reviewaspire one 751 vs gateway lt3103

Aspire One 751 vs. Gateway LT3103

I’ve gotta admit, I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve been a fan of the netbook concept nearly from the beginning. Cheap, highly portable computing is something I tend to appreciate. Netbooks really were a little too Lilliputian at the outset, with 7″ screens surrounded by massive bezels. But they’ve grown since then to 9″ and then 10″ display sizes, while holding prices under the magical $400 mark. Every step of the way, they’ve become more appealing.

About a year ago, I decided I couldn’t hold out any longer and bought myself an Eee PC 1000H to see how it would serve my needs. Turns out the answer is mixed: I love the portability, long battery life, and full feature set of the 1000H, and I have few complaints about its performance for my purposes. I can even live with the keyboard, although the itsy bitsy keys do make for some tedious moments. But the 10″, 1024×600 display is a killer sticking point. Although that resolution is wide enough to accommodate most web pages, there’s not a pixel to spare, and the vertical space will force you to scroll like a Talmudic rabbi. Due largely to this one fault, my Eee PC 1000H has failed to replace my main 13.3″ laptop for everyday mobile use.

Acer’s Aspire One 751h

I’m positively beside myself, then, about the potential for a new class of laptops with 11.6″ displays. The first one to hit store shelves was the Acer Aspire One 751. I visited my local Walmart to get a look at one and wound up coming home with a box tucked under my arm. Not long after that, the Gateway LT3103 made its way into Best Buy, and the process repeated itself.

Gateway’s LT3103u

Ok, so I am not entirely rational about these little machines. Something about packing more power than some of the seminal computers from my fairly recent past into a package this tiny strikes a chord in me. But the Aspire One 751 and the Gateway LT3103 also present an intriguing dilemma. They’re similar in many ways—no surprise since Acer owns the Gateway brand. They share the same display, keyboard, basic feature set, and price. Yet the Aspire One emphasizes low power, quiet operation, and sleekness, while the Gateway trends in the opposite direction, packing a little more CPU and GPU power than the average netbook. The contrast is starker than you might imagine, due to some unconventional platform choices on Acer’s part. The question is: which one is right for me?

That’s my top question, anyway.

I suppose you might be wondering which one is right for you. I’m not so sure about that, but I’ll let you peek in as I search for answers.

One Aspire to rule them all?

The Aspire One 751 feels like the slimmest netbook I’ve ever handled. Acer rates it at an inch thick, which is fairly accurate, but that doesn’t capture the whole picture. With the three-cell battery installed, the 751 has few bulges across its body and sits flat on a tabletop. Its profile is truly low, and thus, this sleek system has that effortless feel of truly advanced technology.

This feel is enhanced by other facets of the 751’s design: the keyboard pushed out to the very edges of the chassis, the relatively minimal bezel around the screen, and especially the utter lack of exhaust vents on the sides of the system—complemented by the absence of perceptible noise emanating from the thing. On first glance, the 751 feels more like a grown-up iPhone than a slightly wider-than-average netbook.

Then again, there’s a perfectly good reason for that, and it’s revealed in the 751’s spec sheet, which I’ve replicated below.

Model Acer Aspire One 751h
Processor Intel Atom Z520 processor at 1.24GHz with 496 MT/s FSB
Memory 2GB DDR2-667 (1 DIMM)

Chipset Intel US15W SCH
Graphics Intel GMA 500
Display 11.6″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and
LED backlight

Storage Seagate Momentus 5400.6 250GB 2.5″ 5400 RPM
SATA 3Gbps hard drive
Audio Stereo HD Audio via Realtek codec

3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Realtek controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input

Expansion slots

1 SD/MMC/Memory Stick/xD

802.11b/g Wi-Fi via Atheros AR5007EG

Input devices Keyboard
Synaptics touchpad with
multi-gesture support

Camera 0.3 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 11.2″ x 7.8″ x 1.0″ (284 mm x
198 mm x 25.4 mm)
Weight 2.8 lbs (1.27 kg) with 3-cell battery
3.0 lbs (1.36 kg) with 6-cell battery
Battery 3-cell Li-Ion 2200 mAh
6-cell Li-Ion 5200 mAh

I bought my 751h in the configuration listed above, though only with the three-cell battery, for $398 at Walmart. That’s a nice price for a premium netbook with this this sort of hardware payload, including 2GB of RAM and a 250GB, 5,400-RPM hard drive. Mine came with Windows Vista Home Basic installed, as well.

