The netbook space is getting a bit crowded these days.
What began with ASUS and its iconic EeePC now includes offerings from a host of major and not-so-major manufacturers like Acer, Dell, Samsung, Lenovo, HP, Medion and others eager to tap into the burgeoning popularity of the tiny, lightweight laptop.
Latest figures show that the netbook market overall grew by more than 160% in the third quarter of this year, bucking an overall dismal trend in the general PC market. With it’s Aspire One, Acer has leapfrogged ASUS to take the market leader’s position in this lucrative space, with a third quarter market share of 38.3%. So how does this most diminutive of laptops shape up? Lets take a closer look.
Acer Aspire One: First Impressions
When you open the box and pick up the Aspire One somehow you know this is going to be the start of a wonderful relationship. There’s something about it that just feels right in your hands. You expect a netbook to be small, of course, but you’re not prepared for quite how small and lightweight this machine really is.
Despite its tiny profile and distinct lack of heft, however, the Aspire still manages to feel solid and robust – or at least as solid and robust as a sub 1kg notebook is ever likely to feel.
Appearance wise it doesn’t disappoint either. The polished exterior comes in a choice of colours including white, blue, pink and brown (we reviewed a white one) and gives the netbook a sleek, professional look that still hints at fun – the perfect balance of funky form and utilitarian function.
Open the case and you’re greeted with an 8.9” Crystalview screen and a miniaturised 84 key laptop keyboard. Hit the on button and the Aspire One boots up and is ready to go in an impressively quick 15 seconds (on the Linpus Linux Lite version we tested… the Aspire One also comes in Windows XP flavour, which takes longer to boot).
Netbooks are, by definition, all about compromise. You gain in portability by sacrificing performance and features. The trick is to balance that compromise skilfully, so that what you choose to leave out doesn’t hamper the user experience. It’s a balance that Acer has certainly managed to achieved with the Aspire One.
A good keyboard is the key
Let’s talk about the keyboard for a minute. So often netbook manufacturers get this wrong: they shrink the keyboard too much, making it impossible to type with anything other than your index fingers, or keep costs down by compromising on quality, with the result that feedback from the keys is vague and uncertain, again affecting typing performance. The Aspire suffers from none of these drawbacks. It’s keyboard is little short of excellent. Yes it’s small, but they’ve made intelligent use of the available space to deliver a keyboard you can actually touch type on comfortably. At first you’ll hit the occasional wrong key, and the enter key is perhaps a little smaller than ideal… but give yourself fifteen minutes typing practice on the Aspire One and you’ll be flying.
Centrally located beneath the keyboard you’ll find a compressed laptop trackpad with the buttons strategically located to either side. While this is an unconventional layout, and a little awkward at first, it’s a decision that afforded Acer the space to give the Aspire One its functional keyboard. Another example of intelligent compromise in action, and you get used to the unusual button positions far more quickly than you’d get used to a more cramped keyboard.
The 8.9” display is also a triumph. Bright and punchy it delivers a truly outstanding 1024×600 widescreen viewing experience that makes the Aspire One a joy to use. Rounding off the external feature set is an integrated 0.3 megapixel webcam and microphone that makes the Aspire One an ideal companion for video-conferencing on the go, leaving video-comments on your favourite blogs or recording your latest YouTube missive.
Enough grunt to get the job done
Under the hood the Apire one is powered by Intel’s 1.6 GHz atom processor, with 512MB of onboard RAM (expandable to 1.5GB), 8MB of video RAM and an 8GB solid state flash drive (it’s also available with a 16GB solid state drive or a 120GB standard hard drive). Specifically designed for netbook-style mobile devices the atom processor seems to deliver plenty of fizz for the tasks you’re likely to want to accomplish on a netbook: web browsing, e-mail, instant messaging, word-processing, spreadsheets and even presentations are a breeze, and connectivity applications like Skype run flawlessly.
Get connected on the go
Connectivity is important in a netbook – it’s one of the main reasons for buying one. The Aspire One has built in WiFi 80211b/g and hooking up to a wireless network is extremely easy. I had no problems connecting to the internet over wireless at home or while out and about. There’s also a standard wired ethernet port if you need to be tethered. There are three USB ports, a “multi-in-1” card reader, a VGA out port, standard headphone and microphone sockets and an ingenious storage expansion slot. Push an SD card into the expansion slot and the Aspire One will seamlessly integrate it with the built in file-system, effectively increasing the onboard storage for your files and documents. Brilliant!
On the software front Linpus Linux Lite is extremely easy to use, with all of your applications grouped into four main areas – Connect, Work, Fun and Files. The installed applications cover most of the basic requirements and more applications can be downloaded and seamlessly installed from the Aspire One website. As it’s a Linux machine, you’ll also find a host of free open-source software available online.
If it sounds like I’m gushing here, it’s probably because I am. The Aspire One is a seriously impressive little machine. Just to be thorough though, let’s take a look at some of the negatives.
The down side?
The first thing to mention is that it’s small! I know that’s an advantage in the netbook space, and while I liked it the Aspire One’s tiny size might be a compromise too far for some. Then there’s the unconventional position of the trackpad buttons – not a deal breaker for me… and more than worth the initial inconvenience to get that outstanding keyboard.
If you opt for the Linux based machine (and frankly I would) you may find driver support for some of your existing hardware a bit limited. In practice though this is only an issue if your netbook is your only PC, and your hardware is ageing, neither of which is usually the case.
The final, and perhaps most significant negative point is the Aspire One’s battery life. The standard 3-cell battery supplied with the machine lasts for “up to three hours” according to the literature. In practice that means nearer to two hours if you’re using WiFi and have the display brightness cranked up at all. Acer does an optional 6-cell battery that they claim lasts up to 7 hours, and if you’re planning to be on the road a lot with your new netbook then it may be a worthwhile investment.
For a computer that is, by definition, built on a foundation of compromise, the negatives are few and far between. In a world where being connected is everything, Acer has done a wonderful balancing act with the Aspire One. It is, perhaps the ultimate computing compromise.
NB. The model I reviewed is going back at the end of the week… but guess what Santa’s bringing me for Christmas
UPDATE: Santa brought me the 1GB RAM, 120GB HDD Electric Blue version… and it’s even better than the one I reviewed… really blown away by it. The best mobile writing tool since the Psion 5MX went the way of the dodo.
I Liked: the incredibly compact size, excellent keyboard, great display, superb value for money and all-round synergy of the device
I didn’t like: limited battery life
Verdict: an incredibly capable little machine that definitely punches well above its weight. Ultra portable, easy to use and great for staying connected on the go.
Where to buy: online and high-street retailers
Price: from €229 from www.laptopsdirect.ie (even better now, with the Euro/Sterling exchange rate :-))