|Model||Aspire One 522|
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 (1280×720) 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
|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.
The view from the cockpit
Netbooks quickly outgrew the 7″ screens of the original Eee PC. These days, 10.1″ panels are typical for the genre. The Aspire features a screen of that size, but it’s hardly typical. Rather than the more common 1024×600 display resolution, this panel goes up to 1280×720. The resolution otherwise known as 720p offers 22% more pixels than the average netbook display, and you’ll see the difference immediately.
You’ll also notice plenty of reflections in the screen’s glossy top coat. Sadly, matte displays are rare in the mobile world. Cranking the screen’s brightness overpowers much of its reflectivity, but light sources still remain plainly visible, perhaps because the LED backlight feels a little weaker than what we’ve seen from some netbooks. When set to full blast, whites fall a little short of blinding and are instead pleasantly pure.
The screen’s color reproduction is pretty good when you’re directly across from it. There seems to be a little extra warmth to the default color profile, but colors look decent considering this is a TN panel. Ignore the vertical lines in the image above; they’re an artifact of my digital camera rather than something you can see when looking at the screen in person.
Poor viewing angles are a staple of the sort of cheap TN panels that tend to make their way into netbooks. In the picture above, the screen is leaning back about 10 degrees, with the system rotated counter-clockwise by the same amount. As you can see, everything looks pretty washed out. The screen’s horizontal viewing angles are more forgiving than the vertical ones, so it’s a good thing there’s plenty of hinge travel to facilitate a nice recline.
We bought this Aspire up in Canada, so it has a different keyboard layout than models selling in the US. I suppose this must be some sort of concession to language laws tied to country’s French Canadian heritage. As someone who was born in Montreal, I apologize. Deeply. There is simply no good reason to move the backslash key down a row to where the left side of the enter key should be. Making the enter key a double-height affair doesn’t remedy the fact that my pinkie finger is programmed to reach just to the right of the apostrophe key when I want to hit enter. Instead of dropping down a line, I get an unwanted backslash. Thankfully, the keyboard selling on US versions of the Aspire has a standard layout.
|Total keyboard area||Alpha keys|
|Size||245 mm||95 mm||23,275 mm²||158 mm||49 mm||7,742 mm²|
|Versus full size||85%||86%||74%||92%||86%||79%|
Having even one key out of place can make typing difficult when you’re squeezed onto a keyboard that’s smaller than usual. Like the chiclet arrays on most 10″ netbooks, this one feels a little cramped. There’s just enough room for my oversized mitts to type comfortably, but getting up to speed requires more concentration than when I’m using the larger keyboard on my 11.6″ notebook.
Large key caps make the keyboard easier to use than one might expect from something this size. We’d prefer to see slightly contoured caps to help keep one’s fingers centered, though. The gaps between the existing caps are difficult to detect until your finger has drifted far off course.
Keyboard feel is incredibly important to those of us who type for a living. The Aspire scores well on this front, offering good tactile feedback and enough key travel for a punchy feel. Some flex is visible under heavy-handed typing, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the keyboard feels mushy. Among cheap netbook keyboards, it’s pretty good overall.
South of the keyboard sits the touchpad, whose tracking surface is nice and smooth, with no break-in period required. Netbooks of this size don’t leave much room for generous touchpads, but the Aspire’s is wider than usual at 3″ x 1.5″. At first, I was tempted to chide Acer for walling off the touchpad area with a subtle border that’s difficult to detect. However, after using it for a while, I’m convinced that the touchpad is too wide to easily venture out of bounds. Additional vertical area would be appreciated, and Acer could reclaim some by moving the see-saw touchpad button down to the edge of the system. In its current location, the button is too difficult to activate when one’s thumb is resting on the bottom edge of the chassis.
Synaptics is responsible for the touchpad’s hardware, and the associated drivers brim with a broad array of multi-touch goodness. All the usual gestures are supported, including pinch zooming, multi-finger flicks, programmable tap zones, and both one- and two-finger scrolling. The dual scrolling options are further compounded by chiral scrolling, coasting, and edge modifiers that make it easier to scroll through long documents or web pages.
Connectivity and expansion
Acer manages to pack a decent assortment of connectivity options into its latest Aspire One. Before we get into them, I have to poke fun at the “HD Internet” logo emblazoned with AMD’s name. Seriously? The system’s networking is handled by third-party controllers, for which AMD only provides PCI Express lanes. I suppose the ability to watch hardware-accelerated Flash video could be interpreted as a hi-def Internet experience, but that’s an awfully tight focus for a Fusion platform capable of so much more.