As you may have noted if you have a keen eye, the Aspire One 751 does not use the ever-so-omnipresent Standard Netbook Platform consisting of an N-series Atom processor and a Intel 945G chipset. Instead, Acer has chosen a lower-power Atom platform, code-named Menlow during its development, which Intel has positioned as a good choice for so-called mobile Internet devices (MIDs), GPS receivers, and yes, perhaps even large-ish smart phones.

For the unfamiliar, we covered the Menlow platform and its US15W “Poulsbo” System Controller Hub in some detail in our initial write-up of the Atom processor. (I think Intel saw more potential in Menlow than in Diamondville, the netbook/nettop platform, at that time, although things haven’t quite worked out that way.) Unlike the 945G, Poulsbo is a single-chip solution with an integrated memory controller, graphics, and I/O hub, along with a relatively modest max power draw rating of 2.3W.

Given the chipset’s intended mission, it’s no surprise the US15W lacks some frills, among them support for SATA devices. Presumably, Acer had to use an IDE-to-SATA adapter to accommodate a newer hard drive in the 751. More interestingly, the graphics processor in the US15W may be branded the Intel GMA 500, but it’s really technology licensed from Imagination Technologies, the PowerVR guys, whose graphics tech also powers the iPhone. The downsides of this GPU core are straightforward: it has less raw power than the 945G and isn’t as broadly supported by games and other apps. The upsides of this newer GPU design are quite evident, too, though: the GMA 500 supports the proper texture formats for the Windows Aero scheme, and unlike the 945G, it can accelerate the decoding of HD video formats.

Acer has paired this MID-oriented chipset with an Atom Z520 processor, whose 1.3GHz default clock speed won’t exactly strike fear in the heart of the Eee PC 1000HE or other market-leading netbooks. Worse yet, Acer chose to down-clock the Z520 to 1.24GHz on a 124MHz (496 MT/s) front-side bus, sapping a little more of the Atom’s limited potency. The good news is that the Atom Z520 has a max TDP of only 2W, which helps make the 751 a slim, silent system. But it lacks punch, even on paper.

No doubt the MID platform’s low power draw is what prompted Acer to ship the 751h to various discount stores in configurations that include a relatively weak 2200 mAh, three-cell battery. Treat it well, and you can coax nearly four hours out of that power source with a 751. Treat it poorly, and, well, you’ll want to check the results of our battery life tests, which include both the three-cell and available six-cell options.

Two other highlights of the 751’s specs sheet are omissions: the Wi-Fi adapter doesn’t support the latest 802.11n standard, and although there’s a hotkey embossed on the keyboard to enable and disable Bluetooth, at least this configuration of the 751 doesn’t include Bluetooth support. I’d gladly pay an extra 50 bucks for these two features, but perhaps I am not your typical Walmart shopper.

Gateway’s LT3103u: Mighty micro machine

Model Gateway LT3103u
Processor AMD Athlon 64 L110  processor at 1.2GHz with
800MHz HT
Memory 2GB DDR2-667 at 480MHz (1 DIMM)

Chipset AMD RS690M/SB600
Graphics ATI Radeon X1270
Display 11.6″ TFT with WXGA (1366×768) resolution and
LED backlight

Storage Seagate Momentus 5400.6 250GB 2.5″ 5400 RPM
SATA 3Gbps hard drive
Audio Stereo HD Audio via Realtek codec

3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Realtek controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input

Expansion slots

1 SD/MMC/Memory Stick/xD

802.11b/g Wi-Fi via Atheros AR5B95

Input devices Keyboard
Synaptics touchpad with
multi-gesture support

Camera 0.3 megapixel webcam
Dimensions 11.26″ x 7.99″ x 1.03″ (286 mm x
203 mm x 26.4 mm)
3.04 lbs (1.38 kg) with 6-cell battery
6-cell Li-Ion 5200 mAh

I walked out of Best Buy with a cow-spotted box containing the system configuration above after plunking down $399.

The Gateway LT3103 shares an awful lot with the Aspire One 751, as you can see, but the Gateway has AMD parts under the hood that make it rather distinctive. If you’ll allow me to hit you with more codenames, I have a few queued up for you. We’ve not seen this exact hardware configuration before, but it’s essentially comprised of the same bits and pieces we saw in the AMD “Yukon” platform that powers the HP Pavilion dv2.

