posted by Thom Holwerda on Tue 12th Aug 2008 00:00 UTC
IconThere's a new hype going on in the world of computing. I used to call them 'tiny laptops', but somewhere along the way, Intel's marketing got at me and now I call them netbooks. Every self-respecting manufacturer has a netbook product line, or is about to introduce one (Apple?), so I figured I would take a look at what all the fuss is about: I bought a netbook.

Shopping around in Dutch online and real-world shops presented me with two netbook candidates: the Acer Aspire One, and the MSI Wind. The machines were more or less similar, both sporting the brand new Intel Atom 1.6Ghz processor, and a display with a 1024x600 resolution. The MSI Wind has 1024MB of RAM, while the One only has 512MB (expandable to 1.5GB). Their displays might sport the same resolution, but the One has a 8.9" screen while the Wind has a 10" one. Communication wise, they are identical, except for the fact that the Wind has built-in Bluetooth. They both have a built-in webcam too.

The big difference between the two is on the software front. The Acer Aspire One model I was looking at comes with Linux - Linpus Linux Lite v1.0.3.E, to be precise, a Fedora derivative. The Wind, on the other hand, comes with Windows XP Home. The choice of software influences the choice of storage medium: since Windows XP has performance issues on SSD drives, the Wind comes with a traditional 80GB hard drive, while the One has an 8GB solid state drive.

The biggest difference, however, comes when you look at the pricetags. The Wind costs EUR 429,-, while the One is yours for only EUR 299,-. This is a pretty convincing argument to go with the One, which is exactly what I did. I bought the One at a real-world shop, and I opted for the white variant, as the blue model looks awkward (blue and black isn't as pretty a combination as white and black). I also bought a 4GB SD card for storage expansion, but more on that later.

The looks

The 0.9kg device's looks won't blow you away, but it is far from ugly. Externally, the screen lid is covered in a piano white finish, while the base is of a rough texture, also white. Between the screen hinges you will find four LEDs which indicate power, disk activity, and caps and num lock status. On the right side of the device are microphone and headphone jacks, two USB 2.0 ports, a multifunction card reader, and one of those security thingies. On the left side, there's the power connector, VGA port, ethernet, a third USB 2.0 port, and a special SD card slot for 'storage expansion'. Any SD card you insert into this slot will magically be added to the SSD storage pool - the 4GB SD card I bought upped my storage from 8GB to 12GB. Since 8GB and 16GB SD cards are becoming ever more common and affordable, this is a rather cheap and effective method of expanding storage.

The screen bezel has a piano black finish, and the keyboard is white, with nearly full-size keys. I have very small hands and fingers, so for me the keyboard poses no problems - however, some reports online indicate that people without baby hands need a little adjustment before typing comfortably on the keyboard.

The hardware

The screen of the One is 1024x600, 8.9", and has that glossy finish, something some love, some hate. In any case, the screen is very bright, and can be read in dim and bright light conditions, perfect for a mobile device. The size is a bit small at first, but you get used to it quickly. It's perfect for browsing, especially when combined with Firefox 3.0's excellent full-screen capabilities (F11).

The solid state drive poses some problems. Especially with small write operations it's quite slow, which can become annoying when you're dealing with larger amounts of emails. It does aid in boot time though, it takes only about 20 seconds from pressing the power button to a fully operational desktop.

The Atom processor, running at 1.6Ghz, delivers remarkable performance. Processor hoggers such as Flash content and large video files play without glitches, even in full screen. The amount of RAM, 512MB, might seem a little low, but I've yet to encounter any limitations. The device does have an SODIMM DDR memory slot, but to access it you need to dismantle the entire device, voiding warranty and risking serious damage.

The video chipset is an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator x3100, with its shared memory size set to 8MB, with a maximum of 384MB if you so desire. Remarkably enough, the Linux installation comes with a hidden treat: a fully configured and working installation of Compiz Fusion, disabled by default. Launch compiz-manager, and you get fancy Compiz effects - fancy effects that work, and don't seem to bog down the device at all (except for the fact that Firefox scrolling becomes jerky). The spinning cube, wobbly windows - they all work.

The only real hardware letdown is the touchpad, which requires some major adjusting on the user's side. The buttons are located on the sides of the pad, which is downright odd at first - I'm still not entirely used to it. The benefit, of course, is that the touchpad's height isn't affected too much by the device's size. Another problem is that while you hit the buttons with a horizontal movement, the buttons are vertical in nature, making them easy to miss.

The software

The Acer Aspire One comes loaded with Linpus Linux Lite, a derivative of Fedora. Acer created a custom interface, similar to Asus and its eeePC, built on top of Xfce 4.4.2. It comes loaded with a pre-emptive variant of the Linux kernel, version 2.6.23.9lw. It comes pre-installed with OpenOffice.org 2.3, as well as Firefox 2.0. Sadly, upgrading to firefox 3.0 must be done manually, since the update utility included with the One doesn't yet deliver Firefox 3.0. The One is distributed with in-house mail and instant messaging clients, written in Gtk+. These clients are still relatively new, and while being stable, they can be somewhat limited in functionality at times. The instant messaging client does support video chat using the internal webcam, but only via the MSN messaging network. Other protocols are supported, but they do not do video just yet.

Since you are more or less using Fedora, you can use the official and Livna repositories to extend the functionality of the One quite easily, but some knowledge of Linux is required. Using Yum, I installed Vlc, since the version of Mplayer included didn't play any of the Xvid files I threw at it. I also installed Xchat for irc, and Lbreakout2 because it is one of the coolest games in existence. Adding new applications to the custom interface is a bit tricky, since you need to edit an xml file, but for more experienced users this isn't a problem.

Sleep and wake functionality is excellent on the One, albeit somewhat slow to wake up. It reconnects to the wireless network quite fast though, although once every while it refuses to do so - flicking the hardware wireless switch on the front of the device on and off solves this problem instantly.

Battery life isn't exactly rosy - a mere 2.5 hours, at best, when using the wireless internet. This is because the One ships - mostly - with a 3-cell battery. The 6-cell battery, which is capable of 7 hours, will ship later this year.

Misc

There is an avid user community located at AspireOneUser.com, which provides guides and howto's ranging from installing more RAM to - yes - installing Mac OS X. It's a treasure trove of information, so be sure to check the site's forums when you encounter any problems.

In the future, Acer is supposed to release a 3G upgrade for the One; a slot is located at the bottom of the device, as well as a slot for a SIM card. When this upgrade arrives is still unknown.

The device is also available with Windows XP, 1GB of RAM, and an 80GB conventional hard drive. Windows XP can be installed on the Linux version too; Acer provides the drivers to do so on its FTP site.

Updates are provided through an in-house update utility.

Conclusion

To sum up the Acer Aspire One: this is what notebooks should have always been like. Small, portable, light, fast, and cheap. For just EUR 299, you are getting a proper netbook, with all the functionality of its big brothers and sisters. Maybe not as full-featured as the MSI Wind, and not as hyped as the eeePC, but still the better choice, simply because it's a hell of a lot cheaper.

Pros:
Price
Performance
Design
Easy storage expansion

Cons:
Touchpad
Lack of access to RAM slot
SSD performance should be better

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