Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pat's Quick and Dirty Acer Aspire One Review

First Impressions
Build quality is very good. Seams are tight, and all the different components fit very well. The construction is light, but solid. The pearlescent white plastic behind the screen looks to belong to a more expensive device, and the materials look to be of a high standard. It’s easily the most good-looking netbook in my opinion, possibly tying with the HP mini-note 2133, which is very stylish, but loses points for its bulkiness. The battery fits flush into the battery compartment and the material matches the plastics furnishing the underside of the netbook, so the battery fits well with the overall aesthetics of the design.
Unfortunately however, its with the slotting of the battery into the compartment, and powering on of the device, that the great first impression I had dissipated. Like a beautiful girl who snores like 60 year old overweight man with sleep apnoea, the loud, incessant whine of the Aspire One’s CPU fan just ruins an otherwise perfect moment. Its drone is constant, with the fan activated as soon as the netbook is turned on, and remains on, even when the netbook is idle, occasionally increasing in pitch when the the device is put to use. I understand that this serves to keep the CPU cool, but having owned the first gen Asus EEE PC for over a year, along with a few full-sized laptops, I can honestly say that the noise coming out of the Acer is the loudest I’ve experienced from a laptop. Although it does blend in with ambient noise, during my testing in a quiet room, the noise was so noticeable that I had to turn it off only after 15 minutes or so of operation. I could imagine this noise making the user a target of annoyed looks in a quiet lecture theatre, or a study area.

But overlooking this point, I must say that the screen is gorgeous. The relatively low resolution (1024x600) is well complimented by the small screen size, which means that visually, the screen renders crisp images, with barely noticeable 'jaggies' or blurriness. The backlighting is also very good, with the lowest setting still throwing a nice amount of illumination to the screen. Despite the wide-screen view, websites are easy to navigate, with only downward scrolling needed.
The keyboard is a good size, with good-sized shift keys one either end (an oft ignored aspect by other netbook manufacturers). Keys are comfortable to type on, and with time (and not being a touch-typist) I reckon I could get quite fast on it, despite the smaller size. The keys are a bit squishy, with the keys being slow to spring back after being depressed, but in any case, the keys register accurately and without any lag.
Unfortunately, while I would consider the Aspire One’s keyboard to be one of the better netbook keyboards I have used, I have to say that the touchpad would have to be one of the worst. The rectangular touch pad consists of the touch surface flanked by the left and right buttons on the side, instead of underneath as with other touchpads. This caused all manner of frustration for me, since I am so accustomed to using touchpads one-handed (usually for invoking the keyboard shortcuts with my left hand, while operating the cursor with my right). First of all, left-clicking using the dedicated button required the dexterity of a surgeon who does finger-yoga...however I managed to get around this obstacle by simply tapping on the touchpad itself, which in itself was quite usable and accurate. However, right-clicking proved to be an insurmountable obstacle, since my hand almost had to approach the touchpad from the north-east to even get my thumb in position to click the right button. To add insult to injury, both mouse buttons sit flush with the chassis and required a pretty hefty push, which was not always possible from the angle of my thumb, making it difficult to highlight text accurately because I couldn't maintain sufficient pressure over the left button with my thumb alone, and overall slowed down the act of activating context specific menu's via right-clicking. I seriously wonder how this touchpad design got past user testing (if any).

Fortunately, crapware is kept to a minimum, with google desktop, mcafee antivirus, and a trial of microsoft office being the only ones I noticed, so kudos for Acer for realising that its not a good idea to bog the system down anymore than it already is. Perhaps the only criticism I have, is in comparison to the linux version, the XP variant is missing the office and other tools that are present, but that only really affects those that are completely new to computing, which arguably is not the target market for the XP variant. All in all, on the software side, Acer keeps the MS install of XP home edition free from clutter.

I won't really touch on this because I've decided really early on not to keep the device, so I'm reluctant to install any software, and there are several reviews on the One that have already covered this, so I'll skip it. I will say that wireless performance is more than adequate (it identified and logged on to my home wifi network with ease) and webpages rendered quickly. Youtube videos work fine in both windowed and full-screen modes but moving the mouse causes it to drop frames immediately, and having the CPU at just under 50% probably has something to do with it. Taken as an indicator, I don't think multi-tasking will be a strong-suit of the One, though really, the small screen would really make that difficult to begin with anyway.
Sound from the bottom-firing speakers are not the best, but also not the worst sounding I've experienced from a laptop - suffice it to say that having the One on your shoulder boom-box style won't really be viable (or realistic anyway) or being the source of music for your neighourhood block party.

Battery life
The included battery is a thin block which is almost the length of the netbook, approximately 1.5cm thick, and sits flush with the chassis. While this makes the whole package aethetically pleasing, it does place limits on the battery's capacity, which ends up being a relatively paltry 2200mAH. Translated to real world usage, this means 2hrs of work with the screen at the lowest setting, and wifi turned off. Acer's decision to skimp on battery in this way is disappointing, because it severely limits the capacity of the One to work as a mobile device. Maybe my idea of target market serviced by netbooks is incorrect, but I thought the aim of having such compact laptops was so that they can be used on the go, part of which includes use in scenarios where access to cabled power is not available ie lecture theatres, and cafe's. With the battery life as is, the One would just make two 1 hour lectures before needing a recharge, less if some of that time involves use of wifi.

On that note, charging takes about 1min/1% of battery life when the One is being used, so with the stock standard battery, approximately 1hr and 40min are required to charge the battery from 0 to full - not bad, but certainly means that for continuous all day use, you'll have to be spending most of your day being plugged in.