The processor is a 65nm, single-core variant of the Athlon 64 with 512KB of L2 cache. AMD’s marketing folks have dubbed this the “Huron” core, but I believe it’s just a 65nm “Brisbane” Athlon 64 X2 chip with one core disabled. This 1.2GHz L110 variant of the Athlon 64 is “a special off-roadmap CPU” intended for low-power systems, according to AMD, with a TDP rating of 13W—way more than an Atom, but not too bad for an ultraportable laptop CPU.

The other anchor in the Gateway’s platform picture is the RS690M chipset, a mobile variant of the 690G that includes the SB600 south bridge I/O chip. Among other things, that means this little netbook has been endowed with Radeon X1270 graphics. Before you get too excited, though, realize that this is an older Radeon GPU core, dating back to ye olde Radeon X700. In this setup, the integrated graphics processor has to share memory bandwidth with the CPU, and the memory involved is a single channel of DDR2 running at only 480MHz. Even the typically superior graphics drivers available for Radeon GPUs are hamstrung here by the fact that Gateway more or less controls access to new driver revisions for its users. Downloading and installing the latest Catalyst release didn’t work for me.

Still, I presume AMD has given this IGP the “Radeon X1270” name because it has a higher clock speed than the original 690G’s Radeon X1250. This IGP supports Aero themes perfectly, since it traces its heritage to the GPU that essentially defined the DirectX 9 and Pixel Shader 2.0 specifications. And the IGP’s video unit can assist with decoding common video formats, including MPEG2, MPEG4, and WMV9. Unfortunately, though, HD formats like H.264 and VC-1 aren’t on that list; only newer Radeons can handle them.

In a further contrast to the 751, the RS690M chipset’s TDP is 8W, so you’ll pay in the form of power to get all of this, uh, power. Still, that’s quite similar to the 7W TDP of the Intel 945G chipset present in so many netbooks. In light of this platform’s higher power draw, Gateway’s decision to ship the LT3103 with a beefier six-cell, 5200 mAh battery makes good sense.

Like the 751, the Gateway came with Vista Home Basic. I quickly decided to upgrade both machines to the Windows 7 RC for a variety of reasons, mainly because I wanted to use them with the operating system I’d likely end up installing on any new system at this stage. Also, unlike Vista Basic, the Win7 RC has its Aero theme enabled, so I could try that out.

So how big is an 11.6″ netbook?
I’ve found that I usually have to encounter a laptop in person to get a good feel for its size, but I’m hopeful the pictures below will give you some sense of the size of these two systems, along with their styling.

The Aspire One 751 with my fairly average-sized hand modeling for you

The Aspire One 751 (bottom) is just a smidge wider the Eee PC 1000H (top)

The 751 (bottom) is ever so slightly deeper than the 1000H (top) but obviously thinner

The 751 (top) and Gateway LT3103 (bottom) share nearly the same dimensions

The Gateway’s six-cell battery (bottom) makes it thicker and deeper than the 751 with the three-cell battery (top)

The LT3103 is still fairly compact, though

The ports on the angled corners of the 751 are an eye-catching touch

The LT3103’s look is more traditional but generally tasteful

Hey, I said generally tasteful

I don’t have much to add to the pictures above. I believe you can see the placement of the ports and such on both systems reasonably well. Although they differ somewhat, I have no complaints about either. One thing you can’t see in the pictures above is the Wi-Fi switch, which is on the front left of the enclosure in both systems, beneath the edge “lip” of the case.

User interface elements
We’ve established that both systems are pretty compact via the pictures on the previous page, but they feel much roomier than other netbooks once you flip their lids open.

The driving force behind their size and shape is an LCD panel that measures 11.6″ corner to corner. This is almost assuredly a TN panel, with the lower color contrast that’s the hallmark of pretty much all low-cost LCDs these days. However, it has good viewing angles, and the combination of a glossy, transreflective coating and LED backlighting gives it a bright, vibrant look. Cramming a 1366×768 grid into this much space means the dot pitch is quite a bit finer than most displays, but each pixel is razor sharp, provided your eyes are up to the challenge of discerning them.