At least the Aspire has proper HD credentials. An HDMI port fueled by the integrated Radeon can output 1080p video alongside a multi-channel audio stream if you want to enjoy movies on the big-screen TV in your living room. There’s also a VGA output that should come in handy for those who need to connect to older projectors.
Although there’s no love for USB 3.0, the Aspire has three USB 2.0 ports. You also get an integrated card reader and analog headphone and microphone jacks.
Most notebooks provide access panels that allow for easy memory and hard drive upgrades. This particular Aspire does not. After a little Googling, I stumbled upon this video (complete with a cute girl and Tori Amos in the background) that explains the upgrade process for what’s supposed to be a similar Aspire One 533 chassis. The same keyboard retention tabs are on the 522, but unfortunately, following the video’s instructions didn’t cause the keyboard tray to pop out when I applied the full amount of force I was willing to use. I wasn’t so keen on following one forum post’s suggestion that a corner of the bottom panel can be bent up just far enough to access the RAM slot with needle-nose pliers, either. Complex surgery shouldn’t be required; Acer could have provided users with a convenient access panel like the one on my Aspire 1810TZ.
Battery life is a traditional strength of Atom-based netbooks, but the run times of AMD-based ultraportables have generally been rather weak. Part of the battery life equation comes down to the power consumption of the computing platform and other system components. The rest comes down to just how much energy the battery can store.
In its latest Aspire, Acer is using a 6-cell unit rated for 49 Wh. We’ve seen a few 6-cell batteries with 56 Wh capacities, so the Aspire is a little behind the curve. In a moment, we’ll see just how long the battery holds up in the real world.
Before we get into that, I should direct your attention to the system’s tiny power adapter. Users can rotate the plug’s orientation by 90 degrees to avoid clearance conflicts with adjacent sockets. You’ll need those sockets to be pretty widely spaced, though. Regardless of the body’s position, the circular ring around the plug is large enough to block the adjacent sockets on a couple of the power bars I have kicking around the Benchmarking Sweatshop. This is a great idea whose implementation could use just a little more refinement.
Our testing methods
Over the last little while, we’ve tested a number of different mobile systems ranging from an Ion-equipped Eee PC to a massive laptop with a quad-core Sandy Bridge CPU. The Aspire One 522 may be our first look at a Fusion-based netbook, but we do have some results from an early Brazos benchmarking platform based on a Zacate engineering sample that closely resembles the E-350 APU featured in ultraportables from HP and Lenovo. That benchmarking rig didn’t run off of a battery, so we won’t get a sense of how Zacate’s 18W TDP affects battery life.
To make the graphs easier to read, the test results have been color-coded by manufacturer, with the Aspire appearing in a different shade of green than the other Acer systems. You’ll want to keep an eye on how the Aspire One 522 compares to its most direct competition: the Eee PC 1015PN, which has a dual-core Atom CPU and a discrete Ion GPU. Ultraportables like the Aspire 1810TZ and 1830TZ, plus the Toshiba Satellite represent the next step up from netbook territory. Theoretically, so does the Zacate benchmarking rig. Those four systems are worth tracking, too.
We didn’t observe any difference between the Aspire One 522’s performance when running off a wall socket versus the battery, so our results should be representative of both scenarios. That’s not true for all of the notebooks we’ve tested, though. The N82Jv, U33Jc, Eee PC 1015PN, and T235D were all tested using special “battery-saving” profiles, and the N82Jv, U33Jc, and 1015PN were run in “high-performance” mode, too. With the N82Jv, we recorded our battery-saving results with Asus’ Super Hybrid Engine on, which dropped the CPU clock speed from 2.4GHz to 0.9-1GHz depending on the load. The U33Jc also has a Super Hybrid Engine mode, but we didn’t enable it for testing. On the U33Jc, the high-performance profile included by Asus raises the maximum CPU clock speed from 2.4 to 2.57GHz. On the N82Jv, the same profile leaves the CPU running at default speeds, i.e. up to 2.66GHz when Turbo Boost kicks in. Finally, with the Eee PC, the low-power profile limited the CPU to about 1GHz and disabled the Nvidia GPU, while the high-performance profile raised the CPU speed by a whole 25MHz.
