 6.7 x 1.1″ (248 x 170 x 28mm)|
|Battery||3-cell Li-Ion 2200mAh, 11.1 Volt|
Acer waited for Intel to launch its Atom processor before bringing the One to market. The Aspire’s Atom N270 CPU is interesting, offering goodies like SSE3 extensions and Enhanced SpeedStep (EIST), but dropping support for 64-bit EMT64 extensions. Despite being clocked at 1.6GHz and possessing Hyper-Threading, the N270 does not feel noticeably faster than the Celeron that powered Asus’ first batch of Eee PCs, even though in some cases the Atom operates at three times the Celeron’s clock speed.
Any performance issues with the One seem to be software rather than hardware problems. In situations where media files did not play, for example during a visit to Gametrailers.com to view some HD content, it seemed that the hardware was willing but the media player plug-in could not decide if it wanted to play the file. We’ve seen Linux-based netbook distributions struggle with streaming video before, and we haven’t observed similar issues under Windows. Using the Linpus OS, I longed for XP because it simply works without fuss.
One promise of Intel’s new Atom platform is reduced heat. When running on battery power, system temperatures never exceeded a comfortable range. And when plugged in, the One’s Atom CPU demonstrated its low 2.5W TDP and never got too hot despite the system’s almost silent fan. Typing this on a supernova-hot MacBook, it seems silly to complain about the One’s peak 115-degree Fahrenheit surface temperature. These temperatures were measured with an IR thermometer after streaming a standard definition Flash movie for one hour.
Acer specs the One with 512MB of system memory, which suits the included OS and its modest requirements. The operating system and bundled applications are efficient enough to make do with limited memory. If you plan to install Windows or a full Linux distribution, you might want to crack the One open and pop an extra gigabyte of RAM into the Aspire’s spare SO-DIMM slot. The system only supports up to 1.5GB of memory, though.
While some netbook makers have moved to mechanical storage, the One’s solid-state drive offers almost instant-on performance and reduces the number of moving parts in the system. Capacity is limited, though; the OS and bundled applications only leave about 6.4GB free to work with. Of course, additional memory can be added via either memory card slot, with the one on the left-hand side of the system neatly integrating the added capacity into the system volume. The OS does a good job of handling removal of cards installed in this slot, too; a notification pops up informing users of changes to storage capacity when cards are inserted or removed. That’s pretty slick.
Likely thanks to its SSD, the One’s boot and shutdown times are extremely fast by Windows standards. It takes just under twenty-two seconds to cold boot the system and just under fifteen seconds to completely shut it down.
The One’s 802.11b/g Wi-Fi performance is good. Post-boot, it takes a little while to get connected, but the system holds a signal well. The sluggish connection time may be a software issue, and we’ve noted similarly slow wireless connection times with Asus’ Linux-based Eee PC 1000 40G. There isn’t much to say about the Ethernet port other than it works. It isn’t clear whether Acer will support users who add their own WWAN card or whether that will officially be a factory-only option, but the prospect of a One with 3G connectivity is rather appealing.
Last, but not least, we come to the battery. Our test unit arrived with a 3-cell battery good for 11.1 Volts and 2200mAh/45Wh. You can expect to get about 2 hours 20 minutes away from an electrical socket with the Aspire while surfing, writing, and watching online videos over Wi-Fitypical netbook stuff. Acer also offers a slightly more expensive model with a 6-cell battery and theoretically twice the battery life. Given the One’s portability, we’d probably be more interested in the 6-cell version. It seems silly using a netbook tethered to a power cord.
Acer’s price point for the One places it in the midst of some interesting devices and dangerously close to impulse buy territory. With a new suggested retail price of $329 (for versions with a 120GB mechanical hard drive), the Aspire One will be a low-risk proposition for most people. This is a fully-functional netbook at roughly the same price that Sony launched its PlayStation Portable. Think about that for a minute. For all the talk about how great handheld mobile Internet devices like the Nokia N810 are, a netbook like the One easily wins in terms of utility and value. Sure, the One won’t fit in a pocket, but neither will most mobile internet devices.
If you look at the other netbooks available in the One’s price range, the Aspire is a much better device than a $299-349 Eee PC from the 700 series, offering a bigger and higher resolution screen, a power-efficient Atom processor, more storage capacity, and a more attractive overall design. Sure, you could spend an extra couple hundred bucks on more expensive netbooks from Asus and MSI, but a low price is a key component of the netbook equation. And by selling the Aspire at around $300, there’s a lower chance of creating unrealistic performance expectations. More naive consumers may assume that a $500 netbook delivers equivalent performance to similarly-priced notebooks.
If we consider overall value, it makes sense for folks to spend an additional $20 on Windows XP-based versions of the One that offer a more familiar and polished operating system and the ability to easily expand video codec support. Those looking for longer battery life would do well to consider coughing up an additional $50 an Aspire with a 6-cell battery, as well. It’s unclear whether a price cut is imminent for the SSD-based One we looked at today, but the system is listed for as little as $379 in our price search engine.
There is sure to be a 3G-enabled version of the One at some pointthe empty WWAN bay is just begging to be used. With a $30/month unlimited 3G data plan, the Aspire would be pretty amazing. AT&T, are you listening?
Folks who want a simple and portable machine for email, web browsing, and light office work should be happy with the One. The only caveat is the size of the keyboard, which is smaller than that of more expensive netbooks like the Eee PC 1000 series and MSI Wind. But the One’s keyboard wasn’t designed for you to write your next novel on; it’s meant for typing emails and URLs.
During the back to school season, many retailers are pitching the Aspire One to students. It has a great form factor for younger kids, and solid construction and Flash-based storage should make the One relatively tough. Those who opt for a 6-cell Windows XP model should get the stamina they need and an operating system shared by most of their peers. Students with bigger hands will want to spend some, er, hands-on time with the One to see if its keyboard is spacious enough for note taking. At this time of year there are plenty of $400 laptop specials that may be more practical, if less portable.
In the end, the Aspire One looks set to put a ton of pressure on Asus. Acer has a healthy distribution channel and is being extremely aggressive as it tries to move up the market share rankings worldwide. And the One’s bargain price certainly sets the system up nicely to make a big splash, not only among those with basic computing needs, but also among enthusiasts and gadget lovers who have been clamoring for netbooks to return to their low-cost roots. Plus, just think of all those old 2D role-playing and real-time strategy games you’ll be able to revisit on a device like the Aspire One.