The higher resolution compared to other netbooks is incredibly liberating. I’d still rather have a 1280×800 display, all things being equal, but this isn’t bad. And watching TV shows full frame on this 16:9 display, I must admit, is a pleasing experience. All in all, this is a great little display for this purpose, vastly better than a 1024×600 prison.

The only difference between the Gateway and the Aspire One on this front, near as I can tell, is the color tone of the display. Of course, different GPUs are driving the screen, and I suspect they are behind the disparity. The 751 has a greener color tone overall, with perhaps a little less saturation than the Gateway. The Gateway is, I believe, more correct—or at least it more closely matches the colors I see from expensive IPS panels connected to discrete graphics cards around Damage Labs. The LT3103 better captures the almost-purple tone of the TR backdrop image, among other things. Both systems look fine when used on their own, but side by side, the Gateway’s display output is more appealing.

That impression is heightened by the fact that the Gateway’s bigger battery and larger hinges raise the display about half an inch higher off the surface of the desk.

These two little systems have the same keyboard, too, with the same layout, although the keys are embossed with different typefaces. The keyboard mechanism is a variant of the increasingly popular “Chiclet”-style design, but Acer’s take on it omits the backdrop running between the keys for open space. This setup allows room for much larger key caps, and Acer has taken full advantage.

In fact, the key caps themselves are larger than the ones you’ll find on more conventional keyboards, and there’s quite a bit less space separating them. The keys are also flatter than central Texas. I can’t say I like these things. Finding the appropriate alignment for one’s hands on the keyboard becomes difficult without sculpted key caps, and I tend to end up catching neighboring keys when trying to press just one.

Total keyboard area Alpha keys
Width Height Area Width Height Rough area
Size 269 mm 107 mm 28,783 mm² 170 mm 54 mm 9,180 mm²
Versus full size 94% 97% 91% 99% 95% 94%

Still, this keyboard is spacious by most measures, including our own reference “full size” keyboard from an older, larger Dell laptop. Pushing the keyboard borders to the edge of the chassis, with a very narrow bezel, works wonders. By then squeezing a few edge keys here and there, Acer has achieved essentially full-width alpha keys, with 95% of full height.

Given this much room to stretch out, the keyboard accommodates a blessedly conventional layout, by and large. The smaller arrow keys aren’t my favorite, but they’re not terribly annoying, either.

Key travel is relatively shallow, and keypresses lack the tangible positive feedback of a scissor-switch mechanism. We’re dealing with basic rubber domes here. Still, each stroke bottoms out with a satisfying impact in quick typing. I didn’t detect any keyboard flex in regular use, although closer inspection does reveal a little bit of distortion when you press down hard on a key. Overall, I’m able to type with decent speed and accuracy on both systems, and I suspect most folks will instantly prefer this keyboard to those on smaller netbooks. This isn’t, however, in the same league as the excellent keyboard on the Samsung NC20.

When we get down to touchpads and general fit and finish, the Gateway really separates itself from the Aspire. The 751 has a shallow wrist wrest, which constrains the touchpad’s vertical area. The recessed, dual-action button below the touchpad further intrudes on that space and is annoying to use, too. The fact that the 751’s touchpad is covered with the same glossy surface as the wrist wrest doesn’t help matters. By contrast, the LT3103 gets has a roomier wrist wrest and touchpad, and the two matte surfaces covering them provide tactile differentiation. The Gateway looks and feels richer. The rocker button on the touchpad protrudes upward just a bit, also, making it easier to use.

Fortunately, both touchpads work reasonably well since they’re Synaptics units equipped with multi-touch and gesture support. You can’t scroll with a two-fingered swipe, but I’m quite happy with Synaptics’ so-called ChiralMotion gesture instead, which allows one to carry on moving one’s finger in a circle as long as needed to scroll through a long document or web page. Even the Aspire One’s stubby touchpad is a scrolling bonanza when you go Chiral, as I have been known to do.

Under the hood

The Aspire One 751 with battery out

The 751 with covers open

The Gateway LT3103 in full undress

Both of these netbooks have bays for hard drives, networking cards, and a single DDR2 SO-DIMM. That means the upgrade possibilities are pretty solid, although the default 2GB of RAM and 250GB hard drive in our systems seems adequate at present. Installing an SSD, if that’s your preference on a mobile system, should be relatively straightforward, at least. Although I don’t know whether such a thing is easily obtained, I’d be sorely tempted to add a Bluetooth adapter in the networking bay, personally.