Final thoughts
During my brief time using the One, I tried my hardest to love the device, and there certainly was a lot to love: looks, build quality, and computing performance were either on par, or better than expected for the price. However the misgivings with this device were just too obvious, probably emphasised by the attention to detail in the other aspects, and were things that I could not come to terms with, such as battery life, and that ruddy CPU fan noise! Its such a shame that the great detail to the design and execution of the chassis didn't extend to making a larger space for the battery, or having enough space to have a touchpad with the buttons in a more familiar position. To end on a positive note, I think that Acer has shown with the One that they are serious about their entry in the increasingly more crowded netbook market, and I hope that gen 2 of the One goes further in enhancing the usability of the device.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Living without a laptop for 5 days - not bad at all.

I reckon that its a pretty exciting time to be a geek - due to the rapid advances in battery and radio technology, being attached to a computer or the web no longer requires one to be sitting at a desk. Furthermore, computers themselves are getting smaller, and are now available in form-factors such as smartphones and mp3 players.

The no laptop challenge

With the smartphones and ipods being such capable internet devices, and with the majority of my web surfing needs not extending beyond basic websurfing and downloading the occassional podcast, I thought I'd set myself the challenge of leaving my laptop at home and relying on my smartphone and ipod during a 5 day conference in Adelaide earlier this year. So the first device I decided to bring was my smartphone, since a phone would be a must for safety as well as enabling contact with my work colleagues which were arriving on different flights. The phone also provided a source of 'reliable' internet access (based on the coverage maps of my provider), which I could use anywhere, and more importantly, at any time. The decision for leaving the laptop at home was made even easier by the fact that I didnt have to present anything this time around, so there really wasn't a need for the computing power of a full-sized computer. Sure my smartphone had powerpoint viewing software, and I could simply keep a copy of my talk on a usb stick, but I tend to be a little paranoid about things like presentations as it is without trying to add another variable to the mix. Anyway, in the end I decided to keep my gadget count to two - the smartphone and the ipod touch, both capable and extremely pocketable devices.

So armed with my smartphone (the Windows Mobile 6 based Dopod 838 at the time) and the first gen ipod touch, I headed off to the airport.

First off, I cannot tell you how liberating it is to not have to carry more than one bag into the plane, nor how much quicker it is to go through the baggage check - I think I even chuckled quietly to myself while watching the people around me trying to juggle their multiple bags in order to take out their laptops to place on the conveyor belts for scanning.

Also, this was around the ti,e when the airports had so many different rules on what you could and could not bring on board the plane with you, and I was adamant that I didn't want to have to check in any luggage, especially if my laptop was going to be in it. It turned out later that my worries were unfounded, but it was too late to do anything about it now.

Past the gates, I turned on my phone, and fired off a few work emails and a couple of tweets as I made my way down to the the boarding area, grabbing a slightly overpriced coffee and donut while browsing the news headlines on, the wonders of mobile internet. as I walk past some internet kiosks littered around the airport terminals, and the people hogging access to them, I had another smug chuckle, then had a quick virtual window shop at some online stores. when i got to the terminal, I thought I'd save some of my mobile internet quota for when I actually got to Adelaide and had a quick war-drive for any free wifi...unfortunately there was only a for-pay hotspot provided by the Airport, so it was straight back on the mobile internet. When it came time to board, I just got up and continued surfing until I handed the boarding pass to the nice attendant, put the phone in my pocket and walked the ramp and boarded the plane without skipping a beat. Once my bag was in the overhead locker, I settled down on my seat, fired a couple of sms's, looked at what was happening on my twitter feed, and feeling so smug about the whole thing that I would probably punch myself in the face if I ever saw me. When it was time, I activated flight mode on my phone, and got my headphones ready for when we were in the air, and were allowed to use electronic devices again. This time, the ipod was my source of entertainment , which contained about 3 hours worth of podcasts that I'd downloaded over the air via wifi, thanks to an app called mobilecast (thanks to jailbreaking).

Once I touched down in Adelaide and got to the conference floor, the phone came in handy for the periods when I was feeling bored and a little anti-social, and in the evening, the free google maps app was handy for navigating around an unfamiliar city, using cell-tower triangulation to approximate my location, since my phone did not have gps. I think even I was amazed at how capable the Dopod was at fulfilling all of my computing requirements, including downloading a couple of podcasts over the mobile internet when I settled in at the motel.

at this point I should say that my use of the smartphone as a source of internet access over the ipod touch was less due to usability and interface factors, than it is by the fact that there is absolutely no free wifi to be had where I needed it to be in Adelaide...I probably could have looked a little harder, but because I had already signed-up and am paying for mobile internet, my laziness kicked, and I defaulted to using that full time. A few months later, I came across some software that would allow a windows mobile phone to act as a wifi hotspot, which would effectively allowed me to tether the touch to my phone...unfortunately I did discover this after the fact, and would probably just result in draining both my phone and ipod batteries quicker anyway, but good to know that its out there. Incidentally, I now have the symbian version of that program running on my current smartphone (the E71), and though i rarely use it, it does come in handy for when O need to access sites that dont work on the E71's in built browser, like hotmail for instance.

Anyhoo, for 5 straight days and despite being in a new city, I remained connected to the internet where I want, and when I want, and though I had to put up with starring at the world wide web through a small 2'8 inch screen, there was not a point during the whole time when I was lamenting my decision to forego the laptop. Can I also say that being laptop free allowed me to travel lighter during the conference since I'm too paranoid to leave anything valuable in my hotel room, which left more space in my schwag bag for, well, shwag of course :)

So as an epilogue to this post, I find myself increasingly turning to my smartphone and ipod touch when seeking to access the internet since that little experiment, and I find that my laptop is spending more and more time on my desk, and has been relegated to performing desktop tasks like video encoding, image manipulation and word processing. I probably should note at this point that this blogpost was written entirely from my E71 while lying in bed :), though I did upload it (and performed some minor changes) on a full-sized laptop.