With the exception of battery life, all tests were run at least three times, and we reported the median of those runs.
|System||AMD Zacate test system||Acer Aspire 1810TZ||Acer Aspire 1830TZ||Acer Aspire One 522||Asus Eee PC 1015PN||Asus N82Jv||Asus U33Jc||Intel Core i7-2820QM 17″ review notebook||Toshiba Satellite T235D-S1435||Zotac Zbox HD-ND22|
|Processor||AMD Zacate engineering sample 1.6GHz||Intel Pentium SU4100 1.3GHz||Intel Pentium U5400 1.2GHz||AMD C-50 1.0GHz||Intel Atom N550 1.5GHz||Intel Core i5-450M 2.4GHz||Intel Core i3-370M 2.4GHz||Intel Core i7-2820QM 2.3GHz||AMD Turion II Neo K625 1.5GHz||Intel Celeron SU2300 1.2GHz|
|North bridge||AMD Hudson FCH||Intel GS45 Express||Intel HM55 Express||AMD Hudson FCH||Intel NM10||Intel HM55 Express||Intel HM55 Express||Intel HM67 Express||AMD M880G||Nvidia Ion|
|South bridge||Intel ICH9||AMD SB820|
|Memory size||4GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)||3GB (2 DIMMs)||1GB (1 DIMM)||1GB (1 DIMM)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)||4GB (2 DIMMs)|
|Memory type||DDR3 SDRAM||DDR2 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 667MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1600MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 800MHz||DDR3 SDRAM at 1066MHz|
|Audio||IDT codec||Realtek codec with 18.104.22.1689 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12443 drivers||Conexant codec with 126.96.36.199 drivers||Realtek codec with 188.8.131.5286 drivers||Realtek codec with 184.108.40.20624 drivers||Realtek codec with 220.127.116.1129 drivers||Conexant codec with 18.104.22.168 drivers||Realtek codec with 22.214.171.12472 drivers||Realtek codec with 126.96.36.19945 drivers|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6310||Intel GMA 4500MHD with 188.8.131.522 drivers||Intel HD Graphics with 184.108.40.2067 drivers||AMD Radeon HD 6250||Intel GMA 3150 with 220.127.116.117 drivers
Nvidia Ion with 18.104.22.16812 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 22.214.171.1249 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 335M with 126.96.36.19996 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics with 188.8.131.529 drivers
Nvidia GeForce 310M with 184.108.40.20621 drivers
|Intel HD Graphics 3000 with 220.127.116.116 drivers||AMD Mobility Radeon HD 4225 with 8.723.2.1000 drivers||Nvidia Ion with 18.104.22.16899 drivers|
|Hard drive||Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Toshiba MK3265GSX 320GB 5,400 RPM||Toshiba MK2565GSX 250GB 5,400 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Blue 500GB 5,400-RPM||Seagate Momentus 7200.4 500GB 7,200-RPM||Seagate Momentus 5400.6 500GB 5,400-RPM||Intel X25-M G2 160GB solid-state drive||Toshiba MK3265GSX 320GB 5,400 RPM||Western Digital Scorpio Black 500GB 5,400 RPM|
|Operating system||Windows 7 Professional x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Starter x86||Windows 7 Starter x86||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Ultimate x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64||Windows 7 Home Premium x64|
We used the following versions of our test applications:
- Firefox 3.6.9
- Adobe Flash 10.1.82.76
- x264 HD Benchmark 3.19
- 7-Zip 4.65 x64
- TrueCrypt 7.0a
- Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 1.7
- Far Cry 2 1.03
- CPU-Z 1.56
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.
Score one for the Aspire, at least versus its Eee PC competition. The 522’s completion time is quicker than the best our Atom-powered netbook has to offer. Still, it’s considerably slower than the Zacate test system, which in turn is slower than the Intel-powered Aspire 1800s and the Turion II Neo-based Toshiba ultraportable.
7-Zip has a handy built-in benchmark that lets us test both compression and decompression performance.
This test makes pretty good use of multithreading, giving the dual-core, quad-thread Atom N550 in the Eee PC a distinct advantage over the Brazos-based Aspire. The only time the Aspire comes out ahead is when the Eee PC’s CPU clock speed is throttled by the system’s special power saving mode.
Once again, the 1.6GHz Zacate system has a substantial lead over the Ontario-based Aspire. That’s to be expected given Zacate’s 600MHz advantage in clock speed over the 1GHz C-50.
x264 video encoding
The x264 video encoding benchmark doesn’t call on GPU resources to accelerate the encoding process, leaving us with a good look at how the various mobile CPUs stack up.
