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Brazos comes to Acer's Aspire One 522 netbook

AMD's Atom-killer blurs the line even further

Manufacturer Acer
Model Aspire One 522
Price (Street)
Availability Now

The impending death of netbooks has, I believe, been greatly overstated. Of course, the class of computing devices spawned by Asus' seminal Eee PC is still being assaulted on multiple fronts. In the PC world, ultraportable notebooks based on "real" CPUs have plunged in price to near-netbook levels. This new breed of budget ultraportable typically offers more capable hardware with snappier performance, a higher display resolution stretched across a larger screen, and pretty good battery life for around $500-700. I've been using one for more than a year now, and it's fantastic.

Tablets are coming at netbooks from an entirely different direction. They're the hot new thing, and while the iPad has been an unquestionable success, we're still waiting for the market to fill out with alternatives. Even when more competition arrives, finding a tablet that costs less than Apple's entry-level iPad may be difficult. You're looking at $500 for the base iPad, which lacks modern conveniences like HDMI output, USB ports, and a memory card slot. Competing tablets are likely to be better equipped, but they won't necessarily be any cheaper. Motorola's Honeycomb-powered Xoom, for example, is slated to cost $800. Ouch.

The whole point behind netbooks is getting ultraportable Windows computing on the cheap, so it's hard to see tablets as a direct substitute. Not only are they more expensive, they can't run Windows applications. Slates might be slimmer and lighter, but that's in part because they lack physical keyboards. Good luck composing anything longer than a 140-character tweet. I guess that's why a lot of the iPads I see are attached to keyboard docks—that'll be another $80, please.

Tablets and budget ultraportables would have a better shot at killing off netbooks if we were stuck with underpowered Atom-based systems with low-res displays, suspect HD video playback, and questionable gaming chops. However, AMD's Brazos platform is spawning a new generation of netbooks that looks poised to raise the bar by quite a bit. Take Acer's Aspire One 522, for example. This fresh 10-incher has a 720p display resolution, a Fusion APU with integrated Radeon graphics, an HDMI output, more USB ports than a MacBook Air, plus Windows 7 and all the accoutrements one might expect from a netbook. Total cost: just $330 at Newegg. In Canada, you'll pay only $300, making this new netbook substantially cheaper than any tablet or budget ultraportable that might be gunning to take its place.

The first thing you'll notice about the Aspire is that it very much looks like any other netbook, right down to the glossy finish that covers the lid. Ugh. We think polished plastics are a poor choice for devices that are handled constantly because they easily pick up unsightly fingerprints and smudges. You can buff those out with a cleaning cloth and little effort, but be prepared for constant wiping if you want to keep the Aspire looking pristine. Or, you could resort to a scouring pad.

Glossy plastic also infects the system's screen bezel, ensuring that you'll leave behind fingerprints each and every time you tilt the screen. Mercifully, Acer has gone with a mix of matte finishes for the system's palm rest and underbelly. The matte plastics may not look as fancy as freshly polished gloss, but they should wear much better in the real world.

Although the Aspire One 522 may look like the average netbook, its underlying hardware is anything but typical. At long last, this is Fusion in the flesh—the first mobile system we've used based on AMD's Brazos platform. Fusion, of course, refers to AMD's longstanding plan to fuse CPU and GPU elements on a single die otherwise known as an Accelerated Processing Unit, or APU. In this systems's Ontario APU, the CPU component offers dual Bobcat cores designed from the ground up to take on Intel's Atom processor. Like Atom, these cores are optimized for low power consumption and support 64-bit extensions. While Atom must rely on in-order execution, Bobcat can execute instructions out of order, which should allow it to process more instructions per clock cycle. Bobcat also includes hardware support for virtualization, a feature that Atom CPUs can't match.

On the graphics front, Ontario incorporates a DirectX 11-class Radeon with 80 shader ALUs. This honest-to-goodness GPU represents a significant boost in 3D horsepower over the GMA 3150 integrated graphics built into recent Atom CPUs. More importantly, it offers a HD video decoding engine that the GMA lacks. Ontario's third-generation UVD video acceleration hardware is capable of handling the heavy lifting associated with most popular video formats, including standard-definition DivX/Xvid content and hi-def H.264. The UVD block also supports Flash video acceleration, so HD YouTube clips should play smoothly.

Both the Ontario and Zacate flavors of this APU are fashioned from the same 40-nano silicon. The Aspire uses the C-50 APU, an Ontario part with two cores and a 9W thermal envelope. Each core offers 512KB of L2 cache and a 1GHz clock speed, while the integrated Radeon HD 6250 ticks along at 280MHz. Higher clock speeds are available with Zacate, which has an 18W thermal envelope and looks to be destined for 11.6" and larger systems.

In addition to rippling with multiple display outputs and a handful of PCI Express lanes, the Ontario APU has a UMI interconnect that runs to an associated Hudson Fusion Controller Hub, or FCH. The FCH provides extra PCIe lanes alongside USB and Serial ATA connectivity. The resulting two-chip solution looks very similar to Intel's Pine Trail Atom platform, with the obvious exception being that Brazos should have a much more potent GPU. To get that with Atom, you need to add an auxiliary graphics chip like Nvidia's Ion GPU.

Processor AMD C-50 1.0GHz
Memory 1GB DDR3-1066 (1 DIMM)
Chipset AMD Hudson FCH
Graphics AMD Radeon HD 6250
Display 10.1" TFT with 720p (1280x720) resolution and LED backlight
Storage Toshiba MK2565GSX 250GB 2.5" 5,400 RPM hard drive
Audio Stereo HD audio via Conexant codec
Ports 3 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 10/100 Ethernet via Atheros AR8152
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
Expansion slots 1 MMC/SDHC
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Broadcomm controller
Input devices Chiclet keyboard
Synaptics capacitive touchpad
Internal microphone
Camera 1.3-megapixel webcam
Dimensions 10.2" x 7.3" x 1.0" (258 x 185 x 26 mm)
Weight 2.87 lbs (1.3 kg)
Battery 6-cell Li-ion 4400 mAh, 49 Wh

Looking at the rest of the Aspire's hardware, it's tempting to call the system an HD netbook. The GPU offers HD video decode acceleration, the screen has enough pixels to display 720p HD video in all its glory, and even the webcam has a higher resolution than is common for this class of system. There are still plenty of clues that this a decidedly budget build, though. The wired networking tops out at 100Mbps, there's only 250GB of mechanical storage, and Bluetooth isn't included.

A gig of RAM is to be expected in a system this cheap. However, because a chunk of that memory is occupied by the integrated Radeon, Windows is only working with 747MB of RAM. Speaking of Windows, you're limited to a 32-bit Starter version of the OS that lacks features like advanced Aero eye candy, Windows Media Center, XP virtualization, and multi-monitor support. At least it's not XP, I guess.

Obviously, building such a small and inexpensive system involves a number of trade-offs. I'm still amazed at what Acer has squeezed into the Aspire's compact package. With dimensions of 10.2" x 7.3" x 1.0", the Aspire has a much smaller footprint than the average 13.3" thin-and-light notebook. There isn't much of an advantage in the thickness department, though.

Netbooks do tend to be a bit lighter than their notebook counterparts, and the Aspire is no exception. With the 6-cell battery onboard, the system weighs in at less than three pounds.