Reviewed September 9, 2008 by Lisa Gade, Editor
Netbooks, the small, (mostly) affordable, lightweight computing devices have hit their stride this year. ASUS' Eee PC was the first to market, and the $299 to $399 Eee PC 4G sold like hotcakes. HP jumped in with their Mini-Note and ASUS expanded to slightly larger-screened versions with higher price tags. Though those models stepped up the features a bit, their price tags encroached on budget notebook territory, leaving out the original target market: those who needed extremely affordable and portable Linux or Windows XP computing. Happily, Acer didn't follow with a feature-laden, pricey model. Instead they went with the spirit of the very successful original Eee PC with their first Netbook/UMPC (whatever you want to call it). In fact, a few weeks after release, Acer dropped the price $50 on both models and the Linpus Linux Lite version sells for $329 while the Windows XP version (used for this review) sells for just $349. That said, as of this writing, many retailers are still charging the original price (and the machines are flying off the shelves at those prices). Hopefully, we'll see Acer's price drop reflected at the stores too. The 2.1 lb. Aspire One is sold (if you can find it in stock), at Best Buy, Circuit City, Micro Center and online.
Don't expect these to rival the Sony UX series, Sony Vaio TZ or other high end ultra-portables. That said, they offer plenty of computing power for web surfing, email, MS Office work and youtube viewing. Both the Linux and Windows XP models run on a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor and have a gloss 8.9" 1024 x 600 pixel LED backlit color display with Intel integrated GMA 950 graphics (remember the GMA 950 from a few generations ago on regular notebooks?). The display is very sharp and easy to read despite the relatively small size, and it's quite bright (it seems even brighter thanks to the black bezel). There's Atheros WiFi 802.11b/g but no Bluetooth, stereo speakers, and a webcam + mic that work very well with Skype.
The XP version has a generous 120 gig hard drive (a 160 gig model is coming now that Microsoft allows XP factory installations on up to 160 gig machines instead of capping it at 120 gigs). The Linux version has an 8 gig SSD drive and it can use one of the two built-in card reader slots to expand storage using an SD card. We'll take a large hard drive over a cramped, though more power-efficient flash drive any day, but currently there's no conventional hard drive option for the Linux model (sorry penguin-heads). The drive is a standard 9.5mm tall, t2.5" serial ATA notebook drive running at 5400 RPM (ours was a Seagate Momentus) which is a step up from ultralights that use smaller but much slower ATA 1.8" hard drives.
The XP machine has 1 gig of PC-4200 DDR2 RAM and the Linux model has 512 megs of RAM. There's 512 megs of RAM soldered on the motherboard and one standard SODIMM slot. Max memory is 1.5 gigs, but the bad news is you literally have to take apart the entire machine to access the SODIMM slot. There is no RAM access door on the bottom of the notebook, and the slot faces the bottom.
That door on the upper left isn't for RAM access, unfortunately.
XP, 160 gig HD
Get the AT&T version:
The Aspire One is available in Sapphire Blue and Seashell White, both of which are attractive. We like the gloss finish and overall "real notebook" build quality that compares well to the cheaper looking Eee PC, and the 89% of full size keyboard that's a tad larger than the 8.9" Eee's 84% keyboard. Either way, you'll have to adjust to the smaller keyboard, but that's not hard to do unless you've got really big paws. The keyboard has 4 arrow keys, page up/down keys and a row of Fn keys. The trackpad's mouse buttons flank each side of the trackpad, which is a little weird. The Aspire One doesn't have enough real estate to fit the buttons below the trackpad. The Aspire One is very similar in size to the Eee PC 8.9" model, and is smaller than HP's Mini-Note. At 9.8 x 6.7 x 1.25 inches, it will fit easily in a large purse, gear bag or briefcase.
84 key keyboard with 1.6mm travel, and trackpad with unusual side button placement.
While no netbook looks as classy as HP's relatively expensive Mini-Note, the Acer takes second place for the moment. It actually looks attractive and is solidly built. The plastics are very rigid, there no display panel flex and the hinge is robust. It's something of a marvel that Acer managed to pack all this technology into such a small, attractive and well-made machine at this price. The Aspire One has a good set of ports: three USB 2.0 ports (one on the left and two on the right), stereo 3.5mm audio out and a mic jack (right side), VGA, 10/100 Ethernet, and SD card slot (left) that can be used on the Linux version to expand storage) and a 5-in1 card reader (SD, MMC, Memory Stick, RS-MMC and xD Picture Card) on the right. Both slots support SDHC high capacity cards. This is a true notebook computer, albeit a small one, and you can do most anything with it that you'd do with any other Windows XP computer. Of course, it doesn't have the horsepower to handle 3D modeling, CAD or high-end gaming, but most everything else is fair game.
It's not always possible to benchmark netbook and UMPC computers given their sometimes non-standard architecture. They're not designed for serious performance, so when we can benchmark them, the numbers generally aren't good. The Acer uses the new Atom processor and Intel's re-worked 945 chipset (a long-lived notebook chipset that powered Centrino notebooks two generations ago), so it's good fodder for benchmarking. We benchmarked the Aspire One while connected to a 19" monitor running at 1280 x 1024 resolution since the internal panel's resolution is lower than PCMark's 1024 x 768 requirement. The results were better than we expected, and compare well to the luxury Sony Vaio TX850 subnotebook we reviewed almost 2 years ago that ran on the same chipset but with a standard ULV Solo CPU with a slower 1.8", 4200 RPM hard drive.
Clearly, the hard drive is as fast as current standard notebook drives, memory speeds are what we'd expect from older generation chipsets and a 533MHz front side bus, and the CPU is passable (fine for XP and Linux but not good enough for Vista). The graphics numbers tell us that we won't be playing any 3D killer games, but the machine is fine for video playback, Tetris and the like.