External temperatures

Generally speaking, the temperatures we measured for these systems are pretty reasonable. I tested them after using each laptop for a while in a typical web surfing session. Subjectively, though, there’s a much broader difference between the two. The LT3103 may not measure all that hot on its surface, but it’s constantly working to expel air via the vent on its left edge. Its fan is always running, even when the system is essentially idle, and the fan speed kicks up with just moderate activity. The fan isn’t horribly loud, but in a quiet room, you’ll always hear it. By contrast, the 751 is one of the quietest laptops I’ve ever encountered.

Our testing methods
Where we have comparable test data, we’ve compared these systems against several competitors: the Eee PC 1000H (the quintessential netbook), the Samsung NC20, MSI’s CULV-based X340, and HP’s Pavilion dv2.

With the exception of battery life tests, all tests were run three times, and their results were averaged.


Acer Aspire One 751h

Gateway LT3103u

MSI X-Slim X340

HP Pavilion dv2

Asus Eee PC 1000H

Samsung NC20
Processor Intel Atom Z520 1.24GHz AMD Athlon 64 L110 1.2GHz Intel Core 2 Solo U3500
AMD Athlon Neo MV-40
Intel Atom N270 1.6GHz Via Nano ULV 2250 1.3GHz+
System bus 496 MT/s
HT 1.6 GT/s
800 MT/s
HT 1.6 GT/s
533 MT/s
800 MT/s
North bridge Intel US15W SCH AMD RS690M Intel GS45 AMD RS690E Intel 945GSE Via VX800
South bridge AMD SB600 Intel ICH9M AMD SB600 Intel ICH7M Via ID8353
Memory size 2GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 2GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM) 1GB (1 DIMM)
Memory type DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 480MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz
CAS latency
4 5 5 5 4

RAS to CAS delay (tRCD)
4 5 5 5 4
RAS precharge
4 5 5 5 4
Cycle time
15 18 15 12
Audio codec Realtek codec
with drivers
Realtek codec
with drivers
Realtek ALC888S codec
with drivers

IDC codec with 6.10.6138.62 drivers Realtek
with drivers
Realtek codec
with drivers
Graphics Intel GMA 500 with drivers ATI Radeon X1270 with
8.561.0.0 drivers
Intel GMA 4500MHD with drivers ATI Mobility Radeon HD
3410 with 8.563.3.1000 drivers
Intel GMA950 with drivers
Via Chrome9 IGP with drivers

Hard drive
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
250GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.6
5,400 RPM
Fujitsu MJA2320BH 320GB
5,400 RPM
Western Digital Scorpio
Blue 320GB 5,400 RPM
Seagate Momentus 5400.4 160GB
5,400 RPM
Samsung Spinpoint M
HM160HI 5,400RPM

Operating system
Windows 7
RC x86
Windows 7 RC x86

Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x86 with Service Pack 1

Microsoft Vista Home Premium
x64 with Service Pack 1
Microsoft Windows XP Home
with Service Pack 3
Microsoft Windows XP Pro with Service Pack 3

We used the following versions of our test applications:

All the tests and methods we employed are publicly available and reproducible. If you have questions about our methods, hit our forums to talk with us about them.

We’ve cooked up this quick suite of lightweight applications in the hopes of testing some relatively typical uses for laptops like these. The first two tests are FutureMark’s Peacekeeper, a web browser benchmark that uses JavaScript, and GUIMark, which measures Flash performance. Because both the Peacekeeper benchmark and the Firefox Javascript engine have changed during the past few months, we’ve only included a few scores for this first test.

Although the Eee PC 1000H caps its performance when on battery power by default, the 751 and LT3103 do not. In fact, the Athlon 64 processor in the LT3103 apparently lacks the lower multipliers needed to scale its clock speed dynamically below its 1.2GHz default. You can drop the 751 into a potentially lower power configuration using Windows’ “Power saver” scheme, which will cap it CPU frequency at 50%, but the system is just too slow to be usable then. Given that the Atom Z520’s TDP is so low, I fail to see the point. Instead, I tested the LT3103 and the Aspire One 751 only with the “Balanced” power scheme.