In both passes, the Aspire once again finds itself sandwiched between Eee PC configurations. Encoding HD video isn’t something you’ll want to be doing regularly on a netbook. The Zacate test system is quite a bit faster here, as are the Intel-fueled Aspires and Nile-based Toshiba.
This latest version of TrueCrypt makes use of the AES-NI instructions built into Intel’s Westmere and Sandy Bridge CPUs.
As you can see, those instructions can have quite an impact on performance. Mercifully, none of the Aspire’s rivals offers AES-NI acceleration. The Eee PC is still faster when running in its high performance mode, though. As we’ve seen throughout our testing thus far, the budget ultraportable platforms on display in the Aspire 1800 series and Toshiba T235D offer notably better performance.
Startup and wake times
For this round of tests, we busted out a trusty stopwatch and timed how long it took for the notebooks to boot and wake from hibernation. For the startup test, we started timing as soon as the power button was hit and stopped when the Windows 7 hourglass cursor went away. For the wake-up test, we measured the time it took to bring up the log-in screen after hitting the power button.
The Aspire One 522 boots pretty quickly, but it doesn’t return from hibernation as fast as the Eee PC. The Aspire 1810TZ’s ultra-fast boot time is likely due to the fact that the system is running a freshly installed version of Windows without all the extras commonly piled onto notebooks that come straight from the manufacturer.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare
Older titles like the original Modern Warfare have a good shot at running smoothly on the Aspire’s integrated Radeon. We tested the game by running a custom timedemo, first at 800×600 with the lowest detail options, then again at 1366×768 with everything cranked up except for v-sync, antialiasing, and anisotropic filtering, which were all left disabled. With the Eee PC and Aspire One 522, we opted for respective native resolutions of 1024×600 and 1280×720 instead of 1366×768.
The Eee PC won’t even run this game in power saving mode. When cranked up to full speed, it still lags well behind the Aspire One 522. Our AMD-powered netbook also offers much better performance than the Intel-based Aspires, which are saddled with anemic Graphics Media Accelerators. The 522 hits higher frame rates than the Toshiba notebook, too, which is built atop the AMD ultraportable platform that preceded Brazos.
Zacate is way out ahead of the other ultraportables, of course. In addition to boasting a higher CPU clock than the Brazos-based Aspire, the Zacate test system also benefits from a faster GPU clock.
Far Cry 2
This game is probably too ambitious for a netbook, but we were curious to see how something a little more recent might fare. We selected the “Action” scene from the game’s built-in benchmark and ran it in two configurations; first at 1366×768 in DirectX 10 mode with detail cranked up, then at that same resolution in DX9 mode with the lowest detail preset. Vsync and antialiasing were left disabled in both cases. Again, the Eee PC and Aspire One 522 were run at 1024×600 and 1280×720, respectively.
The Aspire One 522’s integrated Radeon offers mixed results here. When running with low detail levels, the Aspire manages to outpace the Eee PC and Toshiba systems (although the latter is running at a higher 1366×768 resolution). However, when you crank up the detail, the benchmark crashes out before reporting a final score. The visuals look good up until the game crashes, so at least things appear to be rendering correctly.
Video decoding performance was tested using the same Iron Man 2 trailer in multiple formats. Windows Media Player was used for the H.264 QuickTime clips, while Firefox hosted the windowed YouTube test. In each case, we used Windows 7’s Performance Monitor to log CPU utilization for the duration of the trailer.
|H.264 1080p HDMI||9-48%||Perfect|
|YouTube 720p windowed (10.2)||67-91%||Smooth, a few dropped frames|
|YouTube 720p windowed (10.2 AMD)||35-52%||Smooth|
The Aspire performed flawlessly in our local video playback tests. Frame rates were smooth with each format, and we had no problem playing the 1080p clip at full resolution on an external monitor over HDMI. I suspect the windowed 1080p test exhibited higher CPU utilization due to the scaling required to shrink the video down to size for the system’s 720p display.
With Flash 10.2 accelerating YouTube video playback, a few dropped frames interrupted otherwise smooth sailing. CPU utilization was a little high, as you can see in the table above, so I tried a different Flash build provided to us by AMD. That plug-in cut CPU utilization almost in half without dropping a single frame. The Brazos platform certainly has the ability to deliver smooth Flash video playback. However, work still needs to be done to optimize publicly available versions of Adobe’s Flash plug-in for Brazos-based systems.