Now that we've looked at the numbers and specs, what's it like to use the Aspire One? For web browsing, email and Office 2007, it's great. In fact, it manages Photoshop CS fine with images under 10 megs. Streaming youtube and QuickTime play fine over WiFi and Ethernet (avoid that HD QuickTime video option on Apple's movie trailer website), and standard definition iTunes TV shows play passably. It's good enough for a living room couch machine, vacation portable and even school work up to the high school level. Surprisingly for a low performance computer, the system fan runs most of the time and it's not exactly quiet. A drawback if you're watching video or using the machine in a quiet library.
The power, VGA, Ethernet, USB port and SD card slot.
The Windows XP version ships with Windows XP Home Edition, service pack 3. It comes with Adobe Reader 8, a full version of MS Works 8.5 and a 60 day MS Office 2007 trial. Surprisingly, WinDVD 5 is included, though the machine lacks an optical drive/DVD drive. You can however use any external CD/DVD drive to watch movies, install software or rip music. Thankfully, there's no bloatware! The machine has a restore partition and you can re-install applications and drivers, or re-install the OS and apps back to the factory state. Overall, we were impressed with the system's stability and the quality of the drivers. We didn't run into little driver-related quirks as we did with the Eee PC and it was clear and easy to figure out how to use Acer's restore software. A quick start guide and full PDF manual are pre-installed on the notebook.
Mic, stereo out, 2 USB ports, 5-in-1 card reader and a security slot.
Since this is a full Windows XP machine, you get the usual batch of Microsoft software including Internet Explorer, Windows Media Player (both older versions that you should update via Windows Update), Windows Movie Maker and more. Acer includes viewers for PowerPoint and viewers that handle MS Office 2007 files should you decide to ditch MS Office and stick with MS Works or another Office suite. Music playback through the integrated stereo speakers that live just above the keyboard was surprisingly decent, and sound through headphones was obviously much better. The machine has RealTek HD audio hardware, and a built-in mic (you can use an external mic if you wish). We were pleasantly surprised at how well Skype ran for video calls: our outgoing video looked sharp and bright and the built-in mic sounded good with no echo or volume issues. Nice!
Being impossibly portable, we'd love it if the Acer also ran for hours upon hours on a charge. Alas, with the standard 3 cell battery, it runs about 2.5 hours with WiFi on and screen brightness set to 65%. Not horrid, but not impressive either. A 160 gig version of the Aspire One with a 6 cell battery is in the works and it will sell for $399. That's a bargain considering that the 6 cell battery sells for just over a $100, nearly a third of the 120 gig notebook's price.
Happily, the included 110-240v AC power brick is light and compact. There's nothing worse than buying a tiny computer only to discover the power brick is unwieldy.
The Aspire One and the included charger.
The Acer Aspire One is the best buy among netbooks at the moment. It's got good performance, solid build quality and good looks. The features for the price beat ASUS, Dell and HP. At $349, portable computing just got more affordable. And for those who aren't budget-constrained, the Acer is one cool ultraportable that's perfect for vacations, the living room sofa or anyplace else you want to use a small, light computer. The screen is sharp and bright, there are plenty of ports for common peripheral and lots of disk space for photos, video and music. We're particularly pleased with Skype video call performance, making the Aspire One a very affordable free-call and video conference machine.
Pro: Fantastic price for what you get! Excellent build quality, nice looking and good performance. Plenty enough horsepower for XP and productivity/web applications. Small and light. Plenty of ports. Sharp and bright display. Good software and drivers make for a stable computing experience. Excellent Skype video call quality. Large drive is much more practical than small SSD drives that barely have enough room for the OS and MS Office.
Con: Battery life is only 2 to 2.5 hours with 3 cell battery. 6 cell battery, when purchased separately, is expensive relative to the Aspire One's price. Fan noise is like a full-sized notebook.
Display:8.9" Acer CrystalBrite, LED backlit, gloss display. 1024 x 600 resolution (can drive external monitors and projectors at higher resolutions via VGA port). Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics with up to 224 megs shared memory.
Battery:3 cell, 2200 mAh, 24 watt Lithium
Ion rechargeable. 6 cell battery available (57 watt, 2600 mAh). Compact world (100-240V AC) power brick included.
Performance:1.6GHz Intel Atom N270 processor. Intel 945 Express chipset. 1 gig DDR2 533MHz RAM
(1 meg soldered to motherboard, one 512 meg SODIMM in slot). Max RAM: 1.5 gigs (must take machine apart to access the DIMM slot though). 120 gig SATA hard drive (2.5" standard notebook drive, 9.5mm height). Ours is a Seagate Momentus 5400 RPM drive. The Linux version has 512 megs of RAM and an 8 gig SSD flash drive.
Size:9.8 x 6.7 x 1.25 inches. Weight: 2.19 pounds with standard 3 cell battery.
Camera:0.3MP Acer Crystal Eye webcam.
Audio:HD audio, Built
in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
jack. Voice Recorder and Windows Pocket Media Player 10 included for your MP3 pleasure.
WiFi 802.11b/g and 10/100 Ethernet. Atheros AR5007EG wireless and RealTek RTL8102E PCI-E Ethernet NIC.
Ports:VGA, 3 USB 2.0, RJ45 Ethernet, 3.5mm stereo headphone jack and mic jack.
XP Home Edition. MS Works 8.5, WinDVD 5, 60 day MS Office 2007 trial, Adobe Reader 8.
SD (Secure Digital) slot intended for storage expansion (this carries over from the Linux model which has only 8 gigs of storage). 5-in-1 card reader (SD, MMC, RS-MMC, xD Picture Card, Memory Stick). Supports SDHC high capacity cards.