The Aspire One 751 scores under half what the Gateway does, giving us a taste of the performance gap between these two systems. Given its 1.2GHz Atom processor, the 751’s placement between the full-speed 1.6GHz Atom in the Eee PC 1000H on wall power and that same processor’s 800MHz-capped battery saver mode seems appropriate.

This result, frankly, is more what I’d expect to see from the 751, given my subjective impressions of its performance. Whenever you load up a web page with too much intensive Flash-based content on it, the 751 tends to choke. This last-place finish is a good indicator of the problem, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Next up is 7-Zip’s built-in file compression and decompression benchmark. Decompressing a large file is one of those places where a slower CPU can leave you waiting for a few seconds, so we thought it would be a fitting application to test.

The 751’s Atom Z520 manages to match the Gateway’s Athlon 64 processor in 7-Zip, due in part to the fact that 7-Zip is multithreaded and gives the Atom’s Hyper-Threading capability a workout.

Video playback
Our next set of tests focuses on the systems’ ability to play back video in various formats. I did quite a bit of testing, so I’ve compiled the results in a table below that should be fairly easy to read. The CPU utilization numbers come from Task Manger and are approximate; I simply watched and recorded utilization percentages as the videos played.

The more notable columns are the ones that show how well the systems played each video format. I’ve broken the results into several tiers and color-coded them for easy digestion. Green means playback was acceptable, yellow is borderline, and red signifies notable problems. Note that “perfect” playback means complete fluidity, with zero apparent hitches. “Smooth” playback is still quite acceptable, with only the occasional dropped frame. As above, we used the “Balanced” power profile for all testing.

Aspire One 751 Gateway LT3103
CPU utilization Result CPU utilization Result
QuickTime 480p 46-53% Smooth 49-69% Smooth
QuickTime 720p 50-72% Long pause, loss of AV
sync, otherwise smooth
~100% Dropped frames,
loss of
AV sync
DivX PAL SD 50-63% Perfect 54-77% Perfect
H.264 1080p
58-73% Some dropped frames, loss
of AV sync
~100% Slideshow
Hulu 360p
68-77% Smooth 53-67% Perfect
Hulu 360p
Slideshow Regular dropped frames
Hulu 480p
87-100% Regular dropped frames 90-100% Some dropped frames
Slideshow Slideshow
YouTube HD windowed 89-97% Slideshow ~100% Regular dropped frames

If you’ve seen us test QuickTime video before, you might be surprised by the results above with 480p QuickTime video, especially the low CPU utilization. Turns out that, in Windows 7, Windows Media Player can play QuickTime files, apparently with DXVA-based hardware acceleration. That gives the 751, whose chipset can accelerate H.264 decoding, an awful lot of help here. The 751 was obviously superior to the LT3103 with our 720p and 1080p test files, but that assistance wasn’t sufficient to push it into the green.

In fact, both systems are pretty much a big pile of fail when it comes to anything beyond 480p QuickTime files. They handle the easy assignments competently—our standard-def DivX TV show and low-res Hulu in a window—but otherwise struggle.

Real-life performance impressions
Right out of the box, the Aspire One 751’s performance is atrocious. In deals with separate devils, Acer has agreed to ship the McAfee security suite on its Aspire-branded system and the Norton counterpart on the Gateway-branded one. Combine that with Windows Vista Home Basic SP1, pile on more bloatware than a big-&-tall men’s store, and the 751 crawls. Here’s a look at the out-of-the-box software payload on the system:

You may have thought you were getting a little laptop, but you were really getting a software delivery vehicle.

After poking around some, one of my first moves with the 751 was to remove the McAfee suite, along with Google Desktop and a few other pre-installed programs for which I had no use. I then installed Vista SP2 and all of the patches available via Windows Update, plus Firefox 3.5. With those tweaks, the Aspire One 751 became much more usable, if not entirely satisfactory. After using it a day or two in this configuration, I decided to install the Windows 7 RC and see whether it helped any.

If anything, Win7 proved to be a little quicker on the 751, but the difference between it and Vista SP2 wasn’t massive. The same basic performance issues remained. Sometimes, the 751 feels snappy and competent, just like most decent Atom-based netbooks, when installing programs, poking around in control panels, or surfing the web. At other times, though, it simply seems to choke. Pulling up a control panel dialog can take five to ten seconds, for instance—an eternity on a modern PC. Load up a web page with a too-intensive Flash payload, and page rendering and scrolling grow sluggish. Pages with embedded Flash videos like can bring the 751 grinding to a halt. In a worst-case scenario—which happens way too often—the system will become unresponsive to user input. All you can do is click the button to close the browser tab and wait. After a few seconds, the system will close the tab and free itself, generally.