Before testing the Aspire’s run times, we conditioned the system’s battery by cycling it two times. For the web browsing test, we used TR Browserbench 1.0, which consists of a static version of the TR home page that cycles through different text content, Flash ads, and images, all the while refreshing every 45 seconds. Then, we tested video playback in Windows Media Player by looping an episode of CSI: New York encoded with H.264 at 480p resolution (straight from an HTPC). Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were enabled for the web browsing test and disabled for movie playback.
We attempted to keep the display brightness consistent across all four systems, choosing levels corresponding to a readable brightness in indoor lighting. A 40% brightness setting was used on the Acer 1810TZ, Toshiba Satellite T235D, Asus N82Jv, and Eee PC 1015PN in its “Super Performance” mode. We used a 50% setting on the Aspire One 522, Eee PC 1015PN in “Battery Saving” mode (since disabling the Nvidia GPU seemed to reduce brightness), as well as on the U33Jc.
Finally, AMD has an ultraportable platform with great battery life. The Aspire ran our Wi-Fi web surfing test for over six and a half hours without resorting to clock-throttling techniques like the Eee PC’s power-saving mode. In the movie playback test, it managed just under five hours of run time—plenty for a double feature on a long flight.
The Aspire’s 9W Ontario APU shouldn’t run too hot, but we busted out our IR thermometer just to be sure. Surface temperatures were measured 1″ from the system after it had been running TR Browserbench 1.0 for about an hour.
The left side of the Aspire (when the keyboard is facing up) is definitely warmer than the right side. You may find it difficult to detect a difference with just your fingertips and lap, though. Overall surface temperatures are quite low.
Living with the Aspire One 522
The first thing I tend to do with a new notebook is purge the Windows installation of extraneous junk. Systems come loaded with all sorts of garbage these days—everything from vendor applications of questionable utility to trialware or otherwise free software I could have easily downloaded myself. The Aspire isn’t burdened by too much bloat, though.
Believe it or not, that’s less third-party software than we usually find installed on new notebooks. You can get rid of most of it, including McAfee Internet Security Suite and Norton Online Backup. Both are trial copies with 60- and 30-day limits, respectively.
The next thing you’ll want to do is consider whether Windows 7 Starter will impose any limitations on the sort of things you want to do with the Aspire. As this Microsoft blog post points out, even something as simple as changing the desktop background or color scheme requires a more advanced version of the operating system. Upgrades to Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional, or Ultimate can be purchased for $90, $140, and $190, respectively. However, Microsoft’s Anytime Upgrade scheme won’t allow you to jump from the Aspire’s 32-bit Starter edition to a 64-bit OS. Lame.
At least the Starter version of Windows is perfectly usable with the default configuration, even with only 747MB of RAM accessible to the OS. Like most netbooks, the system is fast enough to get things done but noticeably less responsive than budget ultraportables with more potent processors. Applications take a second to load, and multi-tabbed browsing with Flash-heavy sites is a little sluggish. Those tabs will quickly eat through the available system memory if you’re not careful. The experience feels similar to using a dual-core Atom, which is Ontario’s primary competition.
The Aspire does not, however, feel like a typical Atom-powered system. All credit goes to the screen, whose 720p resolution is a huge improvement over 1024×600. Surfing requires less scrolling, applications have more room to spread out, and the desktop doesn’t feel nearly as cramped as on the average netbook. Despite the display’s relatively high DPI, text is crisp and clear at the default Windows font size. Hours of surfing and writing on the Aspire failed to produce any unusual eye strain.
Even the Ontario version of the Brazos platform offers considerably more potent graphics hardware than you get with an Atom CPU. We’ve already seen how a couple of gaming benchmarks can benefit from this additional pixel-pushing horsepower, but I couldn’t resist sampling a larger number of titles to get a better sense of the Aspire’s gaming credentials. All games were tested at the system’s 1280×720 native resolution, and Fraps was used to monitor frame rates.
My journey began with Bit.Trip Beat, which first launched on the netbook of game consoles, the Nintendo Wii. The game doesn’t offer any graphics detail settings, but there was no need for fiddling. Frame rates settled in the low 50s most of the time and only occasionally dipped into the high 40s.
Moving to a more modern console port, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved is an Xbox 360 classic that runs very well on the Aspire. Frame rates were locked at 60 FPS most of the time and only dropped into the high 40s when things got really hectic.