You’re getting the picture, I hope. The 751’s performance can be acceptable at times, but it’s not quite up to the task of being a full-featured, full-speed web client. Whether the blame should rest at the feet of its lightweight hardware or Adobe’s heavyweight Flash software, I’m not sure. The end result is the same—not that Flash is the only culprit. Software installers can produce similar slowdowns.

Some folks have attributed the 751’s performance issues to its Atom Z520 processor, and I’m sure that plays a role. However, my Eee PC 1000H caps its CPU clock at 800MHz on battery power and still feels faster than the 751. Heck, the 1000H never really chokes like the 751. I think the slowdowns are a total system effort, with the puny GMA 500 graphics, low memory bandwidth, slow processor, and SATA/NCQ-less chipset all contributing to the cause. The truth is that the 751’s internals are intended for a hand-held MID, not a netbook. You can feel the difference.

Those performance limitations are apparent into other scenarios, too.

Although the 751’s integrated graphics will run the Windows Aero look, screen redraws are slow, and Aero doesn’t coexist well with HD video decode acceleration. These problems are punctuated by the occasional blue screen of death when using the latest GMA 500 drivers from Intel’s website—although, admittedly, I am using a pre-release OS.

Games are a dicey proposition on the 751, as well. The system ran Battlefield Heroes without crashing, but my notes say it was “too slow for words.” When I tried to run Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness, Episode One, I was greeted with an OpenGL error message telling me there was “no compatible display device.” I’m sure Tycho would unleash a compact, devastating witticism over that. (Although judging by that game title, perhaps I overestimate his capacity for conciseness.) Frame rates in Geometry Wars were too low at the display’s native resolution. The game was playable at 640×480, although navigating menus felt laborious. Even World of Goo taxed the 751; playing at the native res is no good, and low resolutions aren’t especially fluid, either.

The Gateway LT3103 comes with a little less bloatware, but I took a similar path to tweaking it, removing the Norton security suite and eventually installing the Win7 RC, along with the newest Radeon X1200-series drivers available via Windows Update. All along the way, the LT3103 felt relatively quick and competent, faster than not only the Aspire One 751 but also my Eee PC 1000H. So the LT3103 is more than competent for basic web use, editing documents, and the like, as a netbook ought to be. The Aero theme runs perfectly on the Gateway, too, with fluid window animations and transparency effects. I don’t want to overstate things because, as we saw in the results on the last page, the LT3103 isn’t always faster than an Atom-based system or the Nano-based Samsung NC20. But subjectively speaking, the LT3103 has to be the overall most capable netbook I’ve used.

Still, that Radeon X1270 IGP won’t buy you a ticket to gaming bliss. Even when I dropped down to 800×480 resolution with super-low-quality audiovisual settings, Battlefield Heroes chugged along at 10-15 FPS, unplayable. Precipice was no better, with frame rates at 10-15 FPS and constant audio static. Happily, Geometry Wars played perfectly at 1366×768, though, and World of Goo was smooth as butter at the same resolution. All of which means you’re probably confined to casual, non-3D games or older games with very simple 3D graphics—perhaps an early Barbie: Deer Hunter title or something.

Battery life
Each system’s battery was discharged completely and recharged before each of our battery life tests. We used a ~30% screen brightness setting on the Eee PC, which is easily readable under normal indoor lighting. That brightness level is roughly equivalent to the 40% brightness settings we used on the NC20, dv2, LT3103, and Aspire One 751. Oddly enough, the MSI X340’s 50% brightness level is closest to the Eee PC’s 30% setting, so that’s what we used, but then the X340’s brightness increments don’t appear to be evenly spaced percentages. From 50% to 100%, the brightness easily more than doubles.

Note that the Samsung NC20 we tested was a foreign model; domestic units have a 15% larger battery. Also, we didn’t test the NC20 in its manually-invoked “max battery” mode. For both of these reasons, you could surely achieve longer run times with an NC20 than what you’ll see below. See our NC20 review for more details.