Shank is the most entertaining side-scroller I’ve played in a long time. Even with the detail settings maxed, gameplay was silky smooth. According to Fraps, the game ran at 30 FPS most of the time. Frame rates dropped to the low 20s on a few occasions, but I never detected any stuttering or sluggishness in the game itself.
Interestingly, Torchlight has a special netbook mode designed explicitly for use on underpowered systems. The Aspire didn’t need it, though. With the detail levels cranked and netbook mode disabled, the game chugged along in the mid-to-low 20s, occasionally dropping into the high teens but more often reaching into the low 30s. You can easily lower the in-game detail levels to smooth things out, but dungeon crawlers like this one don’t necessarily require high frame rates.
We know how the Aspire performs when crunching a Modern Warfare timedemo, but what about the actual game? It runs OK provided you stick with the lowest detail levels. Frame rates varied between the high 20s and low 40s, and the gameplay felt pretty smooth. However, every so often, a crippling stutter froze the game for a brief moment. I’m not sure what caused these hiccups, but they were enough to taint the experience.
Call of Duty didn’t give me much faith in more demanding titles, but I tried a few anyway. Left 4 Dead 2 was incredibly choppy and completely unplayable even at 640×480 with the lowest in-game detail levels. DiRT 2 was similarly impossible. Frame rates were often in the single digits, and stuttering was rampant despite running the game with the lowest detail settings at 640×480. Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue, a casual arcade title that I expected to run reasonably well, crashed every time I tried to launch it.
Overall, the Aspire One 522 offers a comparable gaming experience to Ion-equipped netbooks based on Intel’s Atom processor. There’s enough graphics grunt to handle older and more casual titles, but the CPU isn’t fast enough to keep up with older big-name titles, let alone current ones.
I’ll just come out and say it: the Aspire One 522 is the best netbook we’ve ever tested. The Ontario APU offers application performance that’s competitive with a dual-core Atom alongside an integrated Radeon GPU that provides real graphics horsepower. This low-power tandem delivers more than 6.5 hours of battery life in the real world and is powerful enough to enable smooth HD video playback—Flash included. Casual and less demanding games run beautifully at the screen’s 1280×720 native resolution, and the extra pixels are a much appreciated upgrade over the 1024×600 panels that dominate the genre.
A cramped keyboard is inevitable with a 10″ system, but the Aspire’s has a nice tactile feel. The silky smooth touchpad is bigger than one might expect, and it’s made even better by a wealth of highly configurable multitouch gestures. Our reservations about glossy finishes aside, the system’s overall fit and finish appears to be excellent. Everything feels tight and solid.
There are a few serious compromises involved, of course. The default 1GB of RAM is simply too little when only 747MB is available to the OS, and there’s no way easy to pop in a higher-capacity DIMM. A lot of folks are going to be disappointed by the limitations imposed by Windows 7 Starter, especially since it’s a 32-bit version that can’t use an Anytime Upgrade to jump to 64 bits. But the more I think about the few things that the Aspire doesn’t do well, the more I have to keep reminding myself that it costs a scant $330 at Newegg and is even cheaper north of the border. That’s an incredible price for such a powerful and flexible system.
The thing is, I can gush about the Aspire’s awesomeness all day, but I still don’t want one for myself. AMD’s more powerful Zacate version of the very same silicon brings better performance and similar features to 11.6″ ultraportables that offer bigger screens with higher resolutions, full-size keyboards, more RAM, and the full Windows 7 experience, 64 bits included. HP’s Pavilion dm1z offers all of those things for $120 more than the Aspire. I’d pay the premium in a heartbeat if I were shopping for something to replace my primary notebook. However, I can also understand why some folks might balk at spending what amounts to 36% more when the Aspire does such a good job of handling the basics.
Ultraportables like the dm1z are one reason why the netbook revolution has peaked. Tablets have certainly had a hand in slowing netbook sales, as well. Because both of those alternatives are considerably more expensive, though, I expect there are still droves of users who can’t wait to get their hands on something like the Aspire One 522. The bargain price tag makes the Aspire easier to justify for those looking for something to live in the kitchen or on the coffee table, to take notes in class, to surf in coffee shops, or to enable a little gaming on the go.
The Aspire One 522 is a shining example of how netbooks are evolving into more capable machines that are definitely here to stay. I don’t love it quite enough to bestow our coveted Editor’s Choice award, but the Aspire is definitely TR Recommended.