Because their batteries are interchangeable, we’ve tested both 11.6″ netbooks with both the three-cell and six-cell batteries. The Gateway LT3103 comes stock with the six-cell unit, and I don’t believe it can be had with the three-cell, so those results are just for your edification. Acer sells the Aspire One with a six-cell battery in certain venues, though, so those results should be more relevant.

For our web surfing test, we opened a Firefox window with two tabs: one for TR and another for Shacknews. These tabs were set to reload automatically every 30 seconds over Wi-Fi, and we left Bluetooth enabled, as well. Our second battery life test involves movie playback. Here, we looped a standard-definition video of the sort one might download off BitTorrent, using Windows Media Player for playback. We disabled Wi-Fi (and Bluetooth, where applicable) for this test.

The Gateway delivers just over four hours of run time in our web surfing test and a little more than three hours in our movie playback scenario. That’s not a lot of run time for a 5200 mAh battery, but it isn’t too terrible. The best new 10″ netbooks are reaching well beyond the five-and-a-half-hour mark our Eee PC 1000H set, though, and the LT3103 simply can’t play in that league. The Gateway’s rather brutal results with the three-cell, 2200 mAh battery underscore that point.

Meanwhile, the Aspire One 751’s MID-class hardware allows it to run quite a bit longer on that three-cell battery. Still, the default config’s run times only extend a little beyond two hours, which is disappointing. Once you pop the six-cell into the back, the 751 becomes a marathon runner. Our web surfing test is pretty intensive, loading a complex web page over Wi-Fi every 15 seconds, yet the 751 managed to keep doing that for nearly six and a half hours continuously, substantially longer than any other system we tested. The burden of playing a movie shortened the 751’s run time to just shy of five hours, which is still quite respectable.

Netbooks continue to grow up, morphing and changing in interesting ways as they do. As they enter their adolescence, they’re becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish from more traditional ultraportables. That’s a happy trend, because it leads to good things, like the Gateway LT3103 and the Acer Aspire One 751. By virtue of their high-definition displays, nearly full-sized keyboards, excellent touchpads, decent build quality, and sub-$400 price tags, these systems are two of the best netbooks ever built. Even folks who have previously questioned the utility a netbook could be won over by spending half an hour with one of these systems. They change the math, definitely.

Yet they force a choice on the buyer because of the stark contrasts between them.

The Gateway LT3103 is the most successfully executed of the two systems, because its Athlon 64 processor and Radeon graphics give it the performance to match its larger screen and keyboard. The grown-up looks and finish of the Gateway set it apart from the Aspire One 751, as well. If you like to fret over the semantics of “netbook” versus “notebook,” the LT3103 will positively put you into a tizzy of hair splitting and confusion—endless hours of fun. I could see this system replacing a full-sized laptop for an awful lot of users. It’s a heck of a bargain, too, compared to the Aspire One 751, since it comes with a larger battery at the same price.

The only real compromise the LT3103 requires, other than the lamentable lack of Bluetooth and 802.11n support, is its run time of roughly four hours. That will be a deal-breaker for some folks, no doubt. AMD has a follow-up “Congo” platform planned for small laptops that will include a newer IGP and a 45nm processor. This combo has the potential to provide higher performance and markedly lower power draw, especially at idle. That hardware cannot come soon enough, in my view. Here’s hoping AMD and Acer/Gateway continue working together on products in this segment.

Although I don’t like the performance compromises required by the Aspire One 751, there’s no denying that it has a place in the market for folks who value sleek, quiet systems with high-res displays and long battery life—so long as you’re talking about a version with the six-cell battery. This is perhaps more of a color Kindle-killer for the web—a mobile device, if you will—than a full-fledged computer. You’ll just want to have your eyes wide open going into the purchase and be prepared to have your patience tested from time to time.

The fact that these two excellent 11.6″ laptops force a dramatic trade-off between acceptable performance and day-long battery life is really the only saving grace for today’s 10″ netbooks like the Eee PC 1005HA. The Atom N-series processors and their companion 945G chipset may offer the best mix of power efficiency and responsiveness for many folks. Were it not so, Acer would deserve to have 95% of the netbook market locked up with these two systems. As it stands, the best 10″ netbooks will remain part of the conversation, though these 11.6″ systems have stolen much of their luster.

In fact, I think I’ll be keeping the LT3103 for my own personal use, at least for a while. Maybe all it needs is a second battery to be nearly perfect.

Scott Wasson

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